Watching the detectives: Rethinking the way we teach digital identity

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Social media is a disruptive and potentially transformative practice for adult education. According to Edudemic, 91% of college faculty in the US are incorporating social media into their teaching, 80% of academics have at least one social media account and 2/3 of students access social media during class . There are wide variations in the understanding people (academics, administrators and learners) have about social media, both in its scope and scale. In the context of my recent posts about the notion of ‘e-learning potential’ I have riffed on the idea that resistance to pedagogical change arising from technology comes in many forms (action/activity, vicarious willing of failure, and lack of empirical research). The reactions to social media and the practices and policies that emerge can be seen as another form of resistance, which I call ‘It wasn’t me, it was them’. We look at learning innovations like social media in the context of ‘well we would use social media more, but employers are demanding a certain professional image of our graduates so we have to be careful’ or ‘learners use their social media in my lectures too much, and if they’d put their Facebook away for five minutes they would have passed’. I worked for an institution a few years back that actually banned all social media from staff and student machines on the premise that social media represented nothing more than a time wasting opportunity.


Of all the things I have seen that get academics angry (especially at conferences), social media is right up there. From the dangers of stalking, to the power we are ceding to corporations who own social media, to how it will change the world (already has, naysayers) through to the discounting of its impact as hype, social media and its use by our learners is debated ad nauseum. At lot of this argument is based on limited experiences, spurious assertions and sometimes Daily Mail level sensationalism (we won’t go into the case of the poor girl who lost her Police Youth Czar job and was interviewed by police for offensive behaviour because of tweets made as a 14 year old…as we say in Australia, we often live in a wowser society)


In Australia, it is a derogatory word denoting a person who saps all the fun out of any given situation. Derived from the temperance movement in Australia and New Zealand at the turn of the C20th, when it was hurled as an accusation towards conservative teetotallers who were too prim and proper to relax and socialise, it has become a more generic term that can be assigned to any straight bore lacking a sense of humour, especially petty bureaucrats and Aussies politicians.


But equally, there is a generational gap in terms of social media usage. Phone calls, memos and faxes were replaced by email for my generation (I am proudly GenX). The average 14-21 year old rarely looks at their email inbox but will send between 1200-2000 texts, tweets and IMs a month. Yet the decisions about what constitutes acceptable social media usage as part of professional practice is made by people whose practices are not generally in line with those of their learners (such is the broader problem with e-learning generally, discussed in an earlier post) or were not exposed to the environment in the content we made is displayed and shared in different and technologically facilitated ways (who needs a slide night when you have a photo-stream, who sends out paper invites when you can create a FB event?).


So, to put this in context, I want to highlight some of the issues for HE around social media resistance by being deliberately provocative about what is a contested but extremely common practice and how we as institutions react to its impact…let’s talk about the detective employers who use online vetting…


‘They call it instant justice when it’s past the legal limit.’ – A case of employer-led practice development


There has been significant and some would argue hysteric media hoo-hah around the rights of an employer to ‘google-stalk’ or more politely ‘online vet’ potential employees, looking at their social media profiles and their shared content to see if they fit their company’s values. These companies check peoples Facebook profiles, read through their tweets and peer into their photo and YouTube viewing histories. There are HR services that have cropped up to help facilitate this investigative process. As HE institutions discuss the emergence and impact of social media, the constant chattering of resistance and cautious action points to how employers can find anything they want out about you, and that even if you take those photos down, they are still there, for the boss of your potential dream job to see and deny you the corner office. And with that, our narrative changes from the transformative power of social media to looking at how we can lock it down, teach students about the dangers and nasties of social media usage, that we have all the answers about the professional way to present yourself online.

Google stalk (from the urban dictionary)

search for facts/information about someone by looking up their name, address and any other known facts on google

Example: I spent all day google stalking our new neighbours – the one downstairs runs a record company from home


What right do employers have to look at social media profiles?

