When Students See Themselves As Digital First

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Generation ‘Like’: When Students See Themselves As Digital First

by Terry Heick

Students that have more control than ever over their own identity have, unsurprisingly, lost control of that identity.

Coldly, and as a matter of “settings,” they are able to dictate when, how, where, and by whom they are seen. Connectivity has closed the walls of the world around them–or at least made them transparent–until they have zero room to wiggle and squirm. And that’s a real problem in an era of big data, digital first branding, and always-on expression. More than any other time in human history, students have an identity problem.

The Quantification Of A Person

If you tweet something, and no one RTs or favorites, did you really say anything at all? Is your value–and the value of your voice as an educator–dependent on how many followers you have? The prideful answer is “no,” but if you’re not seen or heard or engaged with or responded to, you’re forced to recalibrate your goals and ideas. For an adult, that’s accessible; for teenagers, it’s a problem.

Students define themselves through rejection and assimilation, just like adults. What we refuse to be a part of matters just as much as what groups and memberships we choose to disappear into. We refuse political party X or ed reform agenda Y while quietly slipping into a kind of tech avante garde. If we dislike a politician enough, for example, that becomes more important than who we do like to because disagreements is more kinetic than when opinions align. Belief and identity—and identity through gathering with and against other based on beliefs—drive social media.

In lieu of the little wiggling and well-endowed app icons, students today are in a rough place. When the internet first allowed social media, and social media allowed a digital first and social identity, the presence of a student was primarily physical. That is, a student, seen mostly and interfaced with mostly in person, created a facsimile of themselves online. Through minor features, such as avatars, bios, status updates, and carefully-and-actively-curated-pseudo-human-digital-networks, students used a communication and sharing tool, which directly and indirectly etched out a kind of ‘identity.’

Before the normalization of technology-addiction and the fetishization of being “connected,” that identity was more of a novel function or complementary tool than living space. But for students that rabidly send and receive versions of themselves and others through facebook, Instagram, snapchat, and other emerging social channels, they’re (unwittingly?) coding an identity that not only is not within their control, but never was by design. The images and words–the social templates–have had the power all long.

By the quantification and commodification of a student’s “identity,” that identity becomes other. Over there. Not self. It’s not an identity anyone from even 20 years ago would recognize.

Digital FirstDigital Identity Is Packaged Identity

How students see themselves is the starting point for learning.

More narrowly (the illusion goes), how they see themselves as learners is increasingly up for simple reconfiguration. What you post, who you tag, your avatar, you emojis, spelling, syntax, all digital first expressions of self. The non-social internet is gone; social transactions are the single greatest currency of connected, digital spaces. It’s not purely social, nor is it merely media. It’s certainly more than commerce or media consumption, but it’s strangely none of this. It’s the careful packaging of consumable spectacle.

Social media is one of the few places sharing is anything but–as much of an opportunity to distribute some artifact that expresses you as you see yourself, each link or video or message an opportunity to further stain yourself into the social glass of the world. Leaning heavily on Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, Susan Cox wrote recently on Salon: 

“It may not be as cool as we imagined it in sleek ’90s sci-fi, but we really are creatures existing in multiple dimensions, transcending space and time with our cybernetic reach. And who controls where your body ends and begins as this unholy fusion of man and machine? Those technologies through which you interface, of course, offering you the shape of your digital self, such as the Facebook profile. Sometimes the reduction of your person to Facebook’s arbitrary determinations can be uncomfortable and insulting. Facebook has redefined the standard of what information should be immediately known about you as a person.”

Identity, in learning, is like breathing. It’s not a cause of learning, like curiosity. Nor is it purely an effect of learning, like understanding. Nor is it something strangely both, like literacy. It’s simultaneously a symptom and a catalyst.

Identity is the learner insofar as they see themselves and are seen by others. It’s a fluid and ongoing transaction. Identity itself is an effect of self-knowledge, but they’re not the same thing. Identity is insecure and visual and terrifying and orchestrated and familial and emotional, accepted and created in equal amounts.

And, increasingly, it’s a digital-first sequence.

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A Digital-First Pattern Of Identity

If identity is “the distinguishing personality or personality of an individual,” then that which is most able to distinguish one student from another will be seen as valuable, and will be a proving ground for the testing, forging, and struggle with identity. Though all students exist first and foremost in a physical space–a home, classroom, etc., they simultaneously exist online, a much broader and more carefully orchestrated scale.

Students’ torsos, arms, legs, and heads are sometimes here and sometimes there, but they’re always online. Facebook doesn’t fade in and out based on user need, but rather justifies itself and creates its own rules and needs for being. This means that users that seek to create an identity through such a social channel–twitter, for example–necessarily do so first through an existing pattern of followers, likes, avatar, and retweets.

In 2015, digital identity precedes and proceeds physical identity. In A Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway writes:

“The cyborg (ed note: think digitally-connected students today) is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence. No longer structured by the polarity of public and private, the cyborg defines a technological polls based partly on a revolution of social relations in the oikos, the household. Nature and culture are reworked; the one can no longer be the resource for appropriation or incorporation by the other. The relationships for forming wholes from parts, including those of polarity and hierarchical domination, are at issue in the cyborg world.”

The problem with Haraway’s theory is one of context. Claiming, in a theory, that essentialist theories are inadequate to describe a world where nature fuses with the artificial is broken for what it assumes–that nature and the artificial have fused, which of course isn’t possible even in metaphorical terms. If it’s artificial, it can’t be natural. The only place where natural and artificial identities even seem to merge is within artificial (and digital) spaces.

