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The Changing Nature and Uses of Media Literacy

  • Sonia Livingstone

Abstract

The more that information and communication technologies become central to modern society, the more it is imperative to identify, and to manage the development of, the skills and abilities required to use them. Within both academic and policy discourses, the concept of media literacy is being extended from its traditional focus on print and audiovisual media to encompass the internet and other new media. Hence, even though the concept of literacy has itself long proved contentious, there is widespread speculation regarding supposedly new forms of literacy - variously termed computer literacy, internet literacy, cyber-literacy, and so forth.

The present article addresses three central questions currently facing the public, policy-makers and academy: What is media literacy? How is it changing? And what are the uses of literacy? The article begins with a definition: media literacy is the ability to access, analyse, evaluate and create messages across a variety of contexts. This four-component model is then examined for its applicability to the internet, as follows:

  • Access rests on a dynamic and social process, not a one-off act of provision. Once initial access is established, developing literacy leads users to alter significantly and continually the conditions of access (updating, upgrading and extending hardware and software applications). Problematically, given socio-demographic inequalities in material, social and symbolic resources, inequalities in access to online knowledge, communication and participation will continue.
  • People's engagement with both print and audiovisual media has been shown to rely on a range of analytic competencies. In the audiovisual domain these include an understanding of the agency, categories, technologies, languages, representations and audiences for media. At present, not only is a parallel account of internet-related analytic skills highly underdeveloped but the public has yet to develop such skills and so to make the most of online opportunities.
  • There is little point in access or analysis without judgement, but a stress on evaluation raises, rightly, some difficult policy questions when specifying and legitimating appropriate bases of critical literacy - aesthetic, political, ideological and/or economic. The scope and purpose of evaluation is also disputed: is media literacy intended to promote a democratised, diverse, anti-elitist approach to online representations or should it underpin a more traditional, hierarchical discrimination of good from bad, authoritative from unauthorised, information and communication?
  • Although not all definitions of media literacy include the requirement to create, to produce symbolic texts, it is argued first, that people attain a deeper understanding of the conventions and merits of professionally produced material if they have direct experience of content production and second, that the internet par excellence is a medium which offers hitherto unimagined opportunities for ordinary people to create online content. To exclude this from a definition of media literacy would be to greatly under-utilise the potential of the internet for the public.

Having advocated this skills-based approach to media literacy in relation to the internet, the article identifies some outstanding issues for new media literacy, crucial to any policy of promoting media literacy among the population.

First, while insights from print and audiovisual media provide a valuable starting point, the literacy required for the use of new media, especially the internet, is also new in ways yet to be established. This is because media literacy is not reducible to a feature or skill of the user, but is better understood as a co-production of the interactive engagement between technology and user. Consequently, literacy is dependent on interface design and it changes as technology changes.

Second, the article examines the institutional interests at stake in promoting media literacy. Is media literacy intended to promote ideals of self-actualisation, cultural expression and aesthetic creativity or are these subordinate to the use of literacy to achieve a competitive advantage vital to a globalised information society? Or, is media literacy, like print literacy before it, conceived as the key means, even a right, by which citizens participate in society and by which the state regulates the manner and purposes of citizens' participation?

In conclusion, it is argued that literacy concerns the historically and culturally conditioned relationship among three processes: (i) the symbolic and material representation of knowledge, culture and values; (ii) the diffusion of interpretative skills and abilities across a (stratified) population; and (iii) the institutional, especially, the state management of the power that access to and skilled use of knowledge brings to those who are 'literate'.

This relationship among textuality, competence and power is grounded in a centuries-old struggle between enlightenment and critical scholarship, setting those who see literacy as democratising, empowering of ordinary people against those who see it as elitist, divisive, a source of inequality. Debates over literacy are, in short, debates about the manner and purposes of public participation in society. Without a democratic and critical approach to media literacy, the public will be positioned merely as selective receivers, consumers of online information and communication. The promise of media literacy, surely, is that it can form part of a strategy to reposition the media user - from passive to active, from recipient to participant, from consumer to citizen.

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