Gonzaga Professor Silvestri Explores How Social Media Has Transformed Soldiers’ Experiences of War
‘Friended at the Front: Social Media in the American War Zone’
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As social media has grown to become a ubiquitous part of contemporary American culture, scholars are studying its capacities for both good and ill. Lisa Ellen Silvestri, assistant professor of communication studies at Gonzaga University, explores how Facebook and YouTube have transformed soldiers’ experiences at the frontlines of war in her book, “Friended at the Front: Social Media in the American War Zone” (2015, University Press of Kansas).

In a major shift in the wartime experience of American soldiers, their loved ones and the public, Facebook and other social media now offer troops the ability to instantly communicate to their networks of family and friends that they are alive, notes Silvestri, who earned a Ph.D. in communication studies from the University of Iowa.

Informed by in-person interviews and online fieldwork with Marines, Silvestri’s book documents how new media have impacted the attitudes and behaviors of troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. The book also reviews the military’s developing guidelines for social media use – including some of its complications – and explores the current relationship between American soldiers and their social media pages from the frontlines of war.

Silvestri grew up in Philadelphia, the daughter of a Vietnam War veteran who was drafted in 1966.

“I grew up in that stereotypical Vietnam household where we just didn’t really talk about it,” said Silvestri, whose research centers on American politics and popular culture with a special focus on war and emergent communication technologies. “But it was something you could feel.”

Her brother Jason enlisted in ROTC at Penn State University, graduated in 1999 as an officer, and received a scholarship to attend medical school. He was deployed to Iraq in 2005 and Afghanistan in 2013. Through some of the experiences of her father and brother, Silverstri developed a deep interest in war and how communication impacts military personnel.

She interviewed 30 Marines from bases in Okinawa, Japan and Camp Pendleton in San Diego, California, and studied the Facebook pages of nine Marines. Through her interactions with American soldiers both at home and overseas, Silvestri learned that turning a human story into a book is both difficult and emotionally taxing.

“The emotional toll of working with people is really hard,” Silvestri said. “People are so messy and unpredictable, and also they are so fragile and beautiful. To try and represent them in 12 point Times New Roman is really difficult to do.”

At Gonzaga, Silvestri brings her expertise in social media and the digital age to her students – encouraging them to find their “unique voice” through the growing array of digital tools to present and analyze their ideas.

“We’re all journalists to some degree with our cameras,” said Silvestri, who combines her experience with communication theories to teach students how to become proficient consumers and creators of quality digital information.

“It comes directly out of my experience of writing this book, because I know that I had something unique, and that gave me a unique perspective and a unique voice. And it helped me write. So I’m trying to get my students to embrace that as well,” she said.

During her students’ finals presentations last semester, Silvestri saw everything from the ways in which emoticons stifle emotional vocabulary to examples of how the Dark Knight and Batman reflect political policies on terrorism. She is pleased to see her students find their perspective through trial and error, much like she has done. She’s especially proud to see them looking for ways to use their skills and education to help others – in the centuries-old Jesuit tradition.

“The students here are so invested, and they don’t just want to succeed, they really want to understand it so they can be men and women for others,” said Silvestri.