2.17.2007

The "Shame" of the Social

Alex, at Digital Digs, has an interesting riff on online social reputation systems and Henry Jenkin's thoughts on MIT's comparative media program and the YouNiversity.

I have been thinking a lot about Jenkin's thoughts and the program that is growing out of a social approach to media and education. A piece of the puzzle that worries me in the goldrush towards electrate social networking is the use of reputation systems as a sort of social algorithm. The ratings on RateMyProfessor, Amazon, and even on proprietary educational Content Management Systems like BlackBoard are turning multilayered and complex human interactions into popularity contests. Unfortunately, I don't know if/where there is scholarship on is the concept of shaming. A lot of the reputation systems use the Junior High system of social stigmitization as a primary motivation for interaction. People who have had a bad experience, marketers working for rival companies, or just plain disgruntled folks often use these rating systems to heap scorn on a product, company, or even individual. The multiple portals/spoofs/identities of particularly motivated people can create a Potemkin village of anger and makes a lot of these services pretty unuseful (i.e Facebook groups that spring up like weeds and "www.firesuchandsuchcoach.com"). Journalists on the take (either through direct remuneration or via favors and freebies) have been a major feature of the tech landscape for years. Alex is right on the money when he challenges his students to think about how they would feel if they were subject to these social reputation systems in the university (the old standby, the course grade, has been all but neutralized by grade inflation, with a few examples in the form of weedout courses, standardized tests, and particularly prestigous pre-professional majors).

I am also curious how an "open-hand" commons model might learn some of the lessons of shaming implemented in more meatspace institutions like jurisprudence, churches, and more semiotic class demarcations (there are places you don't go if you are marked in particular ways). Places like Facebook, which represent friendship as a quick consumption deal rather like Pokemon (and with little possibility of exclusion) temporarily suspends or minimizes that socialized shaming that helps break down large social groups into smaller communities of affect (excpet that the "trace" of repulsion is the obvious mechanism).

Why does any of this matter? Many of my (our) students use these online spaces as places to try out new identities w/o an awareness that their risk taking might come back to haunt them later. When I proposed a FB group for an inter-class project recently, one student very publicly asked about opting out because there might be some images that s/he might not want an instructor to see. I responded that we all need to be careful what we put online, because of the ease of copying and disseminating compromising images/text/work. My initial response came off as bit defensive (notwithstanding the fact that students can block out particular users from seeing part or all of their collected digital artifacts). Still, I wonder if there has been much work on how web 2.0 communities use digital tools to demarcate outsider status through particular semiotic practices (posting "drunken bender" or "racist party" pics, unbecoming rants or embarassing disclosures, etc.). If there has been this work, what does the research show happens to the background "in loco parentis" promises still implied in University settings?

I guess one of the challenges to blending Civic Engagement with New Media practices is bringing students into the knowledge that what happens in any demarcated "safe space" of enculturation eventually bleeds out into the cold and harsh public glare. Grades, evaluations, skills, and even ostenisbly private matters like personal identity eventually make up the strands of a public persona that one must eventually inhabit. The process of "revising" identity, even as one remixes identity through media becomes an important part of gaining entrance into larger public spheres.

Mr. Vaynar's over-the-top video portfolio broadcast and ridicule in the national press is an extreme example of what can happen if people forget some of the connections between identity creation and a spectator culture of ridicule. I guess I see shades of the portfolio pedagogical practice that Mike defends, except that the stakes of a student's online practices "portfolio" writ large can have a faster and broader impact.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

But I thought it was PRIVATE... Sigh. There are no secrets in the age of electracy. Except, of course, grades protected by FERPA. Students think their whole lives are protected by FERPA, probably because Universities let them think it.

Doc Mara said...

Yes, Universities (especially registrars) sell FERPA as one of the remaining justifications for in loco parentis. That little exchange of grade privacy for creepy micromanagement (*wink* *wink* *nudge* *nudge*) of student life via residence life, activity centers, wellness centers, etc. is pretty much all we have anymore. I have a hard time breaking through the fog of "why won't Daddy fix everything" assumptions that our students have of the institution. FERPA is pretty darn weak. I have had students claim it as a balm against teacher humiliation--I am afraid that only applies to private records and not otherwise public performance. Same thing with a employers. You can't share bad work evaluations, but your boss certainly can make your life pretty miserable without running afoul of the law. Your countermeasure is noting the jerks and avoiding them if possible. People who abuse authority are either really good at it and looking for the weak (don't act like prey...don't act like prey) or they hang themselves picking on the wrong people. Lay low and keep your eye on the prize.

DC said...

I was thinking also about the fact that such systems lead to a short-sightedness. For example, if you tell someone they're doing something wrong and need to shape up (in a classroom this might be as simple as a bad grade) then they might leave negative feedback in such a system. Then, years later, when they realize that you set them on a better course, it is too late to give you any accolades.

Doc Mara said...

DM, I think you are right in the moment, but most teachers have some of those students come back and thank them. I have been lucky enough to have a lot of students do that very thing.

When I came back from studying abroad, I went back to my 6th-grade teacher who kept me nearly constantly locked up in detention and thanked her personally for what she did. I actually didn't dislike her to begin with, but she did not know how big an effect her non-compromising had on me.

Always always ALWAYS a good idea to go and say "thanks" for earlier direction or help from any sort of role model or authority.

kate said...

hehe! face friendships like pokemon - genius!!