Defining a digital identity for yourself is hard work. Who have I already been and who do I want to be? Translating this maturation process online as it occurs in real life can be paralyzing. Then, add on top of that the idea that you have to actually INTERACT with others online and there seems to be no good place to start. . .
The question I’ve been ruminating on is what the advantages are of building digital networks for ourselves and for our students? We’ve talked about the problems of internet trolls and politeness (or rather a lack thereof) in our digital interactions. And we’ve talked about how crowd mindsets can be a vulnerability in building a strong and positive network. But why are these “online” issues? These same problems are preset IRL in all of our interactions. If someone catcalls you on the street, common practice is to ignore it, but should I find a thesis on why the catcaller is wrong and hand it to them? If one student interrupts another in a class discussion, is that part of the discourse or is the interrupter a troll? Then once one student voices their disagreement, what are the necessary steps to take to prevent a total classroom meltdown? Or is that not a necessity?
Why do digital manners have to be a different category? Are digital manners different?
They are. The nature of the World Wide Web of knowledge makes it a different playing field, whether I like it or not.
In our group discussions this week, several people brought up the interesting notion that in a tet-a-tet they use the instigators background as a way of deciding how they will respond. Simply click on their bio, or do a quick google search, and figure out if Joe Smith is a serial complainer or if he actually cares about and has knowledge of cultural norms in the Andes. If he checks out, you can use jargon and sound reason to reply to the comments. If he doesn’t, it’s safe to ignore.
If someone approached you after a seminar you gave, you would have no clue about their background or previous interests. How would you decide how to titrate your response? If they had on a nice suit, would you assume they are educated? If they were a close talker would you think they just have a habit of harassing speakers?
We use physical clues in our real life interactions to determine who we should engage with and how we should go about engaging with them. Online, we have access to the person’s whole history and can tailor a response directly to them. Does being able to learn more about someone give us the responsibility to do so? Shouldn’t we instead go by the “respect everyone” golden rule?
When you feel neutral about something in real life, nonverbal cues or quick mhms can let the people around you know that things are alright. Not a resounding cheer, but not a scowl and storm out. When I read an article or blog post online, if I feel neutral, should I comment? It would be kind of pointless to put my two cents in but then the author is stuck with the divergent strong feelings of “yasssss” or “you’re a fool”. Then it’s a balancing act of yays and nays to figure out if the environment is hostile to your ideas. Or maybe putting ideas out into the digital ether should only occur if the author assumes the environment is hostile. . . But isn’t that jaded and depressing?
At its best, digital education lowers a social barrier to entry in the classroom that allows for easier communication between students, just like its easier to share some bad news via text rather than a phone call or face to face conversation. In the same way, a controversial idea or complex thought about the course material can sometimes be easier to say online when you’ve had the chance to draft and craft your argument. This can help less confident students gain the push they need, and can help quick-to-judge students take their time and read the whole story before responding.
Augmenting classic education with an online classroom presents and interesting intersection of real life and digital selves. Maintaining an environment of respect and openness requires active participation online, and maybe more constant monitoring, because of the lack of nonverbal cues. Without a polite head nod during a student’s response, they have no feedback on their grasp of the material. As the instructor, I think we can be the moderators of this behavior in our own online spaces, but outside of these controlled environments setting this tone of respect is much more difficult.
The informal digital spaces of social media (namely Twitter, Facebook, Reddit) will bombard students with information, true and untrue, on message and off message, shared with respect and thrown out disrespectfully. Using digital spaces designed for teaching can hopefully help students learn the subject matter of interest as well as the subconscious modes of communication they can take out into the web.
Reflecting back on this long winded post, I think that my digital identity is in fact shaped by my desire to be a teacher and moderator in all aspects of my life. My uses of digital spaces all revolve around my willingness to promote other’s endeavors, encourage their own intellectual expansion, and facilitate connections that I think can be mutually beneficial. It’s not about me and my opinions, but rather helping create the space for discourse that students (in the traditional sense or not) can learn from. We create digital environments for learning by being present and active and only in this way can we build a strong digital network and self.