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Social Media in Higher Education

Chris Rowell

Part Six. Innovation

19. Etiquette for the Anthropocene

Jane Norris

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#Intermediate #Instagram #Optimismasresistance #Snapchat #Twitter

‘Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore… ’
Spoken by Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz

1The introduction of Web 2.0 in late 2004 tilted our perceptions, opened up new vistas of communication, and it enabled the creation of global online communities structured around content made largely by users. Like Dorothy, we found ourselves in a different world, one that we are still exploring and seeking to understand. Perhaps initially, it seems as if not much has changed; I still say hello to the neighbours as I shut the front door in the morning and walk around the corner to catch the bus to work. But it is when I am at work teaching students that I am most aware that the landscape has shifted, and that all is not as it has been. Things have tilted and I am not completely sure in what ways.

2The video artist Hito Steyerl captures this in a striking piece of writing in e-flux (2011) where she describes society as being in ‘freefall’, suggesting that because everything is falling at the same rate, no one notices. This captures perfectly the strange sense of cultural vertigo that I keep feeling and describes the out-of-place-ness that occasionally occurs in interactions in the class. Not so much misunderstandings, but rather misalignments in my approach and students’ responses.

3Asynchronous communities have always co-existed at universities; faculties are often considerably older than the students. But there seems to be an increasing gap in translation with academic communication when teaching contemporary HE students.

4I have been challenged by a couple of experiences: one in my ‘Creativity and Sustainability’ class discussing global warming, and one whilst trying to discuss effective goal-setting for both academic studies and life in general with a class of freshman students (Richmond University is an American University in London and home to a wide mix of American, international and home students, all of whom carry high family expectations when studying abroad). How do we find ways of discussing global warming, rising sea levels, the Anthropocene and future-goal-setting in classes without increasing the anxiety levels of already stressed and depressed students? A number of my class come from Miami which of course would be wiped out with a 3 % sea level rise. I became convinced of the need to reconsider at a structural level how shifts in the students’ online environments might require changes in my behavioural and educational frameworks. Perhaps more importantly, I would need to consider how these ‘misunderstandings’ point to the need for a new ‘etiquette’ in this digitally soaked age. What is an appropriate way of planning in a physical world that my generation has trashed and has now labelled as Anthropocene? How can we communicate with others in a world of ‘wicked’ problems? What is an appropriate way of meeting or being in a digital environment with students which is ubiquitous but largely ignored by the larger academic institution?

5Reflecting on my student interaction has led me to initiate an experimental project I am at present calling ‘Etiquette for the Anthropocene’. I hope to look over the wall of my own educational experience and map some of the digital landscape that exists outside the ‘academy’ that is undoubtedly seeping in but is currently either being resisted or politely ignored, as if a bit of digital dampness here and there is just unfortunate. Professors mostly ask students to put their phones away during class — mostly unsuccessfully.

6One starting point seemed to be the mismatch between institutional (and sometime my own) perceptions of student pessimism, lack of engagement, and little desire to problem solve, with student concern for the preservation of their mental health through a heightened cynical fatalism, and a refusal to engage more widely in the often misguided institutional structures. This binary opposition is interestingly shot through and disrupted with moments of intense engagement when students speak truth to power. Members of my goal setting class, who insisted that the established goal approaches caused more damage that they helped, being one example.

7These windows onto different behavioural landscapes led me to consider applying ideas from my research on Design Para-fiction to trial a communication activity. Design para-fiction describes the insertion of fictional objects into the everyday at the point of crisis, to affect change. This model uses the approach of the para-medic that is first to the scene and acts ‘in-situ’ rather than removing the patient to another space (usually a hospital). In the same way, Para-fictional objects might act as a form of cultural currency in the everyday, in a way they would not be able to in a gallery or a design museum. The movement of objects between the physical realm and digital social media spaces also reveals something of cultural transaction patterns and exchange rates often invisible between the two environments. So, I designed an ‘optimism as resistance’ enamel badge to be handed out as a gift. The card that the badge was pinned to had the following text on one side:

This work explores the relationship between physical and digital memes. It questions how and why objects might crossover to the digital realm and what happens if they do. How online versions of objects provide a digital shadow that can become much larger than the original object.
The badge forms a physical ‘seed’ that is carried by you, attached to your clothing like burrs in the countryside, to then travel worldwide. The photo that you take and send back is a form of harvest, and the Instagram account takes the role of a garden where you can then view these images-as-blooms.
This word resonates in society today, and has become something that has become quite difficult to do. Because of this it reveals itself as an essential form of mental health performance therefore of resistance.

