Personal responsibility on the Web

September 27, 2007

I have been thinking about the personal responsibility and identity issues that reveal themselves on the web and in virtual environments. I haven’t done any research on this issue, although I am sure there is plenty. Mainly, my opinions are stemming from my personal experience with contributing to a number of different social networking tools such as facebook, this blog, LinkedIn, as well as a large number of email lists and open source communities.

One of the elements we talk about a lot in education and online tools is how students who are shy, or simply not comfortable voicing opinions in-person, find it easier to express themselves on the web or in a mediated virtual environment. This doesn’t surprise me, as someone who is fairly shy myself. For this reason, the potential alienation derived from virtual communication has never really concerned me. I can carry on a virtual conversation and in-person conversation with the same agility. In fact, sometimes it is easier to engage initially virtually as a way to ease into a community. What doesn’t change for me is my essential persona. I am always Mara Hancock, and the words – whether typed or spoken – are my own.

Watching my son – who is not shy – “talk with my friends” via IM every night I have been equally unconcerned. What is strikingly different though, is that he is not talking to “Derek who lives two blocks away,” he is talking to “PidgeonToes” or “MrRogersRIP” or “DragonGirl.” Peering over his shoulder, I have to ask, “who are you talking to?” I can never remember which alias goes with which kid. My IM alias is incredibly boring, “mara_hancock,” betraying my age and essential unhip self.

Recently, I have received several cranky comments on my blog. I have it set so that I can review and moderate comments, which I usually do happily and quickly. I am more than willing to post comments that are controversial or promote dialog. I believe that is part of the responsibility that comes with choosing to publish in this medium. Most of my peers are professional in their manner and bring interesting ideas to share. However, these recent comments however are clearly people venting. They don’t compose their argument or message and tend toward the use of profanity. These things, while concerning, don’t bother me nearly as much as the fact that they do not sign their real names. I have no idea who I am talking to, I have little context with which to assess this person’s perspective or opinion.

Now, I grew up in a relatively liberal family with a strong work-ethic and sense of personal responsibility and values. I know that my opinions are sometimes controversial, but if I believe it important to express them in a public arena (and the web is public), then I also believe it is important enough to sign my name next to them. I think about this when I sign petitions, when I sign letters and emails, and when I write in this blog.

So, if you would like to have your comments included on this blog, please, let me know who you are. You know who I am. It’s like shaking hands.

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