by • February 21, 2014 • Leading, Leaders and LeadershipComments (5)11210

Just Unfollow Me: Teaching Digital Identity Development

There have been some wonderful, thoughtful blog posts published recently discussing authenticity and vulnerability in the digital space. Reactions and responses have defended sharing, while others have advocated for better ways to engage in conversation online. A common theme running through these discussions was the many and varied definitions of online ‘noise’ and appropriate reactions to finding more clutter than content in someone’s Twitter feed, Facebook page, or other online profile.

In discussing the latter, the prevailing opinion seems to be encouraging others to block, hide, unfollow or ignore those posts, tweets, and pictures you no longer find meaningful or entertaining. While certainly a viable and reasoned response, I wonder how much this solution may hinder, rather than help, a students’ development.

The world of digital identity development is a messy, complex environment. What was once considered private is now public, with vacation photos clamouring for likes and retweets alongside the results of hard fought personal battles (a tough workout, a particularly bad day at work) or the clutter of professional works in progress (looking for resources to rebuild an interview process or wondering just how many students one can fit into the auditorium). While often benign and inoffensive or, at worst, tedious and overwhelming, there are times when we roll our eyes and shake our heads at what our students (or colleagues) choose to share on social media.

What are we teaching our students when we tell them that those who don’t agree can simply turn away?

As the great Dr. Seuss said “Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind”. This quote is often cited as an ode to ‘being ourselves’ – a somewhat oversimplified yet still important part of what it means to be authentic. It implies what have chosen, for ourselves, who matters the most (or only) – who’s opinion and perspectives are most valuable as we experiment with new and different ways to share pieces of of ourselves online. Those who take issue with what we say, and how we say it, see their opinion matter less, if at all.

I know the issue here isn’t as black and white as I make it out to be, but these lessons are at odds with what we teach our students about ‘best behaviour’ in the digital space. Those that ‘mind’ what we post or share are, at times, the very people that ‘matter’ – potential employers, graduate school supervisors, colleagues, and friends. I find this line especially difficult to walk as I continue to grow in my own struggles with self image, confidence, and authenticity. As I become more of myself (at least, more of who I think I am and want to be), I too cling to Seuss’ axiom for comfort when others simply ‘don’t understand’. However, I must still be conscious of what I choose to share in my digital spaces, because I don’t always get to choose who ‘matters’.

Development is meant to be messy. If there isn’t some chaos or confusion, frankly, I don’t think you’re doing it right. However, we face a difficult dilemma as educators as students continue to redefine the notion of privacy, seeking attention and validation of the rapidly developing pieces of the puzzle that is their identity. This constant change is played out in real time; publicly, widely, and loudly. I worry that teaching students to be content with others unfollowing or blocking them if they ‘mind’ what they post misses the point.

The mess of identity development is contained and, sometimes, controlled by critical reflection. The online space offers new and innovative ways to share the what, who, where, and when, but the waters are murky when we wade into the why. While not all lost followers or blocked profiles are born from malicious or offensive intent, it is worth noting that we serve to only further cloud the process of identity development by asking students to think carefully of what they post and share, while also modelling that they can be easily ignored and forgotten if they make a negative impact, or no impact at all.

We don’t share pieces of ourselves, pages ripped from the work in progress that is our life’s novel, to be ignored. ¬†We teeter on the edge of conflicting extremes – not caring if someone doesn’t pay attention, but, in the same breath, wanting to be seen. With attention and validation so intimately tied to a developing identity, how will we teach our students, and each other, what matters, and who should mind?



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5 Responses to Just Unfollow Me: Teaching Digital Identity Development

  1. I think one of the prevailing issues is that we are treating “digital identity” as its own type of identity development, rather than looking at it as an integrated part of overall identity development. When it comes to digital presence, we too easily step up onto the soapbox and list off the “do’s” and “don’ts” and the “shoulds” or “shouldn’ts”. We are focusing less on the critical thinking aspect. In my own post, which you referenced, I owned the take me or unfollow me as my own approach, one that has come with a deep understanding of how others might perceive what I post and how the digital piece of my identity might contribute to an overall understanding of who I am. I don’t propose that is the response we should take with others, and that is the challenge in many of our approaches to this subset of digital identity – we are leaving out the part that says “this is what works for me, YOU need to decide what works for you”. When it comes to our students, and each other, we need to be magic mirrors – let them see how they look and provide a little feedback, but if they decide they like what they see, then it’s not our role to tell them that’s not the way to go. We need to be teaching our students how to engage with each other maturely through one more method of interpersonal communication, the same as we would with any other form of communication. Most of all, I think, we need to be fully aware of how our approaches and “tips” sound to others. Whether it is our intent or not, our schema through which we view how we should act, react, and interact through the gooey mess that is the internet, can also condemn how others do the same. As educators, it is our responsibility to present the facts, data, and counsel (when asked) but to then provide the room for others to decide how they take and integrate that knowledge.

    • lmendersby says:

      Thanks for such a thoughtful response, Chris. I appreciate and take to heart your point about ‘digital identity’ being seen as a separate beast, much like how online interactions are different from the ‘IRL’ off screen. Being a ‘magic mirror’, as you so aptly described, allows us to see that overlap of actions and consequences that our students may miss, which makes the temptation to direct instead of guide that much greater. Thank you for reiterating the need for teaching our students how to respectfully communicate, regardless of medium or method. The immediate feedback of social media is seemingly addictive and makes the validation and reinforcement that drives some level of identity development much more accessible, which, to me, is worrying if not coupled with the education you speak of. Thanks, as always, for the spark!

  2. Hmmm…food for thought – great post, Lisa! On the devil’s advocate side, I think we also have to decide those issues that are worth fighting for – or posting about, as the case may be. We have to decide when it’s important enough for us to post something that may turn off others or cause people to unfollow us and decide whether or not we’re okay with it. Am I okay posting scantily clad photos of myself knowing colleagues may unfollow me because it’s unprofessional? No. But am I okay posting stories of my depression knowing that some people will choose to unfollow me because they’re not comfortable with this aspect of who I am? Yes. So I both get what your saying and pose a caveat – that we have to pick our battles.

    • lmendersby says:

      Thanks, Kristen! I absolutely agree with ‘picking our battles’, and, further, in choosing to fight in a respectful way. Further to Chris’ point above, there is some skill involved with picking those battles and the tactics we use to fight fairly. What is a battle for some could be a no go for others. We don’t fight in a vacuum, and there will be casualties if we aren’t careful (or maybe even if we are). I’m all for picking our battles, as long as we’re walking in armed with information, a back up plan, and, perhaps most importantly, a keen sense of community and self.

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