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Gold et al. A Survey of Students’ Online Practices. CCC, Sept. 2020. Posted 10/19/2020.

Gold, David, Jathan Day, and Adrienne E. Raw. “Who’s Afraid of Facebook? A Survey of Students’ Online Writing Practices.” College Composition and Communication 72.1 (2020): 4-30. Print.

David Gold, Jathan Day, and Adrienne E. Raw contend that qualitative research on students’ online writing practices could fruitfully be supplemented with quantitative studies of these practices. They argue that such research is needed to fill gaps in teachers’ knowledge of where students write online, for whom and for what purpose, and what rhetorical challenges they face in these spaces (7).

In fall 2018, the authors conducted a twenty-eight item survey at a large public Midwestern university (7). They sent the survey to a random sample of students, then followed up by enlisting the help of writing instructors in both first-year and upper-level courses. Respondents numbered 803, with 58.5% female, 18.3% first-generation college students, 66.2% (of 687 responses) white, 16.9% Asian American, 4.4% Black, 3.6% Latinx, 0.6% Native American or Pacific Islander, 8.3% two or more categories. Like the university’s general population, 73.1% report family income higher than the U.S. median for 2017 (7).

The authors maintain that their survey provides more fine-grained information than is usual in national surveys, which they state do not investigate the “myriad writing activities for multiple purposes” in which students may take part (4). They also write that their survey extends language arts research that tends to focus on a few of the more well-known sites; their survey asks about eleven different venues: Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs, discussion forums, news/magazine sites, Wikipedia, and user review sites (8).

The information they gather, in their view, is important to writing teachers because it offers insight into potential misconceptions that may guide assignment decisions. Beyond lack of knowledge as to where students actually participate, assignments may incorrectly assume student familiarity with certain sites (8), or teachers may assume students have more expertise than they actually have (12). The authors note that students are often asked to write on blogs, but very few of their respondents report having an account on a blog (9). Assignments, the authors state, make little use of more widely used sites like Snapchat, perhaps assuming they are “mere photo-sharing tool[s],” raising the possibility that composition should address the rhetorical aspects of such activities (9).

The authors also contend that more specific knowledge of how and why students do or do not write online can further what they see as a goal of composition as a field: furthering participation in civil or public rhetoric, including engagement on controversial topics (13, 15). Their results show that while instructors encourage contributions to blogs, they make little use of Snapchat and Instagram, which at the date of the research were “extremely popular” (9). Awareness of such disparities, in the authors’ view, can aid teachers making assignment decisions.

Gold et al. provide tables showing the data from their analyses. Examining “Spaces for Writing (and Not Writing) (8), the authors find that although most of their respondents had accounts at multiple sites, they wrote less on these sites than might be expected (8): “[D]igital ‘participatory’ culture may not be as participatory as we imagine” (11). Students were much more likely to read than to write, with “responding” as a “middle ground” (11). Snapchat elicited the most writing, with sites like blogs and discussion forums the least. Gold et al. suggest increased attention to both photo-sharing and the process of responding to understand the rhetorical environment offered by these activities (11-12).

Results for “Purposes and Audiences for Writing” (12) indicate that students most commonly use online communication to “maintain relationships with family and friends.” A second fairly common purpose was “developing personal or professional identity” (14). Most students surveyed “never” share creative work or “information or expertise,” and never enter into debates on controversial subjects (14).

Analyzing audiences, the authors propose four categories: family and friends; “members of an affinity space” like one designed to share recreational, political, or cultural activities; “members of a professional community,” which might include networking; and “fellow citizens or the general public” (13-14). The authors found that majorities of the students in their sample “never” wrote for any of the last three audiences (15).

The authors found that the more platforms students frequented, the more likely they were to write, suggesting that supporting the use of a wider range of sites might lead to greater proficiency across genres and audiences (16). Students exhibited a definite sense of what different sites were suited for, agreeing that blogs and discussion forums were appropriate for debate on controversies, but also almost never contributing to such sites (17).

Gold et al. write that while there has been much discourse about how students are presumed to write online, there has been less attention to the reasons they do not write (19). Noting the problems often associated with posting on public sites like Facebook and Twitter, such as bullying and shaming (19), Gold et al. focus on five reasons for resistance to writing that have emerged in research, the one most commonly indicated being concern over how “intended readers” might react (20).

Sizable majorities also resisted posting because of fear their contributions might reach unintended audiences; fear that posts would be online “forever”; worry that they lacked the authority to contribute; and “lack of skill” in a given venue (21). The student’s degree of “platform expertise” did not affect these responses.

Pointing out that all writers, including teaching professionals, make choices as to whether to edit or simply delete a drafted post, the authors posit that for students, the preferred decision to delete may represent “lost opportunities to engage with an interlocutor or audience” (21). Suggesting that these “affective components” militating against increased engagement may be “persistent features” of online writing in general, the authors urge teachers to consider these disincentives in designing online assignments (21).

The authors argue for the value of quantitative research both for the detailed information it can provide and for its potential to generate qualitative inquiry (22). They acknowledge limitations of any instrument, including the problem of capturing change, noting that as they wrote, Tiktok was emerging to compete with other popular sites (22). They advocate more detailed quantitative research with larger and more varied samples to explore such findings from their study as a lack of correlation between demographic variables and responses to their questions (23). They cite ongoing work on what constitutes “publics” as beneficial to students, who, they maintain, “have much to gain from writing in a wider variety of spaces for a richer range of purposes and audiences” (24).