Every right on the planet (bar one). They are publicly accessible. The internet makes it easy. The law has no issue with anyone legally looking at public information. Note the bar one. I challenge their moral right to do so. ‘Oh very dangerous’ I hear you cry! And yes, it is a sweeping assertion designed to polarise the debate. Hear me out. Some people compare online vetting to the employer’s right to ask you to submit to a health check, a drug test or a credit or background check. There is one difference. I consent to those. They cannot happen without my consent. The social media stalking by employers occurs WITHOUT consent, under the tenuous notion that because it’s public, you have given consent. That sounds like reverse engineering to me. They also argue that they are not looking for just the drunk selfies you put up but for the good things you do like charity work or helping your nanna mow the lawn.
Going for a job as a bank clerk is not public office. You are not required to be held to the arguably contradictory standards people who hold political office are. Why does an employer have to vet you? How does a picture of you holding a pineapple cocktail enjoying yourself indicate that you have an alcohol problem, and is that any of their business?


George goes for his first job after university. He wants to work in the city for a major bank after finishing his finance degree. He sends LargeBank PLC his CV, they ask him for an interview. Laurie, the recruitment officer asks some questions to ascertain whether George is ‘LargeBank material’ and holds their values. The interview ends with George feeling good. He goes to the pub with his mates to debrief and relax as he usually does every Thursday. Laurie follows him to the pub, noting that he is at a pub (does he have an alcohol problem?) and he is there at 4.45pm (is he a lazy worker?). He sees a mate who he hasn’t seen in years at the pub and gives him a hug (he seems pretty rowdy and loud, is that an issue in our office?). He takes off his tie and suit (hhhm, causal dresser?) and sips his beer (must be a lager lout). George goes to the toilet (skiver!) and Laurie goes to all his mates while he is away and ask questions about George. Do they have embarrassing photos they can share with her? Any stories of holidays or former girlfriends? She might even ask if he has done any charity work. Is Laurie breaking the law? Probably not. Is it any different than looking through George’s Facebook? Yes, looking through the Facebook is anonymous and easy. And you have little or no risk of being detected, challenged or having the information filtered or interpreted. You get to form your opinion without any pesky potential employee getting in your way. Isn’t the internet wonderful? Lucky they didn’t have it my day, eh?


What does this mean for HE?

Employability is at the core of the policy agenda for HE and is a critical consideration for many of our learners. There is a tension then between the importance and proliferation of social media and the practices of employers. A variety of surveys have estimated that online vetting practice is occurring in between 1/5 and 2/3 of employers (a huge range I know, but how many of them truly admit something that has both legal and ethical implications). With professional practice, graduate attributes and personal development become increasingly prevalent in curriculum and learning, teaching and assessment, the practices of employers in this area are not necessarily challenged by the academy, but normalised by our acceptance of them. If employers are actively vetting their potential employees, then do we as a university alter our social media usage and practices to ensure that learners know the ‘stranger danger’ of having public profiles, sharing content and collaborating? In this scenario, is our most important lesson the one about how you construct an identity, as opposed to evolving one? Should we talking about managing internet privacy, taking professional headshots, using social media as tool to promote a personal brand?


There is no black and white here, but whilst I normally find myself answering such questions with outraged self-righteousness, I also know that there is a middle ground in this case. This middle ground does not lie in the scare tactics, the fear mongering or in normalising the arguably unethical practices of some employers (indulge me for one sentence: if any potential employer of mine online vetted me without my personal life without my permission, I would respond to them by saying that it is their values I hold in my contempt and I would not want to work for them!). The middle ground (to return to the point) lies in developing and supporting practices about how to use, shape, influence and lead on social media. What is the power of the community, of crowd sourcing and of collaborative media creation? It is the assumption that education prepares the manager of the future and that they will be the people making the decisions in probably less time than their parents or mine for that matter.


