I reached out to N. and K., two recent alumni of All Saints’ Day School (Carmel, CA) who are thriving in their freshman years of high school, to hear what they were willing to share about how they experience themselves and their peers on social media. Truth be told, I thought I would be confirming my emerging hunch about what might make for digital citizenship for the next generation.
As is so often the case in my teaching life, I was glad to be gently, lovingly redirected by my students away from half-baked answers, and back towards some worthy questions I didn’t even know to ask.
Their responses in separate interviews -- from vastly different experiences and preferences around Instagram and SnapChat (which, for the life of me, I still don’t understand) -- converge upon what N. refers to as the driving importance of “grooming a certain image -- an aesthetic, or whatever”.
Both agreed that one’s on-line image is an act of creative curation that had something to do with how many “likes” one garnered on Instagram, and something else to do with how carefree or whimsical one’s “story” on SnapChat read, and something else about the timing and content of the rare and intimate “DMs” (direct messages), in which more public interactions take a more private, intimate turn. But it also had to do with understanding how to broadcast and introduce one’s day over Instagram or SnapChat. And it had something more to do with how often one shares on either social media outlet.
Together, they suggested that young people perceive a right and a wrong way to be on either social media outlet, which suggested there was also a right and wrong way between them. And all of this is a vitally important layer of connecting with one another before and between meeting in person -- which, for so many of our students, happens in rushed minutes between classes, in the cafeteria, in a weary moment after practice, on a carpool home. (The question of whether so many of our students rely upon social media to cultivate and keep friendships because the school we design for them keeps them busy, exhausted and isolated is in play here, but worth exploring on its own.)
As I zoom back to my own Twitter life, I find myself… right alongside them. Truth be told, I am a careful cultivator of my identity on Twitter. Aren’t I careful to retweet certain edu-leaders whom I admire, even if I don’t read the entire article they attach to their tweet? Don’t I avoid “quote retweeting” in a way that might push my viewpoint towards direct confrontations with those on the other side of controversial issues? And when I attempt a first direct message to a new Twitter friend (particularly those I’ve met in the #dtk12chat community), I feel as though I’m the new kid, approaching an available seat at an almost-full table of friends in the school cafeteria.
I’m coming to understand that digital citizenship may not completely hinge upon Brene Brown-worthy moments of vulnerability, but… whether we want to or not, we are all brought before the emotional terrain of trying to be our most authentic self, even as we arrive online to explore what our most authentic self might become.
Some insights and emerging ideas, especially pertaining to what makes for citizenship in the digital age:
- Our most authentic selves, born of cultivation and curation, are works in progress that thrive in creative expression and authentic connection with others.
- Whether we’re sharing of ourselves online or “offline”, the need to know others, the need to be known, and the need to be affirmed (in social media-speak, to be “liked”) are foundational in what it means to be and stay alive.
- Student survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas HS already have a lot to teach us adults about what citizenship can (and, perhaps, should) look like in the digital age -- both in how they leverage social media towards moving their agenda forward, but also in how they balance social media presence with “in the world” organizing and action.
- Adults in positions of power (epitomized by President Trump on Twitter) have a lot to teach our youth about how to not be digital “citizens”. We adults are not always “kind, smart, and secure” when we’re online.
- When it comes to our lives online -- from casual friendships across Instagram to deeper questions of citizenship in a digital age -- neither adults nor young people are exempt from the following truth that can either cause us to regard each other with skepticism and doubt, or invite us to lean in towards new connections with curiosity, empathy, and real warmth: We don’t fully know another person from who they are online, nor do we know what we always know what we don’t know about someone.
And yet, we try.
What if we designed a week at our schools that aimed for some delightful, authentic remix of social-emotional learning, #shadowastudent challenge, SnapChat 101 (for adults) -- and some good, old-fashioned time together, in-person, as a school family? I imagine members from all corners of our school families coming together, helping each other explore how Twitter, Instagram, and (gasp!) SnapChat might become tools for curating and cultivating creativity, identity, connection, and self-understanding. Students could “assign” the adults in their lives at home and at school to tell the story of their working life through social media. Adults could challenge students to choose from a list of teacher-curated hashtag conversations (say, #dtk12chat, #educolor, #sschat, or #makered) a new conversation to follow for a month. An entire school family could seek daily connection with other school families, towards sharing stories, developing shared “HMWs”, and prototyping a wholly new way of learning across institutional boundaries.
Together, our schools could encourage their youth and adults to reconsider how connected we are -- or could be -- to one another, and how social media might become a tool by which we dig together, beneath the surface of things, to better understand -- and stand alongside -- each other.