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Review of  Understanding Digital Literacies

Reviewer: Chris Blankenship
Book Title: Understanding Digital Literacies
Book Author: Rodney H. Jones Christoph Hafner
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Discourse Analysis
General Linguistics
Issue Number: 24.458

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This short textbook provides a beginner’s introduction to contemporary issues surrounding literacies conducted in and influenced by digital environments and new media technologies. Assuming no prior knowledge of the topic, Jones and Hafner provide a clear and accessible overview of the most relevant issues in digital literacy studies from a sociolinguistic/discourse analytical perspective. In keeping with this introductory framework, every chapter contains resources designed to help with classroom use. Each chapter contains a single case study section which provides more in-depth explanation and analysis of an issue relevant to the chapter topic. Interspersed throughout the chapters are also 2-3 “activities” sections that provide questions for additional discussion, often asking students to relate the theories outlined in the chapter to their own lives. Finally, each chapter concludes with a list of resources that includes not only the references cited by the authors in the text, but lists of web and video sources providing more information on the chapter’s topic of discussion. In addition to these chapter resources, Jones and Hafner provide an extensive glossary of relevant terms at the end of the book along with their full list of references.

Jones and Hafner begin the book with a general introductory chapter entitled “Mediated Me,” which sets up the basic premise that digital tools allow us to do not just old things in new ways, but new things entirely, such as “blogging, mashing, modding, and memeing” (p. 1). To frame these “new things,” the authors use Marshall McLuhan’s (1964) concept of “mediation” and further explain technologies in terms of their “affordances” and “constraints,” particularly five ways in which these aspects of technology impact our lives: “doing,” “meaning,” “relating,” “thinking,” and “being.” This basic conceptual framework continues throughout the rest of the book. This introductory chapter also defines the title term of the book: “for us, ‘digital literacies’ refers to the practices of communicating, relating, thinking, and ‘being’ associated with digital media” (p. 13) and provides examples of how this concept modifies existing literacy practices. The remainder of the volume is split into two sections, the first on digital tools, the technologies that shape our discourse, and the second on digital practices, the impacts that the tools have on our everyday concept of literacy.

The Digital Tools section begins with Chapter 2: “Information Everywhere.” The authors begin this chapter with the assertion that digital technologies have resulted in “information overload” (p. 19), which requires that digitally literate individuals be able to make new decisions about information. After distinguishing between the concepts of “information,” “data,” and “knowledge,” the remainder of the chapter focuses on how to manage information, with sections on organization, networks, filters, and algorithms, focusing this final section on the use of search engines and the various ways to effectively use them and the information they provide.

Chapter 3, “Hyperreading and Hyperwriting,” deals with the ways in which digital tools are influencing the traditional literacy practices of reading and writing. The authors begin with a discussion of internal and external linking practices in hypertexts, emphasizing how hypertextual structures are different from linear or hierarchical structures. Following this discussion, they briefly address the common argument that hypertexts are lowering people’s intelligence, focusing on Nicolas Carr’s book “The Shallows” (2011), where his argument is summarily dismissed as “flawed.” Following this argument, the remainder of the chapter focuses on Web 2.0 technologies, which are tools that allow readers to become participating writers as well: commenting, fan fiction, mashups, and remixing.

Chapter 4 more fully addresses a term introduced in Chapter 3: multimodality. The title may be a bit of a misnomer, however, because the entire chapter focuses on only one additional mode: visual. Though the auditory mode is only briefly mentioned, the authors cover the visual mode extensively, discussing the transition from page to screen, visual layout, visual argumentation, video image progression, and visual-text interaction.

Chapter 5, “Online Language and Social Interaction,” provides an overview of more traditionally linguistic topics of inquiry. This chapter begins with a discussion of how digital tools impact language use, focusing on media richness as an avenue to investigate practices like emoting, abbreviating, and the use of space. The text takes a sociolinguistic turn in the second half of the chapter via a discussion of interaction, identity, and creativity in purely text-based communication.

Chapter 6, “Attention Structures,” focuses on how digital tools impact the way that humans structure and divide their attention, based largely on Richard Lanham’s “The Economics of Attention” (2006). Starting with the common idea of multitasking (also called polyfocality in this chapter), the authors provide examples of how digital technologies require users to divide their attention “across a range of multimodal signs” (p. 85). The authors then return to the concept of information overload, and, using Lanham’s “attention structures,” explain how digital media requires new literacy practices to cope with the many affordances and constraints of polyfocality.

Chapter 7, “Critical Literacy,” focuses on the ways in which digital tools influence our ideologies. Again using the framework of mediation, the authors discuss how digital technologies exert control over humans through affordances/constraints, social practices, accessibility, and usability, while, conversely, how humans exert control over digital technologies through appropriation, adaptation, modding, and mixing. The remainder of the chapter provides further explication of these basic concepts through discussion of language, systems of inclusion/exclusion in creative tools, and relationships as reflected in social media programs. Throughout each of these subsections, the necessary critical literacies associated with each digital tool are also described.

The book’s second section, Digital Practices, begins with Chapter 8, “Online Cultures and Intercultural Communication.” This chapter discusses the different kinds of online affinity spaces afforded by digital technologies and the cultures-of-use that grow within these spaces. Much of the chapter is spent outlining the discourse systems that arise within these groups and providing examples of the myriad of communities that can exist, with their own systems of communication and ideologies. At the end of the chapter, the authors broaden the scope of the discussion to consider how digital practices have changed intercultural communication, particularly between native speakers of different languages.

