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Reflections on the DigiKnow conference: digital awareness, online presence and going political

Earlier today, I was privileged to be a keynote speaker at a student conference organised by the University of Gloucester called “DigiKnow”. I kicked it off with a presentation on digital literacy and capability, for which the slides are attached. Using a metaphor from the Matrix, with gratitude to Tara Brabazon, from whom I got the idea, I wanted to encourage attendees to “take the red pill” and be thoughtful about their use of technology, instead of simply taking what they are given. There were a number of interesting questions, one of which picked up on my mentioning how much I learn from my teenage children. I was asked whether I was concerned about children having too much technology, and the short answer is no because technology is simply part of life. In my view, they need help from their parents to learn about responsible and safe use of technology, rather than having it banned altogether. Having said that, this is a personal matter and I know other parents take a different view. It intrigued me that this issue came up again in the Q&A session at the end of the day. There is a lot of anxiety among parents and society at large about children using technology and perhaps there is a need for better support and guidance here. It certainly needs to be more nuanced than “don’t use social media”, which is too often the message and does not get us anywhere.
I attended several interesting sessions including a brief review of copyright issues, which are something of a minefield and difficult to cover in a short talk. One point I was not aware of is that educational institutions often hold licences for use of specific material, but only for study purposes. This means that a student who posts their assignment on a blog, for example, needs to check whether they breach copyright on any external material they have used. At lunchtime there was a professional photographer taking photos for students to use on their LinkedIn profiles. This seems like an excellent idea as the quality of the photo is critical for a good profile, and having a professional involved makes a big difference. We then heard from marketing consultant Luan Wise, who provided useful tips on using LinkedIn. This had me mentally resolving to update my profile, in particular my “headline”. This defaults to your job title and place of work which is not always that informative, and I have never changed this. I will shortly!
We then heard from Mark Gosland from Gloucestershire Police Force about online security and safety. I consider myself pretty good on security but Mark has outdone me. Not only does he have two-factor authentication for key accounts (which I also do), he does this using a cheap phone which he doesn’t use for anything else. In other words, to hack my gmail account you would need to guess my password (which is generated by Lastpass, so pretty much unguessable) then steal my phone (and guess the password to that). For Mark, even if they stole his phone this wouldn’t work. I’m impressed. The final presentation was from librarian Johanna Anderson on “Your digital tattoo”. The word “tattoo” is chosen deliberately rather than the more usual “footprint”, because a footprint fades but a tattoo remains forever, just like your online material. This was timely advice for students who will be seeking employment shortly. Employers will often find out what they can about you online, it’s wise to manage this information. On the plus side, a positive online presence can have all sorts of benefits, as it has for Johanna, who was even offered a book deal on the basis of her blog.
Finally, there was a group Q&A, which pulled a number of themes from the day together. I was impressed at the questions that showed a lot of reflection on the big issues raised. One student simply asked “Do you think it is still possible to have a private life?” This is a big question. At times, I feel relieved that I grew up in an era when you could make mistakes in your teenage years and they would generally be forgotten. Now that so much growing up happens online, it will not be forgotten, an issue which I try to help my kids navigate. Mark Gosland gave his personal opinion that we have “sleepwalked” into a situation where we are under constant surveillance and our privacy is being eroded, but as citizens and voters we have the ability to ask questions and change this. I strongly agreed and ended up talking about the fact that I have recently joined the Open Rights Group, which campaigns on these issues, and advised anyone who is conceDigiKnow keynote presentation 200116 – Daniel Clarkrned to seek more information from them. This is what can happen – when you take the red pill sometimes you feel compelled to try and change things. We covered a lot of ground today, from practical ways to use social media to large-scale changes to society, and lots of points in between. Definitely a day well spent.
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Why I’m leaving Facebook (a personal digression)

I can still remember how it began. In the autumn of 2007, I suddenly realised that pretty much everyone I knew under 30 was using this new thing called Facebook. I got the feeling something big was happening, looked into it and, of course, had a go at getting stuck in myself. But I have been thinking about leaving Facebook for a while and am now taking the plunge. For me, it has done its job now – I’m off.

It seems I’m not the only one – numbers using Facebook are falling in the UK and US. I’m sure there are a variety of reasons here, and various people have written about why (I particularly like this post) but for me they come down to two.

Firstly, put simply, giving my personal information, photographs, updates and communication to Facebook makes me uneasy. Facebook’s business model is based on persuading me to share as much personal data as possible so that they can make large profits from selling it to advertisers. There has been quite a lot of comment about the way advertisements are getting more prominent in the timeline. So, in order to make more money, Facebook must encourage us to “share” as much as possible, as widely as possible.

And, when all is said and done, who controls all this personal information that we share? Here is an extract from Facebook’s terms and conditions:

“For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (IP content), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.”

I’ll come back to that point about “privacy and application settings”, but just recognise the default position. All those photos, updates, everything – you have given Facebook permission to do what they like with it and sell or licence it to others to do what they like with too. Hmm. And I’m not going to rely too much on the privacy settings. As has been commented many times around the web, Facebook has an ingrained habit of introducing new features which, by default, mean making more information public, and issuing confusing privacy policies. Of course – their business model depends on you not keeping things private or within a restricted group. And, famously, Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t appear to believe in the concept of privacy anyway. Not reassuring.

Of course, all social media involves making things public, but I think there is major difference between Facebook and others (at least the ones I am happy to use). They do not pretend anything is private at all, which makes a big difference to the sort of information I will share. I will not put anything on Twitter, LinkedIn or WordPress unless I am happy for the world to see it. Anything I am not happy for the world to see is not going on the web at all.

The second reason is the sort of interaction that seems to me to dominate on Facebook. I get a buzz from a meal or a drink with one or two people and a conversation that lasts for a while (this partly reflects the fact that I am an introvert, an admission that seems to have become more acceptable following the success of Susan Cain’s recent book “Quiet”). This sort of interaction doesn’t really happen on Facebook, which reminds me much more of a large party where everyone is making small talk, admiring each other’s outfits and showing each other photos of their latest goings-on. Lots of people love parties like that and I guess they are the ones who really like Facebook, but they aren’t my scene at all. Even for catching up on what has happened to people I don’t see much, I very much prefer the thoughtful annual “Christmas letter” to a stream of mini-updates.

I still find social media an invaluable tool. Twitter is great for sharing thoughts and resources, without the need to disclose anything personal and with the freedom to pick those you follow from hundreds of millions of users and, at least for the time being, low on advertisements. LinkedIn is good for maintaining and sometimes communicating with my work-related network. I blog because I like writing and it helps me get my thinking straight on issues that interest me, or relate to my studies. As an added bonus, some other people also like reading it and sometimes comment, just as I read many valuable blogs and sometimes comment on them too. But these are different contexts. Ideally, I would like communication with those important in my personal life to be, well, personal.

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