Wednesday 3 October 2018

Supporting education for 'digitally enfranchised' visual arts students?

Written for visual arts policy makers, educators and those visually creative who just may be interested...

As a genre closely aligned with the Modern take on aesthetic distinction, the visual arts school genre is very distant from postmodern approaches, let alone meta-modern ones. There are large gaps between school art and what occurs in contemporary art (Faucher, 2016), creative industry and screen-based visual culture. The national syllabus' emphasis on the institutional artist (as mostly an observational drawer and painter) ignore many other roles that young people might pursue for becoming successful visual creatives. Likewise, the visual arts syllabus does not explicitly address the existence of multiple visual creative hierarchies (i.e. observational drawing versus Manga illustrations) whose genres may compete in prioritising very different aesthetic and creative values (e.g. detailed realism versus imaginative graphic abstraction) for their creative communities. There is an opportunity for visual arts policy makers and educators to consider how visual arts teaching might address such competition and support young peoples' exploration of contemporary visual creative roles outside the traditional gallery path.

Within this opportunity lies the challenge of considering how the visual arts syllabus might respond to the growing role of digital media in contemporary life and art? In particular, what new academic and technical cultural capital should aspirant visual creatives be taught for supporting their
development of artistic identities and access to opportunities, whether in art worlds, creative industry or elsewhere... Here arts educators and policy-makers can turn to media studies educators and researchers who have explored young adults' creative digital productions and associated development of new media literacies (Coiro, Knobel, Lankshear, and Leu, 2014; Ito et al. 2009, 2010; Jenkins, 2006; Jenkins and Ito, 2015; Gauntlett, 2000, 2007, 2011; Lankshear and Knobel, 2006).

Young people who develop new media literacies arguably enjoy a form of digital enfranchisement through developing a level of visibility through personal presences in digital environments through which they exercise their voices. This may feature roles that range from prosumption (i.e. liking, commenting on and re-sharing YouTube videos) to produsage (editing and sharing videos via videos on a YouTube channel) (Bruns, 2008). By contrast, individuals and groups who choose not to participate or cannot surmount gatekeepers are disenfranchised through being invisible in digital environments. As the online and offline environments become increasingly interlinked, individuals who enjoy high visibility online are potentially advantaged. Their digital symbolic capital serves to generate further interest and opportunities versus the proverbial 'people of no account/sans digital personas'.

Case studies for South African aspirant design students (Venter, 2018), visual arts students (Noakes, 2018) and media studies students (Brown, Czerniewicz and Noakes, 2016) suggest that young creatives are deriving benefits similar to those identified in the global North's media studies research. That said, there are large contrasts between the affluent research contexts of the Global North (in which most media studies research with teens is done) and under-served ones in the Global South. Educational ideas and media studies research from the Global North may translate very poorly for educators in South African classrooms who typically have minimal, if any, digital infrastructure, and may have to teach large class sizes. It is important to use educational sociology for scoping the many challenges involved when creatively appropriating digital literacies into the South African visual arts syllabus, as well as who benefits from such changes, or not.

It also important to understand how the digital media repertoires of young content producers mark new forms of social distinction (Noakes, 2018) or have even shifted to become commonplace. As part of 'Generation C'(ontent), elite groups of creatives in varied communities (Brake, 2013) enjoy the rare privilege (Schradie, 2011) of assuming roles with digital media that distinguish them from their peers. For example, presenting a qualified self (Humphreys, 2018) as a visual creative with an overall online identity spanning varied digital portfolios serves to mark social distinction (Noakes, 2018). In schools, art students' digital repertoires may signify distinction for both schools and students through requiring extraordinary development of technical cultural capital and access to resources for the development of digital personas and aesthetics. By contrast, such repertoires may seem unremarkable in creative industries where communicating via digital imagery is an everyday part of professionals' work in ephemeral screen culture (Grainge, 2011). At some tertiary institutions in Cape Town, digital portfolios are now required for evaluation before admission is granted (Noakes, 2018). This points to the changing status and use of digital repertoires over time {from rare to commonplace and expected for aspirant arts students after they leave school} in different fields {tertiary fine arts and design education} by particular groups. Assessment was not a key focus of my research, but it would be interesting for researchers to describe whether academic institutions have also shifted to screening students' overall online presences in evaluating admissions!

As introduced in my opening paragraph, the doxa of a highbrow Modernist taste in South African visual arts education contributes to its many blindspots. Foregrounding the institutionalised artist as its (only?) hero distances the school art genre from many learning opportunities. These span artistic media and genres (i.e. mobile phone photography for self-portraiture and perspective), creative processes (e.g. not handmade and crafted by others) and approaches to contemporary art (i.e pseudonyms) and creative industry (e.g. writing creative briefs). Educators could support students with considering decolonisation and its arguments against implicitly foregrounding only highbrow/high status cultural capital as "the legitimate one". Educators could also draw on indigenous repertoires {beadwork and other patterns} and the energy of African artists' identities as exemplified via the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa and Norval Foundation's Art Museum's collections. Multiple platform, creative entrepreneurs could also be positioned as heroes by visual art educators who choose to address the fields of creative industry, fandoms and craft. 

