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Wee world of the web in graduate research



By Heidi Wicks

Faculty of Education graduate student Connie Morrison has found a unique way to combine her background in media relations with some of the educational issues she finds the most critical.

Ms. Morrison’s research is linked with popular website www.weeworld.com, which is somewhat of a social networking site for the “tween” generation. On the site, individuals can create an avatar, which is essentially a cartoon version of themselves. The image can be used on various formats, but is meant to be very close to their actual looks and personality.

“This practice of making avatars may be playful, but it also speaks to how adolescents start to perceive themselves and others in society,” said the former reporter and mother of three. “All the things we discuss as English teachers, like audience, purpose, context, voice, aesthetic representation, image, sound – all relates to how kids define their own identity as related to characters in literature.”

She agreed that when people of any age read a book, watch a film or television show, they somehow relate the experiences of the characters to their own life and experiences.

Her study is called Who Do They Think They Are? It’s about avatars, identity, and autobiography, and she’s realizing that WeeWorld and others like it has its flaws, which in turn may have something to say about our society and media’s place within its structure.

“I realized that the weeworld.com program has only six skin tones, for example,” she said. “And one of the girls I was working with had a broken leg at the time and there was no option to include a cast or crutches or anything. Another girl has a very serious medical condition that leaves tumours on her face, so there was no option to show that.”

She wondered if these kinds of programs could factor into the way individuals perceive themselves as ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’, according to society’s standards. Hence, the promoted idea that girls could be whatever they wanted to be was not entirely true due to popular media’s limitations on what is accepted.

“Individuals are shaped by the period in time they’re living in, what’s happening in the economy and world at the time and many other things,” she explained, adding that not many adolescents have this awareness. “If you look at pictures of yourself from 15 years ago, you notice the hairstyles, what you were wearing – those kinds of things. But who decides what kinds of things will be acceptable to wear or not? It’s not really 100% the individual who wears them. There is someone somewhere who decides what is popular.”

Referencing recent media campaigns such as Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty – which stresses the importance of self esteem and accentuates the need for girls to accept themselves just as they are – has its flaws, said Ms. Morrison.
“The irony of the whole Dove campaign was that it was still selling a beauty product. The original product for that campaign was an anti-cellulite cream. So it’s like, ‘We’ll welcome all body sizes, just change yours,’” she chuckled.
Essentially, Ms. Morrison believes that media education should be a more prominent component of the curriculum in Newfoundland schools.

“It’s a graduation requirement in other provinces,” she said. “And here in Newfoundland these issues tend to get lumped in with English courses. I don’t think there’s enough media education in the school system. We are bombarded with media in today’s society, and kids should understand what they are seeing and how it affects how they will see themselves as individuals.”

Ms. Morrison’s research will eventually become a book under the same name (Who Do They Think They Are?) with Peter Lang in New York. As part of the New Literacies and Digital Epistemologies series, the publishing company and author are aiming for a December release.
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