What do universities, employers, and your girlfriend’s overprotective mother all have in common? They all want to know you, without the messy and time-consuming business of actually meeting you.
Discussions around digital footprints tend to be, by and large, filled with gentle threats and dire (albeit kid-friendly) warnings. I find this to be unnecessarily negative and reliant on a fear-based approach to convincing students to be conscious of the tracks they leave behind. Even the term itself is negative–I’m reminded of national parks urging you to stay on the trail to avoid leaving a footprint! It also has a vague implication that someone is going to stalk you, using your tracks in a menacing and involuntary way. I believe we should avoid using fear as a motivator, and instead, focus on the positive side of a digital “impression”. After all, as Tanya Leclair points out, “footprints imply you are going places”.
As we all know, modeling is one of the most important ways we can teach our students. However, it seems that many teachers have adopted an ultra-conservative precautionary principle when it comes to their internet presence. The thought of “It might make me look ___” seems to paralyze many, stopping them from making valuable connections or authoring content that the world might appreciate. If the classic, “Google yourself” exercise is done by a teacher, I would hope that it would be immediately clear that this teacher has a well-established, professional (without being flat), interesting and <insert other positive adjective> result. The lack of a negative digital footprint is not the same as the presence of a positive one.
I have always taken the opposite approach to my online presence, and I can credit my open attitude to my first days of the internet. I was born in 1982, which put me in high school right during the explosion of the internet in the late 90’s. Dial-up 14.4k modems, AOL, and ‘bulletin boards’ were my thing. I learned to type (a skill I still consider totally undervalued and undertaught), I learned to connect with people via text-only, and I learned that the internet was a friendly place, most of the time. I spent hours and hours posting on AOL’s reef aquarium forums, and I have very fond memories of the relationships I formed.[On a side note, I am actually a bit disappointed that those ancient posts seem to have disappeared! I spent the better part of 30 minutes trying every type of search I could, including the Way Back Machine–and nothing could be found! So much for the “anything you post never goes away” mantra]
As a result of COETAIL’s urging to expand my PLN, I have genuinely enjoyed the process of increasing my online presence and ‘personal branding’. It has even provided inspiration to get my personal website up to shape, because maybe (just maybe!) someone might even visit it. Twitter has been the greatest addition to my networking abilities since email, and I am even using one of my least favorite site’s (LinkedIn) chemistry education communities–though I must admit, I still adore my NSTA listserve the most! Buoyed by the positive experiences I’ve had here, I’ve dipped a toe into the once-intimidating Google Group “Chem-Ed”, which is more aimed at university professors. The point is–assuming you are a reasonable, decent human being (as most teachers are!), leaving a positive digital footprint is actually really easy to do, and you should stop worrying about it and just get out there.
I’m worried we may go a bit overboard in cautioning our students about the possibility of their digital footprint being used against them. Instead of focusing on terms like “embarrassing”, “permanent” and “derogatory”, we should re-tool our digital footprint lessons to include “showcase”, “active” and “first impression”. If we want our students to be proactive about actually establishing a positive online presence, we need to do lead the way, and we should lead with the carrot rather than the stick.