Truth or stories in the age of social media – a millennial approach

Kids These Days: Media Representation vs Lived Reality, a talk by Katie Warfield, Ph.D., professor of communications and cultural studies at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU), will be held on March 12 at the TELUS World of Science as part of the KPU & Science World Speaker Series.

Focusing on how social media platforms experience a rise of counter narratives that challenge the way mainstream media writes about others, Warfield hopes to address dominant discourses that center around millennials, technology and new media. By doing so, she intends to draw distinctions between what is deemed to be true and what are nothing more than stories.

The rise of counter publics

Warfield provides her critique on the classical notion of a ‘public.’

“The work of Nancy Fraser [Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy and Politics at the New School for Social Research] and Michael Warner [Ph.D. Seymour H. Knox Professor of English, Professor of American Studies, and Chair of the Department of English, with diverse interests in colonial and antebellum America, social theory, media studies, queer theory and politics] have deeply critiqued the issues with classic ideas that the ‘public’ is a space of free speech and the free flow of ideas. Being in the ‘public view’ and being ‘viewed positively’ had always been a privilege,” she says.

Sorting out the truth from stories.

She goes on to note the irony behind this classic view by explaining that despite the public being deemed an arena for unrestricted flow of speech and ideas, it is still a very controlled process governed by institutions like media, law, policy, etc. As a result, who and what are being made seen and who gains the privilege of being in a ‘public’ is always under the control of these institutions. Hence, a counter-public, one that is not part of the space governed by these mainstream institutions and one that does not have the privilege to exist within a mainstream public space, arises.

“Counter publics exist as a result of not being present in the mainstream realm. They exist because public space is a realm of privilege. Counter publics exist to make demands on dominant systems to change and incorporate the needs of diverse audience and diverse publics moving beyond the assumption that there is one unified homogenous public in society,” she says.

Kids these days

Warfield highlights some of the main stereotypes of millennials that she comes across in her studies.

“For several years I’ve been studying youth practices and social media, and when I tell people this is what I study, their immediate reactions are always paternalistic and patronizing towards young people: ‘Oh, young people are always on social media,” she says. “They need to get out more in nature. They are so solitary. They don’t know how to communicate.’”

In response to these notions, Warfield replies that the talk will first address that these perceptions of the ‘younger generation’ are not new at all.

“We had the same fears about young people when TV came about – radio, rock and roll music, the telephone, and even bicycles! The horror!” she exclaims. “These discourses [about the younger generation], are really about power, and change is always portrayed as a threat to discourses.”

Warfield says her talk will include three specific case studies – conducted by her – and will have a focus on the youth exchanging or showing pictures of their body via texts, sexts, selfies and how these practices are considered maligned these days.

Fact vs fiction

Warfield is also the director of the Visual Media Workshop at KPU, where she conducts empirical research on youth culture and the sharing of visuals on social media. Her digital story telling programs aim to empower people to create more counter narratives that challenge dominant ones, while her talk intends to motivate people to think critically of themselves.

“We are often ascribed to ‘unwilling roles’ because of identifiable aspects of our identities, like it or not: we become the ditzy blonde, the flamboyant queer guy, the Muslim terrorist, the super smart Asian student,” she says. “These roles are the result of the stories we tell but the stories aren’t just passive and unaffecting. They deeply affect us; they affect how people treat us, how we see ourselves, what we permit ourselves to do and to become and more. I see it every time we run the program.”

Warfield says that through her work she is able to empower others, to help them feel strong enough to support their vulnerability.

“There is something life changing about the practice of writing yourself into being, rather than having your life scripted for you.”

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