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It’s an enlightening activity to sit back and review your ‘online sharing’ for a two-month period.  I did this last week over a couple of days instead of posting to this blog, in an effort to evaluate whether my contributions to the Twitterverse and Blogosphere were really bearing fruit, were really moving me closer to the goals that initially prompted my participation.

I am acutely aware that this task proved much easier for me than it would for many friends, colleagues, and fellow ‘tweeps’.  For one, I don’t have a Facebook account (never have!)  My ‘sharing’ since August 15th–when I posted my first tweet–has consisted of six (lengthy) blog posts, almost three hundred tweets, and a dozen or so photos on Instagram.  Content I shared spanned topics such as education, movies, music, sports, my kids, coffee, and my affection for Apple products, among other things.  In a mere two months, my online sharing increased by about 5000% (a made up number, perhaps, but I’d only ever helped my wife post pics of our family to Facebook, so that hardly counts!)

If you google ‘trends in online sharing’, you’ll no doubt come up with many reliable statistics surrounding the exponential growth in the frequency and amount of content individuals share online.  The term ‘digital citizenship’ resonates with us because we have a growing sense that we are inhabitants of a digital world wherein we are increasingly living our lives online.  When I signed up for Twitter and began blogging, I was very deliberate about how much of my life would be available online for public scrutiny, and the practical purposes and goals I had for broadening my ‘digital footprint’.  It turns out that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my entrance into the world of social media–more so than I ever expected–but have I stayed true to my self-imposed goals and limitations?

Goal #1: Join an Active Community

I am convinced that Twitter is, at present, the most powerful tool for connecting with talented, like-minded educators from around the world!  I am reminded daily how extraordinary it is to be listening in on, and at times interacting with, educators from places as far away as Indonesia (@intrepidteacher) and Australia, and all throughout the United States and Canada!  What keeps me coming back is the feeling of fellowship–of camaraderie even–that emerges due to the common interests and values held by those involved.  Of course, the members of this community will question and challenge one another, and they won’t always agree, but a welcoming atmosphere and attitude of mutual respect supersede any significant differences that may be present.

I grossly underestimated the strength and maturity of such a community.  I never dreamed that there was a 24/7 Professional Development conference going on via Twitter.  I thought this medium was for superstars and the kids who adored them.  Now I wouldn’t want to live without it, and as I get further into my career and my teaching responsibilities increase, I know that growing a strong Personal Learning Network will sustain me in ways that co-workers and administration are, at times, unable to.

Fortunately, this well-meaning community is even bigger than a bunch of educators sharing resources and best practices.  It extends into almost any arena imaginable.  Of course, forums and chat rooms based around particular special interests have been around for decades now, but Twitter takes these platforms to an entirely different level.  You may comment on the characterization of a particular villain in a television series, then receive a message from the actor who plays that part!  A few weeks backs, one of my posts that merged education-related discussion with film criticism was referenced and quoted by a film blogger whose work I’ve enjoyed for years.  A wealth of ideas coupled with the ease of dissemination fuel the creative energy of an ever-growing community of which I’m thrilled to now be a part!

Goal #2: Increase My Visibility

In his introduction to The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography, Philip Roth wrote that, “the person I’ve intended to make myself visible to here is myself, primarily”.  The irony is that despite this stated purpose, Roth eventually submitted the book for publication and exposed the details of his modest upbringing, failed relationships, and early days as a writer, to readers around the world.  Likewise, I had no illusions that I was blogging merely for myself, though I have relished the opportunity to document and reflect upon precious thoughts and happenings over the past couple of months.  I have enjoyed journalling in the past, but have only disciplined myself to journal regularly while on significant trips or before major life events such as marriage or the birth of my first child.  While those events are certainly worth contemplating and writing about, so are many other smaller ones in-between, for as much as we believe that the huge, life-altering events are what shape us, the day-to-day happenings have just as much impact on our ongoing development.  In education, we talk a lot about reflecting on our practice, and like Roth, I believe that a record of thoughts, feelings, and events is invaluable if we are ever to “[use] the past as a basis for transformation”.

