Online Identity Course: Lessons Learned

Several days ago, I submitted (and then corrected) final grades for my undergraduate online identity course. I am planning to teach the course again next semester and I’ll certainly be making some changes based on this first semester of the class.

First, Clay Shirky’s right: the first challenge when working with young students in discussions about their use of the Internet and other technologies is to help them understand just how different their uses of these technologies are compared to previous generations’. For many of the youngest students, cell phones, MySpace, and wireless Internet access have almost always existed and they have always been part of their lives. While for many of us these technologies and the ideas underlying them – flexible and changing ideas of privacy, incredibly public and intimate expressions of identity, and indexable, searchable, and permanent artifacts – are new and world-changing, for these students these ideas are old-hat and completely non-notable. Next semester, I need to work harder at the very beginning of the class to help my students understand how new and unexplored all of these technologies are for all of us. I’m not quite sure how to do that and figuring that out is my homework during the holiday break.

The final assignment elicited some surprising insight and ideas from my students. In a nutshell, they were to make policy recommendations for the use of social networking services (SNSes) for either a college admissions office or a company hiring new college graduates. The recommendations spanned the entire range of potential recommendations from “they must investigate the profile of every applicant” to “they can never investigate the profiles of applicants” with varying levels of quality support and rationale for the recommendations.

The most surprising and interesting recommendation, submitted by a few students, was that applicants should be able to decide whether or not their SNS profiles are fair game. That is not a recommendation I had anticipated and the justifications were very interesting. Essentially, these students really grabbed hold of some of the ideas we discussed and read that related to the active role we can take in shaping and understanding how we are presented and described online. I haven’t quite figured out how practical the recommendation is when scaled up to institutions or corporations that have thousands of applicants but it’s a great answer for this final assignment and it shows a wonderful grasp of some very important ideas.

I wish I had more time to tackle ideas of privacy and context.  That’s something else I will see if I can work into the course next semester although I am not very hopeful. Given the length of the course, it’s impossible to even touch on every important and interesting topic. I hope to expand the course to a full semester and teach in one of our living-learning centers next year with the hope that will allow me to add these topics and have enough time to explore them.

New Indiana University Undergrad Course Exploring Identity and Communication Online

This semester I’ll be teaching EDUC-U 212 Virtually Real: Myths and Realities of Online Identities. It’s a 2-credit class for undergraduates that is scheduled for the second half of the fall semester. I’m still finalizing the syllabus and I’ll make it available here when it’s finalized.

In the class, we’re going to explore how youths and young adults use online tools such as Facebook and MySpace to explore and exhibit personal identity. It’s a short course so it will be very focused on identity, mediated communication, and Social Network Sites (SNS). Although it will be firmly grounded in theory and current research, the class will have a very practical bent as students should leave the class better prepared to understand not only their own online actions but also some of the forces shaping those actions. At the end of the class, students should be able to:

  • Recognize and describe ways in which people present themselves online
  • Describe properties of online communication
  • Describe and critically evaluate popular views and (mis)conceptions of online communication and behavior
  • Make thoughtful, appropriate, and practical analysis of and recommendations regarding young adults’ use of online communication tools

For those interested in the gory details, we’ll be using Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life as the primary touchstone regarding identity and how identity is performed. We won’t have time to read more than a chapter or two but it’s a very insightful book with powerful but accessible ideas. We’ll also spend time looking at Suler’s Online Disinhibition Effect. Although I perceive some significant flaws in Suler’s ideas (there’s a strong feeling of determinism from which I instinctively cringe) it’s an accessible summary of some important ideas. We’ll also be looking at some of the current research regarding SNS use among youths and undergraduates.

Interested IU undergraduates should be able to sign up for the course using OneStart. If you have any trouble signing up for the course or if you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at

Edit: I’ve received a few questions and it may be helpful to answer them here, too. The class is scheduled to meet on Mondays and Wednesdays from 5:00 until 6:15 in Foster SH021. The section number is 33403. And you don’t have to be an active user of Facebook or MySpace to enroll in and benefit from the class assuming that you have some knowledge of those tools and how others are using them.

