The Mixed Message of Digital Citizenship

Whenever I hear the term “digital citizenship” I usually am skeptical. When we began using the term several years ago, it typically focused on keeping kids safe online. It was generally a scare tactic that told students that they should be wary of posting anything online because it’s forever. The assumption was kids will post inappropriate stuff.  Recently the message has softened and most acknowledge kids are going to be posting online and so the message is about posting only the good stuff. These messages have some truth but like most things are nuanced and require more discussion than simple posters or mantras can provide. Jared Heidinger shared this video

The Innovation of Loneliness from Shimi Cohen on Vimeo.

There’s a lot here to discuss but the part that hit me was at the  2:30 mark. My kids, who are teenagers and adults, often tell me how they get annoyed at many people’s facebook and instagram postings because they always refer to how awesome their life is.

“Reading a great book”
“My wonderful husband just made me the most delicious meal”
“Enjoying a glass of wine while viewing the beautiful sunset”

Updated content: This video says it well…

There’s nothing wrong with any of these and I’m sure I’ve posted similar messages. The problem is when the message becomes “only post your best” and “guard your personal brand” we perpetuate the exact issues this video raises and present a false sense of who we are and create false and shallow relationships based only on awesomeness. In a pressure-packed world with kids facing way too much stress in general, demanding kids to only post the positive might not be in their best interest.

The ability for us to delete and carefully choose what we share and post has its benefits and appeal but also its downsides. I think it promotes digital dualism since we have a difficult time living up to our online persona. It’s easy to be less real online and in a sense, we promote that.

With our closest friends we’re able to let them see our deficiencies and foibles and as a result, we build deeper more meaningful relationships. That’s tricky online since we have less control over who sees it and how it’s interpreted. It’s why many choose to share nothing online. I understand that. There is an issue however when we only share the very best of ourselves. We become only a brand and not fully human. Celebrities and public personalities have done this for years. Even mainstream media used to help protect the public from knowing “the dirt” about our favorite celebrities and in turn, we held them up in high esteem. The difference was, we never expected to build a relationship with them and viewed them as being on a different level. Of course, now that’s changed and we often crave to see the human side of celebrities. It seems however that as individuals we’ve become much more acutely aware of our online image and are overly worried about how we might be negatively perceived and so while we want connections, we focus on a insuring our image is pristine. We tell kids to “guard their brand.” Now that our connections expose us to many more people outside our traditional 150 Dunbar number,  we struggle with the move to increase that number and build meaningful connections.

I’m concerned with what we share with students and what we model as educators. I think instead of emphasizing students and teachers to only post their best, we may need to temper that statement. It may be creating undue pressure and a false sense of identity. That said, I’m not advocating for them to post and share everything but  perhaps model and discuss how to share those things that aren’t so wonderful. Of course, this brings into the equation the opportunity for bullying or other negative consequences to occur and yet I’m not sure in some cases no matter what people post, bullies are good at turning almost anything into a chance to torment and ridicule.

I can only really speak from experience. I don’t post everything but certainly share much more than most people. Lots of it is upbeat, positive stuff and some of it is not so positive and much of it is mundane “sandwich eating”, “golf watching” kind of stuff. That’s intentional and it’s my way of trying to show who I am, even my foibles. My job involves building connections with many people that I may only see occasionally and so I want them to feel like they know me, for better or worse.  I have no doubt that some people find what I post to be  anything from narcissistic, trivial and even ridiculous. But those who do know me, will hopefully confirm my online persona is not far off from me “in real life”. Because I don’t believe in digital dualism, I don’t see the two spaces as vastly different while acknowledging that there are nuances which we need to understand.  I don’t claim to have figured it out but when I read about people that struggle with the notion of dualism as well as the complaints my own kids have shared I think I’ve come to surround myself with people who are more willing to be real and that includes some degree of vulnerability. The degree to which we allow ourselves to be vulnerable varies from person to person depending on many factors. But without some vulnerability, I think our relationships and interactions online will stay very surface and less real. I don’t know exactly how to teach that to children expect to model it in some fashion. As with most things, we need to understand and reflect on this before we can really start to advise and teach children. All I know is telling kids just to post their best self online may not be the best thing to tell our kids.

Here are a couple of recent posts that share a similar theme.

Laura Blankenship: Digital Connections: Reality, Addiction or Something Else
eorge Couros: Far to Close, Close to Far

Photo Credit: The Loopweaver via Compfight cc