Sunday, September 21, 2008

Who am I??

What you've done becomes the judge of what you're going to do - especially in other people's minds. When you're traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don't have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road. ~William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways

When I first joined Facebook I really had no idea what it was all about. A friend was concerned that her daughter had joined so asked me to go online and see what the site was all about. As my "demographic" had not really caught on to Facebook at that time I did a quick look around and then left. After Facebook patrons moved beyond college and highschool kids, it didn't take long for my friends to start popping up all over the place.

At first it was fun getting in touch with highschool friends and family, then it started to be University friends (who are now my pharmacy colleagues) and people that I have met through the Ed Tech world. The boundaries between my worlds started to blur. Then someone posted a rather horrid "joke" on my wall and a giant spotlight landed on the question of "who am I?" when I am on Facebook. My kids mom? A pharmacist? The girl from highschool? My Nieces/Nephews aunt - my Aunt's/Uncle's niece? My mom's kid (yes even my Mom is on Facebook)? Most importantly what does it say to all of these people to see something so awful posted on my wall?

The answer to that question is a difficult one. The people who know me, and have known me for an extended period of time, would not hold that post (ie Is she really the type of person that would find that funny?) against me because they have knowledge of what I have done in the past and can use it to predict my current behaviour. But what about the people who only know me in the "right there and then" sense? I can't predict how they would percieve seeing such a thing, they have no knowledge of "the yesterdays on the road" to give it context. At best, they'd think that I have poor taste in friends or at worst that I shared that sense of humour. It made me want to create walls around each of the roles that contributes to who I am as a whole.

It was this dilemma that led me to choose Ning to create our Community Parent's Site. It seemed the perfect solution to create a place where there was no question "who you were" in this space. You were a parent -- plain and simple. But it is never that simple, I live in a small town and those roles are not very easy to partition. While someone in the city may go to work, do their shopping, participate in service clubs and have a night on the town without ever crossing paths with another parent (or teacher) from their child's school, it would be impossible for us not to interact with eachother in situations that have nothing to do with our children.

What implications has this had on our "on-line" community. I guess the first has been on the teachers. While they can participate as parents they are discouraged by adminstration to participate as teachers. In a town where school matters might be discussed, with a teacher, in the grocery aisle, in the stands at a hockey game, or even a community dance this "exclusion" has created an awkward dynamic for both parents and teachers. It raises the question -- what makes this online "place" different than any other place we may inhabit? -- but that's another post.

The second, somewhat expected, side effect involves the parents. As most of us grew up in a small town (and most this same small town) we are very used to functioning in a place where one role overlaps with another. This partitioning in a way feels unnatural. For example one teacher asked me to post a community fundraiser on our Parent Ning for her. When I told her the Ning was enabled for anyone to post events she indicated that wasn't the issue -- she felt awkward posting an "adult" event with alcohol involved to a site where everyone was a parent and she was a teacher (even though she is a parent too and most of the parents will attend the event!). The interesting thing was that creating a Facebook event did not cause the same concern. On Facebook she has not been reduced to only a portion of who she is (a teacher) and felt free to function as a whole person.

We have also seen a group, that started on the Ning, create and migrate to a Facebook group. Why? I haven't had a chance to ask but it think it is mainly due to the ease of then integrating that group into what you are already doing on Facebook, you can be everything all in one place.

Part of why I enjoy traveling is that opportunity that is referred to in the opening quote. It is extremely interesting to see how people react to you in the "right there and then", with no preconceived notions of who you are and who you have been. But there is still comfort and utility to be found in the history and "yesterdays on the road" of a small town. So when you set up a specific role-defined online environment such as our Parent Ning in a rural location there is a trade-off -- everyone knows who they are "supposed to be" but it makes it hard to function in the way they are used to -- as a whole person with all roles wrapped into one messy, complicated and fantastic package.

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