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Tracing Memes in Storify
Megan Varelmann Gianfagna
Screen shot of Storify home page
In this assignment, students use the free online program Storify to track the life of a meme by combining elements pulled from social and news media sources.
I've used this assignment in two different ways. The first time I taught the course, I used it as an outlining exercise. The second time I taught the course, I allowed students to use Storify as the platform for the essay itself. The outlining exercise can easily transition into a larger assigment. Originally, this assignment was meant to serve as both an invention and an outlining exercise for students as they prepared to write their first essay, where they map the similarities and differences among three iterations of a meme in terms of media, venue, exigence, purpose, audience, and message. This in-class project as well as the more formal essay are two ways of achieving one of the larger course goals: to have students look beyond individual platforms and investigate—through emerging multimedia composing practices—the broader, interconnected digital media landscape.
Computer with internet connection
RHE 309K - Rhetoric of Going Viral - an intermediate writing course.
In the context of my course, Rhetoric of Going Viral, the focus is on tracking a meme across multiple iterations, creating a sort of metacommentary on the way it has changed across media and time. I require that students integrate at least three “primary” texts, or iterations of their meme, as well as at least one contextual source to help the reader understand the meme’s origin, impact, etc.
The Storify interface allows students to search Twitter, YouTube, Google, Facebook, Flickr, the Storify site, and RSS feeds. Then they can drag the texts, images, and videos they find in the research window into their story. They can add commentary and rearrange elements as they go. At the top, they can add a title and a summary of their story. When they’re satisfied with their work, they can publish their story and share the link on a blog or social media platform.
In the class period before students are scheduled to complete the assignment, I recommend sharing a few Storify pieces and discussing the assignment requirements. For homework, I have students select primary texts and contextual sources, though many do additional research as they are composing. Students will also need to create a Twitter account to log in.
The day of, students might spend the first 10 minutes of class getting signed in and walking through the basic features of the interface. There are also screencasts available on the Storify if you’d like to have students watch a tutorial prior to beginning their projects.
In Research Summary 1 and 2, you have practiced locating, summarizing and contextualizing online texts. As you move into Essay 1.1, you will create a multimedia narrative to help generate ideas and guide your writing. Using Storify, you will illustrate the relationships among the three primary texts you plan to use in essay 1.1. Your story should include three “primary” texts, or iterations of the meme, as well as contextual information about its origin, popularity, reactions it has caused, etc. You can organize your narrative chronologically or according to publication venue, message, topoi, or stakeholders. Remember that your primary goal is to give your reader insight into the relationships among these texts, so you will want to organize them in a way that makes those relationships most visible and gives your reader ample opportunity to note important overlaps and differences. Keep in mind that your map needs to include enough information and visual cues that it can be read and understood as a stand-alone narrative (that is, without the aid of additional explanation from you to me or your classmates). When you’re finished, you will publish your piece to your class blog.
You have two options for the first assignment: a traditional essay of about 3 pages (this option can include embedded images and other multimedia elements or not) OR a Storify piece that fulfills all objectives of the assignment. If you choose the Storify option, you will need to sign up for a free account or sign in with your Twitter or Facebook login. The platform allows you to pull text, images and video from news and social media sites and integrate them into a narrative. You can add commentary and transitions to complete the story of the meme you’re mapping. Here is a demo/tour of the site’s capabilities.
For your first major project, you will trace the life of an event or argument, placing it in a specific socio-historical context and noting how its rhetorical features change and evolve as it moves through multiple media platforms or iterations over time. To do so, find three digital or physical texts (blog posts, videos, news coverage, op-eds, tattoos, T-shirts, posters, etc.) responding to a common exigence and talk in-depth about the sequence in which these texts appeared, the venues in which they are presented, and how the representation of the idea changes according to media and genre. You will be required to include at least 4 sources (3 of which will be the texts themselves and the other of which might be contextual information from a website or article).
Your purpose in this essay/Storify piece is to map out the various texts or versions of a single text you've chosen, clearly describing each one and then highlighting the relationships among them. Do not argue for which of the texts is “best,” but rather articulate as neutrally as possible what each says and what its relationship is to the other texts.
One way to maintain a neutral stance is to give each text equal space and attention in your paper, giving each the opportunity to present its message from its own perspective when possible. Be sure to attribute statements to their original speakers or organizations: phrases such as "According to. . ." and "As stated by. . ." along with verbs that indicate that someone has stated a particular position, such as argues, advocates, asserts and contends will indicate that the argument you are presenting is not necessarily your own.
Your audience for this essay will be concerned and interested but not particularly informed citizens who are looking to you to provide an unbiased lay of the land. With that in mind, you will want to provide enough background information to allow them to follow the conversation but not so much detail that it overwhelms your primary purpose.
- You'll want to sketch out the basics of what your three texts have in common and provide brief but informative descriptions of their form and content. You can draw heavily on your annotated bibliography for this information. For example, if they are all responding in different ways to a common exigence, you may want to explain what event(s) or cultural moment led to the creation of these texts. For each of the three individual texts, you'll want to tell your audience who created them, where and when they appeared, who they are targeted towards, and what message they send or position they take. Provide a clear timeline and sense of how the three texts relate to each other.
- You'll want to compare how the texts have responded similarly or differently to the event or idea that spurred their creation. As you do so, you'll want to indicate who the stakeholders are (as well as what each source's stake is) and points of intersection and diversion among their responses. Your comparison (or perhaps the essay/Storify piece itself) should begin with a polished claim summarizing the main similarities and differences—a thesis. If you're discussing one meme that has appeared in multiple contexts, you'll want to focus on any ways it has changed or how it is being used or regarded differently on each site.
- Document your sources according to the MLA or APA documentation guidelines.
I use the Learning Record, so individual assignments do not receive grades. Rather, I comment on the Storify projects and students later draw on those comments when composing midterm and final evaluations of their performance in the class.
My experience has been that students really love the Storify interface and need very little instruction to create their projects. Many students commented that they felt the texts they were working with were more visible, more immediately available to them as they were writing in Storify than in Word, and so their arguments emerged with less difficulty. As a reader, I found the Storify outlines and essays very engaging.