The World’s Biggest Small Town: or, Be the Twit you Want to See in the World

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.

Stranger Danger!
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.)

21 Comments The World’s Biggest Small Town: or, Be the Twit you Want to See in the World

  1. Katja Wulfers

    Your presentation and talk on Saturday in Toronto gave me a lot to think about. We allowed our son to venture into the world of Facebook 2 years ago, as an 11 year old. The caveat was, and remains, that I am his friend in that space. I sat with him, and continue to do, to discuss security, marketing, and his safety in an effort to guide him smartly into the world of social media.
    Your reference to Twitter gave me an alternative view (I’d been opposed) to consider and I like the idea that we need to scaffold our kids into safe networks.
    Thanks for another way to consider our approach.

    1. bon

      thanks, Katja. i do think different things are appropriate (and interesting) at different ages and Twitter might not be that engaging for a teen or a tween…at least in the way we allow Oscar to use it. but for him, at this point, having a small network is exciting and he doesn’t expect it to be peers, which helps.

      he actually isn’t terribly interested in people’s streams. rather it’s when people talk to him and he can talk back that he’s engaged. hoping by the time he pays attention to the broader conversation he’ll have the strong sense that there are humans on the other end, and retain that. ;)

  2. angela ( angfromthedock )

    this is the best thing i have read in a long time. in our home, our kids participate. this includes the online world we have been a part of for a long time. hell, i found out how to induce my son online ( would not necessarily recommend that to anyone…but at the time it was a welcome bit of information…and effective!) so why am i surprised 16 years later that i have a kid who has fully embraced the internet. it can be a normal part of life, not something that should be dangled like a precarious carrot. my main issue remains parents who do not understand where their children go and why they need to be there as well. if not physically ( and i do believe they should be ) at least in an informed manner. enough with the using “kids these days are so smart” excuse. no, they are as smart as they have ever been…which means they still need our guidance. let them loose with no direction? then yes, problems can and will arise. i love how you put it – the world’s biggest small town. internet utopia, right there, if we get it right.

    1. bon

      the whole “digital natives” argument and “kids are so smart” has meant we’ve totally split the program in terms of creating supported pro-social spaces for them. it’s sad.

      i don’t much believe in utopia…much as i’d like to…too much of what drives social media and pays the platforms has pure profit as its logic. but i think we can navigate that as long as WE don’t internalize that or other dehumanizing logics. maybe? ;)

  3. Neil

    I have interacted with three of my blogging friends’ children. Two are teenagers, and one is under ten. I have written on their Facebook pages and shared Instagram photos with them. I think it is great that they are learning to communicate with an adult online, and I enjoy hearing what they have to say (and to get a insider’s look at what interests young people today). I don’t find it weird at all, even when two of them are girls in high school. I would have interacted with adults online at that age as well. I loved talking with adults when I was a teenager.

    I am aware that not all of material is PG on my blog, and that there is a big difference in our maturity (debatable). I don’t change what I write on my blog, in fear of some child showing up, much in the same way that my parents had adult conversations at the dinner table with adult friends and I would eavesdrop. If I curse once in a while online, it isn’t much worse than what they can see in most Hollywood movies. One caveat — I have met all of these children personally, so it seems safe. Sometimes I get followed by kids on Instagram who are under 18, even talented young photographers. It just isn’t worth the potential trouble for me to follow them back, so I never do.

    BTW, I once commented on your son’s blog, and he has never commented back on mine. Maybe his mother can teach him the importance of the social contract and reciprocity.

    1. bon

      touche, Neil. Oscar will be over with bells on. :)

      more seriously, i don’t worry that the adults he follows aren’t PG necessarily, though most have relatively civilized online selves. but i think from content that isn’t aimed at him he learns about facets of life and about worlds to look forward to…that’s the kid he is.

      but you’re right, as a man, particularly, you probably want to be wary of looking too interested in connecting with kids under 18. except maybe those of your friends. and yet part of me thinks…if we were all networked together, wouldn’t we be better positioned to spot the creepy behaviours and actually protect kids?

      i don’t know. i don’t have the answers, at this point. but i’m interested in the different ways we all navigate this.

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  5. Alison, UK

    Really interesting post. My son, now 12, harangued me for a Facebook account for ages. I think he was the last one of his peer group to have one. I let him have one on certain conditions – that I could look at it at anytime although we decided not to ‘friend’ each other. I taught him about not giving out his address or personal details. In our school handbook there is a note about no pupils should request to be Facebook friends with any of the teachers.

    I want to teach him the skills he needs both online and off. He is pretty savvy and streetwise but he is being bombarded with adverts, he has given out his address to swap a game, he gave our computer a virus from downloading a movie, he was ‘friended’ by someone called Porn Hub and we had to have a very serious talk after that. He’s a good, sensitive child but I do feel I’m having to keep one step ahead all the time. He sees me on Twitter and Facebook and can’t see the problem. I asked him if he wanted to start a blog to showcase his animation or drawing but he wasn’t interested.

    I think you’re teaching Oscar the right way. It should be a place of community, it should be safe.

    1. bon

      thanks Alison. the question is, what are the next steps? we have a few years before the peer push gets big, but i want to think about what skills and understanding i want him to have about these spaces BEFORE he moves to FB with friends, say. if FB is still around in 5-7 years…which it may well be.

      an ever-moving target, this. and yet i think the skills serve across platforms and media.

  6. Beck

    My kids (7, 10, and 13) are all pretty much online and there are – of course – concerns we have about that, but they aren’t actually as pressing as the concerns I have about letting them walk to the store by themselves.

    My oldest finally has a Facebook account – the last of her friends, because we wouldn’t let her lie to join – and she’s friends with us and we have her password so we can make sure that things aren’t getting weird and dank but things can (and DO) get weird and dank OFFLINE, too. We’ve talked about not letting strangers opinions weigh on them – because only jerkasses are cruel and their opinions don’t matter – but we’ve ALSO talked about not EVER making Internet Drama, about NEVER EVER making O Look At Me! facebook statuses. But being online is just a fact of life for her and her friends, so they’re the same messages we’re giving her for the rest of her life – don’t be a skank, don’t be a show-off, be considerate, don’t worry about the opinions of people who don’t matter.

    1. Jennifer

      Beck: What are examples of Internet Drama and O Look At Me! Facebook statuses?

      My husband won’t join Facebook because he says it’s one big bragging wall. So I’m wondering if what my husband refers to as adult bragging (“Here’s a picture of me heli-skiing in BC while you lame-asses were working, ha ha”) is the same as your O Look At Me status.

      1. Beck

        Some of my kid’s friends post statuses like “I’m divorcing X, my former best friend, because she’s a BACK STABBING BITCH.”
        Or “Caden and me are in luv 4ever so suck it haters.” Or vague-booking attention-seeking, worrisome things. None of that, child of mine!

  7. Jennifer

    My son, who’s 10, has started playing multi-player games. One he plays exclusively with his grandfather (who lives across the country), but in the other two, he plays with strangers. He is only allowed to chat with his grandfather for now, esp. because the other people’s handles in these games are things like “ILUVTITS.” They’re probably only 10 themselves but hey, I’d rather my son not converse w/ kids like that until he’s riding the middle school bus!

    When he first started playing, he referred to anyone who wanted to join his game online as a friend — like, in the offline sense — and was flattered by their attention. But now he’s beginning to realize that they aren’t friends. They’re … I don’t know what word to use. Acquaintances? People-I-play-with-online-but-never-intend-to-meet-IRL-and-will-drop-without-a-look-backward.

    He’s got no interest in conversing with anyone on Facebook or by email or any of that, at least for now. He has an email acct. but he’s only used it for contacting game-makers about bugs!

    My daughter, who’s 8, is radically different. She joins games that her friends join, like the national geographic one — I forget what it’s called — and considers it to be a form of playdate. Those games require a kid to use a pseudonym, though, so you’ll only know if your friend’s online if she tells you at school. I like that as an intermediary step toward Facebook.

    1. Jennifer

      Ack – What I meant to say, and forgot in my long-windedness, is this: We talk all the time. I ask open-ended questions & encourage both kids to tell me about what’s happening online in the same way I encourage them to talk about what happens offline. But I don’t monitor them otherwise. And my daughter did tell me about someone “being mean” in that game she plays, so I think it’s working, at least at this point.

      Question: Do kids think that no adults are looking over their shoulders? Or, since they have adults in every other aspect of their lives, do they assume adults are watching them online as well?

      1. bon

        i think, from my perspective, you’ve hit the nail kinda on the head with that question, Jennifer. i think we’ve treated FB in particular in such a way that kids don’t assume – and don’t have reason to assume – that real supervision and interaction with adults occurs on FB. the TBH – To Be Honest – meme suggests the possibility of casual monitoring: it’s a form of often nasty summative judgement couched in pretty words that look innocuous to an adult observer glancing at the page. and the way FB initially developed, you could only see conversations on someone’s wall if you were friends with both parties. many tween/teens on FB are friends with their parents, but not necessarily with their friends’ parents. or certainly not with teachers, who are actually among the few adults positioned to connect across kids’ networks and understand the power politics at play in individual situations. i don’t think we’ve done a very good job of watching them, and i think they know.

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  9. Shash

    My now 12 yr old daughter just reminded me that I allowed her to open a Facebook account when she was in grade 3. Her older brother was in grade 5. The primary reason I said yes was because my entire family lives almost 5,000 klms away from us. They have cousins their own age in BC. This way, they could communicate, share photos, play games and get to know one another even though 3 Provinces stand in our way. My parents appreciated seeing their grandchildren in an instant.

    My 3rd child is now 10, he’s asked on a number of occasions for a Facebook profile. I have decided the answer for him is no, not at this time. He’s not interested in communicating at this point, only playing the games. We’ll revisit this topic in a year. Maybe :)

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