Top Ten Guiding Questions for Critical Digital Literacy

by Julie Frechette, Ph.D.
Reprinted with permission from The Journal of Media Literacy 2014: 61 (1&2): 14–21.

Undoubtedly, the speed and immediacy of technological advancements and mediated information are radically changing the nature of 21st century media and communication. As mobile technology, social media, and converged web content drive the new information economy, media education for a digital generation has become paramount. As media educators committed to fostering critical thinking and informed engagement at all levels of humanity, this article explores how a critical pedagogy of digital education leads us forward into the 21st century as a means to provide meaning and purpose in our classrooms and communities for citizens and individuals to engage in transformative communication.

As part of a longstanding globalized movement, media education for a digital citizenship is predicated upon the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and produce media content and communication in a variety of forms. Rather than teach one-dimensional approaches for using media platforms, media education ofers us a way to become digitally literate by providing us with the tools through which to examine the political, cultural, historical, economic and social ramiications of all media in a holistic way (Frechette, 2002). While many digital literacy approaches overemphasize the end-goal of accessing digital media content through the acquisition of various sotware, apps and analytics, I argue that the goal for comprehensive digital literacy requires grasping the means through which communication is created, deployed, used, and shared, regardless of which platforms or tools are used for meaning making and social interaction.

Drawing upon the intersecting matrices of digital literacy and media literacy, I provide a framework for developing multi-literacies by exploring the necessary skills and competencies for engaging as citizens of the digital world. Speciically, I have formulated a “Top-Ten” list of questions that effectively propel our pedagogical eforts for critical digital literacy forward.

1. What does it mean to be digitally literate in the media age?

Perhaps one of the foremost questions that guides this inquiry pertains to the criteria we use to assess digital literacy in the media age. Despite an unprecedented amount of new digital media content and technology that pervade our lives, few curricular models are poised to comprehensively address the question “What does it mean to be digitally literate in the media age?”

For some, the answer to this question means accessing and using the latest technology and apps to keep up with an ever-changing global market economy. Many who adopt this model find themselves reading Tech Crunch, Gizmodo, or Buzzfeed, or queueing up at the Apple store to get the latest release of a product. Yet I argue that the motivations for such measures uphold a bandwagon effect designed primarily to use technology for its own sake without analyzing the purpose and communication goals associated with using digital tools and platforms. As several scholars have forewarned, the technology industry manufactures a pedagogy of commercialization that prioritizes the acquisition and use of digital technologies for their own sake rather than for transformational possibilities that could emerge from the creative interplay of these forms outside of capital (Fuchs, 2014; Frechette, 2002; Rushkof, 2013).

Unlike technological or capitalist determinists, others would answer the question about digital literacy’s essence by advancing technology’s inherent social possibilities to stimulate the creative production and distribution of content to create self-expression and social connections (Grossman, 2006; Parks, 2011; Rheingold, 1993). I argue for a dialectical approach that carefully questions and examines the beneits of innovative, decentralized digital media that enable self, social and civic participation within a paradigm that values digital media for its transformative potential.

2. What do we mean by social with(in) social media?

If we want to answer the question, “What is social about social media?,” we must examine human agency. As critical cultural studies theorist Christian Fuchs (2014) explains, if we use the classical paradigms of social theory from Emile Durkheim, we would argue that all digital media are social because humans in social relations produce them. Max Weber would stress that in order to be social, behavior requires meaningful symbolic interaction between human agents. A third paradigm of social comes from Karl Marx and Ferdinand Tonnies who maintain that collaboration and cooperation must be articulated within a community where values and goods are owned collectively. The challenge for us is to assess the presence or absence of these types of sociality within each digital medium. For Fuchs, social media are constituted by “Web platforms that enable social networking of people, bring people together to mediate feelings of virtual together- ness and enable collaborative production of digital knowledge” (p. 45).

Although the rise of Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, and Wikipedia ofer collaborative information production, critical digital literacy means asking if virtual social media reduce interpersonal face-to-face sociality, and if so, to what extent and at what cost. An advertisement for Domtar print paper self-servingly conjures up this question in its business slogan by claiming “Paper…because all this social media might be making us less social” (New York Times, March 11, 2014, Business p. 1). I contend that it is not the properties of any medium that determine the social outcomes of communication technologies. Rather, digital literacy requires an assessment of the language of social media that interpolates us through signifiers, such as “fans,” “friends” “social networks,” “likes” and “status updates,” so that we may determine whether networked social interactivity promotes the engagement of meaningful human agency, or attests to our need to feel accepted in a digital culture.

