Digital Literacy, Part 1: Cadence

What does it mean to be literate in a digital age? While “literacy” conventionally implies reading and writing, we can also apply the concept to new media. By scrutinizing how we use our digital creations, designers can better understand their ability to effect change. It’s been called a publishing platform and a conversation medium, but it’s also been used as a collaborative encyclopedia, a code playground and a canvas for art. Is there anything the web can’t do? And should there be? Analog media (e.g. books, magazines, newspapers) were relatively simple, after all. Everything we needed to know in order to think critically about them came down to reading and writing (or so we believed). But the web is different. Not only does it allow us to create new ideas along existing channels—we can publish and share the digital equivalent of books, magazines, and newspapers, for example—it also allows us to create new channels altogether, such as Twitter. So what does that mean for our conventional definition of literacy? Media theorist Clay Shirky offers a clue. In his foreword to the the book Mediactive, Shirky provides a media-agnostic definition, suggesting that “literacy, in any medium, means not just knowing how to read that medium, but also how to create in it, and to understand the difference between good and bad uses.” This definition resonates with me—indeed, I might go so far as to say it should resonate with all user-centered designers—for not only do we, as designers, strive to understand the way the web is created and consumed, we also wish to understand what it means to create a...