8And on the other:

Please accept this badge as a gift.
In return, take a photo of yourself wearing it. Then email the image with the location where it was taken, to me at:
This digital image will then be added to the optimism.janenorris Instagram page.

9#optimismasresistance became the hashtag for the project.

Fig. 19.1 Jane Norris, Cards and badges and Instagram page,​optimism.janenorris/​ (2018), CC BY 4.0

Fig. 19.1 Jane Norris, Cards and badges and Instagram page,​optimism.janenorris/​ (2018), CC BY 4.0

10I handed out the badges to fellow faculty staff, and students in my classes at the end of the Autumn semester. Several of my colleagues were travelling over the break and most of the students were flying back to their families, so there was the potential for these badges to migrate globally.

11As often happens when you release design into the real world, the unplanned for happens. Of the 100 badges given to my students — who all expressed delight in them, none sent a digital image back for Instagram. Of the 15 badges, I handed out to colleagues I received responses from 6 in the form of 12 images in total. This is an ongoing project and part of the process of seeding ideas in the form of objects into the real world is like plants — some travel a long way before they find fertile soil and I receive a return image, and some just fall down the back of cupboards and never do… it is a waiting game, and I am still getting images coming in from afar. What I found particularly interesting though was the fact that several the students took photos of themselves at the end of the class very enthusiastically, unprompted by me, but did not send me the image. Also, a number of the students followed the Instagram account but did not send me an image. The only person of equivalent age to my student cohort who sent an image was my niece, who used a Snapchat filter to disguise her face.

12I have used this pattern of response as a point of discussion with a subsequent group of 20 students. I handed out a set of badges again and inquired if the wording or sentiment was not appropriate, or was not something they could relate to. Their response was that they really liked the text and the badge as an object, one asked for an extra one for a friend. In the discussion, it was suggested that students would not send images to post unless there were thousands of images on the account — i.e. that it had become a ‘public space’. One student related how her 13-year-old sister and her friends constantly ‘remade’ their Instagram accounts, rearranging and refurnishing their public account and through this continually decontextualising their place in the digital world. Several students said that social media was not ‘fun’ anymore as everyone was on it, and that they barely used it now. One referred to Facebook as his CV as that was where potential employers looked first. Some said that they now only used closed groups such as Snapchat or Instant Messenger / WhatsApp software to communicate with friends. The shift of social media platforms such as Facebook, from what were perceived as safe spaces for small groups of friends and family to public archives mined for company profit, requires a parallel readjustment in on-line etiquette. When I leave the house in the morning I do not peer through the neighbours’ window to say ‘good morning’ and I am careful to shut my own front door. It feels as if an equivalent understanding of personal privacy needs to be recognised for digital social media spaces. Suggesting that groups of students join a course Facebook group or build a collaborative Instagram site may not be met with enthusiasm — even though they might be using these platforms in their personal life.

13This ties in with Daniel Trottier’s observation in his book Media as Surveillance: Rethinking Visibility in a Converging World, that we often think about social media as if it is a kind of anonymous digital space in the cloud. But by analysing our use of it and its functionality, we need to reconceptualise our understanding of social media as a kind of ‘dwelling’. We communicate through social media, but we also live (to different degrees) on social media. The more we invest time and attention in ‘furnishing’ our Instagram account or Pinterest boards with our curated content, the more we ‘move in’ and spend more time tending to our personalised spaces. My fast-flowing Twitter habitat requires maintenance in the form of regular tweeting, otherwise I disappear in the global context I have built. This maintenance of ‘self’ naturally forms part of the addiction in using these sites.