How new content on this blogsite might help young visual creatives and their educators
Describing concerns related to cultural stratification and infrastructural resourcing (in that order!) are important in my role as a scholar. Challenges in these two areas suggest how difficult it would be for secondary school visual arts curricular advisers to promote systematic change. It is simply impossible that South Africa's visual arts syllabus and educators could support all visual arts students with becoming digitally enfranchised. For the foreseeable future, three major obstacles will remain in place: arts education will continue to be under-served with poor digital infrastructure (1); there will be a dearth of support for arts educators to develop their own digital media literacies, let alone teach them (2), the Modern aesthetic hierarchy will continue to be reproduced in art history lessons and via arts studio practices (3).

In my roles as design steward and techné mentor, I am interested in an ongoing contribution towards digital enfranchisement for emergent/young artists beyond the e-portfolio syllabus. I would like to support their informal andragogical /  heutagogical experiences via this blogsite by continuing to develop its links to educational content. Below is a table that lists potential lessons that could support digital enfranchisement. Its content is ordered from closest links to the established literacies in the visual arts. Such content will be written for students and arts educators may repurpose the content with appropriate attribution.

Digital enfranchisement lesson ideas
Table 1. Lesson ideas that may be close to existing literacies in the visual arts syllabus
1   Folksonomies through social bookmarking Independent school syllabus
2   Search engine syntax for researching art, etc.(See this Google cheat sheet)
3   Using artists' blogs, portfolios and digital affinity space for visual creative learningOnline portfolios such as DeviantArt and Behance, online art galleries
4   How to curate your inspirationDr Potter and Ass Prof Gilje who propose digital curation to be a new literacy
5   Developing digital portfoliosBaron on developing a digital portfolio
 E-portfolio: digital curation and self-presentationVisual arts showase e-portfolio syllabus
 Becoming an artist Dr Hansson's research into university art students' online portfolios
 Emojis II Trollz (designing pixel art)Emojipedia and online trolls
9   Medias and mediums: expressive potentialities of modalities and mediaSocial semiotic researchers using multimodal an analysis for studying transduction 
10  The creative briefWriting numerous briefs as a brand manager
11  Protecting your work's copyright and selling your work onlineProf Haupt on creative copyright and Prof Gauntlett on Making is Connecting
12  Prosumption practices for online audience engagementLankshear and Knobel on New Literacies

Developing these lessons should provide helpful content that creatives can use for developing new media literacies. Hopefully visual arts and design educators can explore how such lessons might be integrated into their syllabi. In developing these lessons, I will also be learning as I use different combinations of platforms (perhaps Slideshare for a local Trolls II Emojis syllabus, but wikiversity for a global version).

If you can suggest further inspiration, please make a comment, ta. Or to collaborate, get in touch.

Brake, D. R. (2013). Are We All Online Content Creators Now? Web 2.0 and Digital Divides. Journal of Computer‐Mediated Communication, 19(3), 609.
Brown, C., Czerniewicz, L., & Noakes, T. (2016). Online content creation: looking at students’ social media practices through a Connected Learning lens. Learning, Media and Technology, 41(1), 140-159. doi:10.1080/17439884.2015.1107097
Bruns, A. (2008). Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and beyond: From production to produsage (1st ed.). Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang.
Coiro, J., Knobel, M., Lankshear, C., & Leu, D. J. (2014). Handbook of research on new literacies (1st ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
Cronin, B., & Shaw, D. (2002). Banking (on) different forms of symbolic capital. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 53(14), 1267-1270.
Faucher, C. (2016). Informal youth cultural practices: Blurring the distinction between high and low. Visual Arts Research, 42(1), 56-70.
Gauntlett, D. (2000). Web. studies: Rewiring media studies for the digital age. London, England, UK: Arnold, Edward.
Gauntlett, D. (2007). Creative Explorations: New approaches to identities and audiences. Oxon, England, UK: Routledge.
Gauntlett, D. (2011). Making is Connecting. The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0. Cambridge, England, UK: Polity.
Grainge, P. (2011). Ephemeral media: Transitory screen culture from television to YouTube (1st ed.). London, England, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Humphreys, L. (2018). The Qualified Self: Social Media and the Accounting of Everyday Life (1st ed.). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Ito et al. (2009). Living and Learning with New Media. Massachusettes, USA: Massachusettes Institute of Technology.
Ito et al. (2010). Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out. Massachusettes, USA: Massachusettes Institute of Technology.
Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide (1st ed.). New York, NY: NYU press.
Jenkins, H., & Ito, M. (2015). Participatory Culture in a Networked Era: A Conversation on Youth, Learning, Commerce, and Politics John Wiley & Sons.
Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2006a). New literacies : changing knowledge and classroom learning (1st ed.). Berkshire, England, UK: Open University Press, McGraw-Hill Education.
Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2006b). New literacies: Everyday practices and classroom learning (2nd ed.). Berkshire, England, UK: Open University Press.
Noakes, T. (2018). Inequality in Digital Personas- e-portfolio curricula, cultural repertoires and social media, (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Cape Town, Cape Town, RSA.
Venter, M. A. (2018). Patchworked creative practice and mobile ecologies. (Doctoral dissertation). University of Cape Town, Cape Town, RSA. Retrieved from

