Defining “Digital Identity” at NASPA 2013

Digital Identity word cloud

As someone who has been on Facebook for almost a decade, it is hard to remember life before social media.  But I do, sort of.

I remember the letter Mrs. Freeman sent home in 6th grade alerting parents to the distracting nature of America Online, as it was definitely “a disruption to studying.”  I remember picking my screen-name “Shnoogle,” (cringe) and the……dial-up…static…and satisfying welcome chime! that became a nightly habit.  Hearing the words “you’ve got mail,” brought a new pleasure never before experienced.  And that was just the beginning.

NAPSA LogoI recently returned from my first NASPA conference (National Association of Student Personnel Administrators). The conference brings together student affairs administrators of all levels at receptions, luncheons, and other miscellaneous events. However, the best networking occurs during the educational sessions and featured speakers.

It was during one of these speaker sessions that I had the opportunity to hear Eric Stoller, Student Affairs and Technology blogger for Inside Higher Ed, speak to a room of young student affairs professionals on how to help students develop their digital identities.

Eric asked the obvious question “how do we define digital identity”?

Some hands shot up…

“It’s who you present yourself to be online.”

“It’s what shows up when you google yourself.”

“It’s your brand.”

I thought about how I would answer the question myself.  It’s you, online.  Simple.  But then I thought about all pictures that don’t make it on to Facebook profiles, or in some cases, unfortunately do.

When one of the student affairs administrators asked Eric how to deal with frat members posting photos of themselves wearing their letters while taking shots of tequila, he answered “social didn’t invent stupidity overnight.”

Screen Shot 2013-03-26 at 9.32.43 AMIn other words, students have been saying and doing dumb stuff forever.  Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram just make it so much easier.  And likes, retweets and comments, just validate and encourage them to do it more frequently.

Most of us don’t count the number of times in a week that someone laughs at a joke, compliments our shirt, or gives you a fist bump for no reason.  So why do we get excited when our new profile picture gets 11 likes?  Because the feeling is instant and self-affirming.

“Yes, I do look awesome in this photo.  Yes, my kid is the absolute cutest, so let me share another 37 pictures with you…”

We’ve all heard horror stories about embarrassing photos being posted online, or career-ending tweets.  We’ve heard of people creating “professional Facebook” vs. “personal Facebook” or trying to lockdown content areas using a complex formula of privacy settings.  But the hard truth is that the notion of ‘online privacy’ is a fallacy.

We can’t be all things to everyone, but we can be everything to a select few.  So who we talk to, and how we talk to them matter.  Context matters.  And in the context of social media we have to develop a digital identity that is both true to ourselves and aware of our audience (everyone).

To me, this feels like good old-fashioned student development.  Teach and train around positive values and respectful conversation.  If it seems hard, it’s because the current generation of students has little, or no memory of life before social media, and so it’s up to parents, mentors, and teachers to steer them back on to the path, even when we may not know where it leads.