Digital Footprints – mine, yours, ours

This week I have begun participating in a MOOC being run by the University of Edinburgh about our digital footprint. As I am deeply entrenched in PhD research regarding personal learning networks (PLN), the concept of a digital footprint is of course extremely interesting to me, because learning through a PLN leaves indelible traces all over the internet – wherever, in fact, you connect and learn with others. Gaining a well developed online presence is one of the many benefits of learning through a PLN – your connections, the learning and knowledge that you share, the things you discover and the creativity that you demonstrate when you remix and recreate content to redistribute throughout your network all contribute to building a body of information which communicates who you are as a learner. This is why, when I saw this course, being run by two lovely and very knowledgeable ladies, Nicola Osborne and Louise Connelly, I knew I had to participate.

Our many selves

One of the first new concepts that I came across while working through the Week One material was the “uncontainable self”. This idea comes from the work of Barbour and Marshall (2012), when they explored how academics develop their online personas. They identified five distinct types of academic persona, including the formal self, the networked self, the comprehensive self, the teaching self and most interestingly, the uncontainable self.

Barbour & Marshall, 2012, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The uncontainable self

The uncontainable self was the one that captured my attention, because it was one I had not given previous thought to, and because I felt that it has ramifications for those who are teaching young people about their own digital footprints.

The uncontainable self described in the article is the representation of self that is created online by others. It is what exists even if nothing is purposefully created or shared online by an individual. Although it may seem that if one avoided all interaction online, there would be no representation, the uncontainable self is sometimes surprisingly large. In a professional sense, a person who writes articles or books may find that references to these articles are now available online through online library catalogues or databases, or that reviews of their work are shared publicly. In the personal sphere, others may tag photos that leave traces online. Even seemingly innocuous actions like writing a review of a business or restaurant experience may end up being published on the web, and personal details such as employment records are sometimes made public on company websites. This means that even someone who holds no social media accounts and who has very little to do with the internet may still have a digital footprint.

We are all aware of the digital footprint we may be leaving when we sign up to social media sites such as Facebook or create publicly viewable CVs using LinkedIn. However, it is this collation of data which we did not publish ourselves which is the least considered aspect of our digital presence.

Important for everyone…

This, I imagine, is why one of the first tasks of the Digital Footprint MOOC is to search for yourself online. Cleverly, it is suggested that this is done using the search engine Duck Duck Go, as well as Google. I would also suggest that if you have access to the internet via a VPN, that you do a similar search through this. The reason for this is because of the filter bubble.

Filter bubbles result from personalized searches when a website algorithm selectively guesses what information a user would like to see based on information about the user.

Google uses our past actions online to build a picture of what it understands we want to see. It has algorithms that create different search results depending upon your search history. Obviously, if you are looking for yourself, on a machine that you frequently use, Google will provide you with search results which may well be more pleasing than what might normally be returned for a complete stranger. Using Duck Duck Go or a VPN removes that search history, so what you see when you search for yourself is more likely to be what any random person might see. Therefore you get a clearer picture of what your digital footprint really looks like.

Begin searching young!

It is the uncontainable self that we need to teach students and young people about more than anything. Many young people are familiar with the privacy settings on their social media accounts. However it is the fact that others can contribute to their online presentation that holds real potential for problems. This is why regular searches for their own online presence makes for good practice. While it is possible to change settings so that others may not tag photos without the person in the photo being made aware, conducting a search for the ‘uncontainable self’ is what will catch anything that’s slipped through the cracks. Of course, it may not all be bad. In fact, none of it may be. However, being knowledgeable about what is online about oneself is an important part of digital citizenship and security.

What to do if something negative is found? Firstly, if it is not possible to ask the poster to remove it, consider contacting the platform where the content is located. Sometimes, however, it is impossible to remove what has been posted; it may not be possible to know whether the content has been shared, and if so, where else it may reside. This video is quite old now, but it gets the message across really effectively.

So you’ve been publicly shamed

One of the best ways of dealing with negative online information is to fight it with positive. Hopefully it’s nothing too serious. One dodgy photo or wayward comment is not likely to ruin a future career. However, sometimes things can go badly, quickly. Jon Ronson, author of So you’ve been publicly shamed talks about some of the worst examples of how social media virality can take one small mistake and transform it into something that ruins a life. In his discussion on the ABC, he suggested that the best way to overcome a public shaming event is to actively develop a positive web presence, which will hopefully slowly replace the negative.

This post is not meant to be a huge downer. Having the chance to develop a positive digital footprint is an amazing opportunity. The internet gives voice to many whose gifts and talents would previously remained undiscovered. Being educated and taking active steps in managing the online presence we create, as well as being informed about the tracks and traces others may leave on our behalf, means that we can ensure positive experiences are most likely for everyone.

Before I finish, I must add:

I love my last name, Oddone. It not only strongly connects me with my Italian heritage, but it also is kind of cool – spelt odd one, I feel it sums up who I am – kind of an odd one!! However, it does mean that when I search for myself, anyone who has written anything mentioning an odd one – often that someone is the odd one out – comes up as well. So I have made sure that everything you find about me is positive and shares my passions for education and learning. Sometimes having a name that is uncommon is good; other times, it makes it harder to get lost in the crowd! Just an observation from my own personal experience!

 

If this topic is one you would like to learn more about, I would encourage you to check out the Digital Footprint MOOC being run through Coursera.

If you are teaching students, there is a wealth of great resources out there: some good ones include:

Think You Know – covers many digital safety topics including reputation management with a space for parents and teachers as well as young people. Australian.

Teaching Privacy – The first of the ten principles addressed is You’re Leaving Footprints – designed with activities from K-12. US

Common Sense Media – choose the year level band, then use the symbols on the left hand side to filter for digital footprint and reputation. US

 

Reference:

Barbour, K., & Marshall, D. (2012). The academic online: Constructing persona through the World Wide Web. First Monday, 0. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v0i0.3969

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