The Paradox of Openness: The High Costs of Giving Online

At this year’s ALT-C conference, I’ll be contributing to a symposium session along with Frances Bell, Josie Fraser and Richard Hall. In our session, The Paradox of Openness: The High Costs of Giving Online, we will pose a range of issues for debate, provoking participants to reconsider the costs of participation online, openness, and the sharing of resources. I’ll be focusing practice-based scenarios based on the publishing and sharing of digital artefacts that highlight areas of uncertainty, risk and the personal cost of openness. In this post, i’m exploring ideas around:

The Tyranny of Authenticity (identity)

There is undoubtedly much to be gained from taking control of, and actively developing our digital identity. I work with HE students who are developing their (professional) online presence in order to develop their PLNs, and bridge across the transition from formal education to their professional careers. In order to engage our learners I find myself evangelising and modelling online behaviours. This in itself affects my own online behaviour, in that I have a more relaxed Twitter ‘self’ during the summer months (more personal details, sharing of music/images, probably some swearing…) and this then deviates from my Twitter persona during the academic teaching year when I’m more guarded with regards my online communication and behaviour, focusing on sharing useful links and operating more as an ‘interestingness’ curator for my students. I have 2 Facebook accounts, multiple Flickr accounts, and separate Twitter accounts for teaching and personal/professional use. Essentially, my online self – despite having become more comfortable being ‘me’ online, and also being much more consolidated now that I exist professionally as ‘heloukee’ (see earlier post) – is still performed to some extent. Having spoken to many members of my PLN (personal learning network) about authenticity, trust and reputation I’m certainly not alone. Twitter is a good example of this, especially the considerable use of the back-channel (DMs), which we often use to say things we wouldn’t want to share publicly on the main stream.

When we encourage our students to manage their digital identity we often find ourselves adopting a rhetoric centred on openness and authenticity as devices for connecting, building social capital, nurturing networks/networking and PR of the self. Although there are tangible benefits in terms of developing their online IDs/networks, we are also operating within a pedagogical space which is largely driven by an employability agenda, the perceived need to develop an online presence in order to compete in a for employment opportunities, and the development of the PLN as an additional device for lifelong learning.

The transition from ‘me’ to ‘’ is not unproblematic, and there are ethical issues at play when we encourage our learners to cast-off prior, potentially problematic online IDs in order to nurture a persona that appeals to potential employers. In my case, the students who I work with are assessed on their content production and online IDs and while we have so far only had success stories, it has at times thrown up some interesting issues and highlighted tensions around what is/is not acceptable in a formal educational context vis-à-vis the individual’s right to present themselves in the manner they chose in an online space which is not owned, provided or controlled by the institution.

Being a believer in the web as a place for play and experimentation, I’m a huge fan of pseudonyms and think that we should have the right to adopt a moniker (or monikers) of our choosing. The ability to adopt pseudonyms and personas has been core to the experience of many of our students, who choose to present themselves using alternative IDs in the professional spaces while still retaining their (much ‘cooler’ in terms of their peers) identities within less formalised spaces. They are simultaneously performing to the industry/future employers while retaining/building social capital with their ‘peer audience’ in their recreational online spaces – which is something that many of us (try to) do, to varying degrees.

The arrival of Google+ has seen a groundswell of disapproval and outrage in relation to Google’s ‘real name’ policy; essentially they are demanding that G+ users present themselves using their real names and decided to enforce this policy by identifying and closing down accounts where the user has adopted a pseudonym. The public outcry has been substantial, as evidenced by the open listing of Google Profiles Pseudonymity Debate Coverage, danah boyd’s “Real Names” Policies Are an Abuse of Power, and most significantly in the EdTech context: Should Students Use Pseudonyms Online?

For all this talk of openness, when socio-technical systems demand that we use our ‘real’ names; when we require our learners to ‘give themselves’ through the development of online IDs upon which they will be assessed; when we ourselves ‘perform’ professionalised selves, which are essentially watered-down versions of our actual selves, is the tyranny of authenticity leading to an inauthentic public commons? What do we expect from our learners and communities?


19 thoughts on “The Paradox of Openness: The High Costs of Giving Online

  1. This is very interesting to me as I’ll be talking about this on Wednesday. It’s a very sad state of events but as I’m doing this EdD and aware of constantly learning in work as well, I don’t really feel that my social media presence is a performance. I really am asking questions all the time! And I don’t have that much time to be unprofessional:) But I did tweet about bluegrass this weekend.I don’t consider by online presence to be a watered down version of myself. Yes, I do send some DMs. Quite often these exchanges are initiated by others – and often these people are in less ‘powerful’ positions than me eg students.
    But I do realise that I am ATYPICAL and as such I have not as yet encouraged many other people to get move online unless they have the same original objectives as I had :people working in medical education who want to connect with others. I know that this really does work. But I don’t say that all doctors should be online. And I don’t say that all medical students should be either. In fact I have been known to argue for private spaces for students to learn in- and I still stand by this:
    The thought of forcing students to be online in their own identities (never mind assessing this activity) makes me feel queasy. I would be very angry if someone tried to make me do this. But if students or colleagues want to explore what it is like to be online then I try my best to support them. And I try to model how it works for me. That’s about as much/little as I can manage.
    Look forward to meeting you!

  2. I have to reply to this, I think. Why? Well, professional me maintains a presence in discussions of this nature, and personal me just finds the whole thing fascinating. And maverick me just can’t resist commenting…

    I agree with AnneMarie about the idea of insisting students post under their real names. On the other hand, I encourage students to build up a portfolio, and social presence, which they can show off to potential employers. That doesn’t *have* to be under their real name, of course, but it helps when trying to show that it is their work. Actually, it doesn’t – you could find soem good work by someone with the same name as you and pass it off as yours (don’t try this at home ;-)), or even legitimately change your name to match that of someone who has a strong online presence (don’t try that either…). And that, of course, is one of the reasons that the real name policy over at Goog’s new silliness is just plain daft.

