Self-definition in social media: I am not my online profile

By Anne Collier

Think about it. Media literacy no longer protects “only” the quality of the information we take in. It now protects our relationships and even our identities – on several levels. It’s an understatement to say we need to be media literate more than ever now. I’ve posted plenty about the relationships part (social literacy), so this time the identity part, because I’ve seen no better illustration of why we and our children need media literacy than in legal commentator Jeffrey Rosen’s “Who do They Think You Are?” in the New York Times Magazine.

We parents have been talking about “profiles” and what information kids put in them for almost a decade (see this about “the IM life of middle-schoolers”), but that’s almost a distraction from what we need to teach them about the profiles that are put together for us and our children: our consumer profiles. Together with what we do and post in social media, these profiles – amassed by marketing companies (which of course help make digital media “free” and ubiquitous) – not only shape our online “identities” but also how we view our world. Which can have an impact on one’s actual identity, not just the so-called online one (a distinction that will be made less and less anyway).

But I’m getting ahead of myself. How does digital technology shape our identity? You’ve heard about personalized advertising and tracking cookies, and Rosen goes into detail about how it all works, citing University of Pennsylvania professor Joseph Turow’s book The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry Is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth. For example, he writes, “a consumer gets a particular reputation and is then inundated with offers online and off, and the results are tracked as he passes through an advertising gantlet – from customized articles (whose writers’ pay is based on how many products their stories sell) to discount offers transmitted to TVs and mobile phones. Some marketers are even looking forward to digital billboards that will flash discounts or personalized pricing the moment you enter a store, after reading your customer profile from your mobile device.”

Digital blinders & constraints

Here’s where media literacy comes in. All that (and do read the article to understand how it’s done) points to two developments we all need to know about:

* A kind of consumerist social discrimination: Many pundits will cite “price discrimination” as the problem, but I think it’s more a symptom, possibly of “the new class warfare” much referred to in the past year’s presidential election (e.g., Times columnist Paul Krugman touches on it here).
* Social echo chambers: Author and activist Eli Pariser, former executive director of, wrote about these in his book The Filter Bubble (see his TED Talk about it).

You see this goes way beyond not getting “the best deal” on cars, appliances, or vacation packages, right (because of what a consumer profile says our spending power is)? We need to help our kids see that we could be missing out on what’s going on in the world, because information, not just prices, is increasingly “tailored” to a very limited view of who we are: consumer profiles.

Education, literacy in Kenya

Over the holidays our family watched the amazing documentary A Small Act about Kenyan Chris Mburu, a UN human rights lawyer, wanting to give young Kenyans the education opportunities he had because of the sponsorship of a retired Swedish schoolteacher and Holocaust survivor, Hilde Back (Mburu started the Hilde Back foundation). In the film, he said that, for many Kenyan children, “education is survival.” It’s not “only” a matter of having better prospects, he said. If we’re educated, we can’t be exploited – or at least, we reduce the likelihood.

The film illustrated that by telling the stories of three bright schoolchildren, Ruth, Caroline, and Kimani. It also illustrated the crucial value of education and media literacy (that turns mere information into education that never stops) everywhere on the planet, empowering as well as protecting people by showing them what they can accomplish and what to avoid in the process of getting there – in and out of digital media, whether or not we’re in a place where it’s ubiquitous. [The digital divide itself is shrinking, as mobile connectivity is taking off. When the documentary was being made, Chris Mburu’s town in central Kenya appeared to have limited access through a few mobile phones. But at the Internet Governance Forum in Baku, Azerbaijan, two months ago, I heard a government minister from Kenya say in a session entitled “Is Internet access a human right?” that in the next 2-3 years, “we will guarantee at least 1 megabyte of access for every household.” Whether or not that happens, ubiquitous connectivity is a goal in Kenya, and access to the Internet is increasingly equated with access to education. Over a year ago, the US ambassador to Kenya said that Kenyans spent 43% of their disposable income on mobile phones (see this) – which is the way people in developing countries access the Net.]

Self-definition and self-regulation

The message for our children is, nobody wants to be defined or confined by how we’re being classified, by algorithms any more than by class, racial, economic, or any other kind of profiling that people might do. Going off the grid isn’t the answer. Staying out of connected media – or keeping our children out of it – can produce its own kind of classification and exploitation. The solution, the best protection, is to stay informed about consumer profiling, know that the benefits (convenience, discounts, etc.) have their costs, use the privacy controls and other protections that exist, and be both careful and creative about what we share, i.e. what can be used and presented as who we are (some examples of teens’ creative strategies were shared by social media researcher danah boyd and commenters in her blog back in 2010). In my last post of 2012, I wrote about the growing importance of self-regulation; this first one of 2013 is about the other vitally important practice of digital media users: self-definition.

This new media literacy challenge is also an opportunity for families and schools when adults and children understand the benefits, acknowledge each other’s different competencies, and collaborate on learning and practicing this digital-age literacy. Children will want to participate because it acknowledges, leverages, and increases their powers as digital citizens. They’ll see it goes way beyond the “digital citizenship” that so many of them see as just a new name for “online safety,” or learning “how to behave” online to an informed, empowering kind of citizenship. It just may be the newest human right: the right to be citizens, not just consumers, in this digitally connected world.

Related links

* You and your children will also want to know about the new guilt by (algorithmic) association – see this about findings on that by social media researcher danah boyd
* About my comment above that going off the grid can bring its own kind of marginalization or exploitation (I meant permanently, not taking tech sabbaths or shabbats, which is a really good idea, frequency TBD by each individual or family): social media is not going away (see this by education professor Alec Couros in Canada); in fact, the majority of Americans of all ages now use social media. When something becomes normative, it becomes more possible for people who don’t engage to be criticized or marginalized for not engaging. In no way does that make the marginalization right, just a reality that increase social challenges for people not engaging. In other words, young people not participating in their peers’ online social milieu, online as well as offline, can become a basis for bullying or other forms of social aggression by their peers. Does that make sense?
* About an earlier powerful Jeffrey Rosen piece in the New York Times Magazine
* Other terms for (and lessons about) identity management online: “personal brand management” or “public image management”

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