I'm- I'm- I'm impressed with IM'ing

review of:

 Lewis, C., & Fabos, B. (2005). “Instant messaging, literacies, and social identities.” Reading Research Quarterly, 40(4), 470–501. 

The authors look at Instant Messaging (IM) as a distinct literary form with implications on the literacy and social development of its users. They conducted a study of actual IM-ers, exploring their composition strategies, their use of language, social networks, and surveillance techniques. They  objectively describe the level of sophistication in language, tone, voice, diction, and rhetoric of the –all teen–subjects. Like other “forms” of dyadic (one-to-one) communication that are coming on the scene (social network posting cf. Boyd 2005, MMPOGs cf. Steinkuehler 2007, in fanfiction communities cf. Black 2005), the authors point out the valuable literacy learning and socio-emotional development that is taking place in the communications mediated by new and Internet-based technologies. They note especially how complex the job is for the IM-er, who must maintain construct and maintain identities and relationships with a diverse collection of peers (“buddy lists”). Often the IM-er communicates in four or more different dyadic discussions–concurrently!

“Identity” itself is defined interestingly for the new social space that new technologies have made ubiquitous. Quoting most of a salient paragraph, [emphases added] New Literacy Studies

…[view] the dynamic, socially inscribed nature of IM activity…[and] provide[s] a theory of identity to help…understand how…participants used IM to enact particular versions of self at particular times. Hall’s (1996) take on identity as temporary attachments constructed within discursive practices has served this purpose. According to Hall, identities are positions we take up as though they are stable and cohesive. In a similar vein, Moje (2004) referred to identity positions as enactments of who we might be at a given time, in a given context, within a given set of social, economic, and historical relations. In this sense, at the same time that attachments are enactments of identity are generative and creative, they also instantiate economic and social structures.
The complexity of one’s “individuation” in society, part of his “socialization,” requires that an IM-er be much more in the rhetorical mode (that is, thinking about audience, purpose, and context), much more often, than any previous generation of humans has had to.  Because in addition to the normal negotiation of self in one’s offline world, one now has the increasingly significant construction and negotiation of self in the online world. A student’s online “self” may be more complicated than his off-line (“non mediated”) self because in the mediated literacy events the communicator has to consider the “long tail” of his speech–like other digital data one’s constructed “self” is  (as Boyd 2005 notes) “searchable, replicatable, and persistent.”
Lewis and Fabos (2005) distinguish the new ways of reading and writing (literacies) that “digital natives” have grown up with from the literacy of their teachers. Where the older generation used the slower and more limited modes of postal letters and phone calls, today’s learner expects communication to be instantaneous and meaningful to fulfilling his/her social ends, with the emphasis on “social.” We know that all communication is implicitly social, but in past years, according to the authors, literacy studies emphasized the individual communicator in isolation, focusing on his psychology or cognitive development. By contrast, the “new literacies” are “socially-mediated” and “muli-modal” (475). In a “new literacies” perspective, the communicative act (“literacy event”) is seen in its social context; a message is always socially-embedded, directed at multiple audiences of collaborative peers who can be local and global, synchronous or asynchronous. In the new view, the emphasis goes on the “social, cultural and political contexts of literacy” (474). One important product of schooling the authors cite (citing a paper by Kress, Jewitt, and Tsatsarelis 2000) is the social identity of the learner:  “…it is at the intersection of identity, knowledge, and pedagogy” that fully socialized human beings are formed (474).  And “digital literacies” are where the social development is taking place–in the “literacy practices” enabled by the Internet-based tools.

Digital Literacies are

  1. socially-mediated:  communication is a technology for negotiating reality; language is used for the purpose of establishing and sustaining relationships that benefit one’s existence; because of this, literacy practices are
  2. multimodal: ever-increasingly so, with proliferation and near-ubiquity of cell phone cameras, audio and video channels are more and more full. “The visual mode is particularly salient, with writing displayed alongside image (or with writing displayed grahically as image), dmanding a set of semiotic skills that is not commonly part of the standard reading repertoire in today’s schools” (475).  Online formats demand a new literacy:  “…online formats require reading,  (and writing as well) across modes and genres as a central, rather than peripheral skill” (475).

And what does one study, inquire into, and report on with one’s new literacies? Why, one acts as a knowledge worker, whatever one’s subject. The authors quote Lankshear and Knobel (2003), who claim that “new literacies have led to new social practices related to producing, representing, and consuming knowledge…. these changing epistemologies [are] ‘more performance-and prodedure-oriented than propositional, more collaborative than individualistic, and more concerned with making an impact on attention, imagination, curitosity, innovation, and so on, than with fostering truth, engendering rational belief, or demonstrating their justifiability” (476).

Interestingly, the authors find that IM literacy is really a tribute to the literacy skills they have practiced in their schooling.  IM-ing shows a student using “language in complex ways in order to negotiate multiple messages and interweave these conversations into larger, overarching story lines” (482). Another example of students explicitly referencing the norms of literacy picked up in schools, according to the authors, can be seen in the way that students signal mis-spellings, and attribute community status in knowing the correct forms and spellings of words.