Monday 1 October 2018

Knowledge gaps in African design for my Post-doc research to address

Written for readers interested in the directions that my future Post-doctoral research will take (and won't!)

Doing a PhD helps one understand that there are many gaps in human knowledge. It helps clarify the existence of important gaps and challenges one to do appropriate research that help with closing them. As part of writing Post-doctoral Fellowship applications, it became important to reflect on what my inter-disciplinary media studies research contributions have been so far and how I might build on them, and move onto new topics, in the future:

In working for UCT's 'ICT Access and Use' project (2011/12), I explored how media students followed a form of connected learning for developing identities linked to creative industry as undergrads. Together with Associate Professors Cheryl Brown and Laura Czerniewicz, we addressed a gap in the literature regarding university students’ extramural creative production with varied online services. Three case studies illustrated how Connected Learning can be empowering: each student provided a vivid example of digital practices embedded within social contexts, exemplifying the processes students undertake when constructing meaning and knowledge in the digital world. Such cases have been lacking in the literature, especially from developing country contexts (GAP1). Future research can build on ours by exploring how Connected Learning is experienced in other South  African contexts and more broadly in the global South.

My PhD thesis contributed to closing a research gap concerning digital inequality. Its research described how the e-portfolios of young Cape Town visual arts students at two secondary schools were shaped by their privileged or marginalised circumstances. There is an opportunity to extend this pathfinder project by looking at completely underserved schooling environments. For example, what digital repertoires are young visual creatives in Cape Town's marginalised settings (poor suburbs in schools without support for visual art or design) developing (GAP2)? This focus also suggests an opportunity to combine research interests in connected learning and participatory culture for exploring the visual creative productions that occur in underserved contexts outside formal academic settings in Cape Town and how these repertoires link to academic cultural capital, or not (GAP3). Multimodal researchers could also explore the longitudinal changes to visual creatives' e-portfolios (GAP4). For example, how students change their e-portfolio styles after leaving school and preparing to apprentice in creative industries or helping justify future study).

I would like to continue developing longitudinal studies that range from young adult creatives in Cape Town that are heavily involved with online content creation to those that are scarcely involved. There are many related gaps for local researchers to explore:

  1. What are the advantages and pitfalls of young online content creators developing their technical cultural capital plus digital symbolic capital?
  2. How are social networks and technical cultural capital becoming more important as determinants of opportunity (see Jenkins, Ito and boyd, 2016).
  3. How are people being included, or excluded, in participatory culture based on their cultural, ethnic, gender or racial affiliation? 
  4. How might such differences be echoed or different in the global South? 
  5. How are inequalities of opportunity reproduced via schooling and how might this be or challenged? 
  6. How does cultural taste impact on what is valorised or dismissed and which identities and communities of practice are permissable in different creative contexts? 
  7. What novel forms of creative production result from new media literacies and how do creators perceive them to be successful, or failures?

I am currently preparing Post-doctoral Fellowship applications for Cape Town universities and the positions that might support research contributions to (1- 7) and tackling GAPS1-4 are very scarce.
A further challenge is that justifying a Post-doctoral fellowship position requires a narrow focus on the type of gap selected. One's post-doc work is required to develop knowledge that moves one's 'field' forward by addressing its 'critical knowledge gaps'. As an interdisciplinary researcher, whose PhD has spanned disciplines ranging from media studies to cultural sociology, the academic field I must contribute to seems blurred and difficult to address. Which 'field' and what 'gaps' must my interdisciplinary focus prioritise? Which unrelated threads of work can I link that might change current research? What concepts and approaches can be extended to address critical knowledge gaps in my field?

