Kate Harris: Profile of a Digital Writer

Levana_112Kate Harris taught American History and World Religions for ten years at Jordan High School in Durham, North Carolina. When she moved two years ago to Pittsburgh, PA , she became a consultant for the Smithsonian Institute, helping other teachers use the vast digital archives of the Smithsonian in their own classes. This job has her making short posts to the internet all the time, showcasing both the work of classroom teachers and items in the Smithsonian collection. But she’s also written longer pieces on teaching social controversies—Colin Kaepernick, Standing Rock, Charlie Hebdo—for the New York Times online. So I thought she’d be a good person to talk to about how to create a presence as a digital writer.

I began our conversation by asking Kate how she thought differently about writing for the screen than writing for the page. 

Kate: Teachers looking for curriculum ideas online do a lot of scanning—as do many online readers in general. So while I don’t necessarily think posts need to be short, I do think they need to establish their relevance pretty quickly and be organized so that readers can find what they are looking for easily. This means that I use a lot of chunking and subtitles in a way that I might not do for other sorts of written work, and I make sure my introductions are as clear and as compelling as possible.

Do your editors have particular things they’re looking for?

Kate: When I write for the Smithsonian learning blog, the editor wants things very short (300-400 words) and very strategy driven. Her take, which is somewhat driven by web analytics data, is that their readers do not take the time to explore longer reads and want “take-aways” that they can easily find. (Here’s a typical Smithsonian post.) I actually prefer writing for the Times because they are less concerned about length and in fact encourage offering a range of possibilities for readers to explore.

Does writing for the web let you do things you couldn’t do in print?

Kate: There’s the pleasure of being able to easily illustrate and link in online writing. The Times blog wants to promote the paper’s own writing, and they actually have an editor go through and link to Times articles, where applicable, throughout. But I enjoy curating resources that I think would be helpful and relevant and inserting them. It’s also a way of dealing with the length issue. I can link to something that you might bookmark and explore further later, without taking the time to write out the full concept in my own article.

What about shorter pieces? You post a lot to Twitter.

Kate: Twitter is very popular among teachers and ed-tech folks, and that’s the primary reason I’ve begun posting there more often. What is nice about twitter is the ability to interact with a lot of people who you may not know personally, but informally network with. I think my more effective posts link up with others (those are certainly the ones that get the most reach—when you @ people with whom you work or whom you admire) or that quote other’s tweets. I think my tweets are more effective when I am “adding value” by quoting another’s tweet, but sometimes I’m lazy and just retweet!

Do you feel you reach people on Twitter you wouldn’t connect with otherwise?

Kate: Yes. Twitter works well when people connect over topics. For example, GLSEN posted about the need for a more inclusive history curriculum, and I was able to reply and share some curriculum about the gay rights movement that I had developed. That got my work out to a larger audience and contributed to a conversation they had started.

What are some strategies you developed for using Twitter effectively?

Kate: Familiarize yourself with Twitter shorthand—there are definitely ways to shorten spellings and phrases and it’s still all acceptable and professional. Twitter is also a useful way to rid yourself of bad habits in writing, like using vague adjectives (great! interesting! nice!) or being redundant. At the same time, don’t worry so much about your tweets. They will disappear quickly.

You use social media not only for your work, but also as a community member, mom, and friend. Do you feel you change your voice as a writer for these more personal posts?

Kate: Yes and no! I think it’s about where I am posting—for me, Twitter is more professional and somewhat political, although I tend to stick to politics that fits within the framework of my profession (pro-education funding or pro-NEH). Facebook is more about family and friends, and my writing is probably a little more sentimental there. But I also feel free to be more politically charged at times on Facebook, again because it is less associated with my professional life. Instagram is the social media I have the most fun with, and I hardly write at all in my captions. It feels the most personal. What I put there is less about sharing and more about capturing impressions.