Update: I’ve uploaded the syllabus.

Differences between electronic identity stabilization of young adults and teens

Social media researcher danah boyd recently wrote that her research has revealed that many American teenagers “are not dreaming of portability…. They are happy to make new accounts on new sites; they enjoy building out profiles.” In other words, when they lose their account information, forget their password, or move on to a new service, they’re happy to start over and rebuild their “identity.” (boyd is quick to note, however, that this readiness to recreate one’s identity is very different from the notion of creating or maintaining multiple discrete identities i.e. one AIM screenname for your friends and family, a gmail account for your professional contacts, and a Facebook account for your college friends). boyd also shares some philosophical musings on what we “adults” can learn from these teens but let’s focus on identity and teens’ apparent willingness to change and start over. Let’s assume this observed trend of carefree electronic identity uptake and discard holds true for a large segment of the American teen population.

Do traditional college students exhibit this same behavior? In my experience, no. College students definitely exhibit many similar behaviors for many of the same reasons – developing and discovering their self-identity – but not this particular one. (Excellent overviews of identity development in traditional college students can be found in the standard references “Education and Identity” by Arthur W. Chickering and Linda Reisser and “How College Affects Students” by Ernest T. Pascarella and Patrick T. Terenzini.)

Assuming that is true and this behavior differs between teenagers and young adults (i.e. traditional college students), why? I offer a few hypotheses:

  1. Logistical and technical issues and concerns begin to try to “lock students down” to readily-identifiable, consistent, and up-to-date identities, locations, and addresses. Within the sphere of “official” or institution-supported services, there are many examples. Despite the fact that most students enter college with multiple e-mail addresses and about half of entering freshmen prefer an e-mail provider other than their institution, nearly all 4-year institutions continue to provide “universal student e-mail.” Although some services such as e-mail forwarding allow students to maintain changing, off-campus accounts and identities many systems and services can not. It should be obvious that for students to use services such as course management systems (a service about which many students are “overwhelmingly positive”), students must have and maintain stable accounts.
  2. As noted in “Education and Identity,” “stability and integration” are key concepts in identity development for traditional undergraduate college students. More specifically, for upper-level students “a higher level of personal organization and integration is also required for the transition from college to the adult world.” In other words, for one to be successful, most people find it necessary to stop losing and forgetting information. Sounds like common sense to me…
  3. (I have no supporting evidence for this hypothesis) For the average person, attending college offers the chance to immensely expand one’s social network. This is partially an artifact of age (the longer one lives the more people one meets) but it’s also inherent in moving into a new environment with many new people. As one’s social network grows it simply becomes less practical to change contact information or visible identity (unless you’re explicitly trying to change or shrink your network). Again, please note that this differs from the deliberate maintenance of multiple identities.
  4. (I also have no supporting evidence for this hypothesis) Similar to the previous hypothesis, one tends to accumulate more physical and logical “things” related to one’s public identity as one grows older. In the electronic world, those things may include photographs, graphics, webpage links, quotes, lists of “favorites,” and, critical to most social networking sites, visible links to other social contacts (typically labeled “friends” but we all know that label lacks nuance). Unless one intends to start a new identity, moving all (or enough) of that information to a new location takes time, effort, and, in some cases, technical skill and knowledge. And some of those things can not be easily moved or moved at all, particularly one’s social network (“friends”). While that may be seen as an advantage for someone wanting to “start over” (which is often the case for those who, like many teenagers, are intentionally experimenting with their identity) for many people it’s a huge disincentive to move to a new location/service/etc.

On the one hand, we know that identity development is a gradual process. I am by no means suggesting that when one steps foot onto campus for freshman orientation the habits and practices of youth are left lying outside the gate like old clothes; that is contrary to experience and research. However, I do suggest that several factors conspire to make this particular transition rather swift as compared to many other transitions one experiences as a young adult. Not only are there significant technical and logistical pressures that slow or halt one’s rapid uptake and discard of electronic identities but maturation tends to lead to identity stabilization in an almost tautological manner.