The Swedish nurse who posted Facebook pictures taken while she was assisting with brain surgery, and the British juror who used Facebook to ask friends whether they thought defendants in a trial were guilty, are two early casualties in a massive, unplanned social experiment, where the rules for self-presentation and socialisation are evolving minute by minute.
You can write yourself into being on the net. Digital technologies, which allow — and increasingly, require — you to compose, edit and revise your own story, effectively extend the individualisation of society that’s been underway since at least the late 1960s.
It might be argued that sometimes it’s less about writing (linear) stories and more about creating (spatial) displays of various facets of the self, but the key point — that you have the ability to author your own story or craft your own display — remains the same. Still, digital literacy is tricky. It’s easy to write your narrative badly or organise your display clumsily and find yourself misunderstood or ostracised … and out of a relationship or a job.
Exploring your identity online, on the simplest level, can mean delving into the spectrum of perspectives and lifestyles to which the net gives you access. At some point, though, you may well feel compelled to take a more active role and try out different aspects of your personality in public forums like social networking sites or blogs. As Sarah Boxer found in her exploration of the blogosphere: "Some [bloggers]use [the internet]as a writing prod. Some use it as a trash can. Some use it like a diary. Some use it like a pulpit. Some use it like a drawing pad. Some use it like a padded room. Some use it to reach out. Some use it to reach in. Some use it to get mad. Some use it to get even."
As you experience reactions to your musings, rants or confessions, you can begin to construct a narrative that reflects a self, or selves, that represent who you are or want to be. Most of us already do this every day in our offline lives. The net just gives us more diverse options, contexts and audiences. That’s very important for young people, who are at a stage of life when it’s normal to explore and experiment with self-presentation, but who don’t always have a lot of offline opportunities for addressing a wider public.
It’s especially important for those who feel they need the cover of partial or complete anonymity to present aspects of themselves they’d otherwise hide. The net, as Lawrence Lessig has said, "enables lives that were previously impossible, or inconvenient, or uncommon". Part of the reason is that online experiences translate back into offline ones.
Sure, there are some people who use the net as an escape route and whose storytelling freedom exists only online. But research indicates that for most people, most of the time, online identities are closely related to offline identities. We also know that youth in particular use the net to come to terms with aspects of their lives they’re struggling with, ranging from depression and fear to alternative sexualities.
This gives them the chance of "reconfiguring actual, possible, and ideal selves in various arrangements", reworking them in light of feedback and, especially in response to positive feedback, integrating their online self-presentations with their offline selves. But in a sense the net’s freedom to keep re-imagining and re-modelling ourselves makes eternal teenagers — or Foucault’s artworks-in-progress — of all of us.
In the 90s, the internet was sometimes portrayed as an out-of-control identity workshop where people in early chat-rooms and virtual environments randomly swapped genders, races and sexualities, pushing their own and each other’s boundaries in the process. While some such experimentation certainly did and does occur, it’s turned out to be far less widespread than was once assumed. That may be just as well: it’s naive to suggest that role-playing other genders or races gives you more than a superficial glimpse of alternative realities.
Notwithstanding the freedoms the net offers to the incapacitated or disabled, it’s foolish to imagine you can really escape your own body online and simply slough off your gender, race and sexuality. In fact, it’s more than foolish: it’s highly dangerous to try to escape into a purely mental realm and dismiss your own body or the larger environment which sustains it.
There are other dangers, too. Will a protracted focus on building identity and narrative on — literally and metaphorically — "egocentric" social networking sites lead to empty digital narcissism and a whole generation of self-proclaimed micro-celebrities? Will kids become addicted to social networking or gaming sites, resigning themselves to the offline status quo as long as they have online autonomy? Do the net’s endless promises to make everyone more attractive, more desirable and more virile exacerbate the insecurities of the young and the vulnerable? What if teens choose the wrong contexts in which to reveal sensitive personal information?
And what if individuals egg each other on to build not the "wisdom of the crowd" but the "brutality of the mob", venting their spite on those who are different or defenceless, or who are just in the wrong place at the wrong time? The digital world can be as cruel and unforgiving as the analogue one and, as we’ll see, has a much longer memory.
Educational intervention in this area is long overdue.
Teachers can seek, firstly, to help students expand their narrative options as they refine their control over a variety of literacies. This will give them the tools to shape their own stories and to provide the metacommentary on their own lives.
Secondly, teachers have a duty to offer students some guidance on the yawning pitfalls of online life, ranging from the false promises of identity tourism to the false promises of spam, and from the trap of too readily exposing your innermost thoughts to the trap of getting caught up in the cybermob.
To deny students access to digital literacies and digital warnings in the name of an outdated, pre-digital model of education is nothing short of irresponsible.
This is an edited excerpt from Mark Pegrum’s From Blogs to Bombs: The Future of Digital Technologies in Education (UWA Publishing: 2009).
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