Several months ago I was pleased to get my picture taken with a political candidate. I was so pleased, in fact, that I tweeted the picture, and to make sure the candidate knew, I mentioned the candidate's Twitter handle in the tweet. I usually keep to the uncontroversial on Twitter, tweeting about the power of libraries or the next edchat that's coming up, so I didn't give my picture-posting much of a thought. But within an hour or so of my post, I began to get a tiny taste of the nastiness that exists on social media. Some very hateful tweets started showing up on my Twitter feed. I was made fun of for supporting the candidate. I was told I was going to hell. Someone went to the trouble of photoshopping the picture I had posted as though the candidate and I were twin devils. This episode confirmed for me that I could never be a public figure, as I am much too thin-skinned to handle such mean-spiritedness on a daily basis.
In fairness, there probably weren't more than 20 or 25 replies to my tweet. But hear this: I am a pretty well-adjusted fifty-something woman with good self-esteem and lots of friends. I received these hateful tweets over one, say, six-hour period, on ONE DAY. And nine months later, I still remember the icky feeling I got in the pit of my stomach when they started coming in. I dealt with the anonymous haters by simply blocking them. I don't know them in real life, and I will likely never hear from them again. I try to imagine what it would be like to get those kinds of vitriolic messages on a regular basis from people I know. If I were thirteen. Or gay. Or struggling with mental illness or a physical handicap.
It is beyond me why people think it's okay to be so mean online.
I don't think that we as educators are doing nearly enough towards helping kids know what's okay to post online. They certainly don't always have the best role models, and you don't have to look very hard to find examples of people being ill-mannered - or cruel - to each other online. Many sites have removed the comments option completely because of the general lack of civility that often comes out when the comment-er can be anonymous. Kids in most cases don't get a lot of guidance at school or at home about texting or Tweeting. So when kids see the ugly posts from other people online or hear the hateful rhetoric on news shows, it's just seen as the cultural norm. A cultural norm is tacit approval to go forth and do likewise.
However, cultural norms can change. Allow me to give you an example from, of all places, Mad Men:
I don't know if people really ever just walked away from their picnics, leaving behind all their trash without a thought, but I do remember when I was a child that trash used to be all over the highways. Why don't we see that anymore? When I ask that question in the digital citizenship sessions I lead, someone around my age usually says "Oh! The Indian!" They remember this ad that was such a powerful agent of change in cleaning up the physical world:
Here's example number 2:
It was not that long ago that smoking was so socially acceptable that even cartoon characters did it. What has happened to change that? 30 years ago, who would have predicted that practically every restaurant in America would be smoke-free?
I will concede that some of the reason that people no longer litter and some of the reason that people no longer smoke in public is because of legislation. But that is not the only reason; public opinion has changed. The main reason I don't toss my Sonic cup out my car window is NOT because I might get a ticket for doing so, but because it's just not done: the cultural norm has changed. The change started many years back when someone, somewhere, must have had the thought, "It doesn't have to be like this." And that is what I think about the lack of civility in online conversations: it doesn't have to be like this; it doesn't have to be so mean.
Who, as a group, are the obvious champions of changing the current digital cultural norm? Whose hearts want a better world? Who, as a group, believe that kids can change? Who work their tails off to ensure student success? Who are the most likely champions of positivism, optimism, character, and making the world a better place? Well, that's not a hard question: it's teachers, that's who.
Teachers are uniquely positioned to influence change in the digital world.
Teachers effect change every day - change that by all rights shouldn't happen - because we believe that it can and because we've been taught how to do it. We believe that students can pass that test, so we treat them like they will, do what we know usually works, and they pass. We believe that students will graduate, so we treat them like they will, work with them every day, and they graduate. We believe that students can learn a new language, or use a spoon, or keep up with their homework, or feel bad for the way they treated someone, and time after time, they do it because we believe they will. But those things don't happen because we believe it once; we have to collectively believe it, over and over again. And we have to take collective action, over and over again.
Change of any kind has to start with a belief that the change is possible. If you don't believe that children's digital citizenship habits can change, they probably won't. If you don't teach your students every day how to be more civil online, they probably won't be - because who else is going to explain it to them?
What would happen if every teacher, in every school, every day talked to their students about the importance of digital citizenship? What if every teacher, in every school, every day showed an example of a constructive online disagreement, one with no name calling or hateful tone? What if every teacher, in every school, every day modeled a positive, productive way of posting anything on the Internet, and discussed with his/her students the reasons for making the post in that particular way?
Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I believe we can change the current cultural norm of negativity and hatefulness. I'm going to dare to believe that in 40 years, people will laugh that there was ever a need for the "Block" or "Report" buttons on that quaint little thing called social media. I'm going to dare to believe that people can and will show their better natures, their kinder selves, even when hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet. Will you dare to believe that foolish dream with me? More importantly, will you take action to help your students shape a more positive digital landscape?