3. In what ways have we moved from a homogenous society to a fragmented one?

In the 1970s pre-Internet culture, sociologist Herbert Gans made a case for the democratic value of cultural pluralism. Speciically, he called for media content that was less homogenized—less dominated by the television networks, large movie and record companies. His work resonated with those who thought media content was too mass oriented and that subcultural programming should accommodate different taste publics regardless of their size and economic standing. Without question, Web 2.0+ now ofers cultural niches of all types for various audiences and fans. Yet followers of the Frankfurt School theorists Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer (1972) would argue that capitalism is using the same digital technology to market niche economies as part of a new Web 2.0+ business model, thereby fragmenting us beyond the ideals of connected society, or as Benedict Anderson would argue, an imagined community. In determining whether shifts in our technological orientations have radically altered our ability to engage in diverse taste publics, or reproduced new forms of homogeneity through more diverse platforms, we need to examine what underlying trends and content prevail within digital landscapes.

As New York Times writer Mike Hale contends, commercial uses of new media oten coopt their social and creative potential:

…entire categories of these new YouTube channels—on pop culture and gossip, music, sports, women’s topics—mostly feel like imitations of what cable outlets like MTV, Spike and Bravo already do: play music videos, assemble talking heads, riff on the news, sell merchandise. There’s a strong infomercial vibe to channels like BeFit, which is produced by Lionsgate and features things like the exercise routines of the stars of “The Hunger Games,” a Lionsgate film (2012).

Despite the hope for more alternative niche markets that break free from the homogeneity resulting from marketing and advertising imperatives, Hale argues that there remains a sameness to digital channels.

“As you click from Red Bull (sports) to Young Hollywood Network (pop culture) to Noisey (music) to American Hipster (just what it sounds like), what’s striking is how they start to blend into one another. They all seem pitched toward the same mythical viewer, presumably the one prized by Internet advertisers, whose mind appears to be occupied with a sticky mix of celebrity gossip, blockbuster movies, video games, zombies, action sports and news of the weird” (2012).

Accordingly, digital literacy must grapple with the varied ways in which fragmentation enhances targeted marketing and fandom groups while re-inscribing formulaic trends in homogenous ways to appeal to commercial trends and algorithmic imperatives (Campbell, Jensen, Gomery, Fabos & Frechette, 2014, pp. 214-215). A reasoned approach to critical digital literacy would require us to dialectically examine and assess present-day beneits and drawbacks that distinctly alter our connections to publics that creatively deviate from, or adhere to, algorithmic trends through online and mobile technology.

laptop user4. How creative and engaged are users of digital media content?

In their book Groundswell, Charlene Li & Josh Bernoff (2011) establish important data sets that provide a benchmark survey of online activity among adults age 18+ in the United States and in Europe. Despite all of the euphoric headlines claiming hyper-interactivity in a digitally literate society (Shiffman, 2008; Shirky, 2008; Jenkins and Ford, 2013), Li and Bernoff present us with a startling reality that documents that less than one-quarter of online U.S. and European consumers are “creators.” Creators are deined as those who publish a blog or their own web pages, upload videos or audio that they create, or post articles/stories that they write. Unlike creators, the majority of online consumers are spectators who do not produce their own original content through digital means, but rather, access online content in order to read other people’s blogs, tweets, online forums, customer ratings and reviews. Those in this category also listen to podcasts or watch other users’ videos rather than curate their own content. Given these findings, a critical pedagogy of digital literacy must inquire about the range and level of creative engagement of online users and content curators before presuming a particular utopian or dystopian view on educational technology. A dialectical approach reduces the likelihood that digital media users will be pinioned between two polar opposites of dualistic thinking that favor either technological determinism or social determinism (O’Sullivan, 2001).