Seb Museum

Social Action Without Response

When encountering this assignment, for a long time I was unsure what to post. There was no social action I could think of that would make a difference or be successful, and the social media accounts I have don’t necessarily have a lot of followers. I decided because of this, the best thing to do was post on twitter using a hashtag since that is an easy way for people who don’t even follow me to see certain key terms. A social issue that really interested me stems around gender equality, but the more subtle things that go on, often unnoticed, as opposed to the issues we hear about every day such as equal pay. I focused on women in the work force and used two key terms: the glass ceiling and the motherhood penalty. The glass ceiling refers to the invisible barrier women often face when it comes to receiving a promotion in a job; studies have been done that proves this to be true whether we realize it or not. The motherhood penalty revolves around the idea that mothers have a more difficult time trying to find jobs because they are considered to be less incapable or committed to their job since they have children, studies were done on this where fake resumes were sent out and the number of mothers that got called back were extremely lower than non-mothers and fathers. I posted a picture with words written on it and highlighted then I used the hashtags: gender equality, glass ceiling, motherhood penalty, and I threw in gender pay gap too since this plays a role and is a more popular issue. Unfortunately, I received no responses but I hope that eventually someone can see it and become informed on something that they never realized because I never would have either. Here is a link to my tweet.

Concentrations of Reddit: Easy Come, Easy Go

Star Wars SubReddit

The Internet is a place of fleeting thoughts and hot topic debates that go as fast as they come. This reality is not always noticed because we all are often part of this culture of short attention, moving from article to tweet to Facebook post as quickly as we take steps down the street, however through the experience of ‘writing as a social action’ it is more profound to me. I took to the social media site of Reddit, which is website that houses thousands of message boards covering every theme and topic one could imagine. It is a website that allows for fans of numerous different subjects to identify with one another and to communicate amongst themselves while sharing thoughts and opinions.

On this occasion I specifically looked into the Reddit page dedicated to the Star Wars franchise, as it is currently a hot topic because of the recent massive convention held in Orlando for the fans. A this convention many of the stars of the films were present, including one Mark Hamill, the man who has portrayed Luke Skywalker for four decades. In an interview he did at Star Wars Celebration he spoke of certain changes he wanted made to the script of Episode 7 of the franchise. There was a thread on the website dealing with this interview, and being there were over 500 comments on the subject I figured it would be a great place to start. So, I left a comment expressing my thoughts on Hamill’s comments early Monday morning and left them to see how others would respond. The response was interesting and harkens back to my opening notes. I received two up votes, which is the equivalent of two likes on Facebook, and I received one response from another Reddit reader. What was interesting about this was that the majority of the 523 total comments made on the post-made Sunday-were prior to my comment Monday morning. The topic was hot for a split second, and then moved past.

Many early comments received dozens, if not more, responses and hundreds of up votes. Could that be that people took to those other posts more than mine? Of course, but I do feel the constantly moving minds of social media users in this day and age is a factor as well. Many of the other posts made around or after mind were not regarded much as well. In fact, very few comments were added to the thread after mine. It was the flavor of the day, and then was moved past. I feel this experiment shows how our culture operates in more than just social media; you must capture the attention of people quickly and then find a way to maintain the grip, otherwise they will get over it. This applies to social media as well as television, film, music, and many other areas of our society. The fleeting attention given to Mark Hamill’s comments is just a statistic in what I feel is a broader mindset across ages and mediums, not just Reddit.

Class, Fri, 4/21

Writing as a Social Action

Fastwrite: Pick two posts from your classmates that you’d like to talk about. One should focus on a successful attempt to use social media to contribute to a public conversation; the other should focus on an attempt that illustrates some of the problems in trying to do so.

Interviewing Tips: Fenton and Lee

To Do

  1. Mon, 4/24, class: Identify the digital writer you want to profile and set up a time to talk with them. I’ll ask you to share who you’ll be profiling and why in class. We’ll also talk about how to compose interview questions with your particular person in mind.
  2. Wed, 4/26, class: Read Fenton and Lee, chapter 11, on “The Revision Process” (pp. 147–55.)
  3. Thurs, 4/27, 10:00 am: Post your profile to this site.

