Online personas are an extension of us, a part of ourselves. Collectively, they form our online identity- which can be quite abstract depending on how many forms of social media and sites a person engages with. But that’s alright, because we learned that we can control our online identity by picking and choosing how we present ourselves and what information we depart.
In order to protect our online identities, we were taught to not post anything “bad” or “incriminating” in the eyes of our family, future employers, or anyone else representing authoritative judgement. These things might “follow” us for the rest of our lives because “nothing can truly be deleted from the internet.” Audrey Watters in The Web We Need To Give Students defines this as digital citizenship. And that’s easy- don’t post pictures or videos of partying, acting out, or otherwise behaving on the more wild side.
To cement this sentiment, a professor during my junior year assigned a paper that required us to explore our digital identities. In order to complete the assignment, we had to type our name into the Google search bar. If I do that right now, I’ll see my LinkedIn and Facebook account in the results, as well as academic mentions on App State’s website news. And if I’m honest, these results barely begin to encompass what I consider my digital identity. If someone had knowledge of and were to search my most used gamer tag/online alias, that would expand on my online identity, but still not cover everything.
At this stage of my life, what would significantly fill in the blanks of my identity for anyone looking is a repository of my work- an accessible, online, and controlled portfolio. As someone who has spent the last 18 consecutive years of their life attending one academic institution or another, it would be an understatement to say how encompassing education has been. But this isn’t wholly reflected anywhere online- when it should be. I would expect this sentiment to be relatable, and therefore fully agree with and admire the efforts of UMW and The Domain of One’s Own Initiative to give students autonomy of their online identity. And I appreciate that their focusing on educating students on what they can control, rather than just what they cannot- i.e. privacy legislation.
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) lays out privacy rights in the context of students and their parents. Its purpose is to provide access to the student’s records and be able to challenge the record content and the release of the records to third parties. Information on this can be found here.
By providing students of greater control of their digital identity, they are educating students on how to manage it as well- beyond the digital citizenship they are accustomed to. Going further into the Age of Technology, this is incredibly important as pressure to present yourself online as you do in real life increases. This is evident in the way that an influencer’s power is positively correlated with their perceived authenticity. But as authenticity and online interaction increases, it is arguable that user-controlled privacy decreases.
Some users feel like they have nothing to hide, and this reflects in their perceived apathy toward the increased data mining by corporations and lack of attention towards privacy-related legislation in the works. For example, while Americans are concerned with COVID-19, the EARN IT Act is currently threatening to end end-to-end encryption. This would give law enforcement officials and the government a backdoor into user information, currently held by tech companies.
The amount of government surveillance that would be made possible would infringe on users’ right to privacy. Despite the gravity of the implications, many people are unaware of this legislation. This makes education on digital citizenship, online identity, and privacy advocacy even more critical. Therefore, I would like to argue that there should be more efforts to educate students on their digital identity by giving them full control of it within their rights.