5. What are the benefits and costs of “fun” and “play” in the digital world?

In his trailblazing critique of social media, Christian Fuchs (2014) describes the process of exploitation that defines the relational conditions between contemporary online media producers and distributors. By addressing the ways in which we use today’s digital landscape to produce and consume our own products, Fuchs contends that we are engaging in a form of “play labour” or “playbour” that is un- precedented. In this new virtual playground, Fuchs explains how the “fun” and “play” that we partake in unwittingly enslaves us into producing surplus value labor and proits for large global corporations like Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Unlike the technological determinists who sing the praises of participatory culture (Jenkins, 2006), Fuchs argues that play labour is a form of capitalist exploitation that feels like fun while colonizing our “free” time. Accordingly, given the amount of time and play that define the landscape for “digital natives” (Prensky, 2001), critical digital literacy must include an assessment of the social, physical, psychological and economic costs and beneits of engaging in the digital world. In addition to the vast literature that documents the beneits of social media, a discussion of the labor practices, working conditions, safety violations, and rash of suicides within the Chinese factories that supply Apple’s products would be a necessary part of this conversation. It would allow technology users to assess the benefactors and the subjugated within the digital age (Duhigg & Barboza, 2012; Enloe, 2014; Guglielmo, 2013).

6. What impact will commercialization and consolidation of digital content have on information?

Given the consistent ways in which new media technologies have historically been colonized by capitalist forces over educational ones, critical digital literacy requires an assessment of the fundamental ways in which social uses of media are impacted by the capitalistic goals of profit and productivity. As with the previous framing question, Fuchs (2014) explains how:

corporate social media use capital accumulation models that are based on the exploitation of the unpaid labour of Internet users and on the commodiication of user-generated data and data about user behaviour that is sold as commodity to advertisers. Targeted advertising and economic surveillance are important aspects of this accumulation model (p. 122).

A quick search of social media uses on the Internet generates a host of marketing strategies—from pay-per-click to SEO—that are designed to increase social media profits through trending algorithms and analytics designed to track and capitalize on content producers and distributors. Accordingly, a critical pedagogy of digital literacy mandates a fair and clairvoyant assessment of how digital content is affected by commercial and conglomerate providers of online and mobile networks. Addressing the opening of net neutrality rules that were meant to guarantee an open Internet would be instrumental in helping users of digital media understand the immense lobbying pressure of the corporate telecommunications sector as it seeks to alter the free-flow and equanimity of online data (Free Press).

7. In what ways can Creative Commons promote and enhance collective knowledge publically and affordably?

One of the most important means to maintain the global diversity, creativity and innovation that comes from the sharing of knowledge through digital technology is through the distribution of content for others to access, share, and contribute to. Mashups, memes, cultural jams and remix culture require collaborative file sharing, yet copyright rules oten delimit the potential for affordable collective knowledge to be publicly distributed. Over the last decade, efforts have been underway to make use of distributive networks that allow others to freely or affordably copy, display, perform and remix digital works, provided that original sources are attributed. Founded by Lawrence Lessig eleven years ago, Creative Commons (CC) is the predominant public licensing initiative that provides a way for millions of global content producers to choose a license that meets their goals and allows them to release their work under the terms of that license without registration needed (Lessig, 2014). One of the most prominent social media users to include Creative Commons licensing for their users to share photographs from around the world is Flickr, which contains over 200 million CC-licensed images. As such, critical digital literacy curricula should be based on a praxis of media production and access that honors fair use, public domains, and creative commons as instrumental means to maintain collective knowledge and cultural participation by members of online publics.

8. What about privacy issues?

There are growing concerns about online and mobile privacy issues from two main vantage points: one is from parents, educators and policy makers concerned about young users unassumingly revealing too much about themselves on a host of various platforms; the other is from technology users concerned about surveillance measures designed to hack and exploit their data. A critical pedagogy of digital literacy requires the scrutiny and application of best practices to ensure privacy. While the emphasis of most community-based privacy initiatives is aimed at teaching school-aged children to be wary of revealing their identities or expressing their sexuality through new technologies (i.e. Microsoft, iKeepSafe, and GetPrivacyWise), a more comprehensive analysis of privacy concerns is needed. In addition to learning age-appropriate strategies for protecting online privacy, digital citizenship requires critically analyzing the ways in which governments and commercial online providers like Google and Facebook use surveillance of users and privacy violations to track user likes, purchases, behaviors, trends, and habits for social control or profit.

