Mary Poppins vs Elphaba – the sticky problem of online duality

Thoughts in response to http://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/3432

I have been attending a lot of Professional Development lately and it’s all been about the power of social media in education.  And I am 100% on board with this.  Where I wobble and am under threat of falling off the tightrope is the public versus private, professional versus personal, the real me versus the me I am supposed to be.  I have dual accounts for everything and sometimes it’s a real hassle.  I never friend parents or students on Facebook and rarely colleagues.  Facebook is my personal playground where I get to say whatever I want.  The space is closed so it’s role is clearly defined.  I have no sticky issues here.

Then there is twitter and blogs.  Then I am in a dilemma.  Because my personality does not exist in simplified dualities.  And neither do teachers, they are not “on” one minute and “off” the next.  Anyone who teaches knows they live their profession, always on the lookout for useable ideas.  But just because they are always on the lookout does not mean they are always under their own hypercritical surveillance, sometimes we have to be off.  If I have to constantly put myself under the lens of the possible parent, student, employer who may be reading my tweets or blogs when do I get to say what I really think needs to be said to a broader community.  When do I get to engage in rigorous, messy debates? When can I say something that could be considered mutinous?  I could confine those conversations to real life but that seems to be just another way of silencing dissent.

So when I am talking to students about their digital footprint, there needs to be some robust discussion about this.  If we take sex education as an example, I was once asked by parents why I didn’t just speak about abstinence as a form of birth control and leave the rest out?   Well because kids make decisions and it is better to make informed ones.  If you are going to do something potentially risky, lets go for harm minimization.  Let’s acknowledge that kids are interested in sex and if we put our heads in the sand, they are still going to be interested in sex.

It is similar with a digital footprint.  Kids are going to engage in risky behavior.  Telling them this might damage their future prospects with an employer is not going to stop the “now, always wired avatar” generation from occasionally engaging in risky behaviour.  It’s more about having informed discussions about the consequences and ways to minimize harm to yourself and others.

But the Internet is not such a clearly defined space.   Adults are playing in the same cyberspace as kids and their identities are often masked and blurred.  It’s potential for disaster is what makes parents pull kids off line.  But with ubiquitous mobile devices it seems it may be better to accept they are going to find themselves sharing the cyber streets and alleyways with diverse people and that caution and self protection are paramount.

Teachers on the other hand, are in the position where their personal and professional selves overlap, but they are not allowed to be naughty.  They are not allowed to make mistakes.  Everything must be put through a formal filter where a false identity is preferable.  And that seems wrong.  When I returned to teaching after two years of only being in the company of adults I found myself adopting a physical stance in the classroom that felt very wrong- hands on hips – teapot like – with a Mary Poppins glare.  I was aghast at myself, that I could almost feel the words “Spit Spot, come on now, clean up this mess” tumbling out of my mouth.  That wasn’t me.  I had to internally wrestle to find ways of being at ease with myself as teacher and as human being, rather than magical super nanny.

The Internet should be a space where you can construct your identity in multiple ways but why should teachers have to restrict themselves through puritanical filters because they happen to be teachers.  Teachers  have strong political and personal views as well as other members of the community.  Should they absent themselves from a global discussion because it might be bad for their brand?  Since when did being human also become a marketing exercise?

I am an adult.  I want to play in adult spaces and by that I do not mean anything untoward before all the wowsers start having aneurisms.  I mean I want to get on twitter and have a real conversation with real thinkers, like @HelenRazer who have the liberty of being amazingly erudite and potty mouthed at the same time, when it comes to enlightening commentary on modern feminism.

But if my engagement in this space means I am to be judged by parents, students and employers, I have to ask when do teachers get to be switched off and allowed to express opinions that may be unpopular with the government of the day, who also happen to be paying their wages?

So I have created a professional profile and decided that this is the way I get to set the rules of engagement.  If I have to censor everything I say, through what filter do I put it?  There are obvious ones, ie the teacher that got sacked for tweeting about being high and posting near naked photos of herself, well duh.  But even this, although clearly risky,  makes me wonder, when does she get to be switched off and if she had been male would anyone have even noticed?  She’s 23, does this mistake define her for the rest of her life?  Why should it? Is she wicked forever now because she swore, indulged in drugs and took inappropriate pics of herself?  Just because the Internet lasts forever, should you be judged by it, forever?  Where does forgiveness come into play? Are we allowed to be human and make mistakes in public?  Because more and more people are playing here, will it become more normalised to accept that sometimes people are going to be stupid?  Can teachers make mistakes in public places, when they are not being teachers?

And what about the more blurry messiness of opinion.   It is different from naked photos or drug use.  What about commentary on the politics of gender, religion and a critique of the system within which I work?  I have been very critical of the ways in which the politically conservative education agenda of the day serves to reproduce disadvantage, feminize poverty – i.e. despite excelling in results girls post school pathways will not see them earning as much as boys with similar or lesser achievement; and where violence is masculinized  – for example – allowing the male teacher and boys’ education debate to belittle women teachers.  When do I get to call out what I think is wrong with the “system”.  If I am expected to always be delivering good press?

And what about the comic.  Enjoying adult banter about the joys and pitfalls of alcohol.  Or reflecting on the not so Mary Poppins-like moments in your past?  Or being caught out in awkward, yet humorous situations.  Are you forever branded as Elphaba, the real wicked witch of the west or www. It’s not easy being green.  Blogging is an almost therapeutic practice to sort out the muddied waters of life experience into something more resembling life lessons.  But if you cannot say who you were, how can you be who you are? Cue existential crisis.

