(Digital) Identity in a World that No Longer Forgets

This post was written jointly with Alec Couros and also appears on his blog.

In recent weeks, the topic of digital identity has been at the forefront of our minds. With election campaigns running in both Canada and the United States, we see candidate after candidate’s social media presence being picked apart, with past transgressions dragged into the spotlight for the purposes of public judgement and shaming. The rise of cybervigilantism has led to a rebirth of mob justice: what began with individual situations like the shaming of Justine Sacco has snowballed into entire sites intended to publicize bad online behaviour with the aim of getting people fired. Meanwhile, as the school year kicks into high gear, we are seeing evidence of the growing focus on digital identity among young people, including requests for our interning pre-service teachers to teach lessons about digital citizenship.

All this focus on digital identity raises big questions around the societal expectations about digital identity (i.e. that it’s sanitized and mistake-free) and the strategies that are typically used to meet those expectations. When talking to young people about digital identity, a typical approach is to discuss the importance of deleting negative artefacts and replacing them with a trail of positive artefacts that will outweigh these seemingly inevitable liabilities. Thus, digital identity has, in effect, become about gaming search results by flooding the Internet with the desired, palatable “self” so that this performance of identity overtakes all of the others.

But our current strategies for dealing with the idea of digital identity are far from ideal. From a purely practical perspective, it is basically impossible to erase all “negatives” from a digital footprint: the Internet has the memory of an elephant, in a sense, with cached pages, offline archives, and non-compliant international service providers. What’s more, anyone with Internet access can contribute (positively or negatively) to the story that is told about someone online (and while Europe has successfully lobbied Google for the “right to be forgotten” and to have certain results hidden in search, that system only scratches the surface of the larger problem and initiates other troubling matters). In most instances, our digital footprints remain in the control of our greater society, and particularly large corporations, to be (re)interpreted, (re)appropriated, and potentially misused by any personal or public interest.

And beyond the practical, there are ethical and philosophical concerns as well. For one thing, if we feel the need to perform a “perfect” identity, we risk silencing non-dominant ideas. A pre-service teacher might be hesitant to discuss “touchy” subjects like racism online, fearing future repercussions from principals or parents. A depressed teenager might fear that discussing her mental health will make her seem weak or “crazy” to potential friends or teachers or employers and thus not get the support she needs. If we become mired in the collapsed context of the Internet and worry that our every digital act might someday be scrutinized by someone, somewhere, the scope of what we can “safely” discuss online is incredibly narrow and limited to the mainstream and inoffensive.

And this view of digital identity also has implications for who is able to say what online. If mistakes are potentially so costly, we must consider who has the power and privilege to take the risk of speaking out against the status quo, and how this might contribute to the further marginalization and silencing of non-dominant groups.

In a world where forgetting is no longer possible, we might instead work towards greater empathy and forgiveness

 Our current strategy for dealing with digital identity isn’t working. And while we might in the future have new laws addressing some of these digital complexities (for instance, new laws are currently being proposed around issues of digital legacy) such solutions will never be perfect, and legislative changes are slow. Perhaps, instead, we might accept that the Internet has changed our world in fundamental ways and recognize that our societal mindset around digital missteps must be adjusted in light of this new reality: perhaps, in a world where forgetting is no longer possible, we might instead work towards greater empathy and forgiveness, emphasizing the need for informed judgment rather than snap decisions.

So what might that look like? The transition to a more forgiving (digital) world will no doubt be a slow one, but one important step is making an effort to critically examine digital artefacts before rendering judgment. Below, we list some key points to consider when evaluating problematic posts or other content.

Context/audience matters: We often use the “Grandma rule” as a test for appropriateness, but given the collapsed context of the online world, it may not be possible to participate fully in digital spaces if we adhere to this test. We should ask: What is the (digital) context and intended audience for which the artefact has been shared? For instance, was it originally posted on a work-related platform? Dating site? Forum? News article? Social network? Was the communication appropriate for the platform in which it was originally posted?

Intent matters: We should be cognizant of the replicability of digital artefacts, but we should also be sure to consider intent. We should ask: Was the artefact originally shared privately or anonymously? Was the artefact intended for sharing in the first place? How did the artefact come to be shared widely? Was the artefact made public through illegal or unethical means?

