Over the weekend, I delivered my first-ever solo keynote at the always-fabulous Blissdom Canada conference in Toronto. I also got to be David Bowie for an evening, which was also a first. Plus Jian Ghomeshi told me – BEFORE I dressed up – that my hair has a Bowie thing going on. Heady times, people.
My keynote was an exploration of the ways digital media shape who we are and how we operate together in the brave new world of teh Internets. Building on my Digital Identities work for #change11 back in May, I outlined some of the key features – or affordances – of digital media and the selves that emerge when we connect in digital spaces. These selves are facets of who we are, just as the varying faces we wear when we hang out with our kids or our moms or our bosses or our friends are facets of who we are. And much like our various embodied selves, these digital selves are performative, networked, and quantified – but their performances and networks and metrics are shaped by the platforms they exist on. And thus, so are we.
I argued that these selves offer us potential like never before, and also make us vulnerable like never before. Our networks have the potential to be worldwide, and to scale far bigger than any face-to-face network really can. Our performances leave visible traces. The measurements and quantifications by which we tend to judge our effects on others are new and emergent: we’re still learning how the different currencies of attention work in social media.
But my message was this: the Internet – and the social web in particular – is a commons that we need to start actively treating like the world’s biggest small town.
Connections matter. As humans, we need them. And we are making and modelling them every time we talk to each other online. We are shaping the norms and etiquettes of these online environments with our own traces and approaches. And when we treat each other as if there are no bodies on the other side of the screen – as if what we say online doesn’t have real, human effects and consequences – we contribute to making our small town less.
Here’s the slide deck from the presentation: Blissdom Canada will make the video available in the long run, too.
The most interesting part of the conversation, though, really came after the presentation, during questions. I was asked about kids and social media, and I launched into a diatribe that I hadn’t been fully aware I was gestating.
We seem to have decided not to teach kids how to be citizens of the small town.
We tend to try to keep them out as much as possible, tell them it’s full of creeps and strangers (it has some, admittedly), and then when they turn thirteen, drop them legally on Main Street with a whole bunch of panicky warnings about not doing anything dangerous or stupid. Maybe we walk with them awhile, if they’re lucky.
But do we introduce them to our friends? Model for them the positive things that we do in online spaces? Scaffold them into our networks in relatively safe, supported ways so that the picture they get of the social norms of this small town is one of creativity and sharing and humour and being there for each other?
Do we create networks of supportive adults around kids – adults who know them in their day-to-day lives, who know whole groups of friends and can help them navigate the power relations of growing up from a sympathetic supervisory position while modelling humane ways of engaging with each other?
We are so terrified of the spectre of the cyberpredator – and of the possibility of being thought one – that we make it almost suspect for leaders and teachers and adult friends in kids’ lives to want to interact with them online.
I think it does the kids – and all of us – a terrible disservice.
We’ve Abandoned the Playground to the Kids
We’ve known for generations that – left to their own devices – kids and adolescents play with power on their way to learning to be civilized citizens (if they learn…some just consolidate that power. Ahem). But bullying – the extended mis-use of power over another to target and shame – is a part of what we try to mitigate among kids by teaching the Golden Rule in the classroom and attempting to supervise the free-for-all of the playground.
With social media, though, we’ve banned it from schools entirely. The privacy implications – particularly the two-way friending of Facebook, I think, suggesting that the privacy we’re interested in may not be that of the kids – freak us out. So the majority of kids in this society are turning 13, getting a Facebook account (if they don’t have one long before) and wading into the most unsupervised social interaction space they’ve EVER been allowed in, societally, with the capacity for faceless networked mob behaviours and permanent traces of mistakes thrown in for good measure.
On the Internet, You’re Still Not a Dog
This collective blindness, I think, grew out of the once-common belief that there was a divide between the virtual and the so-called real. Early digital scholarship in the 90s investigated primarily closed or at least gated communities whose social interactions online were largely text-based and forum-bound. The tenor of most of the narratives that came out of that era can be summed up in the famous phrase “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.”
There are still a lot of people who treat – and think about – the Internet that way. Grown adults spew crap online as if there were no consequences of their ‘free speech:’ people comment on the subjects of online news stories as if they were vermin of the earth rather than human beings.
The truth is the digital is part of our lives, embedded as one context among many. Sure, it affords different kinds of traces and connections and interactions, as I discuss in the video, but these don’t make it separate.
I want to teach my kids how to navigate this world that’s embedded in the larger structure of all of our lives, and support them as they do.
What We’re Trying, Until We Figure Out a Better Plan
My six-year-old has a blog, and a locked Twitter account. He shares his creative stuff, and says hi to a friend in England, and last spring when I was away at a conference, his Dad helped him send me a picture of his missing front tooth. He left his first blog comment on an adult’s blog tonight, because Annie – whom he had ice cream with when she visited PEI last summer – wrote about this same issue today in reference to my talk.
Our rules for managing this aren’t firm: as we did with our own learning curve when we first went online, we’re making this up as we go along.
But we’re making it up with a fair amount of knowledge under our belts. Dave and I both have strong, longstanding and intersecting networks. We’ve met many of our online contacts. There’s trust.
We have networks, then, that we can gradually scaffold our kids into, in limited but slowly expanding ways. We’ve learned the lessons of boundaries and context collapse; of how to manage the attention that sometimes comes with being online. Hopefully we can pass some of those along in fairly painless teachable moments before the stakes get high, and before the kids migrate to networks populated primarily by peers. While I’m still the person they look to first, I want to teach them.
There are things I don’t like about digital media and what they bring to the fore. I don’t want my son to have to deal with being quantified just yet – though there are ways in which grading at school is already training him towards that, in the offline sense – or with brand or monetization. At the same time, if I can teach him early that part of his brand needs to be “I am kind,” that’s a win. I don’t want him bombarded with the advertising that comes part and parcel with a platform like Facebook, at least yet, though again I’d rather teach him early to unpack and resist the consumer identity his culture will foist on him.
I want to teach my kids to be good citizens, both of Charlottetown PEI and of this world’s biggest small town that is the Internet. I want to model and share with them, gradually and in age-appropriate ways, what it means to be a self online.
Will his presence on Twitter constrain me and my own performance of self? Maybe, though I teach on Twitter now and long ago stopped dropping eff-bombs. If his presence affects me at all it may be to encourage me to be kinder, less catty, all those good things. Not everything I post or share is aimed at him, or even appropriate for him. But even as he grows older and uses the site more frequently, I don’t mind talking about those gaps; about how my communications, like his, sometimes have different audiences.
His presence encourages me to be the Twitterer I want to see in the world. Or perhaps it makes me a twit. But it makes me a twit trying to give my child tools I know he’ll need, online and off.
And I’m okay with that, so far. :)
(Tune in next week when you’ll hear Nurse Janet clutch her pearls and say OMG now you’re talking about Facebook and teens and SCHOOLS?!?! Yeh. That.)