The Most Objective “Best of 2012″ List Ever, Part III: Social Media

Earlier this week I posted “Part I: Television” and “Part II: Memes” of “The Most Objective ‘Best of 2012′ List Ever.” There doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm for these highly idiosyncratic “Best Of” lists that I’ve been producing BUT I’m the kind of gal who likes to finish what she starts, so today I present Part III of my list:

Best of Social Media

You thought this post was going to be about Pinterest, didn’t you? Wasn’t 2012 the year of Pinterest? And really, I should be the target consumer for Pinterest since, according to MediaBistro, 97% of Pinterest users are female. And I’m a female. But after just a few weeks of heavy use back in March, I stopped using my Pinterest account all together. Simply put, I found it overwhelming. So many crafts to make, so many recipes to try, so many quick and easy ways to “do it yourself!” and “make your own.” I want someone else to “do it” and I want to “buy my own.” Pinterest just made me feel bad about myself — which is, apparently, a common complaint about Pinterest. So, no, this post is not about Pinterest. All of you crafty go-getters and DIY-ers need to pick up your homemade Christmas ornaments and old timey cold remedies and go elsewhere.

My favorite social media this year is Facebook Groups. Now, I know, I know, Facebook introduced its “Groups” feature  way back in October of 2010. But remember folks, this is my list. I do what I want. Facebook Groups qualifies for my “Best of 2012″ list because it was not until 2012 that I began to use Groups in earnest and realized the potential of this excellent social media feature. If you have not used this function, it’s very simple: Facebook Groups allows you to start a group (on say, “bird watching” or “rabble-rousing”) and then invite select individuals to join you there. You can make the group private or public and can give those you invite the option to invite others to join as well.  Prior to 2012 I was not involved in any Facebook groups. Now I belong to nine:

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All of these Groups address different needs in my life and contain different users. For example “Greenville” is a venue for members to post questions and announcements pertaining to the city of Greenville (aka, the town where I live). Here people ask for recommendations for house painters, doctors, and babysitters, or post about Greenville-related events. Sadly, this is the least active group to which I belong — mostly because it is small and many of the users are not active social media users (so they don’t see posts or think to respond to them) and because Greenville is the place where fun goes to die (so why should its FB Group be any different?). I also belong to a Group for my children’s school and for a dear friend who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and wanted a private space in which to update her friends and family about her treatments and prognoses. There are so many uses for this feature.

The most active Groups to which I belong were started by my fellow social media addicts — those who keep tabs on when fellow Group members make posts and engage them in conversation. For example, my all-time favorite FB Group experience from the past year was Skirthathon 2012. For those who do not reside in my small corner of the internet, Skirtathon is the brain child of Dr. Kristen Warner and its premise is simple: wear a skirt or dress every weekday for the entire month of April. For Skirtathon to work, the participants must announce what they are wearing each day to the group. That way, we can keep tabs on each other and shame one another for failures “to skirt” (sample excuses include: “Too tired” and “It’s raining.”). When I participated in Skirtathon 2011, we relied primarily on a Twitter hashtag (#Skirtathon2011) to track each other’s outfits. But I will admit that I often felt a little sheepish posting photos or outfit descriptions to my entire Twitter feed. Though it shouldn’t, it made me feel (like others would feel) that I was frivolous or shallow, a “silly girl.” That’s why this year’s Skirtathon was so much better — this time we had our own private FB Group where participants could not only post photos of their outfits, but the rest of us could comment on these outfits and even provide links to the stores where they were purchased. There was much ooo-ing and ahh-ing and skirt-envy in these comment threads.

Me, skirting in my office.

Me, skirting in my office.

As the month went on, the women participating in Skirthaton became increasingly creative and bold, not just in their outfit choices but also in the backdrops and poses used in photos. Suddenly, we were all living in our own personal Anthropologie editorial photo spreads. We also posed with our dogs, cats, babies and even our very large (and very beautiful) pregnant bellies. Even though many of the women using the Group had never met each other in real life (some had not even met via social media prior to joining the Group), everyone gamely commented on each other’s outfits, accessories, and artful use of lighting. I loved seeing a woman I know only because she is the friend of a woman I know through Twitter telling one of my childhood best friends how adorable her son is. It sounds forced but it wasn’t. This is going to sound incredibly cheesy but I’m going to go ahead and say it: this group made me feel beautiful and empowered. Go on and laugh, cynics. But I hold fast to this truth: Skirtathon reminded me that I can love a good sale, a well-placed belt, and a patterned stocking and still be an excellent and serious scholar. I’m every woman, it’s all in meeeeeee. Below are some of my favorite images from this past spring’s Skirtathon (used here with each lady’s permission):

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(For more on Skirtathon, check out Kelli Marshall’s post here)

