Identity Play and Managing Associative Trails
One theme which emerged in the course was the idea of "identity play" (Chester, 2004); students using online spaces to create and tailor identities that either did or didn't match their actual selves. For most students, they did this through the creation of multiple screen names for instant messaging or multiple profiles on social networking sites:
Now this can become dangerous, when you have a school of people communicating with each other without any actual human contact. I have personally had a bad experience with this situation, talking to a friend online who I thought was one person, when in all actuality, it was someone else on the other end. It was very easy to do (and once figured out) a lot of people did it. I am guilty... I had a screen name that no one really knew about also, and sometimes I would talk to people that I knew and pretend I was someone else ( ya know, to get gossip and also to find out what people said about me) High school gossip can be vicious! (Cathleen)
When asked about whether or not they had ever engaged in identity play online, the students all said "yes, because everyone does it." They saw pretending to be someone else online as normalized behavior, but also as an artifact from their early adolescence; during the current phases of their lives, most students engaged in social networking behavior under their real names or in ways that were tied to their offline identities, and were both selective and protective of these online identities. Many of them revealed and discussed their identifications (Burke, 1969) with certain groups -- parents, athletes, political activists, cheerleaders -- as part of their engagement in online discussions.
Have social networking technologies such as Facebook, which encourages users to tie their identities to a "real name" as opposed to sites such as MySpace or LiveJournal, or communication mechanisms such as AOL Instant Messenger, which allow people to create screen names not linked to a real-world identity, changed the nature of identity play for students and other users? In some ways they have, but now users must be proactive and concerned about the "associative trails" (Bush) that are created and linked to their actual identities through activities such as tagging pictures on social networking sites:
Also things like tagging give away TOO much information. Say on facebook someone gets an embarrassing picture of you while you were passed out drunk and you don't even know about it, then while you are recovering in bed for the next 48 hours they tag it to your facebook and hundreds of people see it without your permission first? Is that considered fair? Not in my opinion. In order for tagging to work, there must first be confirmation from the person as opposed to just the opportunity afterwards to untag it. These are just a few examples, but in conclusion, my point would be that no, not all "associative trails" are valuable (nor fair) to all users. (Tiffany)
In fact, many students offer harsh criticism of people who "put themselves out there" without expecting or being aware of possible consequences:
How much is too much? It depends on the person. I could rattle off every single little detail about myself and my life, or I could pick and choose what I want to divulge; at this point, we have the necessary tools and communication platforms to accommodate either decision. And that's just what it is - a personal decision. If you want to post nude pictures of yourself, and are legally able to, then go for it - it's your responsibility to be discreet about it, and you should know the risks involved. The man who did the Craigslist "experiment" certainly acted with malicious intent, but the married men who fell for the ad were very naive in believing the Web would instantly shroud them in secrecy when they weren't even being anonymous in the least. The necessity here is the use of caution. The Web is not the bastion of privacy some make it out to be, and because of this ill-advised perception, many fall prey to the potentially harsh consequences. I believe - and hope - that in the future, Web users will be wiser in the choices they make. The Web can still offer some measure of security, but again, is not infallible. It will be up to the users to decide just much of themselves they want to make known, and they must come to terms with the fact that their intended audience isn't always going to be their actual audience. (Jason)
I think that when it comes to sharing personal data on the web, there is no specific limit as to how much is too much. I personally think that that is a relative question. It’s all a matter of how much you are willing to let the world find out about you. If you want the world to know you were out last night at a dance club and got drunk beyond belief, let the world know, but be prepared to have your actions frowned upon by others, whether it be your family, friends, coaches, or teachers. Anyone that is letting personal information flow on an online community needs to know that anyone else can access that and know they can get in trouble. People have been breaking the law (not necessarily in just a legal sense but also in a rebellion sense) for years, our parents did it, their parents did it, and so on and so forth; it's just becoming a problem now because kids are going public with their thrill ride on the wild side bandwagon. And parents can’t get mad at their kids for being a part of facebook or myspace; it’s the same as any other fad that a kid from any generation was in to. It will come and go with time and like it was said in one of the articles, if they are going to outlaw it, that must mean it is cool (in a kids eyes) and thus will further encourage them to take part in these online communities. The online stalker and predator thing is more than just a threat in places like myspace and the non digital natives are just too naive to realize it. (Nick)
These views of identity online contrast sharply with the more popular views in which digital natives are simply unaware of the problems that may occur in certain types of Web-based self-presentation.
Facebook Remediates Itself
During the course, Facebook made radical changes to its site through the creation of the News Feed, which "broadcasts" information about changes users make to their profiles such as when people are added to or removed from a person’s grouping of friends, when pictures are tagged with a user's name (by the user in question or by someone else) and when someone’s “status” as a boyfriend or girlfriend has changed. While in this case Facebook has not compromised the information provided by users, users have felt as if their information was being “overshared” – they want their audience to have to pull that information themselves rather than having it be pushed to them when they enter the site. This new function has lead to online petitions (including several on Facebook itself) and the creation of an entire site called “Save Facebook” whose ultimately successful goal was to regain the privacy controls they perceived as having lost (Calore; see also “Save Facebook”).
