It’s happening. Next week Digital Pedagogy Lab will commence. Participants across multiple time zones will be chiming into conversations from kitchens and living rooms, attending keynotes, workshops and their selected course. As circumstances require, we’ll be all online for this explosion of digital exchange and encouragement. The lab will be different this year and we’ll be creative in building the special world that has marked the on-site event in past years. In my corner of the DPL world, we’ll be unpacking, examining, then likely repacking Digital Identity for ourselves and each other. I’m hopeful and excited.
I’m hopeful that I and my mighty cohort will develop a shared space that offers plenty of opportunities to speak up, share out, meet up and hear each other across varied media, time zones and modes of communication. I suspect that the variety of ways each of us is able to show up during the week will, in and of itself, give us plenty to think about in trying to get a handle on what digital identity is and can be.
I came across an example of inspired critical thinking in a short talk by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom in which she dissects the cultural and political significance of the Harper’s Letter which made the rounds in early July, . #TheLetter as it was soon called on Twitter was signed by several prominent knowledge and culture producers railing against the toxicity of “cancel culture” and in defense of free speech (on their terms). There are numerous hot takes on the letter and its intent but for me it was Dr. Cottom’s analysis in conversation with radio host, Chris Lydon that sparked all kinds of creative thinking in its wake. Describing the relevance of social media in catapulting this debate onto center stage among the thinking class, she commented:
Social media, as we now know it, which is, let’s be clear, just because we can all freely participate in social media does not mean that it is a democratic space. So Twitter and Facebook for example are actually not the public square. It is just that, this is what the public square has been reduced to. They’re a new set of terms that have been introduced about how discourse will happen because platforms have incentives. They are there to make money off of our engagement and our intention and the platforms are designed to drive, aggressive interaction, because those are the types of things that drive people to participate in the platform, we become valuable to Twitter, when we are angry. It really is that simple. It is our attention that is being resold to advertisers. It is not the public square that we are seeing in Twitter. Pew data shows that fewer than a quarter of the American population are engaged in Twitter, even casually. This is not a huge swath of America, right. It is a highly self selected group of people who want to have a certain type of discourse. The problem that makes for a lot of academics and I think especially public intellectuals, is that we want to be in that space. It is a space designed for us! It’s text-based, is discourse based, but the terms of the space are just a bit too democratic for them to dominate the space the way they probably prefer.
In under two minutes, she offers us clear and accessible means to make sense of this portion of the online world many of us subscribe to, for better or worse. Particularly when we disagree with others on online platforms, we believe ourselves to be responding to that person or that group. Yes, and. As Dr. Cottom asserts, we are also responding to an environment that rewards our discord, that actually generates profit from and through every stage of outrage. Further, we may think we’re talking to our city, country or even the world, when in fact we are addressing a fraction of it, of which only a fraction of that fraction is likely to register our loudest cries.
For those of us who have willingly immersed ourselves in some form of digital media presence, it’s possible to overestimate our relevance. And when Dr. Cottom notes how traditional print-based public intellectuals may be experiencing the widening of the public discourse via social media as a damper on their assumed influence and reach, it serves as a tiny reminder that all of our efforts to speak and be heard on public channels are fundamentally about exercising power and agency. So when we talk about digital identity next week, power and agency are the canvas upon which we will draw our maps of digital engagement and purpose.
In a structured dialogue with a colleague which I recorded in preparation for DPL, I responded to the prompt: “Tell me something you wish people thought more about regarding digital identity.” My response on the second round surprised even me.
“I want people to understand positionality…Now that more folks, I’m going to say white folks in particular, have learned to call themselves white and recognize that that’s a thing. That whiteness is a thing. We’ve always known that being male was a thing. And now we have to also recognize, oh wait, there’s a gender spectrum; that non-binary is a thing. So understanding positionality means recognizing, first of all, who am I? … What are my social identity markers?
I identify as a Black woman, American, cis-gendered, straight, able bodied and all those things contribute to how I move through the world, those are all lenses that I apply in the way that I see things, perceive things, the way that I respond to things.
So, I need, I really, really need people, especially online, when I engage with them to have some grasp of that; to understand who they are when they are speaking; from what position they are speaking.
For some that may sound like a burden, an extra set of things to think about, that perhaps gets in the ways of speaking more freely. If that’s the case, it suggests that it’s not a way that a person has ever had to think because they fell into the default or assumed group. Naming things is an act of power that takes some practice. In Digital Identity, naming ourselves, claiming our full identities will be part of what will allow us to more critically investigate the platforms and services that claim to want to help us in those endeavors (read:personalization).
Alas, I’ve invited a wonderful group of people to come talk about digital identity for a week. We’ll listen and explore, question and respond, create and convene. Digitally. In that unique space we’ll consider both who we are and who we think we are. We’ll try to come to terms with how different platforms see and treat us as users; that is, who platforms think we are and what they encourage us to be more of.
Joanne McNeil, author of Lurking: How A Person Became A User (2020) talks about the difficulty of describing the embodied fragmentation that is the internet. She writes,
…it feels like every user inherits a job, an unpaid library science gig, just for having to think about classifications and representation, the epistemic meaning of data and the written word and images. Identity becomes scraps of enterprise, content and dis-content, an unceasing whirl of desiderata and refuse. p. 6-7
There were are, people as users, users as people; amalgams of a gazillion data points over a lifespan – individuals with unique identities. “Scraps of enterprise…and unceasing whirl of desiderata and refuse” – this may not be the way we are most accustomed to seeing ourselves in digital environments. Yet in the massive churn of internet facilitated activity across the globe, in that context, the description strikes me as apt, although not especially flattering.
Our challenge in the coming week will be to make our power and agency tangible while simultaneously acknowledging stations of positionality along the way which necessarily will shift depending on the context. Seeing – differently, more consciously, generously; Listening – more intently, less defensively; Discovering – openly, bravely, collaboratively. I hope some -or even all – of this is possible in our cohort. That’s my excitement.