Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Between the Branded

by John T. Spencer

In the name of "digital citizenship," students are encouraged to engage in social networking and develop an online personna that will serve them well in life.

"Keep your comments nice," we warn them.

"Make sure to avoid profanity in your blog.  An employer might see it someday."

"Hey kid, you might want to be careful about getting shit-faced drunk and posting the picture to Facebook. That vapor trail lasts forever."

I get it.  We want students to behave appropriately.  We want to see acceptable use.  We don't want a juvenile mistake to screw a kid up for a lifetime.

And yet . . .

Sometimes I wonder if we're encouraging students to self-market rather than engage in meaningful interaction.  Sometimes it seems that students are encouraged to post only their best work, ask only the best questions, avoid anything remotely offensive on their Twitter and keep their Facebook squeeky clean.

We're asking them to hide.

We're asking them to create a brand of themselves that will then be used to self-market for the rest of their lives.  For all the talk of meaningful learning and authenticity, the system often reminds students that social media is a megaphone and therefore, we'd be best to avoid being insensitive or offensive.

I ask students to watch what they post online.  Filter it through the lens of "anybody can see this."  I ask students to develop portfolios and post their best work.  I hammer the concept of digital citizenship.  Sometimes, though, I wonder if it's all in preparation for building a brand, finding a niche and the perpetual self-marketing that plagues the adult world.

I get it.  I don't want students to be lost in the future.  I don't want them to pay permanently for a mistake made in the eighth grade.  

And yet . . . 

Adolescents need to experiment socially.  Ever worked with teenagers?  Their ups are way up and their downs are way down and they can be brutally honest in a way that adults often curb.  They are figuring out relationships.  They are engaged in friendships with training wheels.

Asking students to "be nice" might be great in managing liability, but it fails to reach them at their level and ultimately it fails in the purpose of education.  If I want students to become honest, ethical critical thinkers, I'm not sure the model needs to be Mr. Rogers.

I want students to be themselves, unfettered and unbranded.

John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink.  He recently finished two books, Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and Drawn Into Danger, a fictional memoir of a superhero. You can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer


  1. I recently had a student ask another student, "Do you ever Google yourself?"

    "Only when I'm feeling lonely," the student says, offering an honest answer with a little innuendo mixed in.

    It's a clever comment, but it's a comment he would avoid on Twitter or his blog. And that's the tragedy. He recognizes that online is a place to put his best foot forward and, being unsure of where to put his worst foot, he's stumbling around, trying to find himself and knowing that the online world doesn't necessarily allow him a place to stand.

  2. Can society survive us "being ourselves" online or face to face? The reason societies create laws, manners, and even morality is because the "real" us don't work well in groups...

    I am not advocating only publishing our best, but I don't think we should necessarily want to show everything. I have secrets I want to keep too. ;)

  3. Thoughtful post. Thanks!

  4. "For all the talk of meaningful learning and authenticity, the system often reminds students that social media is a megaphone and therefore, we'd be best to avoid being insensitive or offensive."

    Isn't it just wrong to be insensitive and offensive in its own right, not just because someone else looks at it? Digital citizenship need not be about branding: it should be about civic values, like dignity, respect, discipline and responsibility. Asking someone to be nice doesn't '[fail] in the purpose of education:' it is a part and parcel of a quality education. But it should be about the development of personal virtues in respect to the virtual community rather than digital branding.

  5. @mn kilmer

    "Offensive" is often in the eye of the beholder; and there are times that we need to be offended. Great art -- from Rubens to Picasso to the Sex Pistols -- has a history of offending.


  6. I think it's wrong to be insensitive, but offensive, no. There's a point in offending someone to provoke thought. I want dignity, respect and discipline. But being nice is not the same as being respectful. Socrates was offensive. Jesus was offensive. Gandhi was offensive. And sometimes, in the name of being "sensitive" we ask people to be uncritical, silent and tame.

  7. Speaking of what's "offensive", check out Rushdie's commentary in yesterdays's NYTimes: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/20/opinion/20Rushdie.html?_r=3&hp

  8. There is a difference between speaking truth with boldness and being purposely offensive in an effort to draw attention to an argument, and I think it's worth our time to teach the difference.

    'There's a point in offending someone to provoke thought.'

    I'd rather see people be thoughtful to produce thought, and if that thoughtfulness is offensive to others, then so be it.

    'And sometimes, in the name of being "sensitive" we ask people to be uncritical, silent and tame.'

    Excellent point. Sensitivity is not about silence, but approaching disagreement with empathy and dignity.

    My original point was that digital citizenship ought to be more about personal responsibility for the digital community than utilitarian concerns about what happens when they get caught.

  9. I'd like to point out that I agree with your main point and I also agree that being respectful and civil are necessary skills in life - both online and offline. A simple glimpse at rightwing or leftwing cable news suggests we are in bad need of this skill as a society.

  10. @Jabiz

    Not sure. I read it earlier. Blogger can be occasionally finicky. Go ahead and repost if you like; I'll send a report to the Google Machine.


  11. At first, I thought that we were in an in-between time. In the past, you could move on. People forgot and in the worst cases you could move to the next state over and start fresh. In the (Internet-enabled) future, I thought people would know everything but be accepting. Basically, once the people doing the hiring and giving the bank loans were the people who grew up with Facebook, everyone would understand that we all do things we regret. But this middle time would be hard, and we'd carry the price of that change on our shoulders most of our lives.

    Now, though, I'm not sure that the future will have that kind of tolerance. It seems like we just keep getting stricter about what's appropriate online, and kids just have to become mature much younger. As long as the job market stays desperate, I think we have to work hard to be perfect citizens rather than who we are.


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