Educating the Educators?

On: October 5, 2008
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About Marijn de Vries Hoogerwerff
Marijn de Vries Hoogerwerff is a New Media theorist, Web researcher and Internet entrepreneur. In 1999 he started working as IT professional at the broadband Internet Service Provider @home (a franchise of the ISP and search engine company Excite@Home). After working here for over eight years he decided to pursue a study in New Media at the University of Amsterdam. During this study he has been an active member of the Digital Methods Initiative (DMI) research group, working together in a strong team of designers, programmers and theorists to develop new Web-specific methods and tools for doing online research and has written in depth about Internet censorship research, code consciousness and cyber-cosmopolitanism. Next to several stand-alone projects he also started up CYBERLIFE, focusing on building Web-applications, sites and tools, Web hosting and doing Web research. After receiving his Master degree in New Media he continued his contributions to the DMI, has helped organize the Society of the Query conference for the Institute of Network Cultures and has been a thesis supervisor at the University of Applied Sciences (HvA) for Interactive Media. His current company, nochii BV, focusses on utilizing theoretical knowledge and practical experience to help companies get a better understanding about the Web, their network and the space they occupy and its relation to the offline. He holds the strong believe that the Web, both as infrastructure and as concept, can aid in dealing with the increasing complexity of the world (both online as offline) and the relating problematics.

Social Networking Sites are increasingly becoming places where people articulate themselves, both aware and unaware sharing personal information to a huge society of internet users. Especially the exposure of young people online has been subject to anxieties and fears by educators, politicians and parents. The fears generally stem from a shift from the private into the public or as Richard Rogers has once put it, the public display of the informal.             

In her essay ‘Social Network Sites: Public, Private, or What?‘, Dana Boyd makes an effort to pinpoint those specificities of SNSes which make them different from unmediated spaces like parks and cafes. She explains that Social Network Sites are the latest generation of ‘mediated publics’ – environments where people can gather publicly through mediating technology. She distinguishes four properties which are unique to these mediated publics. Information put online will stay online for an indefinite time (persistence), it is more easy to find by others (searchability), content can be copied and put into another context or altered without it being clear (replicability) and there are potentially a huge group of readers who can view the information but of whom one is largely unaware due to the lack if visibility (invisible audiences).

These are however not unique qualities of the social network sites, but are fundamental characteristics of the contemporary web in general. The fear of people (mostly non-members) thus not primarily originate out of these new networks, but more so out of a assumed lack of internet literacy of young internet users or what Boyd calls ‘security through obscurity’ where users assume that the internet community at large does not care about their data and its therefore not an issue to worry about. Boyd therefore stresses the need for educator to get acquainted with these new mediated publics to better be able to teach young people about the possible dangers of publicly articulating their personal life and thoughts. She stresses that educators should not see the online experience as a cause, but more so as a mirror or magnification of offline issues and that educators should engage into the online conversation themselves rather than lecturing about it.

Making assumption about internet users and their perceived lack of literacy may help increase awareness of the specificity of the medium but it is highly subject to interpretation and assumption about those, in most cases, young internet users. Are they really unaware or do they just don’t care or do they even publish with the embedded knowledge of its reach, searchability and persistence? We are dealing with a new group of digital natives who are much more literated in the workings of this medium. Also, making mistakes is an integral part of learning and thus those moments where the publishing power of the internet are made tangible are important moment of learning how to deal the medium and in defining once online presence.

Although it can’t be denied that ghosts of the past might come and haunt you, acknowledging once mistakes or youth sins and when confronted being able to stand for those choices and explain or dismiss them is a far better skill to learn then engaging in a playless, rationalized online identity creation process, afraid of online stalkers, marketeers and future employees. This is not to say there are no issues of online privacy, crime and etiquettes, but assumption about children’s online experience or any for that matter has never resulted in an accurate or fruitful discussion about the real threads of the new social spaces. How do these new spaces handle privacy of its users and how do they represent them online? How far can marketeers go in the acquiring of new potential audiences? On what ground are rigid causalities drawn concerning online and offline behaviour in relation to for instance violence, teasing or sexual escapades of young people? In what way should or can adults interpret teenage articulation and the playful game of defining once identity?

In most cases of internet related problems we are dealing with examples of particular situation, extreme examples. They of course should not be denied or neglected but its often the lack of knowledge of the medium or the hunting for exciting scoops of journalists (fed by hungry readers or politicians) which dominate the discourse on anxieties on social networking sites. If we consider the specificities of the medium, we should also consider its influence on those who cause the anxieties. The searchability and reach of the web also entails that those often hidden problems of offline situation now get more visible and being a new medium also heightens the news value. Maybe educators, parents, politicians, journalist, marketeers and otherwise non-digital natives should be the object for (re)education.


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