Another FB Group I joined and loved this year was an online book club entitled “Fancy Ladies Book Club.” There was a little bit of secrecy surrounding this book club (for example, this In Media Res post discussing one woman’s participation in the book club was written anonymously for fear of tenure-related repercussions) since the club was formed in order to read E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey. But let me be perfectly clear: I was and still am a member of the Fancy Ladies Book Club. In fact, I gave the Fancy Ladies Book Club its “fancy” name as a subterfuge so folks wouldn’t know we were really reading mommy porn. Wasn’t that clever of me? A private group was perfect for such an endeavor since we all wanted to be able to speak as freely (and crassly) as the material warranted. Since completing 50 Shades of Grey (which culminated in a live, somewhat drunken reading at a bar this summer when a few of the Fancy Ladies found themselves at a conference together), we have also read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her. In all cases our conversations were alternately funny, smutty, smart, and enlightening. I am hoping we read Louise Erdich’s The Round House in January and that I can continue to read and learn from this community of brilliant women.

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Finally, the most recent addition to my FB Groups list is also the most useful (not that dishing about erotic fiction and skirts isn’t useful too. But those Groups don’t impact my job). Approximately 2 months ago, Erin Copple Smith, an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Austin College, started a FB Group called “Teaching Media.” Unlike the previous groups I just mentioned, “Teaching Media” is an “open group.” This means that posts to this group will appear in the poster’s FB feed and that members can invite others to join. The group now boasts 251 members and has, at least for me, been an invaluable resource for answers to questions I have had about the ins and outs of teaching a media studies-based curriculum.

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While Twitter has also been a great resource for me in terms of crowdsourcing information on syllabus building as well as my own personal research (I have detailed why here), the 140 character limit can be, well, limiting when trying to get an answer to a question that is nuanced and requires a more than a single sentence to explain. Furthermore, the “Teaching Media” page serves as an archive of sorts that Group members can return to a few days, weeks, or months after the original discussion took place (this is much more difficult to do with Twitter). In the two months since the Group has been online I have asked about: how fellow instructors use Twitter in the classroom, what kinds of absence policies have worked (and not worked), and about how to handle the possibility of inappropriate audience commentary at a student-hosted screening of The Room. I have also snapped up innumerable tips for future assignments (yes, Tony Bleach, I will be playing the “genres game” you described on the first day of my spring class, “American Film Genres: Then & Now”). What is great about this Group is that people really do respond — and quickly at that — to queries. Furthermore, they respond in detail (i.e., more than 140 characters), often offering links and examples. As someone who works at a university where there is only one other film studies-trained faculty member (Hi Anna!), I often feel like I have only one person (albeit a great person) to turn to when I have pedagogical questions specific to my field. But the “Teaching Media” group has gifted me an entire 250-person (and counting) department of smart, creative, highly engaged teachers. At any hour of the day, any day of the week (except, I guess, for the day after tomorrow, which is “THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW” when the world ends), I can get an answer to my teaching-related questions. Even flesh and blood colleagues can’t offer that kind of support. When I read about the innovative assignments, in-class exercises, and curricula being used by professors all over the world, I am motivated to be a better teacher. I am, in fact, becoming a better teacher.

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By now you may have noticed that 2 out of my 3 favorite Facebook Groups are populated exclusively by women and primarily by women who work in academia. I don’t think this is accidental.  Although the demographics of the Ivory Tower have changed a lot in recent years, it is still, in many ways, an “old boys’ club.” By that I mean: female academics are less comfortable with traditional modes of networking and often have trouble with promoting themselves aggressively as someone worth knowing. As Zdenka Šadl explains:

The academic institutions of higher education, where men dominate (both in terms of number and hierarchy) and act to prevent women from fully participating in and integrating into formal and informal networks, are prime examples of homosocial institution [Etzkowitz, Kemelgor and Uzzi 2000; Fogelberg et al. 1999; Gupta et al. 2004; Hearn 2004; Husu 2004]. Academics generally establish informal connections on the basis of the principle of gender homophily. However, it is predominantly men who form social networks – male academics give support to their male colleagues. Husu [2001] reports that many senior women interviewed in her study observed that their male colleagues supported each other through ‘old boy’s networks’. These networks, also referred to as the ‘invisible college’, [O‘Leary and Mitchell 1990] involve informal power groups whose members are in a position to make (implicit) decisions about the academic rank, status, and position of an academic. Academic women are often excluded from academic networks, and this often puts them at a disadvantage [Kaufman 1978; O‘Leary and Mitchell 1990; Toren 1991; Vazquez-Cupeiro and Elston 2006].

(you can read the full article here)

These Facebook Groups have provided me with a welcoming intellectual community in which I feel free to discuss my love of clothing as easily as I discuss the weird blend of feminism and misogyny found in Junot Diaz’s novels. I feel like I have joined my own “invisible college” and it has improved my enjoyment of academic conferences and academic life immensely. I feel supported by these women in my field — I feel like they have my back. I know I have theirs.