Arab Spring9. Within a globalized, pluralized, digital-enabled world, are we taking full advantage of our unprecedented access to varieties of taste cultures, political opinions, and world views?

The growth of collaborative participation through crowd-sourcing, peer-to-peer file sharing, and content curation has received much fanfare in the media over the past decade. But equally important to a critical pedagogy of digital literacy is assessing how much progress we have made as individuals and members of social publics in embracing new forms of knowledge and global perspectives on a wide range of important issues. A critical digital literacy approach means asking the diicult question of whether or not we are using each medium for its revolutionary potential (McLuhan’s global village), or whether we are retreating to a homophilic, narcissistic enclave of like-minded friends from our inner circles who like us for what we buy or where we take exotic trips (Christakis and Fowler, 2009; Rushkoff, 2014).

10. How can digital media serve education, democracy and human rights?

While the colonization of digital media by capitalistic forces is predominant, digital media have paved the way for democratic groups and educational movements to thrive, and have ampliied the goals of human rights advocates from around the world. Contemporary social and democratic movements—from the Arab Spring, to Occupy Wall Street, to WikiLeaks—have used file sharing, commons, non-proit fundraising, alternative media, crowd-sourcing and protests to alter dominant political and economic structures of power. Digital apps like Kickstarter draw from crowdsourcing to fund creative cultural content and educational initiatives. In a recent campaign to reintroduce the popular children’s program Reading Rainbow, the show’s former host, LeVar Burton, has used crowdsourced pledges from over 70,000 Kickstarter backers to date, generating $3,315,639 so far to fund the project, a sum far greater than its initial 1 million dollar goal (Burton, 2014).

Another example of democratically oriented digital media convergence is a free iPhone app named Metadata+ that brings to the forefront the remote and underreported consequences of drone killings by the United States military. Originally designed by Josh Begley, the app mirrors iOS’s Messages interface by “displaying the date, location, and victims of each killing; it also shows a map of U.S. drone strikes across the Middle East and Somalia” (Meyer, 2014). By sending users a notiication every time there is a new drone strike, the app aims to bring complex and abstract geopolitical issues into users’ consciousness, and draws upon other projects like the @dronestream Twitter account and Instagram feed to remind users about the daily violence and anxiety of people who live under the wrath of drones.

The #BringBackOurGirls campaign ofers another illustrative example of how viral pressures have led to a global outcry regarding the abduction of 276 Nigerian school girls by the extremist group Boko Haram in May (Kristof, 2014). Using social media tools and sites from, Twitter, Facebook, and the White House website, groups have launched their own counter-strategy to call global attention to the crime and to pressure the Nigerian authorities to intervene.

Social media movements such as these have radically altered the digital landscape by using online networking tools to challenge the inluence of traditional sociopolitical and economic structures. While most mainstream media references focus on individualized and commercial uses of social media in apolitical ways, a critical pedagogy for digital literacy would be well served by addressing the profound ways in which people can use technologies to advance the ideals of democracy and human rights in the 21st century.

anonymousIn conclusion, while the questions herein represent only some modes of inquiry for addressing digital literacy, they offer us important strategies for approaching a critical pedagogy that addresses questions about the political, institutional, economic, and sociocultural practices and ramifications of digital media. As Clay Shirky reminds us, “revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technology, it happens when society adopts new behaviors” (2008). Accordingly, digital citizenship requires a comprehensive multi-literacies education that is founded upon a dialogical and reflective critical inquiry. By questioning the power and inluence of social media and technology in the new millennium, we can become connected and engaged personally, socially and globally in rich and meaningful ways.


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Julie Frechette is Professor of Communication at Worcester State University, in Massachusetts, where she teaches courses on media studies, critical cultural studies, media education, and gender representations. Her book Developing Media Literacy in Cyberspace: Pedagogy and Critical Learning for the Twenty-First-Century Classroom (Praeger Press, 2002) was among the first to explore the multiple literacies approach for the digital age. She is the author of numerous articles and book chapters on media literacy, critical cultural studies, and gender and media. She serves as Co-President of the Action Coalition of Media Education. Dr. Frechette earned her Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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