Chapter 9, “Games, Learning, and Literacy,” outlines the ways in which the medium of video games can provide a space for new practices of learning. Combining concepts of multimodality and hypertextuality from previous chapters, the authors discuss the ways in which video games promote new ways of reading and writing, both within the games themselves and in other online spaces devoted to the games. Using the game Spore as an example, the authors look at story structure and visual interface as new methods of meaning making. Outside of the game itself, the authors consider fan interaction in the construction of “game manuals, walkthroughs, fan modifications, and fan machinima” (p. 134). The latter two of these practices involve the manipulation of the game itself to create new games or the use of the game’s visual components to create new video. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of the impact of games on identity and a final section synthesizing all of the concepts into a discussion of games and learning in general.

Chapter 10, “Social Networking,” covers the digital practices surrounding not just the ubiquitous Facebook, but also Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn, and Google+. Jones and Hafner contend that while sites like Facebook are not changing the nature of friendship, they are, however, changing the nature of how people connect with one another. These connections form not just by personal interests but by associations, which is similar to the hypertextual manner of organization described in Chapter 3. It is in this way that clusters of people are bridged with other clusters, forming connections that the authors describe as “weak ties,” which can become “strong weak ties” when such a connection proves helpful in some way. With this new way of connecting, identity becomes more important, and the authors discuss how the ways in which we present ourselves can impact our privacy and be a motive for corporate profit.

Chapter 11, “Collaboration and Peer Production,” revisits the topics of reading and writing from the first section of the book from the point of view of digital practices. Much of the chapter is devoted to outlining the ways in which new technologies, such as Google Docs and wikis, are changing collaborative practices from sequential or parallel writing processes to reciprocal processes where writers can work on the same document concurrently. This process also involves commenting on and editing others’ work. Beyond immediate collaboration, the authors also provide a detailed discussion of wikis, outlining the advantages and disadvantages of mass peer production and crowd sourcing, including the problematic nature of the authorship, ownership, and accuracy of texts produced in this manner.

The final chapter, “Digital Literacies at Work,” outlines the ways in which digital technologies are transforming the workplace. Using the phrase “the new work order” to signify these changes, the authors discuss knowledge-based economies, distribution of workers over long distances, telecommuting, the preference for self-managed teams over vertical hierarchies, and the increasingly tenuous link between employer and employee. After describing these transformations, the authors then look to the advantages and disadvantages of this “new work order” and determine, as the reader may expect, that the advantages outweigh the potential pitfalls. The chapter then shifts focus to the individual worker, looking at how skill with digital media and social networking can be beneficial to those seeking employment and advancement within this new work order.

The book concludes with a very brief afterword that brings the reader back to the concept of the “mediated me” from the first chapter. The authors emphasize here that, given the participatory nature of digital media tools and practices, it is up to the individual to understand and critically evaluate the impact that these technologies are having upon our world.


As an introductory text for students, I found “Understanding Digital Literacies” to be impressively broad in the information that it provides while not oversimplifying the complex issues covered. Of course, much more could be said about any of the topics in this short book, but the general overview that it provides of the field of digital literacy practices is quite helpful, if not comprehensive. Though Jones and Hafner cover many relevant popular sources in the text, the scholarly sources are almost exclusive to the general discipline of linguistics, despite the interdisciplinary nature of digital literacy studies. As a reader coming from a rhetoric and writing studies background, I found a conspicuous absence of many scholars who are, in my opinion, indispensable for many of these topics. Where are Jay Bolter and Stuart Selber in the discussion of digital and critical literacy? Ian Bogost on gaming? Cynthia Selfe and Gail Hawisher on collaborative writing? Anne Wysocki and Johndan Johnson-Eilola on multimodal composition?

However, the disciplinarity of this book could be considered a strength as well. Coming from a different field of study, I found myself learning a great deal about researchers whose interests align with my own, yet I’ve never encountered due to my own disciplinary focus. For that reason, this book can be a valuable introduction to another facet of digital studies.

Additionally, I found Jones and Hafner’s text to be particularly accessible as a textbook. The chapters are short and easy to manage for students unfamiliar with the subject matter, yet rich enough to provide plenty of material for class discussions or research papers. I also found the activities given throughout the chapters particularly versatile as in-class discussion questions, small group conversation starters, or homework prompts. And I can’t speak highly enough of the end of chapter web and video sources. From mashup videos to TED talks, these resources are relevant, interesting, and useful in demonstrating the many principles of digital literacy that the authors cover throughout the book.

Ultimately, I would recommend “Understanding Digital Literacies” to any teacher seeking a textbook for an introductory course on the topic of digital literacy. Combined with other texts more firmly rooted in other disciplines like rhetoric and writing studies, this book would also make a valuable contribution to advanced undergraduate or graduate courses that provide a multidisciplinary perspective on this complex and widely researched issue.


Carr, N. (2011). The shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains. New York: Norton.

Lanham, R. (2006). The economics of attention: Style and substance in the age of information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man, 1st edition, New York: McGraw Hill; reissued MIT Press, 1994, with introduction by Lewis H. Lapham; reissued by Gingko Press, 2003.
Chris Blankenship is an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition in the Department of English, Modern Languages, and Journalism at Emporia State University. His research focuses on argumentation pedagogy, digital rhetoric, and writing assessment. His current projects include work on conceptual metaphoric framing of argumentation in first-year writing courses and professional development of contingent faculty in writing assessment.

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