On a side note, if you found this post interesting or would like to discuss it further in a [gasp!] face to face format, I am happy to say that a group of smart young female scholars will be discussing these various issues in a workshop entitled “Gender, Networking, Social Media, and Collegiality” at next year’s Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Chicago. I think it’s going to be fabulous.

In the meantime, though, I’d love to hear about your favorite social media site or tool that made your 2012 better. Please share below.

My Year of Reading for Pleasure

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The first chapter book I ever read without adult intervention was E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. I was 6 years old and it took  me months to finish it. Or maybe it only took a few weeks. Never trust a 6-year-old’s concept of time. Regardless, by the time I finished Charlotte’s Web the corners of the book were smushed and the cover was missing. I read that book. I don’t remember too much about the experience except this: I couldn’t believe that I was reading a chapter book  all by myself. It seemed impossibly mature.  My next literary milestone occurred a few years later when I read Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, a lovely tale of friendship between two 5th graders. Then (SPOILER ALERT) one of the friends falls into a river and drowns. This was the first book I read in which a human character — a kid no less! — dies.  I knew the death was coming — my classmates spread the news like a dark secret (“Did you read the book where the girl dies?”) — but the sadness I experienced as I read about little Leslie’s tragic drowning still surprised me. How sweet and liberating it was to cry over something that had no consequences in the real world.

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Naturally this led me, at the tender age of 11, to  Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, the big papa of children’s literature death porn. If you’re not familiar with this tearjerker, it’s about a little boy who, after much hard work and much saving of money in an old K.C. Baking Powder can, finally purchases two coonhounds, Little Ann and Old Dan. Why did he want these dogs? To hunt raccoons of course! Old Dan and Little Ann were topnotch coonhounds. Then they die. And let’s be clear: these dogs don’t just die, they perform death in the most melodramatic, Oscar-baiting fashion imaginable. Remember this passage?

“What I saw was more than I could stand. The noise I heard had been made by Little Ann. All her life she had slept by Old Dan’s side. And although he was dead, she had left the doghouse, had come back to the porch, and snuggled up by his side.”

I’m surprised that Little Ann didn’t rise up on her hind legs and recite a soliloquy about love and companionship before collapsing in a heap onto Old Dan’s grave. But those epic death scenes weren’t enough for Wilson Rawls. He continues the torture when he has his narrator reflect on the lives of his faithful pups:

“After the last shovel of dirt was patted in place, I sat down and let my mind drift back through the years. I thought of the old K. C. Baking Powder can, and the first time I saw my pups in the box at the depot. I thought of the fifty dollars, the nickels and dimes, and the fishermen and blackberry patches.

I looked at his grave and, with tears in my eyes, I voiced these words: ‘You were worth it, old friend, and a thousand times over.'”

I defy you to read Where the Red Fern Grows and not have your heart broken. I remember finishing that book, in the summer after 5th grade, and running to my mom’s room, sobbing. All I could do was hold up the book and whine “They both DIED!” My mom nodded and smiled. I think she was relieved. 11-year-olds cry a lot but book crying is much easier to handle than real-life crying.

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In those early heady days of book consumption, I found that, in addition to crying, I liked being terrified. I read most of the Stephen King canon, which I would not recommend for young children. Seriously, 11-year-old’s should not be allowed to read It. After that I was terrified of my sink. And gutters. And really, everything. That’s some top notch parenting, Klein family.

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Sure, I read some of the children’s lit classics, like Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and the period/masturbation/wet dreams books by Jude Blume (Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, Deenie, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t) but I really loved the trash. There were the Sweet Valley High books,  Flowers in the Attic (V.C. Andrews, you dirty, dirty bird), and Archie digests.  I loved reading so much that when I went to college, I had no doubts about becoming an English major. While my friends complained about their homework, I lounged in my bed reading A View from the Bridge (Arthur Miller), Geography III (Elizabeth Bishop) and Nightwood (Djuna Barnes) and loving my major. Most of the time it didn’t even feel like work to me. Ironically, it was when I went to graduate school to become a professional reader of books that I stopped reading fiction completely. Part of this had to do with the fact that I decided to study film, rather than literature. But also, having to devote so much time and energy to  reading and decoding dense theoretical texts put me off the idea of reading for pleasure. For 10 years the only books I read “for pleasure” were the Harry Potter series and US Weekly. 

