the new privacy: the professional and public online identities

Out here we all know about the potential risks of blogging in terms of careers. Yeah, yeah. We also know about the similar pitfalls of Facebook and MySpace pages. I was talking with a colleague of mine about this and we agree that this is a particular concern for preservice teachers. Not surprisingly teachers tend to be held to considerable "moral" standards, often moreso than other professions our students might seek to enter. So while none of our students will benefit on the job market from that MySpace page with photos of drunkenness and making out, preservice teachers are particularly at risk from this. After all, do how many parents want their high school age kids finding pictures of their English teacher trashed at some party making out with some random guy? This is really just an extension of other standards placed on these young and newly hired teachers. When they get dressed to go out for the evening or to the mall or even to the supermarket, they need to consider what happens if they encounter their students and/or their parents.

Is this fair? Maybe, maybe not. Fairness isn’t really the question of course. The question instead, as always, is a rhetorical one: a question of ethos, of audience, authorial identity, and purpose. I can understand feeling put upon by these pressures that say you must perform a certain identity, even when you are not on the job. However, in speaking with students about MySpace, my impression–not surprising–is that students don’t think of their MySpace pages as their "real identity." That is, they recognize MySpace as a performed identity, as a genre unto itself (OK, they don’t use those terms, but they get it).

So then the question becomes… why create/perform this MySpace identity? And there are many good, social reasons for making this choice. However, at some point, things change. As you move from the identity of the teenager and the young college student toward the college senior and graduate, those social reasons change, as should the content of one’s MySpace page. One may even leave these pages behind and move on to other things. I think we have yet to see what will really happen as kids who have had MySpace since high school graduate from college.

One of the things I discuss with my students is the gradual development of an alternate, professional identity online–one that possibly parallels the MySpace identity they continue to maintain. When we start this discussion, many of the students hardly know what their professional identity might be, and that’s ok. The idea here is to grow and develop that identity, much like one grows a MySpace identity over time. Basically that means beginning to think about what it means to be perceived as a professional, to think about performing a professional identity in a professional community.

In the end, all of this is very new. The fact is, basically every college student has a MySpace or Facebook page. Employers, whether they are public schools or corporations, will have to get used to the fact that these pages exist–just as they must accept on some level that their employees have lives outside their jobs that are not strictly private.

In some way, the public-private  online lives of teachers can offer insight into the practical application of what we teach. That is, the persona of the teacher often seems unreal. It is a stereotype that students have difficulty imagining their teachers as having lives beyond the classroom, because teacher subjectivity and values seem so unreal, I think. But one’s online identity might demonstrate how the literacy one seeks to teach in the classroom actually shapes one’s life.

Of course, if that literacy doesn’t shape your life as a teacher then that would beg the question of why you are teaching it, wouldn’t it?

One thought on “the new privacy: the professional and public online identities

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  1. If someone wants to remain private then they should consider anonymity. I mean real anonymity. I am not talking about a Yahoo or Gmail account that anyone with a little knowledge can trace right back to the sender.
    There are several privacy services about that can completely anonymize a person in pretty much all protocols. One I like and use on a regular basis is Ultimate Anonymity at http://www.ultimate-anonymity.com Using a service like this allows one to do or say what they want without fear of repercussion.

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