My personal blog posts are a mixture between the personal and political.  I find it near impossible to separate the ideologies that fashioned me as a wannabe activist and my general personality.   There are no dualities, who I am is an integration of multiple selves constructed amid a variety of  contexts.  And it is far more complicated than developing a “good” or ”bad” digital footprint.  Rather than censuring students should we ask them to be prepared to defend their opinions and craft their online presence to be audience appropriate?  Should inappropriate posts be seen as mistakes in the ongoing building of an identity, should they be teachable moments and who should be doing the teaching?  Because their peers are often more brutal in their feedback than the adults that are guiding them.  Should we be talking to them in blacks or whites or should we be exploring the dangerous greys?

I realize both my profiles are available to the whole world, but the whole world is not reading them.  In fact I think the most hits my personal blog post has achieved is 75.   I won’t be retiring from teaching and becoming a full time writer anytime soon.  Audiences are often crafted by the writer.  But case in point – I didn’t know where to publish this post – in my professional or personal?  (It’s going in the personal – because that is where I feel safe to have adult conversations.)

If you find yourself in a space where you are not the intended audience, well take some personal responsibility and either GET OUT or report it, if it is offensive and contributes to the oppression or further depowering of marginalized groups, but don’t expect to silence someone who is simply asking the world to explain itself.  I found myself on a faceboook page that was called Mothers Against Interacial Marriage – MAIM – is it a coincidence that the acronym means to physically harm??  What the?? I reported it to Facebook and told ‘them’ I thought it was offensive.  My stepdaughter has a mixed race child, a gorgeous STEP-grandchild – (any age jokes will be banned because I am the writer and I can do that, so there).  Their hateful rhetoric was outrageous, I was offended.   But Facebook refuses to ban it.  Why?  Because I am not the intended audience, free speech has it’s consequences.  And I have a brain and clearly their page was for lobotomised participants.

I don’t have the answers, I just feel uneasy about the sand in which my digital footprint resides, sometimes it seems firm, solid and able to be foundational and at other times it feels like swampy quicksand.   It just isn’t a simple either/or. And, until I am on terra firma,  able to be who I am in both spaces then I will remain with the annoying inconvenience of two personas, one heavily censored by the state and one put through filters of my own construction – one where swearing, rage and dissent is allowed; where musings and questions can be asked; where unfinished thoughts and mistakes can be made; where I can speak the unspeakable and challenge the status quo, because disruption creates change.

A spoonful of sugar makes the tweets more palatable    

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versus     I’ll get you my pretties       

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Or somewhere in between?

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About talkychalky

Teacher, ICT user, Thinker!
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6 Responses to Mary Poppins vs Elphaba – the sticky problem of online duality

  1. morganiseit says:

    It doesn’t matter what we do in life, we have contexts – and sometimes we modify our behaviours slightly or a lot in these different contexts… I have multiple accounts which offer thin veneers – but not between different parts of me so much – more between levels of comfort in my relationships with others. And I have no answers for you.

    You might find this talk (which is now a few years old) on ‘Freedom of speech and its limitations’ of interest. http://www.eoc.sa.gov.au/eo-resources/events/mitchell-oration-2009http://www.eoc.sa.gov.au/eo-resources/events/mitchell-oration-2009

    From my personal view point, I’d rather have conversations that revolt me in a public space where I can respond an offer and offer an alternate view – than have them happen behind closed doors where only like-minded people of that view are talking, nodding in agreement and encouraging more of the same.

  2. morganiseit says:

    Doh. Please forgive the typos and badly constructed sentences. One should not be doing two things at once. I can’t fix them… so I’ll live with them. Apologies.

  3. For me, I am happy with one identity. I have chosen to play safe in these spaces because, realistically, it wouldn’t take much for someone to stumble across your ‘not for work’ profiles anyway. As well as this, I wouldn’t be comfortable publishing thoughts and images that I wouldn’t want my Granny to see. Everything I put up, I am happy for people to find.

    As far as opinions vs ‘towing the line’ at work goes, I think that we should be willing and able to say what we think even if it isn’t the company line. I work in a school where having an opinion is ok. I would hope that our department would be ok as well. It’s the only way that thinking and good debate can happen. I think the key is to do it in a constructive way rather than a ‘ranting way’.

    This is my favourite part of blogging! It forces me to think, reflect and tidy up my argument before I release it on the work (or the 2 people who might bother reading it).

    Great post!

  4. Pam Thompson says:

    Interesting post on a topic that is probably a dilemma for many people. I’m like Jarrod in that I have one profile and tend to only post what I would be happy for anyone to see or read. I don’t really believe in the total security of a closed Facebook account. I think there is still a risk that an ill-informed or timed comment could be seen by the “wrong” people. I don’t friend students or parents but am still aware that I may have some connection to them via a Facebook friend.
    The downside of this though is that I often don’t post some things that I feel strongly about. Catch 22!

    A great read!

  5. morganiseit says:

    I trawled back through my Second Life community to find this post, which is topical to your subjec and poses similar questions. While this is talking about avatar vs atomic it could just as easily be talking about professional vs personal contexts or private vs public personas: http://bit.ly/10DXDRG

  6. cassiew78 says:

    I struggle with a very similar dilemma Karen. I want to be political but given that I’m now working in PR and we could end up working with politicians, I feel I have to watch what I say. Obviously I’d never write anything abusive but sometimes I’d like to rant a little more than I end up doing. I’m a muted version of myself and figure I can comment on issues but try to avoid party political comments. It’s a fine line to tread. I love your blog though and am sharing it with the family over here. You’re a great writer whether you get to do it as a full-time profession or not.

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