“The crux of the issue boils down to this: Is Facebook’s normalization of hyper-transparency and information-oriented mode of self-definition conditioning young people to be submissive toward institutionalized forms of subject formation? Does it quell unrest in response to those power structures invested in telling you who and what you are? Will the young people of the future question social values if they are trained from a young age by technological demands to express their person in a corporately constructed template?”

Aha! This is where it starts to get interesting–is it not just social frameworks, or tech-driven identity, but corporate-breathing purpose manifest through social and tech that children believe define them? That’s a grotesque intersection.

Students that, for example, prefer their digital identity to their physical identity necessitate a compelling response to rethink that pattern. The challenge for teachers becomes, then, helping students forge an identity that’s whole.

The complexity of the human experience can be reflected through social media and the nuance of digital identity, but forming one’s identity firstly and primarily through these ‘channels’—via a cacophony of hearts, likes, follows, and other immediate feedback loops—threatens the health and function of that student when they go ‘offline’ and that bustling digital world falls away.

Learning is and has always been about acquiring information, knowledge, and skill to survive in, adapt, and contribute to some context. That context can be a family, farm, or neighborhood. It can be a team, organization, or ‘job.’ It can be a relationship, social event, or hobby.

Imagine learning to navigate snow and ice on foot—let’s narrow it to walking on ice in particular. You learned the strategies and threats and patterns and opportunities and used them to your advantage as you learned to walk on ice.

You were passionate and selfless and patient in your ice-walking. Through daily participation in this activity, you became a master of this domain, forging your personality traits, value systems, what you saw as recreational and fun—even your beliefs about yourself and the world around you were adapted to thrive in this ‘ice-walking context.’ Others saw ice as dangerous—something to be careful with or avoided altogether. This only strengthened your resolve to become better and better at walking across, climbing up, and sprinting on ice.

Imagine who you’d ‘be’ after 14 years of avid participation in ice-walking. You would have adapted. Changed. Optimized yourself for that context because that, among other things, is what learning is for.

The people not used to ice would find walking on it stressful. They were used to sidewalks and tile floors and grassy yards.

You, having grown accustomed to the ice, would find sidewalks at best boring and uneventful to traverse, and at worst, may not be able to walk well on them at all.

Your adaptation would require that you exchange one set of skills and habits and values for another, making you less suitable for the first, and if you had to move back and forth between contexts, you’d have a jarring realization: You were suddenly well-suited to neither.

You’d seek the feedback loop that delivered the most dopamine—the one that allowed you to reduce pain and maximize pleasure, and groom yourself to thrive wherever that was.

Given the choice, you would likely find yourself preferring the one you perceived yourself as ‘good at,’ avoiding the other at all costs.

An Identity Crisis: When Students See Themselves As Digital First; adapted image attribution flickr users flickeringbrad and tulanepublicrelations

9 Comments
  1. Karen says

    I really enjoyed this post because it highlights the
    importance of identity within the classroom and demonstrates how learning and
    identity intersects at the school level. With the digital space exploding with
    innovation, I’ve always wondered how social networking cites affect and
    influence identity and self- esteem. This article particularly interested me
    for its ability to describe learners’ identity as a fluid ongoing transaction
    where identity is influenced by how the learner sees him/herself and how others
    see him/her. Specifically, how our digital identity today precedes our physical
    identity. I experience this everyday- I enjoy updating my Instagram, Facebook,
    and Snapchat accounts. I like to be seen, but I only like it when it is on my
    own terms. For example, I hate when people upload unflattering pictures of me but
    am also aware that anyone who knows me relatively well has seen me at my best
    and worst. While I am relatively confident in my physical identity, I find
    confidence in my digital identity- it reinforces the confidence I have in
    myself. So I agree, today teachers ARE challenged with helping students form an
    identity that is whole. I further investigated this idea of a fractured
    identity within the classroom and found it to be a negative reality for college
    women in STEM fields. In the Ahlqvist, London, Rosenthal (2013) study on
    unstable identity compatibility and the success of women in STEM fields,
    researchers examined how women who are more perceptive of threat cues (high in
    gender RS) and who experience more frequent damage to their self-perception may
    undermines the success of women in STEM fields. They found that higher gender
    RS to be related to larger within-person fluctuations in the perceived
    compatibility between gender and STEM identities. Specifically, they found that
    instability predicted lower feelings of subjective belonging as well as lower
    academic performance in STEM courses the following semester. The researchers
    argue that the instability stemmed from discouragement that occurs when the
    student sees a lack of female role models among her instructors or finds that
    she is one of few women in her chose field. Similarly, they argue that
    instability might result from exposure to subtle cues of incompatibility such
    as video games or posters depicting traditionally male interests. What they
    truly argue is that a student’s sense of identity is dynamic and constantly
    shifting. In a time where identity is increasingly fractured, can teacher’s
    utilize digital media to engage students in order to promote a healthy and
    whole sense of identity when it comes to learning? I think they can. Teachers
    should utilize the power of digital identity to promote stable identities. For
    example, teachers should make Facebook groups for women in STEM majors and use
    them as a space for women to come together and find a sense of belonging.
    Similarly, the digital space should be utilized to neutralize gender cues.
    Certain initiatives, like GoldieBlox toys and Always’s LikeAGirl campaign, have
    started to work on bridging the gender gap. It would be incredible to see if
    educators can work with the digital space to promote positive and stable
    identities that can help students flourish in the classroom.

  2. […] other Blog post I read was “When Students See Themselves as Digital” by Terry Heick and sadly this was a post that I found myself relating to. In his blog he mentions […]

  3. […] An Identity Crisis: When Students See Themselves As Digital  […]

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