Sock puppets, twitterjacking and the art of digital fakery in the Guardian reinforces the need for digital literacies as social practices. The examples show the ways we operate online are mirrors – but more about aspirations than true reflections. With varying degrees of accuracy, we can be who we want to be, or even create an identity which is totally false. There is nothing new in this. People have always reinvented their past. What is different is the affordances of the Internet to persuade other people of the truth of your lies, or more worryingly, the lies you tell about others.
I’ve long been interested in construction of human identity. My first piece of postgraduate research used the Internet for communication and information (this was 1999), when opportunities for interaction were limited to textual exchange via email and the chat rooms which derived from early MUDS and MOOS. I had a 56k dial up modem and Web 2.0 hadn’t happened. I remember debates around the freedom offered by online environments for experimentation; how you could present an identity without barriers created through attribution and stereotyping. This was seen as positive but it’s all different now. Just this week the media has reported fraudsters posing as would-be romantic partners on internet dating sites and pedophile rings use social media for grooming. This article not only lists multiple instances of ‘digital fakery’, it assumes fake identities are reflect negative aspects of our personalities eg sadist, masochist and weirdo. Maybe ‘only bad news sells’ but the degree to which we can post content which is incorrect and edit graphics so they appear to tell a different story has never been so easy. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger says: “The digital age is difficult. We’re in a Foucauldian postmodern world where we can’t tell the truth from fakery.” The need for embedding digital literacies into graduate attributes and teacher education has never been more important.
The Internet supports what US Psychoanalyst Christopher Lasch called The Culture of Narcissism. Writing in the 1970’s, long before the digital revolution, Lasch describes a capitalist society constantly searching for new markets. As the consumerism of material goods is no longer enough, so attention is turned to exploiting the ego; achieving this through the creation of false identities and blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction. Lasch describes as resultant new illiteracies as the failure to think critically; something which lies at the heart of digital literacy in the 21st century.
The hope lies in the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ effect; that there will be enough people online to challenge errors and mistakes and that the processes of critical reflective practice, which are integral to higher education, will be applied to all Internet encounters. Within learning technology we say it isn’t the tool. It’s what you do with it that counts. A parallel philosophy for digital literacies could be is it isn’t the message, it’s the interpretation which matters.