14More importantly, these environments are characterised by ‘social convergence’ and this has an additional effect on visibility. Trottier refers to social convergence as ‘the increased social proximity of different life spheres’ (2016). This trend naturally provokes a sense of discomfort because we often maintain different representations of ourselves in different contexts which may clash or directly contradict one another when viewed together. This discomfort also suggests that while in an analogue world, we have learnt to live compartmentalised lives which has allowed us to perform differently in each context, enabling us to ‘try out’ different ways of being. Whereas post-Web 2.0, online spaces are increasingly blurring these borders. Facebook in particular seems eager to demolish them, having the effect of making different facets of our lives more visible than all the other facets. Foucault’s writing in Discipline and Punish on control by viewing in Panopticon prisons (Foucault, 1985), is perhaps relevant here.

15This bleeding of private information from one sphere to the next, and beyond to other unknown public domains, leaves users feeling vulnerable and open to abuse. Extending Trottier’s idea of social media as a dwelling, is useful to consider the etiquette of our use of social media with students or others that we may have professional relations with. As we usually would not consider inviting an entire class to our home on a daily basis, it is perhaps also not appropriate to demand that we visit their dwellings or demand that they set up a cul-de-sac where they have to live together in sight of each other. The walls between Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter etc. have not just the thinness of a new build flat: they can often be transparent without us realising.

16Our social media profiles act as a repository for personal information; a body of information that stands in for our actual bodies, our profile marks our presence. But as danah boyd writes in a paper titled ‘Nobody Sees It Nobody Gets Mad’, ‘the visibility provided by social media offers a conundrum: it can deliver social support, attention, and even celebrity, but simultaneously leaves one open to criticism, drama, and conflicts’ (Marwick et al., 2017). Students in class describe their online privacy practice and those of their peers in terms of individual responsibility. This frame of personal responsibility is common across social classes and generations. It is the primary way that people understand privacy and agency both online and off. However, this emphasis on ‘personal responsibility’ over social obligation and as a remedy for institutional failures not only blames victimized individuals for privacy violations but also implies that privacy is only necessary if one has ‘nothing to hide’ See Daniel Solove’s piece ‘I’ve Got Nothing to Hide, and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy’ (Solove, 2007).

17It is this relationship of our digital profiles or virtual bodies to our social media ‘dwellings’ that forms a key part of the Etiquette for the Anthropocene project. The architecture of dwellings is a focus of interest for both designers and sociologists. Their construction and use makes the terrain for our social life. They are also the structures where cultural meaning is built and negotiated. Their increasing migration to online environments raises concern over how permeable their walls are and what sort of surveillance and exposure can seep through to these spaces. In educational settings, it has been accepted practice to consider Pierre Bourdieu’s theories (1997) on different ‘habitus’ as structuring structures. Our engagement in diverse social fields through our understanding of their particular behavioural rules (Doxa), highlights our ability to operate in different social groups and behave accordingly. We instinctively adjust our posture or accent or the music we like, in order to fit in. However, we are now inhabiting a digital landscape, swimming in a different medium from our separate physical social groupings of home, neighbours, sports club, university. In a physical world, we go from one place to another and I have yet to find a way to be in two places at once. By contrast, the digital medium is much more fluid and flows sideways across all these social grouping, connecting them continuously. We are truly in many places at once, all the time, requiring that we stretch ourselves to accommodate an expanded consciousness.

18Part of the stress and anxiety-inducing nature of this expanded environment, is our growing awareness of digital nakedness and how this vulnerability might be used against us. To return to the work of Hito Steyerl, an artist speaking truth to power in our age, her video ‘How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational’ (Steyerl, 2001), is a witty and acerbic take on how to avoid government and military surveillance. Her bleakly humorous tactics are to be employed to resist the ubiquitous tracking of our lives by authorities for unknown purposes, without us even volunteering information on social media. Another artist, Zach Blas, addresses the increasing threat to the personal safety of members of minority groups through instances of overt prejudice in facial recognition algorithms. His work ‘Fag Face Mask ― Facial Weaponization Suite’ (Blas, 2013), compiles supposed gay visual traits into one mask to act, in a counterintuitive way, as a disguise; a baroque visual excessiveness acting as tactic to ‘hide in plain sight’. These responses mark new forms of creative resistance to the pressures and dangers in this new digital medium.