No Response to Outside Issues

As a person who rarely posts on social media, especially about anything topics intensely debated, I was not sure I was well prepared for this kind of assignment. To scroll through the issues of today plastered all over social media feeds and read the comments of passionate people is entirely different from being the one to make those posts. The issue I decided to post about for my social action assignment is considerably tamer than most posts I come across, but it is something important to myself that I decided I would attempt to inform others about. I chose to write about the abandonment of rabbits around the Easter holiday and how this degree of animal cruelty is incredibly overlooked against the stream of political debates, global worries and even issues of animal cruelty surrounding more popular species. It seemed a trivial topic, but something I wanted to attempt to bring to light and hoped would spark some kind of debate. The internet is a place for all sorts of discussions to happen despite whether they have a heavy relevance to the times and I considered this post as a kind of test to see if anyone would react. I received no likes or shares on my post and only a single comment from a family member. The video I used in my post was from a very renowned magazine, the National Geographic, which I had hoped would inspire more conversation. Knowing the Easter holiday has since passed, I still hoped to grab the attention of those who might understand that the issue of rabbit abandonment is still high at this time. Perhaps with more time might come more interaction with my post from the public.

Here is a link to the Facebook post I made.

Social Action

Usually, I’m not one to participate in online discussions, unless it is something incredibly important that I feel an urge to contribute. I’m generally afraid to put my opinion out there for others to see as I’m not really one to argue or debate with my acquaintances or people I do not really know at all. This assignment really pushed me out of my comfort zone. For my Writing as a Social Action response, I decided to contribute to a conversation on the newly sparked issue regarding Pepsi’s tone-deaf commercial. Recently there has been an enormous amount if backlash regarding the commercial and how it completely disregarded the immensity of what it was trying to light-heartedly portray.

In the commercial, Kendall Jenner hands a police officer a Pepsi in order to break the tension between the protesters and the officers. After receiving the Pepsi the officer shrugs and the protesters cheer as if the Pepsi has ended all of the social injustices once and for all. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter took to twitter to respond to the commercial, and her response was incredibly powerful. It was then shared on a multitude of different platforms, including the one I used Tumblr.

I came across the screenshot of her tweet and began to read the comments in the “notes” of the picture. I stumbled upon comments condoning the commercial, some of which were stating that people who support or are a part of the movement, Black Lives Matter, should be happy and not going crazy over a “silly commercial” and that we should all be thrilled that they are publicizing the movement. Obviously, that is completely problematic in the sense that Pepsi was not trying to raise awareness for BLM, rather exploit the movement for monetary gain.

I decided to respond with my own personal thoughts on the subject (pictured below). So many people were commenting their distaste for the commercial, I wanted to also participate in the anger over the commercial. I wanted to address those who were excusing the issues it so clearly contained. The cool things about Tumblr is, it’s a great place to have a conversation and share your beliefs. I reblogged the photo with what I had said to my followers and five people had reblogged the screenshot along with what I wrote at the bottom of the picture in the caption to their blogs. I know five people isn’t a lot but I really appreciated that people who I don’t even know liked what I said and shared it. I do wish that more people would have responded or commented their own opinions and thoughts on the subject to spark more of a conversation amongst us.

tweetresponse

Breaking News: Nothing!

For my Social Action assignment, I made it my objective to try and generate buzz for an upcoming event on campus. I am a part of the RSO V-Day which is dedicated to preventing sexual violence. We talk about life on campus, our reactions to news stories, how women and minorities or portrayed in the media, and a lot more. Plus we host The Vagina Monologues, which I didn’t get to experience until I was in college.

The event is hosted by V-Day and S.A.G.E. and it’s called “What’s Your Monologue?” I was interested in promoting this because I think it can be beneficial to share your perspective and “purge yourself” in a way when you’re feeling discomfort about a certain element of your life. There is a kind of catharsis that comes from getting out all that bad stuff. Maybe because of this event people will feel more supported in the community, get some words of encouragement, or just get something off their chest. Humans all want to be heard and felt like they are listened to, this is an event that supports that desire. I think people might be nervous to potentially share private things to an audience, but I think those who do will feel better as a result.WYM 2017 2

For the assignment I posted on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. I included the picture of the event flyer. For Twitter and Instagram I used more hashtags to accompany the post because that is the norm on those platforms. With each post, I included encouragement to click the picture and read it, which might have deterred some people. I ended up getting an underwhelming response, very few people engaged with my post at all and even less shared or commented. I think it might have been because I used the Twitter and Instagram accounts I made for class. I would have been able to reach a lot more people if I had used my regular accounts, but only a fraction of those people I would reach are in the area. Overall the response was underwhelming; hopefully people saw it and were interested but just didn’t interact with the post.