Like most Facebook users, the students were outraged and eager to discuss what some of them saw as an "invasion of their privacy" -- even though Facebook was merely making information that was already accessible more accessible:
I think that the underlying issues in so many of these articles is sensor-ship. [sic] I personally don't believe in sensor-ship. My facebook profile is is information that i [sic] wouldnt mind if my mother saw. I am aware that my information is out there and can be used against me. I hated the news feeds mainly due to the fact that while i [sic] didnt mind people seeing my information i [sic] didnt feel like having it broadcasted. (Molly)
Okay so when the mini feed came out on facebook I guess I wasn't as upset as most people. I mean, if you put yourself out there on facebook to begin with than you can't care about your privacy too much. It wasn't like facebook was changing any privacy rules .. it is still that only your friends can see your profile or what you do. In fact, I think that when inventing the mini-feed they helped to give the users more privacy by allowing you to choose who you want to see your whole profile and who you want to see your limited profile. Mini-feed did not change any privacy options, it just made facebook a little creepier since everytime you log on you see what any of your friends have done within the last couple of hours. Other than that, it is still the old facebook. You would still click on peoples profile to see what they have done anyways right? So facebook made it easier by bringing it right to you when you log on. It is a little TMI, but then again thats all facebook is there for. I think that people should stop hating on the mini-feed and accept that it is a part of facebook now, and if you do not like it then take your profile off because the only one that can change it is the facebook committee.:o) (Tiffany)
After a few months, Facebook did apologize to users and allow users to control what information about them was "broadcast" via the News Feed -- for example, they could choose to not "broadcast" when they changed their relationship status. Facebook also allowed to control what information they received through their News Feeds -- for example, they could choose to not "receive" information about people's relationship status changes. However, Facebook did not eliminate the news feed entirely, and in fact has broadened it to include sponsored links, advertisements and third-party applications to be broadcasted.
Even though this topic was a frequent one for in-class discussion due to Facebook's popularity among students, only one student (Nick) chose to write about in the extended analysis assignment. And even though students were critical of both Facebook's decisions and the people who "just put stuff out there," their extended analyses also demonstrated a mostly uncritical acceptance of the practices and implications of other popular Web 2.0 sites such as Wikipedia and RateMyProfessors. Unlike the students who mobilized on sites such as Save Facebook, most of the students in the course felt that only the "Facebook committee" could shape how social networking sites are used.
Web 2.0 technologies and the practice of "ordinary people" as both consumers and producers of information, as best exemplified in the concepts of crowdsourcing and the "long tail" (Anderson, 2004), have become even more important and ubiquitous in the three years since this course was taught. Even then, Web 2.0 technologies such as Facebook and Wikipedia had become normalized, and many students wondered why the so-called digital immigrant generation was so upset or distressed about them.
Despite this increasing ubiquity and normalization, the students in the course struggled to accept the idea that they could be both consumers and producers of information or that they could shape the practices or the content of the sites they use daily. Many of them disavow or qualify the idea of themselves as "digital natives" as well as deny their agency and participation in the new literate practices facilitated by Web 2.0 technologies, settling instead for an instrumentalist-determinist viewpoint in which technologies are created by others to facilitate their consumption (Feenberg, 2004).
Since teaching the course for the first time, I have become more explicit in all of my courses about asking students to consider the digital native/digital immigrant binary and the effects that Web 2.0 has had on how we locate, assess, communicate, and attribute information, as demonstrated in Michael Wesch's videos about cultural shifts created by changing media:
In addition to asking students to watch these videos and discuss them, I also have assigned Bauerlein's (2008) article about online literacy being a lesser kind and have asked students to respond to it. Much to my surprise (in part because I vehemently disagreed with portions of the article), student responses to the online literacy article have been unanimous in their agreement with Bauerlein. Take, for example, these three quotes from my students:
[A]ll the technology in classrooms in high school and middle schools, although it looks helpful, isn't making much of a difference. I think this is because most teenagers don't want to be online to do more work or reading then we already do in school and we want a break to just relax and enjoy our time online.
I rarely am able to focus enough on the screen to actually read it sentence for sentence throughout the entire piece. I may start out that way intially, but I quickly resort to simply scanning the page. I do agree that it may be wise to start to move away from being so technologically based in the classroom. Reading actually books and articles is much more beneficial as it enables the reader to slow down and focus more effectively. Taking time to focus on the fundamentals, rather than rushing to use the internet and other such techonology, should be a crucial part of teaching. I thoroughly agree that teachers should focus on slowing down reading and promoting print reading, before they try to force students online.
First of all this is a very ironic assignment. I think it's funny because we have to read an article on the web that explains how students really don't even read on the web but actually just skim through the reading to get the main points. I think that this is pretty interesting because I feel that I do basically the same thing when I read something on-line. I don't really read it, but I sort of skim through the reading.
The students were clear: print-based media is associated with school and learning and is taken more seriously. However, Web-based media is associated with entertainment, socializing, and fun. Thus, even if consumption or production of Web-based media are assigned in school or in other contexts, they are not to be taken seriously. While the Web may be ubiquitous in the lives of students, many of them do not perceive the Web as important or valuable within school or workplace contexts.
These experiences have led me to question the digital native/digital immigrant binary and to critically consider whether or not students are "digital natives." Many of my students are neither interested in Web-based consumption and production nor are informed and aware consumers and producers of Web-based media. Student perceptions of the importance and value of Web-based media also causes me to wonder about the efficacy and value of including these types of media in our courses -- and yet I still do. Our students may be part of the crowd, but they are not necessarily aware of being sourced.