A Domain of One’s Own: Taking Control of Digital Selfhood

I attended Jim Groom’s talk in Cork (31st march 2017) and want to say a few words while it’s fresh in my mind. For those of you unfamiliar with Groom’s work, he is a co-founder of Reclaim Hosting, a company that provides domains and web hosting to students and educators. Groom was here to talk about “A Domain of One’s Own“, a fully featured package for teams, organisations and institutions. The philosophy that underpins this is that it allows people to take control of their digital identities.

Groom showed a number of examples of past students’ websites that are still in use and have evolved with their owners. He made the point that domains can be a sort of living archive, documenting a person’s life beyond their students years. An example of a lecturer’s website in which she collected her course syllabi, assessment examples and other teaching materials resonated with me, as this is something that I use my website for. In the last three years my teaching schedule has increased and diversified, and I think it is important to document this. I know it has been useful for students as well because they have a place to go and look at examples of work that past students have created in my modules, and get a sense of who I am as a teacher.

Giving students a domain of their own recognises the fact that the work a student does in school is not something that needs to be relegated to a filing cabinet or a USB stick, to gather dust and eventually end up in the shredder. I also strongly believe that we still need to get past the idea that such initiatives are just for DH and computer science students. For the past number of years I have guided MA in English students as they create and maintain research journal blogs. Just recently, one of these students wrote about what this experience means for her:

“My blog is now a portfolio of sorts to showcase my work, my personality and my (admittedly basic) proficiency with IT and will hopefully benefit me in future job applications. This year in general has encouraged me to interact more with the online world as a means of benefiting my chances of pursuing a career in publishing and I have reaped some positive results already. As a result of following publishing Ireland on Twitter, I found out about an editing workshop in Dublin which I am attending next month.”

During Groom’s talk I remembered my very last lecture as an undergraduate. It was a lecture for a core module in Geography, and the lecturer was summing up the scope of his series of lectures. He had structured these across the spectrum of ages and that Earth has seen (the industrial age, etc). He finished by saying that “we are now living in the digital age.” This was in Spring 2009, and it was the first time any of my lecturers had explicitly referred to the times in which we were and are living. Now, this seems so symbolic to me. I left that room, and the very last lecture I sat through as an undergraduate student with those final words in my ears. A few months later, I was an MA student of American Literature and Film, and I was engaging in activities that I really did not expect to form part of the MA programme at the time: learning XML, thinking about digital archives, and learning about the processes involved in digitising literary objects like books and index cards. I was not given a domain of my own. I had to figure that one out for myself.

Part of the philosophy of A Domain of One’s Own seems to be that teachers and education organisations have a responsibility towards ensuring that students are prepared for and literature in digital issues. We’re realistically looking at a future where universal incomes will be a necessity as more and more jobs become automated. We are banking, shopping, watching TV, gaming, talking, messaging, creating and dating online. Our individual selfhoods are entangled with the wired world.

Data has become an extra limb, and one we are desperately trying not to have amputated against our will. Every blemish, pock, scar, bruise, ingrowing hair, freckle and blush of that extra limb is exploitable, even ransom-able. Ripping off someone’s data is not like pulling off a band-aid.

While Facebook may have updated its platform policy to forbid data being used for surveillance, what’s to stop a reversal of this in the future? Every year I break the news to students that I want them all to have Twitter accounts so they can participate in discussions, tweech-ins, and twessays.

Usually these same students are also required to have blogs. While not always true, most students worry more about Twitter than the blog. Their fears about blogging are based on technical issues that can be learned relatively quickly. Their fears about Twitter are usually that some deep dark secret, or some unreal aspect of their selves will be revealed to the world and copper-fastened as fact. These worries are legitimate and I always encourage discussion and reflection about this issue. For all of its possibilities, the online world has given way top a plethora of new forms of bullying, harassment, and online shaming. As someone who endured quite a bit of bullying in school, I am glad I left most of my teenage years before and in the early days of Web 2.0. No matter how aware you are, a simple slip up can be cataclysmic.

Jon Ronson sums it up well in the above talk:

And I think back on the early days of Twitter, when people would admit shameful secrets about themselves, and other people would say, “Oh my God, I’m exactly the same.” These days, the hunt is on for people’s shameful secrets. You can lead a good, ethical life, but some bad phraseology in a Tweet can overwhelm it all, become a clue to your secret inner evil.

Unfortunately, even with a growing library of emojis, we have yet to bridge the very large, often emotionally blind, and very slippery pitfall that is words on a screen or page. It is rather difficult to convey certain emotions, and most writers will tell you that humour is the toughest thing to write. In any case, Groom posits that A Domain of One’s Own is the liberatory antithesis to this feeling of loss of control. It won’t solve all your data related worries or problems. But it will give you a place where you can begin to regain some kind of control over your digital self.

Of course, having your own domain is not going to be the answer to all of your data-related privacy issues. Groom cited the Nordic module for data management as a positive step in the right direction where online identity is concerned: MyData: A Nordic Model For Human-Centered Personal data Management and Processing. This approach

“is based on the right of individuals to access the data collected about them. The core idea is that individuals should be in control of their own data. The MyData approach aims at strengthening digital human rights while opening new opportunities for businesses to develop innovative personal data based services built on mutual trust.”

I guess some people may question what all of this has to do with universities signing up for the Domain of One’s Own package. What does personal data management and digital identity have to do with teaching and learning. Well, I think it has everything to do with it. The so-called “Digital Age” is no longer a concluding comment or side note, and digital assignments cannot be simply skills-centred when 140 characters can bring down a person’s career, when “post-truth” is voted word of the year in 2016,  when personal data is as deeply encoded in our identities as the strands of our DNA.

Jesse Stommel states that

“Increasingly, the web is a space of politics, a social space, a professional space, a space of community.And, for better or worse, more and more of our learning is happening there. For many of us, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between our real selves and our virtual selves, and in fact, these distinctions are being altogether unsettled.”

In some ways the transformative message of A Domain of One’s Own may sound overly idealistic. But I think the notion of giving students and ourselves some agency over who we are online, a kind of central control panel where you decide what gets deployed where and when, is important. Asking university students to consider what their digital identity says about them is as important as teaching the safe cross code to five year olds. Perhaps it can even be an antidote to the throwaway comments that lead to digital identity disasters. This week (03 April 2017), Jim Groom is in Galway giving a workshop, and some of the tweets from this event dovetail nicely with what I have discussed in this blog post. I’ll leave you with a few of these, and I’ll possibly revisit and expand on the issues discussed here at a later date.



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