An article addressing a familiar question, “When will we learn that digital communication isn’t private?” appeared in Sunday’s Boston Globe Magazine. The author, Tom Keane, gives many case studies including politician Tim Cahill, athletes Brett Favre and Tiger Woods, and several other examples from corporate America to demonstrate that we are all too familiar with putting “our transgressions on display for the world to see.”
Although not specifically related to independent schools, I do think that the points Keane makes are important lessons for our students to learn.
While it feels as though digital communications are fluid and less formal (and they often are), I think that is just what we must caution our students against. To view them as such is a recipe for disaster. All of our instantaneous communication platforms—email, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.—do make communication fluid. Keane presents one argument, “these new technologies are just an improvement on old-fashioned talking, writing, telephoning, and faxing.” He immediately challenges this claim by clearly stating that these old ways of communicating had some semblance of privacy and were limited by technology. It is clear that there are privacy risks involved with digital communication and we are not currently limited by technology. Besides these obvious differences, the most intriguing difference, according to Keane, is the permanence of these new forms of communication. It is the notions of formality and permanence that we must really pay attention to.
Most of our students have not known a world without digital platforms so they might not be able to draw on the comparison of the old versus new ways of communication. We must challenge them to think about what it means to engage in digital communications and the formality and permanence of their online actions. Would they want a future employer to learn about that exclusive party they attended after Prom in high school? What about a blog post they wrote to just blow off some steam? How about a seemingly innocent status update regarding a frustrating essay topic for that certain college’s application?
Keane hoped that people’s thoughtful use of technology would morph along with the development of the technology, but it doesn’t look like the reality that nothing is ever permanently deleted in the digital sphere is sinking in. However, the question of privacy may seem so familiar that it elicits an eye roll from others, but there is no clear answer to the question and therefore, it is still incredibly relevant to ask it.