African design is an understudied and emergent field, which could benefit from more scholarship documenting its existing practices (Venter, 2018)}. After lengthy consideration, I have decided to develop an inter-disciplinary proposal for this field that addresses three distinct, but overlapping, concerns related to bitmap design, digital access and collaborative software design:

The first concern is what bitmap designs are marginalised young creatives producing and sharing online? This online content analysis will serve as a starting point for exploring the second concern- what does 'access' to digital design really mean in under-served contexts. For example: How accessible are apps and open source software to mobile-centric designers in highly constrained circumstances? What role does English as a 'global language' play in shaping Xhosa mother-tongue creatives' access and use to bitmap software? What cultural repertoires (i.e. fashion, gaming) seem to motivate interest in being a bitmap designer? The final concern is to contrast what happens when design thinking and design strategy approaches are used for collaborative software design focussed on localisation. I will describe the benefits and limitations of both, using workshops for aspirant, but under-resourced, visual creatives. They will be  consulted for understanding how Create With's new functional specifications for might provide better access for young South Africans.

By addressing these three concerns, my Post-doc research should make a solid contribution to the field of African design. It addition to its novel exploration of bitmap designers' content and circumstances, it should also generate interesting findings concerning the meanings of 'access', plus the differences between two design approaches' outcomes for collaborative software localisation.

Friday 6 July 2018

#ICEL2018 Capital meets capabilities: negotiating cultural exclusion in participatory culture

Written for researchers into participatory culture that are interested in using a theoretical framework for analysing gaps in participatory culture/the participation divide.

Professor Marion Walton (UCT), Professor Johannes Cronjé (CPUT) and I prepared the paper 'Capital meets capabilities: negotiating cultural exclusion in participatory culture'. Johannes kindly presented it on the 6th of July as part of the International Conference of E-Learning 2018's proceedings.

Our paper proposed a ‘Capital meets Capabilities’ framework that combines Sen’s capability approach with Bourdieusian cultural sociology to situate students’ contrasting circumstances and repertoires. This framework describes how people make strategic use of their capital for developing a range of cultural and leisure repertoires.

The visual arts e-portfolio curation that my PhD (2018) focused on is an example of participatory culture in which people’s designs can be strongly influenced by digital divides and other gaps. The gaps in participatory culture (or 'the participation divide') have not been conceptualised within a theoretical framework.

A Capital meets Capabilities framework for the creative appropriation of e-portfolios (Noakes, 2018)

To test whether a Capital meets Capabilities framework might be appropriate, we present a case study for “Masibulele”. He worked around scarcity in his parents’ household in the Khayelitsha township of Cape Town to became a fashion entrepreneur while studying at a high school. Despite having limited internet access, he taught himself to design fashion and shared this business via social networks. In curating an e-portfolio for the visual arts subject, he eventually included his fashion creations alongside those repertoires he was taught in arts class.

The Capital meets Capabilities framework addressed the opportunities that Masibulele leveraged as an aspirant designer and fashion entrepreneur. The framework identified known gaps in participatory culture and suggested new ones related to cultural exclusion: Masibulele had to negotiate dominant cultural repertoires and taste regimes from a marginalized position. Unlike well-resourced emergent fashion designers, he was also heavily constrained. For example, he did not use his intermittent mobile-centric internet access to set up a presence on the most popular platforms for promoting fashion designs.We trust that Masibulele's example is instructive for researchers focused on participatory culture. We hope that they will use a Capital meets Capabilities framework for achieving holistic portrayals of all the gaps in participatory culture.

Please let us know what you think of the framework by adding your comment below, ta.

Monday 4 June 2018

Using a PhD thesis bibliography for shortlisting journals to submit 'chapters-as-articles'.

Written for inter-disciplinary Post Doc researchers interested in identifying target journals for their theses.

In writing my interdisciplinary thesis on 'Inequality in Digital Personas', I cited many experts from different fields. Consequently, my bibliography featured a wide range of journals. A disadvantage of such breadth lay in it being hard to narrow-down those journals most likely to be interested in publishing articles adapted from my thesis' chapters.

To gain a clearer view on the available opportunities, I analysed my bibliography’s citation frequency after making a shortlist of journals: quantifying the number of papers cited from a particular journal seemed helpful, since high scores were likely to suggest a track record of publishing research that overlapped with my thesis’ focus, while low scores would seem to suggest limited engagement with a journal's foci.  

For the shortlist, I printed out a hardcopy of the bibliography and highlighted the journals that were listed more than once. I then filtered journal titles that cropped up repeatedly by excluding those unlikely to be interested in my thesis’ contributions to cultural sociology, social semiotics and/or social interactionism. The find function in Microsoft Word proved useful for searching the remaining journal titles in the bibliography. Totalling numbers for the shortlisted publications provided surprising results. There was a wide difference between the top, and the rest...

Table 1. Most quoted journals.
4 or more
Poetics 16
Information, Communication & Society 10
Studies in Art Education 5
Learning, Media and Technology 4
Art Education 3
Convergence 3
Cultural Sociology 3
South African Journal of Education 3
Visual Arts Research 3
British Journal of Educational Technology 2
The International Journal of Arts Education 2
Image & Text 2
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 2
Journal of Youth Studies 2
Media, Culture & Society 2

With 16 articles, Poetics proved to be my thesis' most cited journal, but only three other journals were referenced more than three times (see Table 1). Understanding which these are should prove useful in supporting an efficient selection process. Plus, it helps with preparation and submission too- it should be much less time-consuming preparing an article that's already in dialogue with authors in one's chosen journal.

