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Ryan M. Milner (College of Charleston)

Ryan M. Milner

Ryan M. Milner
Image Credit: Heather Moran, College of Charleston

Fellow in Research Area 4: "Literary Currencies"

June 2022

Platform as Genre in Social Media Storytelling

Social media platforms are storytelling hubs. Reddit’s got walls of text. Twitter offers threaded replies. TikTok blurs word, sound, and video into hybrid expression. Tumblr encourages dynamic, decontextual call and response. And on LinkedIn, users are “thrilled to announce” their next professional move. On each of these platforms, posters - and repliers and commenters and sharers - aren’t just telling stories, they’re performing identities. And they’re not just performing identities, they’re adapting those performances to the conventions prevalent on the platforms they’re using. This is because social media platforms aren’t neutral stages for unfettered speech; they’re communicative genres—ones with poetics and aesthetics and politics like all genres.

The conventions, tropes and motifs of these genres emerge from a combination of social norms, technological affordances and individual style. All three shape the stories told on different platforms. They’re memetic, in other words, driven by the logics at the heart of social media participation. By comparing expression on different platforms - and by examining what happens when stories from one platform are captured, copied and spread to another - we can better assess the storytelling hubs so significant to contemporary self-expression.

And significant to political and cultural participation. Online storytelling hubs produce playful and performative texts, but performance and play aren’t all fun and games. Reddit’s walls of text argue for gender roles. Twitter’s threaded replies shape electoral priorities. TikTok’s hybrid expressions influence views on mental health. The generic conventions that guide these massive social platforms, with all their massive significance, provide context for every individual expression they contain. Understanding the latter requires understanding the former. To understand platform, one needs to understand genre.

Ryan M. Milner is an associate professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at the College of Charleston. He studies internet culture, which means he studies everything from funny GIFs to Twitter debates to large scale propaganda campaigns. Across this work, he examines how online interaction matters socially, politically and culturally. He’s the author and co-author of four books, including The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media, The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online,and You Are Here: A Field Guide to Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape. His newest book, Thinking Ecologically about Social Media: Connection, Consequence, and Shared Responsibility, is forthcoming in 2023 from MITeen Press. Written for middle grades readers, the book adapts Ryan’s work for people just beginning to delve into life online. Ryan has also contributed commentary to outlets like TIMESlate, the Los Angeles Review of Books, NBC News and the New York Times.