I am also certain that one of our primary roles as educators is to educate our students about monitoring and maintaining a positive Digital Footprint.  My aim to increase my visibility stemmed from the fact that my ‘footprint’ was nearly non-existent, and I was convicted about failing to practice what I preach.  I quickly went about updating my LinkedIn profile, and took great pains to establish a blog I could be proud of and a Twitter stream that reflected my personality and interests.  I realized quickly that I need not be concerned about feeling exposed or losing my privacy even if I tweeted about things going on in my personal life.  As I watched others interact on Twitter, I recognized that revealing little tidbits about who I am and how I think and what I do with my time allows others to connect the arguments and opinions I express so passionately with the life of a real person.  By sharing the personal elements we do, it allows all of us to subscribe to and follow PEOPLE, rather than just nicknames and thumbnail images.

As educators, we are called by our society to a higher standard of morality and conduct than members of most other professions; however, we are not required to be invisible.  The integrity and ethics that determine our conduct on a daily basis are directly applicable to where and how we participate in the digital realm.  Going forward, I will model what it means have a vital and visible online presence.

Goal #3: Maintain Authenticity

My greatest fear is that in the midst of all of this ‘sharing’ we risk surrendering our authenticity.  In her wonderful TED Talk, titled “How to Spot a Liar”, Pamela Meyer declares, “Oversharing? That’s not honesty!”  It can indeed get rather ‘noisy’ as everyone is ‘talking’ at once about whatever pops into their minds at a given moment, and the danger is that these lives we exhibit online become estranged from the true lives we lead.  For some, this disconnect between an ‘online persona’ and their ‘real life’ may be intentional, but I want to be authentic in any sphere!

Still, I can’t help but ask, do I unconsciously exaggerate to compose a more eye-catching tweet?  Is it difficult to resist the urge to dramatize the mundane?  Am I giving off the impression in my blog posts that I have more teaching experience or pedagogical wisdom than I really do?  I believe we should be mindful and concerned about these temptations, as I am.  Another ‘buzz term’ that we’re repeatedly confronted with these days is talk of our ‘personal brand’, but is it not a brand’s job to elevate itself in the minds of potential customers in order to increase profits?  I suppose I want to market my skills on some level, but I am wary of perceiving my identity in the same way that we recognize brands.  After all, we are not commodities.

Perhaps our online ‘lives’ do to some extent render us ‘walking texts’; the partial versions of ourselves that we lay bare for all to witness and judge can not approximate the whole.  We must choose what to share/write and what to omit, and whether we are motivated by inhibition or reluctance to expose too much, we are tempted–expected maybe–to present the most favourable ‘version’ of ourselves (not unlike Roth, or any autobiographer).  As I sift through my tweets and posts and pics, I can’t help but wonder if others looking in see the real me, or an idealized but heavily-edited version.  If we are unconsciously engaged in the maintenance of a personal brand (or the concealment of a ‘countertext’ that is less attractive but more authentic) then I can only guess at the long-term effects this behaviour will have on our self-image and the ways we interact both online and off.  My hope is that we don’t sacrifice honesty and truth in favour of online ‘followers’.  As Meyers rightly identifties, “character [and] integrity” are “still what matters!”

Without a doubt, remaining authentic is the most difficult objective of all, and as I forge ahead and fashion new goals for my participation in social media, I will continuously aspire to portray an image that others can trust.  

Why do YOU participate in social media?  Have you identified goals with regard to your online sharing/tweeting/blogging?  How do you evaluate the your own digital citizenship?  Whether you’re ‘experienced’ or not, please share!

**I would be remiss not to acknowledge the indelible influence that Claire Ortiz-Diaz’ wonderful book, Twitter for Good: Change the World One Tweet at a Time, has had on the thinking that prompted this post.  Though her book is directed at companies and not-for-profit organizations that seek to successfully employ the powers of social media to their desired ends, it also guided my thinking about personal goals with regard to online sharing and participation in social media.  I have also drawn substantially from the conclusion of Philip Roth’s autobiography as it applied to my analysis of maintaining authenticity in online sharing.  

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