Three important tips- Word!
1. In following this process, just be aware that Microsoft Word's search will not spot (journal) names that are listed on separate lines in one's biography, so searching for part of a journal's name can be a good idea.
2. It's best to search using 'exact case' and to double-check one's tallies when doing (1) {'Art Education' is easily logged as 'Studies of Art Education', but they are separate journals}.
3. Also, journal names do change {for example, Learning, Media and Technology was formerly known as the Journal of Educational Media (1996 - 2004) and Journal of Educational Television (1975 - 1995)}, so be sure to tally old one's up under the current title.

Fellow researchers, please let my readers know if you have any other tips for this process in the comments box below? Ta.

Thursday 8 March 2018

Missing social information and disidentifiers in digital self-presentation

Written for multimodal researchers interested in young peoples' self-presentation strategies and curation of digital personas.

I submitted 'Inequality in Digital Personas- e-portfolio curricula, cultural repertoires and social media' in mid-February. Some of my thesis' findings and recommendations were removed to meet the 80,000 word restriction. This redacted writing may still have some value to researchers, so I'm sharing them as blog posts. Here's the first (all will be labelled 'PhD' for ease-of-finding):

Missing social information and disidentifiers

Research background and three key contributions
Moving image media have become central to the learning and everyday life experiences of young children (Buckingham, 2003, 2013). However, such media are largely ignored in multimodal research, despite its acknowledgement of the importance of computer games, film and television (Kress, 2010). My research made a novel contribution by focusing on visual arts e-portfolio styles. This benefits research into the broad range of texts in the classroom that have resulted from the impact of digital media in the last decade (Bazalgette and Buckingham, 2013).

 My action research project (2009-13) enabled students at two sites, an independent and a government school, to be taught the creative appropriation of online portfolio software, Carbonmade, for curating their electronic learning portfolios (e-portfolios). The two very different sites were chosen for the following reasons: first, I wanted to explore a wide range of students' choices that economic, cultural and social differences might contribute to; secondly, the bandwidth costs of online publication are significant in under-resourced settings (Donner and Walton, 2013), and thirdly, there are massive differentials in South Africans' general levels of access to, and familiarity with, online media (Goldstuck, 2010, 2017).

Aside from assisting students with developing new media literacies as digital curators, my investigation also made valuable contributions through two other methodological innovations. Its longitudinal nature is unusual amongst multimodal studies in spanning three years (2010-12) at an independent school and two years (2012-2013) at a state one. Diachronic changes in students’ digital designs were examined through the novel methodological contribution of a screenshot analysis. My third contribution is an original description of how young people’s access to digital infrastructures influenced their development of a digital hexis for e-portfolio curation and the modal density of their e-portfolio styles.

Although multimodal content analysis proved highly useful, my thesis did not focus on contributing to social semiotics. Nevertheless, interesting findings emerged that contribute to multimodal theory: Researchers have described the dangers of stigma (Trottier, 2013) and oversharing (Agger, 2012) in peoples' digital self-presentations, but little has been written on the absence of social information as missing identifiers (Goffman, 1963) or concerning disidentifiers.

1. Understanding missing identifiers
Signs may be called symbols where signs are available to convey social information that is frequently and steadily available and routinely sought and received (Goffman, 1963). In e-portfolio curation, students might be unable to add information to particular identifying categories. This could result in their online identities missing identifying information that audiences would typically expect in a showcase digital portfolio.

There is a research gap concerning audience expectations of teenagers' online disciplinary identities. However, research into professional branding (van der Land & Mutinga, 2014. Van der Land, Willemsen & Unkel, 2015. van der Land, Willemsen & Wilton, 2016) is suggestive of how profile creators might increase their credibility by making particular choices in the information they provide. For example, human resource departments might expect to see prospective employees' self-portraits on LinkedIn (Sharone, 2017) and users who post theirs are perceived to be more socially attractive and competent than ones who don't (Edwards, Stoll, Faculak & Carman, 2015). In such portraits, smiling and eye-contact (looking in the camera) appear to increase perceptions of credibility (van der Land, Willemsen & Wilton, 2016).

Digital self-presentation as an online exhibition 
Impression management is the term used to describe how a performer tweaks his or her performance to consciously give details or unintentionally give off details that leak off without any intention (Goffman, 1963). Notions of impression management have proved a useful theoretical foil for understanding online behavior (boyd, 2007. Marwick & boyd, 2011. Mendelson & Papacharissi, 2010. Lewis, Kaufman & Christakis, 2008. Quan-Haase & Collins, 2008. Schroeder, 2002. Tufekci, 2008). Goffman's dramaturgical metaphor situates impression management within a specific bounded place, drawing on the concept of a behaviour setting (Barker, 1968) in which behaviour is driven by the norms and goals of specific settings. This delimited place is distilled into a dichotomy between front- and back regions, colloquially front stage and back stage. In the front stage, the actor tries to present an idealised version of the self that accords to a specific role. In my research, pupils were assessed on their front stage self-presentation as visual arts students. Students' curations of digitally disciplined personas drew on varied repertoires from a backstage, where the real work necessary to keep up appearances is done.