Some of the benefits IM-ing teens derive:

  • social connections:  basic to the human being, a political animal, is “the need and desire to participate in an ongoing story” (487). IM-ing allows users to circumvent oppressive parenting and awkward social situations. Some IM-ers praised its ability to “speak” for them without the same fear of rejection/embarrassment one might encounger; some girls extolled the ability to sever social connections–break up–using the IM.
  • surveillance:  one keeps in contact with complex publics, invisible to the outside observer. Managing one’s “buddy list” requires supreme care if one is to maintain one’s friendship, and one can carry on multiple dyadic IM sessions if one becomes aware of the various publics one is communicating with. “…the need to fluidly shift performances from audience to audience is unique to the dyadic yet nearly simultaneous nature of IM” (494)
  • posing:  In Shakespeare’s comedies and in IM-life, it sometimes seems a disguise is the best way to negotiate your social needs’ fulfilment.  It can also be useful in avoiding one’s parental controls.
In their closing, the authors note how IM-ers understand their sessions “not as individual, separate exchanges but as a larger, entwined narrative. Beyond a singular window of exchange with one buddy, IM users were engaged in a larger dialogue reliant upon their knowledge of and participation whitin an offline network of friends, and upon the various tools and options connectied with the IM platform” (493). Seeing their communicative acts (literacy events) as significant (part of a literacy community of practice), may explain part of the IM’s strong appeal to users. Because they do it so often, typical IM users, “situated at once within the techno-social space of the Internet and the social-embodied space offline,” are able to make performative and multivoiced social acts look easy. Our students literate in this form are able to shift voices perform “a version of one’s self, shifting voices moment to moment for many audiences at once” (493).  Besides their rhetorical sophistication, IMers may become better at exluding whole communities from their universe of discourse, re-inforcing a “digital divide” between advantaged and disadvantaged communities in American society.  Their findings suggest to the authros that the “performative, multivoiced identities enacted through IM are constituted within existing discursive formations” (494).  Alas, that means there were no IMs going across race or ethnic lines.


I think than in its allusiveness and inter-textuality, this article is another great selection for our reading. I will be able to use the research conveyed in it as I plan the course I am designing in “New Literacies.” The new semiological (signal sending and receiving) skills referenced in this article remind one of the need to bring in flexible search engines to give a range of students appropriate practice in searching in non-verbal modes. The visual search engines Dr. Pate introduced us to will be part of that.  I would add to her table a newer visual search engine, “searchcube.com” and also the visualizing modes of the google search, available under the “more options” search tab. These latter include the amazing wonderwheel, and timeline views. And this article’s discussion of identity should be useful in my English 10 team’s inquiry into Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and the question is, “To what extent is one’s identity influenced by social expectations?” Students have mostly looked at identity as something one simply has, given by birth or one’s environment, but a static thing. Looking at it through the lens of the New Literacy Studies, identity is something dynamic, fluid, and entirely constructed, a view that fits as well in Shakespeare’s Padua as it does in the Web 2.0 Age of IM-ing. One can imagine what Kate would be IMing to her sister or blogging on her MySpace page as she puts on and takes off the various “identities” social conventions of Renaissance Italy impose on her.

The New Literacy Studies model suggests that educators promote “flexible ways of knowing through literacy practices” that get students acting imaginatively, and based on “learning as an imaginative, divergent process that mixes modes, genres, roles, and environments.” This is much at odds with NCLB hi-stakes test-driven curricula, but very much like a curriculum based on the literacy practices found in Steinkuehler’s (2007) MMOGs. In playing these engaging games successfully, a student will engage in “problem solving, decision making, and strategic planning for imagined futures.” I see these latter as very much needed in successful living, and I approve of the practical, real-world focus of the learning activities that could be planned on the basis of such an understanding of the literacy needs of students.


There is a Web 2.0 social networking application called “Edmodo” that is supposed to function as a “facebook” for learning. It would allow IM-ing, or chat, and would house all the LMS (learning management system) tools in one place. I wonder if my colleagues think it could have the same potential to bring out the performing selves of students as their non-school related sites. When a cool application is co-opted by educators, will students naturally reject it?  Have any of my colleagues used such social networking–perhaps through a class blog or discussion board–with students? If so, how effective has it been? What can you recommend to other teachers?

Hall, S. (1996). Introduction:  Who needs “identity”? In S. Hall & P. Du Gay (Eds.), Questions of cultural identity (pp. 1-17). London:  Sage.

Kress, G., Jewitt, C., & Tsatsarelis, C. (2000). Knowledge, identity, pedagogy, pedagogic discourse and the representational environments of education in late modernity. Linguistics and Education, 11, 7-30.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2002). Do we have your attention? New literacies, digital technologies, and the education of adolescents. In D. Alvermann (Ed.), Adolescents and literacies in a digital world (pp. 19-39). New York:  Peter Lang.

Lewis, C., & Fabos, B. (2005). “Instant messaging, literacies, and social identities.” Reading Research Quarterly, 40(4), 470–501.

Lewis, C., & Fabos, B. (2000). “But will it work in the heartland? A response to new multilitracies.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. 43, 462-469.
Steinkuehler, C. (2007). “Massively multiplayer online gaming as a constellation of literacy practices.” eLearning, 4(3) 297-318.

photo courtesy creativecommons.org

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