On The Internet, Everyone Knows You're Not A Dog

Using Facebook is a social skill—and one that it's increasingly important for colleges to teach, says educator Ed Cabellon. "The term 'digital native' is a misnomer," he tells us.

Ed Cabellon is the Director of the Campus Center at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, and an expert on the intersection of higher education and social media. As clueless freshmen settle into their first-semester schedules everywhere, we catch up with Ed Cabellon to discuss all the mistakes they’re probably making on Facebook.

FAST COMPANY: You’re an advocate for teaching about "digital identity."

ED CABELLON: I think it’s important for universities and colleges to develop a series of programs that raise awareness of what it means to be living your life online. As someone who’s worked in higher education for 15, 16 years, I’ve seen the evolution of technology, and how it’s helped and hindered students.

What are some examples?

There was a situation with a student who had applied for a job. They thought their Facebook posts were private, but in fact all their posts were live, and that apparently had not gotten them interviewed for a position. But on the flip side of that coin, my editor-in-chief of the campus center blog I found through Twitter. She was bitching and complaining about the university on Twitter, and I replied to her—this was back in ’09. She went on to be my first blogger and then editor-in-chief, and she’s lined up a lot of interviews for jobs in communications and PR all because of that experience.

What are the main lessons students need to learn in developing a digital identity?

The first thing is that Facebook is no longer a reflection of your personal life; it’s a reflection of your entire life. I think people need to make a mental shift. Second, if you’re going to use Facebook, make sure you know the privacy settings very well. Third, if you’re going to use Twitter or another microblogging service, I recommend to use it in a professional manner, not a personal manner. Twitter for me is not a social network; it’s an informational network that can be social.

I’m terrible at this stuff. Sometimes I post something to Facebook just imagining my friends, and then someone I barely know "likes" it.

Most people don’t create lists, they don’t tweak privacy settings. They don’t want to look under the hood. They just want the car to work. To me, just taking an hour to sort your friends, unfriend people you don’t give a crap about, and if a coworker did friend you, put that person in the coworkers list—so your online relationship reflects your real-life relationship—is a good use of time.

You think our online relationships should mirror our offline relationships. But there’s a challenge online—social networks stand to gain financially when we overshare.

We need our awareness raised about what Facebook really is, and it’s really a marketing tool. It’s a ginormous, huge data mining and marketing operation. And we’re freely giving this information out—it’s not like our arms are twisted, or that there’s a gun to our head. We’re all addicted to it. As Facebook has changed, it’s become harder to figure that privacy stuff on Facebook out. They don’t want you to figure it out, and that’s why it’s such an important requirement for colleges to take stock and teach students about it. If it weren’t for working in higher education, I probably would not be on Facebook. Knowing what I know about how they use data, I would not be on Facebook. But for my students, it’s the primary mode of communication.

I came of age with the Internet, and am old enough to remember dial-up modems and the "On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog" New Yorker comic. So while I had to slowly learn the importance of being truthful on the Internet, maybe it comes naturally to this generation?

There’s been studies on Internet anonymity, who you are online: Are you yourself? Are you a pseudonymous version of yourself? Are you a dog?—that whole concept. What I’ve seen with students is that most of them are using their real name. But I don’t think the next generation is more savvy because there's no formal education on it. The class of 2016 was born in ’92 or ’93, they’ve grown up with as much access to online tools as anybody, and they’re as clueless as any class that’s ever come in. The term "digital native" is a misnomer. "Digital native" is an easy way to capture the idea that these students grew up with not having a landline, with being able to watch TV on demand, with not using the encyclopedia. But in terms of using Facebook and living their social life online, they’re not native to that. That’s human communication, human behavior. If they’re awkward in person, they’re probably gonna be awkward online, too.

This interview has been condensed and edited. For more from the Fast Talk interview series, click here. Know someone who'd be a good Fast Talk subject? Mention it to David Zax.

[Image: Flickr user angermann]

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  • Guest

    You know what the best privacy setting for social media is? Don't use social media. I'm 19 and I don't really use anything beyond e-mail, and even then it's only seldom that I bother to check. I'm something of a homebody who doesn't get out much and doesn't care to either; people my age all seem to be doing the stupidest things humanly possible (per the famed quote from Einstein), and putting up pictures all over the damn internet of themselves acting like damn fools. I'm not social-savvy online or off; I'm more of a bookworm who does my work and goes home. Twenty years from now, these kids are going to be blackballed from burger joints for being such idiots in high school and college. Meanwhile, for my lack of Internet sociability, EVERYONE in my graduating class will know that I'm top dog.

    Screw Gangnam and Bieber and all the pointless babble, the "friends & trends" of the twit era. My privacy settings range from Howard Hughes to "get off my lawn."

  • joeginese

    I wonder if a better by-line or more accurate one would have been, "Using social media requires social skills." In either case, Ed is much more than someone pointing out awareness of Facebook privacy settings. Read more about him here: www.edcabellon.com and follow him on Twitter @EdCabellon. 

  • Guest

    And yet I thought using social media was a compensatory activity for LACK of real-world social skills. Does anyone else see the irony in that Facebook was invented by an obnoxious computer nerd who could never have any real-life friends, so he made up a new definition of the word to exclude real, human intimacy?

    So much for Pacino's admonishment of keeping one's friends close and enemies closer. Now there's no such distinction thanks to Zuckyballs the autistic fuck.

  • SteveC

    Mr. Cabellon is on the right track regarding his concerns over the naivete of the worlds youth when it comes to understanding the ramifications of social networking. The better answer however is to teach students, and the public in general, how to be informed Internet participants, not just good little facebook users.
    In the real world we keep all our personal information at home unless it is stored with a trusted confidant like the doctor or a bank. In the real world we wouldn't pass our information through an intermediary we don't trust. I don't know anybody remotely knowledgeable in this area that even remotely trusts facebook. It's widely known facebook treats all of their end users information as their own product. So why is there such emphasis on using facebook at all? Privacy setting and friends list organization skills won't protect the end user from facebook itself, or it's customers actually paying for the service, no matter how constrained they are.
    What we need to be teaching in our schools is how to effectively use the Internet as a communication medium outside of the centralized social repositories and maintain control of our precious personal information. This is not just possible, but actually in common practice.
    It's time our leaders and teachers alike take the importance securing our communications as seriously as our predecessors did when they secured our mail system and again later our telephone system.
    The facebook paradigm of centralizing the processing of our communications through an unregulated and unprotected central authority has been a great functional prototype to demonstrate to the technologically unaware what can be achieved. Now it's time for those who should know better to start moving themselves and the rest of our society towards the more realistic and highly plausible alternatives for long term adoption and recognize this facebook phenomenon short-term experiment escapee from the lab that it is.