Goffman's dramaturgical metaphor is focused on synchronous performance in a situation where the performer is co-present with a live audience and can adjust his or her behaviours in response to their feedback. However, many social media sites provide communicative situations that are dissimilar to face-to-face ones. These situations do not depend on being bounded in space and time, nor supporting co-present, real-time observation between individuals (Miller, 1995). Consequently, it is more appropriate to use an exhibition metaphor than a stage play (Hogan, 2010), for social media artefacts. E-portfolios, for example, are presented asynchronously in space for many possible audiences:

Hogan defines an exhibition site as a site (typically online) where people submit reproduced artifacts (read: data). These artifacts are held in storehouses (databases). Curators (algorithms designed by the site's maintainers) selectively bring artifacts out of storage for particular audiences. Audience in these spaces includes those who have used the artefact or make use of it. There are two components of an exhibition space; in the first, information signifying an individual is delivered to the audience on demand by a third party. In the second, the reproducibility of the content and the database curator's role in distributing it means that the submitter does not continually monitor the data as the audience receives it. Nor may the contributor fully know his or her invisible audience(s).

The exhibition metaphor is highly appropriate for describing visual arts showcase e-portfolios, since these are exhibitions that are doubly curated; being self-curated by students, who organise digital content, that is redistributed via the virtual curatorship of an online portfolio service's database(s). The context of this exhibition space can stand in for the dramaturgical context of a specific setting (Schroeder, 2002). In contrast to the latter situation, the artist and his exhibit's viewers are not co-present in space in real-time, but may still monitor and react to each other. Furthermore, while the artist may order artefacts with a particular audience in mind, those who view and react to the content may be different from those for whom it was intended. This exhibition approach expands, but does not replace, the dramaturgical approach since each artist may adjust his or her self-presentation on an ongoing basis in response to audience feedback. An advantage of this expanded approach is that it can support a clearer articulation of the potential and perils of self-presentation in an age of digital reproduction (Hogan, 2010).

The expanded approach is also helpful for addressing the major difference between an embodied actor with a pre-existing physical presence, versus the disembodied e-portfolio exhibition space. Its creators must enter, select and upload information to create their digital presences. In e-portfolio production, students should have greater opportunity to exercise impression management and make strategic choices in what information they might provide through different modes. These modes provide different resources that students can use to control their information and affect not just what young people are able to reveal, but also what they are able to conceal (Jones, 2005).

Linking missing information to marginalised students' limited infrastructural access
Software both enables and constrains users' communications (van Leeuwen & Djonov, 2013) through posing particular kinds of representational and communicational choices.  The degree of design and customisation afforded by Carbonmade, as well as what software does not offer users (van Leeuwen, 2008), shaped students' e-portfolio styles. For example, free Carbonmade users had very limited options for customising portfolio layout. Unlike paid users they cannot upload a custom logo or feature big images.

In curating online personas, few keen students would set out to produce digitally disciplined identities that were incomplete showcases, since this might potentially compromise their credibility. Nevertheless, for first-timers, the task of e-portfolio design work can be overwhelming (Yancey, 2004) as it may involve many unfamiliar tasks. These can include: identity work; remediation of creative productions and their arrangement for diverse online audiences; and being ‘web sensible’ in exploiting the affordances of the digital space (such as hyperlinks). While the on-going maintenance of e-portfolios may involve seemingly simple processes, their quantum contributes to it being a complicated medium for novices to manage. They often needed to do several updates for achieving currency and coherence.

Such a requirement placed marginalised students at the greatest disadvantage in being under-resourced in not having home computer and internet access. They had to make choices during e-portfolio lessons, where they were hampered by their inexperience with computers and the internet. Highly constrained access to digital information infrastructure limited these teens' development of a digital hexis for e-portfolio production. The concept of a digital hexis was proposed by Fanny Georges (2007) to designate a scheme of user self-representations. These self-representations are transformed like a body that is shaped by habit or by repetitive practice. Thus, the notion of hexis bears analogy with the shaping of meaning and body. The extent to which digital identities are produced is drawn from repetitive interactions and continuous perception of self-representations on the screen (Georges, 2009, p.1). Participants as e-portfolio curators, thus evidenced a digital hexis in their e-portfolio's self-description, imagery and level of organisation. These young people's accomplishments in evidencing digital hexeis via e-portfolio styles were thus closely linked to opportunities for regularly accessing and using digital information infrastructures.

