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Presentation of the Self on the Web

February 8, 2010

I have been, as they say, “active on the web” since the late nineties, and have really enjoyed the social aspects of it since at least 2005, earlier if you count social bookmarking. I have a strong sense of the differences between the public, private, and deeply private aspects of my life, probably because I have taught young adults at the college and university level all my career. Consequently, I have learned to distinguish between friendliness and intimacy.

I believe that the introduction of the internet with its worldwide communication possibilities is the most significant change in human communication and culture since the spread of the printing press, Not only can we display our writing, images, audio and video easily, others can write about us, and share their images, audio, and video of us with or without our consent.

Mostly only a few people will see these presentations of ourselves, but some will go, as they say, “viral”, and draw all kinds of unexpected attention. For example, a mother thrust off public transit because of her wailing two-year old went public with how they were treated by the transit driver and was unpleasantly surprised at some of the comments her story drew, as described here – http://www2.macleans.ca/2010/01/15/my-life-as-a-viral-media-celebrity/#more-101215 Then there’s the famous story of the “Poop Girl” who had her life seriously altered by how she was exposed on the web – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_vigilantism#Dog_Poop_Girl

No one can predict how people on the web will react to stories and pictures of individuals, whether by yawning and ignoring, or by obsessing and commenting, but it is clear that the presentation of a person on the web can have a profound impact on their lives.

For years I have been advocating the necessity of helping the young understand the impact of having been thrust onto this very intimate and very public stage. I believe that even if they appear to have leapt on it and embraced it, they have been, in fact, forced onto it by virtue of when they were born and the web’s very rapid ubiquity. That’s why I have focused on getting students more fluent and aware in their web use.

Let me be clear; I love it when I see students being witty, creative and skilled and I encourage that. However, currently I have third year university students learning about podcasting, and, as part of their course assignments, they have to podcast. That means being on the open web. That means their own blogs, which I have NO control over. (Disclosure: I mark their work so I have limited control, and our course wiki is private.)

It has quickly become clear to me that what I advocate the teaching of (the awareness of how very public the web can be) I must attempt to help my   students understand. It's my responsibility. I mused about this for quite a while and consulted various books, and ended up with these notes as part of my class plan.

I started with a request that they bleep their language, that they use asterisks, even highly obvious ones, for traditionally "offensive" language. It is a university course, and I believe it’s good to demonstrate awareness of language conventions. I also asked that if they used texting spelling, that they do it ironically and self-consciously. Plus, of course, relaxed, informal but correct language. Teacher-stuff, for my benefit more than theirs.

I followed this with the scare stories of the noisy two-year old and the transit driver, and the poop girl”. So far, pretty conventional. They got excited and started telling stories of other viral incidents affecting people’s lives. We had a good discussion.

Then I asked them if they were ever alone with their computer while online, and whether they ever read and commented late at night. I ask them to consider if, even if there were people nearby, they felt alone in their intense communication with the screen. They agreed that this reduced inhibitions. I mentioned that they might not want their future teen-aged children (or potential employers) finding those amusing pictures of risqué behaviors, and added that I’d heard of parties where phones and cameras were collected at the door to prevent unsolicited presentations of the partiers being put up on the web. Still mostly scare tactics.

Then I moved to analogy, inspired by Goffman’s Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. They agreed that, while with a group, when they went to the washroom, their behavior changed with their sense of increased (gender) privacy, and we talked a little about Facebook, and its privacy issues.

Finally, I developed to a metaphor for web behavior. Imagine being with friends and playing around, maybe fake fighting, (or real) making out, (or more) drunken lurching or even something innocuous like holding up and examining something expensive (or forbidden/illegal). You’re in a room with a big window, it’s dark out, and people you can’t see are outside and watching and recording exactly what happens, or their interpretation of what happens. And it’s public forever.

I know, some will ignore the metaphor, but some will alter their web behavior, probably just a little, but I hope that it helps them become more aware of how they are presenting themselves, or how they are being presented on the web. I know that the definition of privacy and civility will continue to be altered, but if a few people are more self-aware and protect themselves, I think that a good outcome.

Joan Vinall-Cox, PhD 
Social Media & Learning

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