I’m a city boy. Always have been. But I had a glimpse of small-town life once while working as a sales-rep for a music company a whole bunch of years ago. I remember pulling into to town and meeting up with the high school music teacher. She and a friend that I’d brought and I went to the Legion for a post-work drink and ended up sitting with an recently graduated student of hers. We then walked down to a local restaurant for dinner to be waited on and have our table bussed by two current students of hers. After dinner, we ran into a number of other students on our way back to our hotel to catch up. Of course, we ran into half of the town’s teaching staff heading to the same hotel for a retirement party.
If you live in a small town, you’re likely reading this and thinking that this is not unusual. This is your everyday existence. For me, who’s lived in a city all of my life, I can go days without meeting people I know outside of my immediate neighbourhood and work environment. There is a certain level of anonymity to existence in a big city that you don’t get in a small town. I can have a bad day, make a scene in a restaurant, and never have that get back to me or ever have to go to that restaurant again. You can’t do that in a small town.
Our online life has gradually become a small-town existence in the past few years. “Back in the day” you could effectively hide behind an online persona (or multiple) and nobody would know who you are. While this is still possible, the cross-pollenization of networks and the growth of the concept of a “semantic” web has brought us all a lot closer together. We sneeze and everyone in town knows about it.
What got me thinking about this again was a blog post by Vicki Davis this morning. She was complaining about Google’s terms of service and the fact that they have taken down a from that she had created because it was “collecting private information.” While it does suck to have gone to the trouble to set up this mechanism and I assume that it had collected at least some of the data that she was looking for, I have to wonder about the surprise that it all disappeared. I’m naturally paranoid about anything that goes online. I don’t even use my school’s hard drives without backing up my work on my own machine and my own backup drive. Using an open environment like Google seems to be asking for instability. (Is anyone else having trouble finding the link to Google Sites these days?) I’m actually more surprised that Google cares about our privacy. Isn’t it corporate policy to know as much about us so that our web searching can be more specifically tailored to who we are?
What concerns me is the blind faith in all of our open, free online environments that we all embrace so eagerly. Yes, Google has some amazingly cool tools, but what are we giving up by using them? We keeping giving Google our information and it keeps building our profile. The town that we live in keeps shrinking. I am comfortable making these privacy decisions for myself. I know that I have to conduct myself online in a way that I am comfortable everyone witnessing. I will not, however, make that decision for others. It should not be my decision that others should share there “private” information in any online forum unless I know that it is a local environment that akin to what they already agree to walking in the door of the school each day. When we take students out of the school, we make sure that the parents are aware of the risks and benefits and allow them the opportunity to choose to have their child participate. We should do the same thing when we take students out of the local virtual environment.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am highly supportive of the benefits of interacting with the world both physically and virtually and do so myself constantly. We, as educators in particular, have to be aware of the benefits and risks to what we are doing ourselves and with our students online and not so blindly accepting of all of the new bells and whistles. We all need to think twice before blindly accepting a terms of service agreement, and ask ourselves what we are giving up while we benefit from the innovation of others. What is the phrase, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch?” The global village just keeps on shrinking…
End Note: Just to be clear, I’m not intending to pick on Vicki or Google in this post. They are simply the catalyst for this line of thought this morning. I follow Vicki on a number of social media streams and love her ideas and personally use Google daily for a wide variety of tasks. One could easily put any number of other stories and any number of other online services into this post and it would read the same.