In analysing all research participants' e-portfolio styles, different patterns between the two sites suggested that young people's material circumstances were reflected in the extent of their digital self-descriptions and portfolio organisation. In particular, inequalities in histories of digital infrastructure's access and use (for example "free" internet Wi-Fi) led to large differences in the levels of modal density (Norris, 2009) of e-portfolios at either site. Students’ multimodal texts can be dense in meaning, given that each mode adds its particular layer of complexity. According to a Multimodal (inter)action analysis approach (Norris, 2004, 2014), each students’ e-portfolio had a particular level of modal complexity. The more intricately intertwined a webpage’s multiple disembodied modes (such as image, text and layout), the higher the density. Differences in the densities of e-portfolios were linked to the digital hexis for e-portfolio curation that teens could exercise. Thus, class and digital divides were evident in the extent to which digital personas and imagery was curated.

Youth’s development of a digital hexis for e-portfolio curation benefitted from digital infrastructures available outside class: No independent school student lacked extra-mural internet access, but a few government school pupils did. Without such privilege, these students had to do e-portfolio work in class. Their inexperience with desktop computers and internet browser use often resulted in slower progress and needing to play ‘catch up’ in class with peers. Overall, students with the least internet access created e-portfolio styles that featured fewer roles and had a lower modal density than those of their peers. Such self-presentations and portfolios seemed to be hampered by absent information that reflected its curators not having the resources or time required for providing all the details that the e-portfolio curriculum requested. Consequently, marginalised students' e-portfolios seemed disorganised and less polished than affluent peers who benefitted from additional production periods outside class.

Better-off teens exercised their advantages in digital information infrastructure to curate e-portfolios with extensive information about multiple personas. These students typically enjoyed pre-exposure to publishing their artworks to social networks via mobile phones and/or home internet. These students could readily use mobile-centric and/or home internet access (Rideout and Katz, 2016) in developing a digital hexis for e-portfolio curation. Although students who had mobile phones were advantaged in being able to circumvent slow internet speeds in class, this was undermined when their airtime ran-out or the incompatible ecologies between contemporary phones and old computers slowed or prevented them from downloading artworks and self-imagery.

High ad-hoc broadband rates serve as gatekeepers to data intensive practices by mobile-centric users, such as e-portfolio curation. In South Africa, pay-as-you-go mobile phone contracts prioritize use of voice and SMS services. For affluent consumers, able to afford big data bundles, data can be amongst the cheapest in the world, at eight cents per megabyte upfront (Goldstuck, 2016). By contrast, the punitive ceiling rate of up to R2 per megabyte for “out of bundle” mobile data can be subtracted from ad-hoc users’ airtime, putting it amongst the highest rates in the world. Data bundles are not perceived as an essential purchase by the poor and so are rarely bought. They consider bundles as cheap as R25 to be unaffordable, despite these enabling major savings in the cost of ad hoc data (Goldstuck, 2016).

Under-resourced students had to be highly resourceful to participate in e-portfolio production, given such costs and their difficulties in accessing digital cultural capital (Selwyn, 2004; Seale, 2012). Such marginalised youths reported not being able to produce e-portfolios to their satisfaction. By contrast, privileged students at both schools expressed dissatisfaction with the limitations of the 'visual arts showcase' e-portfolio as a school genre. Students who had “free” home internet could do e-portfolio work at their leisure, which tended to result in these teens sharing not only extensive information about their classroom roles, but their informal ones, using better production values and modally denser styles. Such teens pushed Carbonmade’s free online portfolio storage to the limit and some took advantage of their out-of-class infrastructural advantages for creating extra-mural portfolios that overcome storage limitations and provided a forum to circumvent the e-portfolio guidelines. A few students linked such "unofficial" portfolios from their e-portfolios.

2. Describing disidentifiers
In addition to students' e-portfolio styles missing social information, they also evidenced disidentifiers (Goffman, 1963), whereby signs broke-up the coherence between self-presentation and portfolios that students had tried to create. Teens' feedback suggested that they did not deliberately select signs that resulted in misrepresentation on their webpages. The presence of disidentifiers suggested novel self-presentation and content production problems when young people's multimodal choices become remediated online: 

The use of default software values created disidentifiers that inexperienced teenagers missed editing: some choices were not specified by them and their display simply reflected default settings. For example, in organising their portfolio folders, the navigation styles could vary between those they specifically chose and those that were the initial defaults. Such discrepancies were not deliberate and would create an odd navigational experience for portfolio viewers.

Teens could make choices that were later forgotten and their meanings no longer intended. For example, while "Kyle" was interested in graffiti in grade 10, by matric he described this as just a 'phase'. Nevertheless, graffiti remained listed as one of his skills, but there were no examples of such work under his portfolio.

