How Social Media Mobilizes Knowledge within Communities: A Case Study of Latinx Students in Ontario
Looking beyond the traditionally ‘academic’ for knowledge mobilization.
As a social media and cultural researcher, I think my fascination with social media goes without saying. In fact, social media and digital community have become the subject of my graduate research project. Currently, my research centers Latinx students in Ontario, considering the ways they use social media to foster a sense of community online, explore complex topics of identity and promote racial activism amidst a global pandemic. Through my research at the Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship, I am working to understand how we use social media beyond swiping and scrolling and instead, as a vital source of information and connection.
In my research, I have found that Latinx youth in Ontario don’t typically depend on traditionally academic modes of knowledge to situate their cultural understanding, especially when it comes to navigating more personal topics like identity. Instead, we are seeing the diversification of learning spaces, challenging the preconceived norms of information mobilization, or, how and where we give and get our information. In discussing how youth access information more generally, a 2019 SurveyMonkey survey found that more than half of teens get their news from social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The way we share information is adapting to the digital culture, and our information economies are following swiftly along with it.
When we start to think about social media’s role in community building and mobilizing information, there are countless ‘pros’. Some of these positive aspects include the ability to cater your learning according to your interests, opportunities to connect with folks in the digital community, and the agency that comes with having a platform to freely represent yourself. Although, what is probably the most impactful is how accessible information over social media can be. Those who have visited online journals or read larger digital newspapers like the New York Times are guaranteed to have hit a paywall at least once and while compensating writers, researchers and creatives is so vital, the paywall can also create barriers to access based on socio-economic privileges. The language used in journals can often be inaccessible to the general public and thus, we risk leaving out many voices and perspectives when we solely prioritize traditionally academic sources of knowledge.
Many of my research participants have shared that the way in which they learn about the complexities and intersections of Latinx identity and representation is through speaking to and learning from others within the community who share their stories online. These learning methods are increasingly important given Ontario’s multiple stay-at-home orders, leaving many Latinx students turning to the digital to facilitate these communities and conversations that they can’t currently have in person. My research also finds that social media’s adaptive structure allows for ethnographic focuses – conversations surrounding real people, cultures, and customs – all from the unique and diverse perspectives that we risk overlooking and even omitting when we look solely to academic spaces. In the context of the Latin American community, this is especially important as Indigenous, Black, and Afro-Latinx stories, cultures and perspectives have been purposefully erased throughout Latin American and Spanish Caribbean history.
Needless to say, social media as a source of information is becoming quite a force to be reckoned with, so why are we still so hesitant to acknowledge it as such?