Teaching someone what not to do is often negative and frankly, of the moment. It is giving someone a list of fish they shouldn’t eat before you give them one they can. Using social media as part of HE should involve finding out what media they already use, how do they use it, how do I use it, why do they have an avatar or an alias? What skills have they acquired in using social media? How do we then transfer, repurpose, remix and reuse those skills for professional social networks, how do we analyse and understand the behaviours of others on social media, giving us insights into customers, community and societal and civic responsibilities? It is teaching them how to fish, how to share that knowledge with others and how design, develop and deliver the best fish recipe ever. Social media is not an instrument of hype any more than email is new-fangled way to say stuff. It is a fundamental aspect of society. Employers and institutions have to face up to that, and so do their practices, their expectations and the policies.

Shameless self-promotion – How do I know any of this was real?


I have been working on a variety of radio, podcasting and sound art projects for years under my DJ non-de-plume – DJ Ringfinger.  These have varied between shows about Australian indie music (which I shamelessly plugged last year) through to some more experimental multimedia projects.  I usually like to keep my worlds only slightly bleeding into each other.  However, my latest piece, a sound collage-musique concrete composition called ‘How do I know any of this was real?’ is based on two common themes that I have written about this blog.

Firstly, I wanted to explore the idea of the digital stranger, and how much we and others we interact with, reveal about the real ‘us’ and from that what identity/s we construct through and because of that interaction.  And secondly, I am fascinated by the idea of realness and authenticity in on-line engagement, what constitutes it? Who decides what is real and authentic anyway?

Some of the spoken word comes directly from the text of this blog, which is why I spruiking it here.

For those of you into the specs of the piece; the words are spoken by Calisto (a voice actor) from (which is a site that links products and services to consumers for a nominal $5 fee) and the sounds are manipulated and contorted short samples from 1950s and 1960s classical-xploitation records.

(artwork by Melbourne street artist RONE


How do I know that all of this was real? : The dark side of being a digital stranger in an online learning environment – Part 1

I have been debating the idea of the digital stranger for a quite a while, both on this blog and in other online learning contexts. Previously I had defined the digital stranger as;


‘Digital strangers are people we interact with, people we are inspired by, people we understand (even a little) about their views and their position in a specific network, but know very little about. We can still learn from and with them. We can create and share. We can innovate and solve problems. We can increase awareness and affect change. We can engage, entertain and provide comfort or inspiration.’


At the heart of the concept of the digital stranger is the belief that online interaction affords both the opportunity to represent ourselves in different and (sometimes) untraceable and hidden ways as well as the ability to express ideas, opinions and emotions that because of the apparent anonymity of the virtual environment, we might be unwilling to do face to face.  There is a unique manifestation of the digital stranger in the area of online learning that has significant and far-reaching impacts on the effectiveness of student learning and teaching.  This post (which will be published in two parts) will look at how the darker side of the digital stranger poses challenges for designers and facilitators of online learning (in all its guises – I use the phrase online learning to mean everything from component based blended learning through to complete online programmes).


A learner engages with a programme virtually in a variety of different ways, through VLEs or through email, blogs, wikis, discussion forums, chat spaces etc.   They may choose to be passive observers of the passing world or active engagers in debates and collaborations.  They may interact with others on the programme using a pseudonym or constructed online identity or use their real names and faces.  They may feel more comfortable sharing their experiences, perhaps traumatic or personally difficult when no-one knows who they are or they choose to reveal only small shards of their life relevant to the programme.  They may offer fictionalised accounts or tell the absolute truth.  They may or may not share an image or photo, or maybe pick an abstract picture to represent them.  They might even adopt an entirely fictional persona.  They may be active one day and disappear into silence or initiate a virtual death the next, forever vanishing from the community.  Despite the amazing ability of the internet to make, maintain and develop connections, this constructed identify is difficult to google search, leaves very few breadcrumbs or trails on the internet and most importantly, is in the complete control of the person constructing it.  They can stay silent or fill pages with communications.  They can effectively interact with people around them, forming relationships on the basis of the personality, information, opinions and conversations they choose to exhibit (real or otherwise).  The proportions of the ‘real’ person (if such a construct exists) that is revealed is variable, adding the opportunity to generate authenticity, believability and emotional and intellectual connections.