A common example across students' work were copyright statements that featured the year they were written (i.e. 2010 /11). These could become disidentifiers when not updated to the current year they are viewed at (i.e. 2012 and later). By contrast, the author's intention would always be to assert their copyright for the current year as the most accurate form of legal statement.

Missing identifiers and disidentifiers point to the constraints that young digital curators face in infrastructure and practicing ongoing e-portfolio curation. In highly-constrained material and technological contexts, the concept of a signmaker expressing his or her interest is worthy of critique.
Just as Potter highlighted about children's' video-making (2012, p. 33), not every video, 'ends up as the coherent, fully designed, literate and realised use of meaning-making resources envisaged by some semiotic theorists'. My research likewise highlights the constraints of teenagers as multimodal designers. In particular, it is important to understand the (often hidden) role of digital infrastructure as an influence on their design process. Inequalities in the access and use to such infrastructures may enable certain styles of self-presentation or act as a gatekeeper, especially for marginalised teens. Non-internet connected students described being unable to publish the social information or artwork showcases they wanted to. In the absence of information on digital infrastructure in their e-portfolios, it was difficult for viewers to appreciate how differing contexts shaped the quantum and styles of visual and social information that users provided. For example, it is hard to spot that under-resourced students had put a lot of effort in making workarounds to overcome slow and unreliable ICT infrastructures. Another concern lay in students not deliberately choosing multimodal ensembles: default software values created disidentifiers that inexpert teenagers missed editing or forget to change, which resulted in misrepresentation of teens' interests.

Scholars who celebrate accounts of teaching contemporary digital media production with new media literacies (Jenkins, 2006. Burn and Durran, 2007. Lankshear and Knobel, 2009. Ito et al, 2010. Jenkins, Ito & Boyd, 2015) would tend to promote the integration of such like arts e-portfolios at schools. Likewise, teachers believed that publishing the prescribed style would be beneficial for all. By contrast, the content analysis and case studies of a range of students' e-portfolio styles revealed the exclusionary impact of infrastructural inequality. My content analysis and case studies for twelve teens revealed how highly constrained access to digital information infrastructure limited marginalised teens’ development of a digital hexis for e-portfolio production.

When analysing digital curators' productions, semiotic theorists should not assume that incoherence, outdated information and the low modal density that results from missing social information solely reflects unmotivated students’ disinterest. Rather, it is important to consider how low production values might also result from keen youths who face infrastructural constraints that prevent online content curation and digital remediation.

Future research into missing social information and disidentifiers
Describing the infrastructural constraints that students experienced is consequential as it shows educators and other decision makers that youths’ differential resourcing must be accommodated in curricular design. For example, lessons should aim to prioritise infrastructure use by under-connected students. Teens’ mobile infrastructures must be better accommodated and students should be encouraged to describe infrastructural enablers and constraints in their e-portfolios. Future researchers should look at the outcomes of specific changes in class and whether they help promote greater equity, or not?

The absence of expected signs in an e-portfolio are missing identifiers that may reduce its value when viewers interpret a prospective apprentice or student's digital portfolio to be incomplete and not a 'proper showcase'. The prestige of the symbolic capital that students may develop via digital curations is linked both to the quality of the artworks they remediate and their organisation. Where students choose to be online, but produce partial, disorganised portfolios that do not reflect their best works, such curations may be judged to be inadequate and discredited by assessors or prospective employers. Audience research needs to be done concerning the reception of young people's e-portfolios. For example, how do assessors grade for missing identifiers and disidentifiers when evaluating digital arts portfolios for university access.

My research took place in two relatively well-resourced English secondary schools that could provide the visual arts subject, but future research could be done into the choices that young people make in the less well-resourced environments that are more common in South Africa. For example, how do non-dominant teens negotiate their cultural exclusion at school in creating digital personas that remediate their mother tongues and other repertoires?

More research also needs to be done concerning young adults' development of varied digital portfolios as they enter tertiary education, the workforce and other spaces. For example, how do young peoples' online portfolio styles change as youth become professionals or hobbyists?

People use multiple profiles to support job searches that may involve switching from one profession to a new one. There is an opportunity to research how young adults manage multiple profiles with limited internet access. Researchers must also explore how other constraints influence young adults' design of digital personas. For example, while online spheres are increasingly considered public, they are a source of tension for prospective employees. Older people voiced fears about being screened out of potential work interviews if they post self-image photos on LinkedIn (Sharone, 2017). The ease with which HR recruiters can search young adults' "Google resumes" and their attendant fears of evaluation is likely to inhibit certain expressions online. Researchers could examine the extent to which young adults remain silent about their political and social justice views to 'fit in' with prospective employers.

Cite this page
Noakes, T. (2018). Missing social information and disidentifiers in digital self-presentation. Retrieved from

This blog post was updated on the 13th of March with additional insights from my 8ICOM talk and presentation (12 December, 2016).

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