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The digital scholar
The digital scholar

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1.5 Forgetting and identity

An image of a close-up of the tip of a finger, so that the ridges can be seen.
Figure 6  Who are you?

One such serious issue relates to online identity, particularly for young people. There have been numerous stories about people losing their jobs because they have posted injudicious content online. Sometimes this seems justified, and at other times, an overreaction. For instance, most of us would sympathise with teacher Ashley Payne who was dismissed from her job when she posted photographs of herself on her vacation holding a glass of wine to her private Facebook account and was reported to her principal.

What such cases demonstrate is that the boundary between personal and professional life is increasingly blurred, and what may seem like a joke between friends has the potential to be taken out of context and, with a global distribution, suddenly transmitted everywhere. When 22-year-old student Connor Riley was offered an internship at Cisco, she tweeted ‘Cisco just offered me a job! Now I have to weigh the utility of a fatty paycheck against the daily commute to San Jose and hating the work’. A Cisco employee picked it up, and something of a witch-hunt ensued as the message was shared as an example of how to lose a job (she had in fact already declined the internship). A more recent, and sinister, case is that of Paul Chambers, who, because of airport closures, was unable to fly to see his girlfriend. He tweeted ‘Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your sh*t together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!’ This message saw him prosecuted and fined using an obscure telephony law, which resulted in him losing his job twice.

Both of these cases demonstrate the strained boundary between public communication systems and social chat. For young people who now grow up using such media, the possibility of leaving a trace of some indiscretion increases due to the time they spend in such environments and because so much of their social life is conducted there. If it is not to have a damaging effect on their lives, they need to learn techniques of handling their online identities early on and, equally, society at large needs to learn to view these in the proper light.

In his book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age Mayer-Schonberger (2009) argues that forgetting is an important psychological process. It allows us to construct new versions of our identity, which are suited to different contexts and different ages. With a digital, networked and open online memory, however, this is becoming increasingly difficult. As well as leading to the types of problems of misinterpretation and heavy-handed responses listed above, it may also affect our own personal development. We cannot shake off the memory of the inconsiderate adolescent we once were so easily because its record is always there. He proposes that internet communications have a shelf life, that they should be allowed to expire unless the individual takes specific action to preserve them.

For educators there are two main issues; the first is the extent to which they help students manage their online identity, and the second is how they manage their own boundary between personal and professional life. There are a range of options available from complete withdrawal from online life to using pseudonyms to speak openly. Knowledge of the type of information that can be gathered about you and how that might be used is important, but if it comes at the cost of a sterile online exchange where people become scared to say anything beyond a form of corporate message, then that would be a price too high for many. So developing an appropriate online persona and voice is an important skill as our digital footprint expands. As is developing a good relationship with your employer one suspects.

It is not just young people who may have behaved foolish, who need to forget or at least remould their past. Scholars make judgements, suggestions and proposals all the time. An open approach inevitably results in more such pronouncements, as scholarly output is not restricted to just conference papers and journal articles. An increase in both quantity and type of outputs (which may include casual conversations, jokes, half-thought-out ideas etc.) must increase the possibility of being wrong. Most scholars will revise their positions based on new evidence or changing circumstances. Scholarship is closely bound with authority; the opinions of scholars count because they are deemed as being an authority in this area. Will a digital audit trail reveal contradictions, which undermine current authority?

I know that I have shifted position with regard to technology over the years. In 2004 I was an advocate of LMSs, but subsequently I have become a critic of the manner in which they stifle innovation. In 2008 I wrote a (not entirely serious) blog post suggesting that you ‘Google up your life [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ’ (Weller, 2008). I am certainly more wary of some of the issues around cloud computing now and would be unlikely to write such a post today (although I still find the Google suite of tools superior to those offered in-house by my university).

Do such modifications to opinion undermine the authority of The Digital Scholar? Or are they part of a natural progression as someone develops an argument in response to changing contexts? If so, is this a subtlety that everyone can appreciate? Does the process of ongoing engagement and openness create a different type of authority?

I will leave you to determine your own responses to these questions, but I would suggest that perfect digital memory is not just an issue for teenagers with hangovers.

The extract from The Digital Scholar finishes here.