    I am very much in favour of pseudonymous interaction on the web. It removes layers of power hierarchies which are detrimental to the free and frank flow of opinions and, indeed facts. People don’t speak truth to power (generally, unless they have nothing to lose) – unless they can do so ‘anonymously’. On the other hand, since realising that, and deciding I thought the idea of a ‘single authentic whole’ was, essentially, a bad idea, I operate almost solely under my real name.

    I moderate what I say online – but then I moderate what I say “in real life”, I often wish I didn’t, but I was brought up not to deliberately upset other people. The problem, in open online fora, is that you don’t know who your audience is. Because you are, effectively, addressing the whole world, you cannot always adopt the right tone, say the right things. You will, if you’ll pardon the language, always end up pissing someone off.

    I think most people are engaging in identity performances most of the time. We do not, I would argue, tend to say or do the same things in front of our parents, as in front of our friends, or kids, or bosses (etc, etc). The walled garden is helpful in this regard (as well as providing a space where ideas can be kicked around without over-bearing voices jumping in), although the institutionally owned spaces also inherently project their own problems on to the free flow of ideas and opinions. I know students and some staff who are loathe to participate in discussions in such spaces because of the implicit control in place. Equally, of course, there are those who are not willing to participate in spaces which don’t have institutional ownership!

  3. Hi Amcunningham, I agree with many points of your post, especially the paradox of openness, where there is no easy and fast rules to guide educators/professionals to be open, or not to be open. It is a personal choice, and although I am in favor of openness, I could understand that openness is not viewed as a nominal practice for many professions. This is especially so, for certain professions like your medical profession, where duty of care, professional accountability and responsibility comes before any disclosure of any incidents or experience that relate to patients or medical care. Exposure of one’s true identity (both as a professional, an educator or student) might have an impact on one’s professional identity, personal security and privacy – like those working in sensitive professions – in defence or police operations. I also think there are significant issues not addressed when debating about political or social aspects in public which may relate to individual organisations, especially when such debates/discourse could be viewed and judged by the public, present or potential employers. So, why would one risk sharing personal views online with his/her true identity, or revealing ones’ persona in the postings, comments or visits? Should we encourage and support our learners and/or fellow educators to use their real names instead of pseudonyms? What are the implications and consequences of exposing “ourselves” with real identity? These are all questions that we all want to know and explore. I hope you would have an enjoyable time with your symposium session. I would post the above in my blog post for further conversation.

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  5. I think I’d be honest about the risks and opportunities.

    In talking to computing students, I’ve discussed the opportunities that open up when you engage in public projects (e.g. Apache, Mozilla) – but also the need to act professionally and to make sure they develop the reputation and contacts needed to help in their career.

    However, if they want to take fewer risks and concentrate on private coursework, the option is still there. But I think they ought to worry about not getting a good return on their investment if they take that route.

  6. Really interesting post and comments.
    I think the way I’m working this out in practice is to understand that a moderated persona is not necessarily a false persona and openness doesn’t mean total disclosure. Thus my ‘professional me’ really is me but is me in mode appropriate to this context. I think that the issue for me is about self-consistency [qualitative] not so much self-disclosure [quantitative].

  7. @John Mak In the last few days I’ve read about Kegan’s stages of adult development/epistemologies and I this could be a framework which helps me understand some of my unease. (
    Many students have a 3rd order consciousness. If I asked them to have an online presence many would do so because I/the institution said it was a good idea and they’ve been socialised to do what the institution tells them to.
    Many of the medical students who I come across online now and who have generally not been instructed to do be here, are at the 4th stage. Having an online presence is about identity construction. They are engaging in ‘self-authoring’ their minds.
    I hope that I am approaching the stage of ‘self-transforming’ mind. I am here because I want to challenge my views. I’m prepared to admit in public that I am quite taken with Kegan’s ideas at the moment but I want to engage in dialogue with others and make more sense of this together. My identity is not bound up with being right but with being someone who wants to learn. It is worth me being public about my thoughts in my own name because this is how I will gain most.
    I don’t feel comfortable about getting students to project a public identity just because I say they should, when they have not yet got to grips with exploring what their identity is.

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  9. Lanier argues (without any concrete evidence) that the use of pseudonyms encourages the kind of anti-social, trolling behaviour we often see on sites such as YouTube (a trawl through YouTube comments is enough to make you lose the will to live). Having said that, for young people they need the chance to be stupid and say dumb things without it haunting them forever. God knows, I said enough stupid stuff as a teenager I wouldn’t want repeated back to me today. In Delete, Mayer-Schonberger argues for the importance of forgetting. Part of how we forge our identity is to forget certain elements of our past, and the perfect online memory doesn’t allow this. So maybe using pseudonyms when you’re younger and establishing yourself is a good idea just for the mental health of the future you.
    I don’t worry about whether the online me persona is the real me, whether it’s performing or not. What is the real you anyway? I am a different person when I’m with my parents, or friends or work colleagues. This is just part of being a social being. The online me is partly a construct and there are certainly things I don’t discuss online, but it’s not false, it’s just the representation of certain facets.

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  14. Interestingly the social web allows us to practice/do construction of self via online tools. Never before have people been able to create almost a digital doppelganger which hopefully does not turn on its maker. Thought provoking post, something to pass onto my students.

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