A Matter of Equalization

Ever the optimist, I ended a recent online group hangout about danah boyd’s new book, “It’s Complicated” with hopes that we would someday find something in our tools that would help move us towards the equalization of voice and representation on the Internet. I don’t consider myself a techno-utopian and hopefully by the time you read to the end of this post, you will realize I’m not a hardcore technological determinist either. But, isn’t there some chance of shifting just a little closer to equalization through the Internet?

What factors do we need to alter in online spaces as we move towards equalization? Are they age? Race? Gender? Anonymity? And what factors can be hidden or manipulated so that others are not aware of them in online public spaces? The massive online role-playing game Second Life was supposed to do just that before it turned into a wasteland of virtual sex. In SL, participants create an avatar, most going in with hopes that their experiences may change from those they have had in real life, experiences that are shaped by their defining characteristics of age, race, gender, and even ability. A female avatar may be operated by a human male and vice versa. A person in a wheelchair has legs through an avatar. Inevitably though, we end up giving ourselves away…our use of language, our beliefs and values still end up coming through our mediated avatars. So does our knowledge of the world. And for many left in the virtual space of SL, some of our basest desires.

Most people using the Internet have accepted the belief that we should be the same person online as we are in the real world, though we do construct our identities in ways that are favourable to us. The Internet still affords us access to others we may not have met in RL. Ask any tech-savvy teacher who goes to an educational conference and they’ll point out any number of people they met through Twitter before meeting them in person. The Internet affords us wider audiences. They are there for the taking if we know how to navigate them.

A few years ago, students at a local high school in Waterloo started a Facebook campaign to save a custodian’s job who was being moved to the night shift. The popular custodian was known to whistle tunes in the halls and smile and talk to the kids. Hundreds of kids signed online petitions, organized rallies and the distribution of promotional items for their cause, such as t-shirts. Although Facebook afforded students opportunity for public discourse, a wider engaged audience, and access to people of all ages, the campaign failed and the custodian was moved back to the night shift. The students felt disempowered. What they failed to recognize were the existing power structures that live outside the Internet. You see, the custodian was being moved to the night shift because he was only filling in temporarily. The regular full-time employee was coming back from leave. The students had no understanding of the power structures of a union. They thought their voice and numbers would be enough. They thought wrong.

Equalization does not come through the tools. Until age, gender, and race are no longer a shaping factor in our knowledge and beliefs, we will not achieve any advancements in equalization. Until existing societal structures can be navigated, we will not achieve equalization. Until the digital divide of access to technology is erased, we will not achieve equalization. Tools aside, it’s really about shifting pre-existing judgement. That’s why Media literacy and education will always be the cornerstone of any of those shifts, however slight, that we make towards equalization.

You can view the original hangout here on danah boyd’s book. It was a great opportunity to share thoughts on the book with educators from all over.
It’s Complicated