History matters: In face to face settings we typically don’t unfriend somebody based on one off-colour remark; rather we judge character based on a lifetime of interactions. We should apply the same rules when assessing a digital footprint: Does the artefact appear to be a one time thing, or is it part of a longer pattern of problematic content/behaviour? Has there been a sincere apology, and is there evidence that the person has learned from the incident? How would we react to the incident in person? Would we forever shame the person or would we resolve the matter through dialogue?

Authorship matters: Generations of children and teenagers have had the luxury of having their childhoods captured only by the occasional photograph, and legal systems are generally set up to expunge most juvenile records. Even this Teenage Bill of Rights from 1945 includes the “right to make mistakes” and the “right to let childhood be forgotten.” We should ask: When was the artefact posted? Are we digging up posts that were made by a child or teenager, or is this a recent event? What level of maturity and professionalism should we have expected from the author at the time of posting?

Empathy matters: Finally, we should remember to exercise empathy and understanding when dealing with digital missteps. We should ask: Does our reaction to the artefact pass the hypocrite test? Have we made similar or equally serious mistakes ourselves but been lucky enough to have them vanish into the (offline) ether? How would we wish our sons, daughters, relatives, or friends to be treated if they made the same mistake? Are the potential consequences of our (collective) reaction reasonable given the size and scope of the incident?

This type of critical examination of online artefacts, taking into consideration intent, context, and circumstance, should certainly be taught and practiced in schools, but it should also be a foundational element of active, critical citizenship as we choose candidates, hire employees, and enter into relationships. As digital worlds signal an end to forgetting, we must decide as a society how we will grapple with digital identities that are formed throughout the lifelong process of maturation and becoming. If we can no longer simply “forgive and forget,” how might we collectively develop a greater sense of digital empathy and understanding?
So what do you think? What key questions might you add to our list? What challenges might this emerging framework provide for digital citizenship in schools and in our greater society? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

In online spaces, silence speaks as loudly as words

Last week, as I taught my final #ECMP355 class for the semester, the topic of discussion came back to social justice (as it often seems to in my class, a tendency for which I am not at all apologetic). Because I work with pre-service teachers, we often discuss concerns around online identity; many of my students are worried about maintaining a “neutral” online persona because they fear that being controversial will make them unhireable in the future or could come back on them negatively in some other way.

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Here’s my take on this, and what I said to my students: Silence speaks just as loudly as words. If we are online, as educators, and we remain silent about issues of social justice, if we tweet only about educational resources and not about the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in Canada, or about the burning of Black churches in the southern United States, we are sending a clear message: These issues are not important.  

Edtech, at its very core, is about privilege.

When I said this to my class, one of my generally quieter students commented in the chat, “This conversation makes me happy. Because I contemplate this EVERY DAY.” Such a simple comment, but one that I have been thinking about ever since. Technology in education is about so much more than gadgets and tools or about the latest backchannel app. Edtech, at its very core, is about privilege. We preach the virtues of universal access to knowledge, but who really gets to be involved in edtech? Those with access to technology and good quality Internet, those who have the educational background to comprehend the material, those with the time to devote to studying. That I am able to sit down and write this post, that I have the time to tweet, that I have access to the tools that make these things possible: these are markers of privilege.

So here’s my argument: I have a responsibility to use my privilege to speak out and use my network for more than just my own benefit or self-promotion; not doing so is a selfish act. Being a good digital citizen is about so much more than being safe and responsible online. It’s about participating in meaningful ways to promote equity in networked spaces. This is especially true for those with significant online audiences: we cannot let silence speak for us, and we can no longer cling to cliches or educational buzzwords as safe topics of conversation.

As I was finishing up this post, I saw this tweet from Alec Couros:

For me, the answer is simple:

We have a responsibility to risk our privilege to give voice to social inequities and injustices. We have a responsibility to risk our privilege to give voice to those who have no privilege to risk.

“Being nice doesn’t cut it anymore:” Conversations with pre-service teachers

Last week, I finally finished my research interviews. Yay…I think?

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Qualitative research is a funny thing. After spending 4 or 5 hours with each of these students, I feel that I’ve gotten to know them pretty well. Over the past few months, I have been constantly overwhelmed by my research participants’ incredible insights and the amazing generosity they have shown with their time, meeting with me in the midst of their busy semesters. And now that it’s over, I feel a little lost and wish I could keep having these conversations (and I do have them, sometimes, but there’s something about that sacred time designated to nothing but the interviews).

