Safety, Identity, and Literacy in Online Spaces

Safety, Identity, and Literacy in Online Spaces

When I introduce myself to people for the first time in professional settings I explain that I’m educational psychologist. Others have called me a “tech guru”, or a “technogeek” depending on if you’re mad at me or not. To this I quickly explain that this means that I’ve built up this expertise building and breaking a lot of things online. Much of my day job, and passion in life involves encouraging others to read and write in online spaces. At a job interview I once shared that I envisioned my career as getting educators excited that they could get up to the edge of that cliff that involves teaching and technology…believe in themselves…and jump right off of that cliff knowing they could fly. I didn’t get that job. 🙂

In this work I’ve had the privilege of working with individuals from Pre-K through higher ed to get them excited and invigorated about being a literate individual in online spaces. Furthermore, this work usually focuses on the instructor or educator using these new, digital, and web literates with their students and indoctrinating them into the spaces as well. What frightens me is that I’m working to assimilate and acculturate individuals into a broken system.

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If you read the post by Quinn Norton on Medium, you quickly understand that we’re sitting on top of a broken Internet. Doug Belshaw takes this a bit further (here and here) and explains the complexity that occurs as we engage in this broken environment and use free tools (e.g., the “cloud”) for our services. The end result is that we end up becoming what is sold when products are free. What concerns me is that in my work I’m effectively encouraging and advocating for educators to continue to build, and entrench themselves into a broken system.

Recently I’ve been asked by Doug to sit on the cabinet of the newly formed Digital/Web Literacy Working Group as part of the Badge Alliance. As we’ve started up our work again identifying, scaling, and then advocating for these Digital/Web Literacies I thought back a year to the beginning of the work on the Digital/Web Literacy Standards/Map and considered the revelations brought to us by Edward Snowden.

As we begin this new work I ask the members of the Digital/Web Literacy Working Group what will we do to ensure that we’re not asking the future to become literate in a digital space that forces them to repay with their identity. I ask you “netizens”  and “normals” alike, what do you want from the future of YOUR Internet?

We have to claim anarchy and realize that systems have a life of their own that is anti-humanist. There is definitely an anti-humanist tendency in all systems.” -Terence McKenna Psychedelic Society 1984


You can review and respond to the original post and follow the discussion in the Google Group. I pasted in the post below to archive it.


It was a little over a year ago that many of us were up to our elbows in writing and revising the original #weblitstd. We’d put items like “identity” on the back-burner, and then bring it back out to argue, and then put it back until later. One of these items that we didn’t know how to handle was privacy. At about the same time the first PRISM leaks came out, and then Snowden hit. I remember sitting on that call with many of you not knowing how to respond. We all had this sense of paranoia, dread, and apathy that crept into the discussions. Even to this day you’ll see little “the NSA is watching” jokes pop up in the EtherPad. In that initial meeting Carla Casilli sat back and let us all vent. Ultimately I think this news invigorated us after talking about the leaks. We were reminded of how necessary it was that we develop skills and standards that would protect and empower individuals using digital tools.

Now that we’re a year out from the initial Snowden leaks, where are we? More importantly, where do we want these Web literacies to be? With the anniversary of having our eyes opened, I’ve been perusing the web and have been inundated with information about what I can do. I can encrypt. I can really, really encrypt. As part of #ResetTheNet, EFF wants me to run a TOR relay. I believe in the ideas behind the TOR relay, but in the end don’t know if that attracts more attention than I want/need. The bigger question ultimately is…does it all matter?

As this post takes a bit of a turn, please understand this is all motivated by posts written and shared by Doug Belshaw. If you haven’t already, please go read:

Once again, the question revolves around what we want these web literacies/standards to be. As we develop and advocate for these Web Lit/Standards, should we promote privacy, protection, and most importantly development of your own infrastructure. Should be make people aware of encryption, TOR, and opportunities to anonymize traffic? Should we promote the development of their own online spaces that they host and run. Or, given the above posts, is it just easier to throw up our hands and use the great free tools that are available in the cloud?
In Everything is Broken, the case is made that for the most part, the entire machine is borked. Doug expands on this and brings in the complexity that exists as we routinely use free products and in return sell out our identity. Additionally, Doug points out that in many cases WE CAN’T step away from the free tools. They’re too nice, sexy, and powerful. So, as much as we would like to try and step away from the cloud-based digital texts and tools, we’re locked in because of jobs, family, colleagues, etc. From a personal perspective, among other things, I run a graduate program in which I use free, online tools (like G+ and GAFE) as my LMS and CMS. In this capacity I promote the use of these tools to teachers, who will in turn use it with their students. In a way I’m stoking the fire. I encourage and advocate for educators to indoctrinate their students and continue to have them dump their work into the system and sell out their identity. Given the above blog this ethical? 🙂
In our collective work on the Web Lit/Standards we’re developing a continuum of standards that individuals can consistently refer to as they “level up” and work to improve how digitally literate they are. More importantly (IMHO), teachers can use these literacies/standards to point out on the horizon to where they want their students to be. But, as we develop and advocate for these elements, exactly what is out there on the horizon? As we increasingly have individuals work up these scales and competencies, what are they gaining and giving up? As they become more and more digitally literate or savvy, do we want them to host their own sites and develop their own infrastructure? Do we want them to increasingly become more self-actualized/paranoid/independent/self-reliant? Additionally, as we set out for this independent spirit of the empowered web literate individual, will they ultimately be able to enact these aspects of their digital identity? Ultimately will the point be moot if/when (FCC breaks the Internet/Google turns on SkyNet/Insert doomsday scenario here) and we realize that online is online and we don’t really “own” anything in the digital space. Additionally, as Doug points out, we could sit on an island and only use “super-secure and private apps/services” but then we’d be labeled a “pariah.”
In the end, we cannot do any of this alone. We’re inexorably connected. We cannot do this individually. To close this out, I’ll “steal” the portion of Doug’s post as he states it a bit more elegantly that I could:
Remember: there’s not loads we can do in isolation – especially given the mindboggling complexity of the whole system. But we can talk with others about the situation in which we find ourselves. We can weave it into our conversations. We can join together in solidarity and, where there’s opportunities, we can take informed action.
All of us need to up our game when it comes to the digital literacies and web literacy necessary to operate in this Brave New World. We shouldn’t be embarrassed about this in any way. After all, we’re collectively making it up as we go along.


Image CC by wikimedia



1 Comment Safety, Identity, and Literacy in Online Spaces

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