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This changed when my husband brought home a Kindle Fire last winter. It was a holiday gift from his boss. I wasn’t too interested –you know, since “I don’t read.” But I had been hearing a lot about Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series  from, well, everyone, and I was tempted to read it myself. I had been tempted by sensational kid-murdering novels before, of course, but usually I would tell myself that I didn’t have time to read. I’m a working mother and I don’t get to recline on a couch somewhere and read a young adult novel about a dystopian world in which teenagers are forced to kill each other. Of course, I could watch a film or TV show about a dystopian world in which teenagers are forced to kill each other (because that’s not pleasure, it’s “work”). When I finally decided to download a copy of The Hunger Games on New Year’s Eve 2011, I did so because I thought it might be therapeutic. My father had died a few days before year’s end and reading seemed like a good way to work through my emotions. So I read.

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A few days later I finished The Hunger Games and decided, on a whim, to buy the sequel, Mockingjay. I bought Catching Fire one week later. And that’s how it went for several months. I found myself reading several books each month. I still had two kids and a full-time job and dishes to wash, but I found a way to fit reading in to my daily schedule. If I ever thought that maybe I shouldn’t be spending so much time reading — that I could be finishing up an article or folding some laundry or letting the children out of their cages for their daily 10 minutes of sun exposure — I reminded myself: this is therapeutic. So I kept reading.

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Now it’s approximately 11 months after I first picked up the Kindle and I have read a total of 23 books. Here they are, categorized by my own personalized genres:

Fun stuff I never would have let myself read in grad school:

The Hunger Games, Mockingjay, Catching Fire (Suzanne Collins)

50 Shades of Grey (E.L. James)

Twilight (Stephenie Meyer)

Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)

Books written by funny people I like:

Is Everyone Hanging Out without Me? (Mindy Kaling)

Bossypants (Tina Fey)

Half Empty (David Rackoff)

Sad books where people die or are already dead:

Swamplandia! (Karen Russell)

The Descendants (Kaui Hart Hemmings)

The Fault in Our Stars (John Green)

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz)

Dysfunctional family stories

Little Children, The Leftovers (Tom Perrotta)

Motherland (Amy Sohn)

The Marriage Plot (Jeffrey Eugenides)

Room (Emma Donoghue)

Dystopian and/or fantasy

The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)

A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan)

Ready Player One (Ernest Cline)

Misc.

Pulphead (John Jeremiah Sullivan)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)

That’s three times as many books as I read in the preceding decade. Why did I read so much?  I think the e-book format definitely compelled me to read more. The convenience of being able to purchase a book whenever I wanted to coupled with the portability of the device — try propping a real novel on a gym elliptical machine — has definitely made me more inclined to read and to read often. In fact, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey “The average reader of e-books says she has read 24 books (the mean number) in the past 12 months, compared with an average of 15 books by a non-e-book consumer.” I also found that social media really encouraged my reading habits. Every time I finished a book I could go on Twitter and ask people what my next book should be — one thing people are always happy to share are book recommendations. I also got involved with an online book club on Facebook. The group, composed primarily of other female academics, led me to read two books I never would have picked up otherwise: 50 Shades of Grey and Gone Girl.  This culminated with a drunken live reading of 50 Shades of Grey at a conference, which was as delightful as it sounds (at least it was for us, less so for our bewildered bartender). More recently I decided to read Twilight. After tweeting about this decision, several other Twitter-friends decided to join me in the endeavor, forming an impromptu book club (here is a link to a Storify of our conversations). I have not enjoyed Twilight, but participating in Twilight-related tweeting has motivated me to finish. This sense of community, whether it’s an organized book club or simply sharing my thoughts about a recent read with online friends, has greatly added to my reading enjoyment this year.

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I’ve also read a lot this year because I finally remembered that I like to read. It seems like a silly thing to forget but as I get further along in my career it has become easier to marginalize the activities that give me pleasure simply because they serve no purpose other than the giving of pleasure. As if pleasure is purposeless or wasteful. Perhaps this is just a symptom of being a working parent but I suspect it has more to do with the larger culture of academia, which stresses a lifestyle in which everything — including leisure time –must be quantified, accounted for, and somehow contribute to one’s research or pedagogy. In an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education that hit just a little too close to home for me, “It’s Your Duty to be Miserable!” ,William Pannapacker describes the typical thought process of the academic:

“If someone asks, ‘How are you?,’ I sigh, shrug, and say, ‘Busy, like everyone else.’ If pressed, I will admit that I spent some time with my family—the way a Mormon might confess to having tried a beer, once. For more than 20 years, I have worn what Ian Bogost has called ‘the turtlenecked hairshirt.’I can’t help it; self-abnegation is the deepest reflex of my profession, and it’s getting stronger all the time.”

In 2012 I have made an attempt to get out of my hairshirt, one e-book at a time. I’m not sure that I will continue my frenetic reading pace in 2013, but I have definitely re-Kindled my love affair with the written word (pun intended). I have found that reading for pleasure is valuable because it is pleasurable, and nothing more.

For those of you out there with e-readers, have you found that you now read more? If so, why do you think that is? What is the best book you read in 2012? And what should I read in 2013?