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
In a world where forgetting is no longer possible, we might instead work towards greater empathy and forgiveness
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.
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You’ve got brought up a great areas , be thankful when it
comes down to posting.
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Couldn’t agree more with you! Digital identities are so important that even the business of managing customer digital identities is expected to be worth a staggering USD 18.3 billion by 2019. The bottom line is that akin to people being central to marketing strategies, digital identities lie at the heart of digital marketing initiatives and this is just the beginning. The best (and maybe the worst) is yet to come.
You brought up many points that I never thought of, such as the strains the “grandma rule” puts on digital space participation and the pressures to have this so called “perfect” online identity. Another thing I am having a hard time wrapping my head around is this “right to be forgotten” campaign that Europe lobbied for. The right to be forgotten could allow influential individuals to expurgate search results even when if there are facts in them that are truthful.
Lastly, a part that stuck with me is when you said “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”. If these subjects and discussions are taught within the school systems of our younger generations, it will benefit tremendously as they start to develop their digital footprint.
This article is very informative to someone relatively new to digital citizenship. As someone who has many questions about the content that should be placed online, this answered many questions. I love the “Grandma rule” and believe that students, even who are early elementary, would positively respond to this.
One part of the article that stuck with me was “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.”. I believe that in a world where people’s lives are becoming digitalized, people are going to have to think about what they post online because many times they post their initial reaction to something. People are going to have to slow down and make an “informed judgement”, which is something that will have to be taught to students, even early elementary students which will have its difficulties.
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