Whilst perhaps not as fluid as the identities created through social media usage (where all manner of traits can be imagined, swapped and transposed) there is potential in online learning for what psychologist John Suler termed the ‘Online Disinhibition Effect’, which can be defined ‘as a loosening (or complete abandonment) of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal face-to-face interaction during interactions with others on the Internet.’ (Source: Wikipedia).  Suler (2004) argues that this effect can have both benign and toxic impacts noting;


‘Some types of benign disinhibition indicate an attempt to better understand and develop oneself, to resolve interpersonal and intrapsychic problems or explore new emotional and experiential dimensions to one’s identity. We could even consider it a process of “working through”… By contrast, toxic disinhibition may simply be a blind catharsis, a fruitless repetition compulsion, and an acting out of unsavoury needs without any personal growth at all.’

Suler identified a number of conditions and behaviours that foster this disinhibition (including dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection and dissociative imagination).  Where disinhibition occurs in an online learning environment there are significant challenges for managing and encouraging interaction between learners, between teachers and learners and between the teachers themselves and the wider community.  It may manifest itself in a variety of ways from interpersonal disagreements, the flash formation and perhaps crumbling of personal relationships, deceptive or manipulative interactions, the support for or failure of social engagement or social creation of knowledge or understanding or the misunderstanding or misdirection of instructional, assessment or learner support processes.
In an earlier post (The Digital Stranger: Participation, social networking and creativity) I made the case that digital strangers in an online learning environment were a positive for the programme, supporting collaboration and sharing in a safe space.  I want to have a look at the darker side of the digital strangers and online learning in this post. I argue that online disinhibition can have significant impacts on the effectiveness of online learning, the motivation of participants and ultimately on the wider processes of social interaction and connectivity.

1.       Dissociative anonymity

Sometimes referred to simply as ‘I’m not me’, dissociative anonymity occurs when ‘people have the opportunity to separate their actions online from their in-person lifestyle and identity, they feel less vulnerable about self-disclosing and acting out. Whatever they say or do can’t be directly linked to the rest of their lives’ (Suler 2004).  Certainly, this kind of anonymous behaviour offers learners a safe space to express, develop and construct ideas and opinions.  It can encourage developmental thinking and a more transparent exploration of the evaluative and critical-thinking processes that are occurring.  It can also enhance trust where participants can demonstrate ‘authentic’ behaviours (or at least the believable appearance of them).  The alternate side of this anonymity is the lapsing of responsibility for actions, where interactivity and engagement subverts from politeness to anti-social or hostile behaviour and the learner or teacher cannot see their own culpability for the results.  In terms of online learning this can increase attrition, push tentative learners to the fringes and isolate them or misdirect the pattern or flow of learning into spurious arguments, inter-personal conflicts or pointless engagement with fictional or fantasy debates.


2.       Solipsistic Introjection

Solipsistic introjection suggests that often the reading and interpretation of online interaction can be ‘all in our heads’. In the absence of visual cues, body language or perhaps even a clear idea of what the communicator sounds or looks like we interpret their words (or actions) through a filter of our own ‘internal voice’ or as a character built on an imagined picture of what the other person looks like;

‘…people may feel that their mind has merged with the mind of the online companion. Reading another person’s message might be experienced as a voice within one’s head, as if that person’s psychological presence and influence have been assimilated or introjected into one’s psyche…(and) consciously or unconsciously, a person may even assign a visual image to what he or she thinks the person looks and behaves like’ (Suler 2004).

In terms of online learning solipsistic introjection interferes with the reading of text, whether this is learning materials, comments or instructions.  For example, a comment made in a discussion forum might be read through the filter of the imagined voice of the person making it, changing it from helpful to angry, innocent to sarcastic, setting off a cascading set of interactions.  Sometimes we read what we want to read into or from a text exchange, altering our own relationships within the community  Alternately, instructions for assessment or feedback to learners may be incorrectly interpreted, applied to inappropriate circumstances or simply taken the wrong way.  All of us have misread emails, seen lines in chat and reacted too quickly.  It is one of the reasons I use emoticons extensively to add some sense of visual cue into a text based medium.  Where there are large numbers of learners on a programme, engaging asynchronously, then the potential for misinterpretation, deliberate or otherwise increases exponentially, especially where the learners or teachers have little or no experiences with online interaction (although experience is not always a panacea for this problem).

