I have been having some backchannel conversations with people who feel that what may be intended as ‘connecting behaviour’ by some is silencing them to the point of no longer participating in life online for the purposes of learning. This post explores some questions about online choices we have open when we have ‘unwanted visitors’ in our online spaces.

This goes beyond the trivial ‘should I leave Twitter?’ or ‘is Facebook for me?’.

Danah Boyd talks about controlling our ‘public appearance’. I like the strategy she suggests in her article: blog a lot and then your old stuff gets buried under your new stuff. Who can find it, anyway? And if they do: Stalker!

She suggests that even if privacy is dead, an assumption I question but will take as given here, we can still take control of our public persona. This, of course, is what digital storytelling can be all about. How do we tell the story of ‘me’ in the way we set up our spaces and the words, images, sounds we chose to associate with? And to Danah’s point how much of that is a purposeful choice?  She tells us,

Don’t whimper about how Google is destroying your reputation. Take control!

This is sound advise if you are going to have a ‘mediated me’ but a little naive, in my view. She focusses her advise on how I narrate myself online – make sure comments are representative, treat audio and video the same as text, shape your story to your ends. When we look at the ‘send’ side of online communication it makes sense to say,

create a public Internet identity, maintain it, link to it, build it, love it, hug it, and call it George

It is on the dismissal and unexamined nature of her advise on the ‘receive’ side of communication that the article falls down. We are to expect ‘unexpected audiences’ and plan for that; and let’s not be so idiotic as to think about the dangers of a mediated self.

“Every advice column I’ve read warns people of the dangers of living online. I think that this is idiotic. People need to embrace the world we live in and learn to work within its framework. Don’t panic about being public – embrace it and handle it with elegance.”

Actually, no. I do not ‘need to embrace’ the world I live in, I can also choose to change it.

What I see around me is that there are real dangers, choosing to live online can destroy reputations without a given individual being able to exercise any control. The more I focus on the ‘receive’ side of online communication, the more I see how limited our choices are. Expecting ‘unexpected audiences’ is really not enough.

What happens when the unwanted attention shapes or destroys a reputation? What happens when the unwanted attention does not allow my freedom of expression? What happens when the spiral of silence kicks in? How do individuals deal with groups of ‘friends’ who travel together and may choose not to like your views, digital mob style? I chose to close comments here due precisely to this. It is frightening to be told one is obsolete and unmutual without even being given a chance to be heard.

The more choices to be ‘public’ one makes, the more likely one will find people who disagree with one’s world view and who are unable to engage meaningfully with disagreement. The open web does not come with a built in facilitator to teach people the skills of generative dialogue. The conversation ‘out there’ makes me despair for us humans at times. Take this video as an example.

A beautiful animated poem about the impact of trolling behaviour. A few things struck me on watching: the fact the ‘The Troll’ in the film is not a behaviour but a person to be blamed, the tone of the comments about the video, the final sad and only little option left to the person being trolled.


Being on the receiving end of unwanted attention when I chose to shape a public mediated self is a profound and complex issue. Your troll is my friend, your collaborator is my stalker, and your freedom to express a view that somebody is a jerk can destroy a life. Sometimes the behaviours are clear cut and there are laws to protect us but, more often than not, it is shades of grey and in the eye of the beholder. There are examples both sides and serious casualties. Recently Brenda Leyland was found dead in the UK – a twitter troll to some, a loving mum to others. Recently I read about Kathy Sierra, a tragic story of a life fundamentally changed by unwanted attention that led to discussion about a ‘code of conduct’ for bloggers. What stays with me is her bravery to use the public forum to make issues known and these words,

“I have cancelled all speaking engagements. I am afraid to leave my yard, I will never feel the same. I will never be the same”

I had never heard about a ‘blogger’s code of conduct’ –  clearly it is not something that has been taken up widely. Is it really enough to say that I have the option to ‘mute’ or ‘block’ or ‘disable comments’? It occurs to me that all these options are not that dissimilar to a rape victim being told to dress more modestly or not walk home alone after dark. The burden of responsibility rests on the ‘victim’ not the ‘persecutor’.

As I read the comments on the trolling video above, I am also struck by how online communication often follows the classic drama triangle as illustrated in Transactional Analysis. The victim gets attacked by the persecutor as rescuers come in to defend the victim. The problem is that the roles just cycle around and the game keeps going ad nauseam. I will be writing about this in upcoming posts, as I think the construct throws light into much that is dysfunctional in online behaviour.

Yes, I use the tools at my disposal to tailor my social media presence to learning. I choose who I interact with. Do I feel this is enough? My negative experiences online have left me painfully aware of the dangers Danah Boyd dismisses as idiotic. How do we teach and learn the kind of communication that allows us to step out of the drama triangle? Unwanted attention is a side of ‘public’ that needs us to deeply reflect about the dangers of public, not dismiss them.

Ignoring these issues will not make them go away. Yet, it is difficult to act when the very people who are part of your learning network are also part of the problem and yet are unable co-create solutions that go beyond stating the obvious: it is important we raise these issues and keep raising them (changing nothing) year after year.

We need more meaningful dialogue and less shallow answers. Listicles that simplify the complexities of interacting in mediated environments either for fun or learning or both, lessen our human worth and keep our fears underground. Read Kathy Sierra‘s last post on her blog for engagement with complexity or Alec Couros strategies to deal with identity theft. We can engage with difficulty and explore shared strategies for coping and change.

Will my experiences change my private-public balance? Yes, they have. Closing comments on this blog is a direct result of those experiences and it feels a woefully inadequate ‘choice’ to deal with what I perceive as trolling behaviour.

I am reminded of a premise from appreciative inquiry and wonder how it might apply in this situation:

We seem happy to trade our privacy for a cookie, so may be Danah is right that a concern for privacy and civility just means I am old. I am old, it’s true. And what is also true is that to critically examine both the ‘send’ and the ‘receive’ side of the equation when communicating online seems important in creating spaces where people feel they can speak up and are not silenced by default.


This is an updated version of a post previously published on my learning website: