Digital Footprints, Networking, & Conformity

My school recently did a digital footprint exercise with our students, asking them to Google themselves and check out Intel’s Museum of Me. I found our the exercise interesting not so much for the ah-ha moments, which some students had, but for what I didn’t see. Truly, most students are on board with the basic concepts of what might be called digital citizenship or understand how to cloak their poor decision making with anonymity, protecting their footprint while being a poor digital citizen. Basically, I didn’t see surprise; I saw students who pretty quickly grasped the concept of building a positive digital footprint so that a namesake on MySpace can’t cast too long of a shadow over their relatively good names.

However, they’re not too worried about college admissions or job prospects, and I think that what I want to call the Dan Allen Effect is to blame for this. Like a kid in a giant metropolis, they see the odds are in their favor and don’t see that the graffiti is likely to lead to big problems down the line. They’re happy to have all the other Dan Allens create so much white noise that they can operate happily unnoticed. I calculated my digital footprint using the tool linked to Moodle and I’m well over a terabyte and climbing. That’s a lot of white noise. I can’t decide if I agree or if I see this as a self-defeating, tragedy of the commons sort of problem.

The other piece that I have sympathy for is that they hear a message to conform and blow it off. Articles like the USA Today bit just sound ridiculous – post a list of people who share the same name as me? Looking past the redundancy that seems so obvious to me, does it look worse that I cyberstalk my namesakes or that some dude in West Virginia with my name also goes by Tweek on his forgotten MySpace profile? The subtext of these pieces is submit and be predictable.

What I like much more is a focus on the power of networking and networking literacy. Like Clay Shirky points out, transparency is a sharing of ourselves in order to get back more in return, what he sometimes calls reputational capital, amongst other benefits. Surfing through my different groups of Facebook friends, I quickly see the social norms of their closest social group and cultural context; the Kyrgyz kids are sharing Pan-Turkish media and political messages, the folks from my small town deride the hippies at Occupy Wall Street and shout for them to get a job, and the members of my Peace Corps group post messages of OWC solidarity. I would argue that these people are creating identities and reflecting their identities beyond virtual networks in ways that they also do in the bazaar, at the tackle shop, or while waiting for the barista. Kids do the same thing in social networks, reflecting the identities that they think will win them the most reputational capital, or cool points, and are at their best when they employ these tools ethically, to contribute and build.

Of course, kids are slow to see social pressure as a force of conformity and quick to view messages from the elderly (like me) as demands for conformity. My bet is that the kids who will try risky, thoughtless, or silly behaviors online to look cool at one moment for a particular group are the same who will try these behaviors offline. When I was in Berlin, I saw a great quote from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: “True education is concerned not only with practical goals but also with values.” I wonder if, amidst all the furor about digital footprints and citizenship, we should focus more explicitly on the nature of the behaviors we value, on footprints and citizenship. I know that we do this already, but the relationship is so clear to our discussion that it bears mentioning. By teaching kids to use their power to be positive contributors for their own sake, if not for the sake of others, empowerment might overcome the urges to be destructive to self or others. If not, at least we’d be exposing the values we teach rather than keeping them implicit, which sometimes feels coercive to me.

Internet Privacy and Social Organizing

Having read the ZIS COETAIL offerings for this week and then Dr. Cornel West’s Twitter feed, the contrast between fears of sharing information online and the power of social movements organized through social media stands starkly apparent. Dr. West was arrested at the Occupy Wall Street protest with 19 others and is publicly sharing the information (@CornelWest) because this information has power. When compared to the advertising scare piece about the dangers of posting underwear pictures online, Dr. West’s use of technology speaks loudly about the potential of sharing. Others like @Newyorkist are reporting events and curating content from others in real time. Yes, people are noticing. No, they aren’t stalking the protestors or asking about their underwear. The Guardian has a section devoted to the Occupy Wall Street movement. John Stewart is taking on media coverage of the protests in a manner informed no doubt by information garnered from social media because he seems to actually know what is going on, which would be next to impossible for someone following only the mainstream news narrative. The fears explicit in the ad linked above are planted in reality – there is a loss of privacy in the digital age. However, we shouldn’t fear how powerless we are as a result; we should marvel at how powerful we may become as a result.

The second narrative has promise and power for students, as well. Howard Gardner perhaps overstates his case about the end of didactic roles for teachers, but his emphasis on teachers coaching ethics in digital contexts is spot on. Once students begin to understand the power of public discourse through social media, I think they’ll be turned on by the ethical power of action. I also follow Jeff Jarvis, author, new media columnist at The Guardian, and professor at City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism (@jeffjarvis) on Twitter, and am looking forward to reading his new book, Public Parts. Jarvis, as he wrote on his blog, argues

that in our current privacy mania we are not talking enough about the value of publicness. If we default to private, we risk losing the value of the connections the internet brings: meeting people, collaborating with them, gathering the wisdom of our crowd, and holding the powerful to public account. Yes, I believe we have a right and need to protect our privacy — to control our information and identities — but I also want the conversation and our decisions to include consideration of the value of sharing and linking. I also want to protect what’s public as a public good; that includes our internet.

Plenty of other thinkers, like Clay Shirky (and in video), were making this point before the Arab Spring made it for them. It’s not all bad.

Of course, students need to have the positive models that Gardner speaks about showing them that online spaces like Facebook and Tumblr are not private rooms, but public squares. We should model the best possible uses of these squares. This is a time of change – a photo taken of you might have me in the background, and that photo might wind up online, public, and out of my control. But I am reminded of a photo taken of me in profile and of a good friend who is smiling radiant and gorgeous on a sunny Sunday afternoon right into the camera of a stranger. Years later, she was stopped on the sidewalk in New York by another woman who was shocked, said “Oh my God! It’s you!” She took my friend’s address and mailed her the photo that she had taken (on film. Remember film?), a photo she had always enjoyed having tacked to a corkboard in her house. My friend mailed the photo to me in Kyrgyzstan.

Privacy is an illusion in analog, too, and the public nature of society is often as nice, or as powerful, as it is menacing.