3.       Asynchronicity

Certainly one of the challenges in managing an online learning environment for both learners and teachers is asynchronous communications. This may be where we post a considered (or not) response, ask a question or seek information on a topic and have to wait for a response and are denied the immediate gratification of engagement.  Once again fantasy and imagination can interfere, with rational and irrational reasons for the delay constructed in our heads (have I pissed them off?  Are they ignoring me? Is there something going that will result in them not responding at all? Have I trumped them with my brilliance? 😉  Please note the wink here!)  Alternately, the ability to make a contribution to a conversation, log off and avoid the obvious and present consequences can equally disinhibit the participant.  Suler notes that ‘…in real life, the analogy might be speaking to someone, magically suspending time before that person can reply, and then returning to the conversation when one is willing and able to hear the response.’

In a face to face environment, the reactions and inter-reactions are measurable and confined to a specific time and space.  In online learning they may be spread over days or weeks, with comments or criticisms lying dormant for the entire time, festering directly on the mind of the writer.  They may even log in more often to check for responses, getting increasingly frustrated at the flashing annoyance of the VLE proclaiming ‘no new messages’.  And perhaps days later when they have moved onto something else, a different concept or interaction, someone picks up the thread and starts it all over again, either responded to or sometimes equally ignored.

So, as a practitioner (learner or teacher, or simply interested spectator) what does this mean for the practice of how we manage online learning.  Well, I argue there are three critical implications for the design and management of online learning in a disinhibitive environment.

a)      Whilst I and many others make a strong case for the necessity for a new pedagogy for the digital age, there is an equally strong case for a new understanding of educational interaction.  The old models of didactic broadcast, bounded interactivity, acceptable mores and reliable reactions are an ill-fit for the new environment.  And maybe, they shouldn’t be.  But as more learners live their life in these digital neighbourhoods the need to understand why interactions occur in a certain way and with outcomes that we couldn’t or didn’t want to predict is critical to ensuring the effectiveness of the online learning experience.

b)      The exponential growth of MOOCs and other magnetically attractive and emancipatory, free and open educational programmes is exposing millions more learners to an online environment of learning.  This critical mass of learners, often from non-traditional backgrounds, is placing new strains on our understanding of online learning.  In some ways, institutions are abrogating some responsibility for managing or responding to disinhibitive behaviours by removing direct tutor engagement, replacing it with videos and materials, leaving the learners to self-organise and self-manage the behaviours within the learning community.  Self-management can lead to artificial hierarchies, cliques and castes. Outside of education, this has been seen often on bulletin boards, gaming platforms and even amongst Wikipedia editors and contributors to disempowering and sometimes tragic ends.

c)       There has been a large amount written recently about cyber-bullying, psychological games and trolls on twitter, facebook and other social media platforms.  Disinhibition can lead directly to these anti-social behaviours, where the distance between the participants and the power of anonymity can encourage to people to act in ways they wouldn’t normally.  Whilst, registrations and enrolment in an online programme reduce the risk of anonymous behaviour there is still significant potential for people to engage with others ‘for effect’ rather than for learning; to deliberately seek a rise or gain satisfaction from having an emotional impact on other learners.  The role of the facilitator in this environment is critical as they need the ability to identify when this happening and find an appropriate solution for it.  They also need to ensure they don’t get caught up in the maelstrom themselves, participating actively in a flame war.

In the second part of this post which I hope will go up next week I will look at the other three of Suler’s disinhibitive processes.   I am really interested in people’s experiences of disinhibitive behaviours in online learning.  If you have stories that you want to share  you can do so via an anonymous comment on this post (for this post only I have turned on anonymous commenting).