I Post, Therefore I Am

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Recently, I have read an influx of articles discussing the mobile app Yik Yak and the corresponding challenges it presents for campus stakeholders. Yik Yak is an app that was created with university campuses in mind that allows users to submit anonymous posts that can be seen by geographic location. Although Yik Yak can arguably be seen as beneficial in some ways, the downfalls are glaringly obvious. Tones and messaging of posts on Yik Yak range from supportive to hateful to threatening; and of course, there is the extra challenge presented by the anonymity of the poster. When I read these articles, I think of how discussions like these fit into the broader discussion that occurs within higher education circles on how to best engage students using social media platforms.

The challenges presented by apps like Yik Yak create opportunity for discussion on topics such as how do we, as student affairs professionals, monitor these online conversations? Should we be monitoring these conversations? Are these online comments representative of the way that a student actually thinks or should the comments be considered as somehow separate from the real (read: in person) student behaviour?

I think we need to start these conversations by considering how we see a student’s online behaviour as relating to their overall identity if we are to discuss the role of online behaviour in student development.

Accordingly, I find it intriguing that we encourage students to restrict their online identity in a way that promotes a sense of fear of someone finding out who they really are. Students are told to restrict the way that they present themselves online and to be aware that what they do online can affect their future careers. It is undeniably true: employers will look at your online footprint and whether you intend it to or not, the way that you come across online could very well have an impact on your career.

It almost goes without saying that students should take full advantage of privacy settings and should at least have an awareness that the information that they put online never truly “goes away.” However, does this still mean we should create a total separation between how we present ourselves online and offline?

In my opinion, creating and encouraging this separation can lead to students validating negative online behaviours. Perhaps this separation can lead to a justification similar to, “what I do and say online is not a representation of who I am and therefore, does not have as great an impact on my life or in the lives of others.” To be clear, I do not think that this separation causes students to write hateful messages online but I am suggesting that it may play a role in the justification of similar, negative behaviours.

Evidently, I can’t speak to cause and effect but I do think that we should begin to encourage an integration of offline and online identities by continuing to encourage students to – at the very least – be aware of their digital footprint. We should continue to tell students, as most of us likely are, to be conscious and conscientious of the information they put online and how they present themselves through any online record, be it social media or otherwise. That being said, in my opinion we should adapt our messaging by encouraging students to be conscious of this online self in a similar way that we are already taught to be mindful of the way we present ourselves to others in person. To entirely separate our online identities from our offline ones seems to me both impossible and unfitting with a holistic perspective of student development. We should be teaching our students to think critically and to apply their values and beliefs in all aspects of their lives instead of encouraging them, intentionally or otherwise, to hide behind their screens and their online personas.