19So, how do we need to ‘be’ in the shifting digital landscape we now find ourselves in? How ethical is it to expect students to join institutional social media spaces, when those spaces expose them and then harvest their likes, and the likes or dislikes their own social subgroups? How ethical is it to lead students back to the spaces deliberately designed to be ‘sticky’ and attentively addictive to enable such harvesting to take place?

20During this project, I have started ‘hearing’ other phrases that point to other ways of being. Which may lead to other badges in the series:

Fig. 19.2 Jane Norris, Other badges (2018), CC BY 4.0

Fig. 19.2 Jane Norris, Other badges (2018), CC BY 4.0

21But for these badges, I will not be suggesting a formalised response to an established social media site like Instagram. This was my previous approach, and could be misunderstood as furnishing my digital dwelling and asking students to do digital labour for my harvesting. Rather, perhaps a longer period is needed for the badges-as-seeds to germinate in the students off digital world life. Perhaps it is important to allow emergent new behaviours to surface in this more fluid medium of digital communication. Perhaps that is the point — it is important not to plan or make ‘goals’ for these little pieces of design para-fiction. Perhaps it is important to stop saying, and to start listening to what ‘other than human’ objects in their social ecologies can tell us. As Alice discovered, in her Adventures in Wonderland, the world she found when falling down a rabbit hole was not all roses. The virtual Cheshire Cat, who fades until it disappears entirely, leaving only its wide unnerving grin suspended in the air, offers an apt visual warning of unconsidered approaches to the digital environment.



Blas, Z. (2013). ‘Facial Weaponization Suite’, Zach Blas blog,

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Foucault, M. (1985). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Marwick A., Fontaine C., and Boyd D. (2017). ‘ “Nobody sees it, nobody gets mad”: Social media, privacy, and personal responsibility among low-SES youth’, Social Media + Society,

McCurry, J. Phillips, D. and Michaelson, R. (2017). ‘From Miami to Shanghai: 3C of warming will leave world cities below sea level’, The Guardian,

Norris J. (2017). ‘Narrative materials / material narratives — a provocation’, UNPLUGGED LINES: Narratives in Practice, University of Edinburgh,

O’Reilly Network (2005). ‘What is Web 2.0’,

Solove D.J. (2007). ‘ “I’ve got nothing to hide” and other misunderstandings of privacy’, San Diego Law Review, 44, pp. 745–72.

Steyerl, H. (2001). ‘In free fall: A thought experiment on vertical perspective’, e-flux,

Trottier D. (2016). Social Media as Surveillance: Rethinking Visibility in a Converging World. London: Routledge.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 19.1 Jane Norris, Cards and badges and Instagram page,​optimism.janenorris/​ (2018), CC BY 4.0
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Titre Fig. 19.2 Jane Norris, Other badges (2018), CC BY 4.0
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Fichier image/jpeg, 7,9k
Fichier image/jpeg, 6,3k
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Fichier image/jpeg, 6,9k
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Interested in digital theories of time, materials and objects and the narratives we build around design. She is currently writing on post-enlightenment ways of relating to materials: How Materials Speak. She has an essay ‘Touching Knowledge’ in Meet Us in The Now, a collaborative Royal College of Art book, as well as a short story, ‘Re-Pairing’ in the Virtual Futures Vol. 1 anthology. She has written a regular Dictionary of Craft column in the Crafts Council CRAFTS magazine and opinion pieces for design magazine Fiera. Her piece ‘A View from the Throne’ was published in the ’Toilet’ issue of Dirty Furniture. She recently completed post-doc research in the Critical Writing department of the Royal College of Art. Jane works as an Associate Professor in the School of Liberal Arts at Richmond University the American University in London. Twitter: @janeviatopia

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