Now that I’ve finished my interviews, I’ve started listening to the recordings, making notes, and going over the writing I did throughout the process. And I have just one word: “Data.” Here’s some of what I’ve thought about based on just a few of the first round of interviews.

This first round of conversations was geared towards developing biographical profiles of my participants, but already I am overwhelmed by the richness of the data that I have gathered. Because my research is about the ways that anti-oppressive education intersects with digital identity and digital spaces, these conversations delved into what Kevin Kumashiro terms “troubling knowledge” in his book Against Common Sense. We explored students’ childhoods, experiences with racism, feelings about the social justice-oriented curriculum in our Faculty of Education, and thoughts about teaching as a profession.

As I got to know each of the students better, their descriptions of their formative years were punctuated by moments of tension, discomfort, and realization. One student, describing her rural-Saskatchewan upbringing, told about how her mother would tell her and her siblings to go into a back bedroom and lock the door because an aboriginal person was at the door. Another thanked me for the difficult questions, noting that she had never thought about her earliest experiences of racism. A third student, attempting to describe what she felt she needed to be a successful teacher, went through a series of answers, each time unpacking and revising her responses as she questioned how her thinking might be oppressive or problematic, and finally settling on the idea that there was no perfect answer and that searching for one was a product of her own conditioning.

To be a good teacher, “being nice doesn’t cut it anymore.”

Several things became clear in just these initial conversations. First, I was struck by the degree to which these students have embraced and committed to the idea of anti-oppressive education. One student noted that she has learned, in the past 2 years, that to be a good teacher, “being nice doesn’t cut it anymore.” Even when students’ initial reactions to a question were clearly influenced by dominant narratives of race, the students were able to identify these patterns in their own thinking when I pressed for clarification. For instance, one student, when asked whether she still saw racism in the program, immediately drew on the discourse of reverse-racism/sexism and noted that Aboriginal students and men were more likely to be accepted into the faculty; however, when I asked her a follow up question on this, she began to unpack her motivations for saying this. Clearly, we are doing something right in this program. Of course, I need to keep in mind the type of student who is actually willing to volunteer for research about anti-oppressive education, and I need to consider the degree to which my participants (many of whom are self-described teacher-pleasers) are taking up the role of good student and giving the “correct” answer.

I also noticed the significant amount of tension around teaching anti-oppressively and fears around job-loss or negative repercussions due to creating too much of a stir. Much of this stems, I believe, from what Deborah Britzman would describe as the common-sense discourse of the “good teacher” as neutral and objective – this ingrained understanding bumps up violently against public displays of advocacy for social justice ideals. This is the very same tension that inspired this research in the first place, and it is one that I struggle with myself each time I post to my Twitter account or write on my blog. Just writing this post is uncomfortable for me – it makes me vulnerable and opens me to attack or criticism. But I am reminded of a conversation about blogging on controversial topics that I had – on Twitter – with Alec Couros, a professor of educational technology and media and one of my committee members. After encountering some resistance from my students about posting online, I put the question out to my PLN: Why should pre-service teachers be blogging? Many answers flowed in, and at some point the discussion turned to what content should be made public and what should be kept private:

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Alec’s last tweet sums it up nicely, I think. What is considered controversial is always relative to the position of the individual – a person’s power and privilege determines the degree to which s/he can speak out against dominant narratives without negative fallout. 

What we do not say speaks just as loudly as what we do

When I struggle to post online, I need to be mindful of my own privilege, which is perhaps limited in academia but is quite significant relative to that of many other people. For students, however, I wonder how the balance of power and vulnerability plays out with respect to anti-oppressive education, and I expect that this tension will increase and shift as we move into discussions of enacting social justice in open, online spaces.

And amidst all these other realizations, I found that after only one round of interviews, I have already had to think a great deal about the tension between what is public vs. publicized when it comes Twitter and other social media. These is certainly a precedent for PhD bloggers and for discussions of research on social media sites, but I still need to be cautious in respecting the rights of my participants by ensuring that I’ve shared my writing with them and that their own online writing cannot be traced back to them (unless they’ve opted not to be anonymous), while at the same time trying to enact my belief in the need to ensure that social justice does not go ignored in online spaces – for what we do not say speaks just as loudly as what we do.