Justin Li

In Defense of a Public Digital Life


I am a private person, but you wouldn't know that from looking at my online presence. I have a fairly active Twitter account, which is entirely open to the public. A lot of my tweets are inane, sexual, often potentially offensive and trigger-warning-y. This content is also mirrored on Facebook, although on there it's visible only to friends of friends. And, of course, I keep a blog, which stretches back a good number of years and has covered the same range of topics as my tweets, if about slightly more personal topics and in more words.

I am about to enter the job market and, despite common sense and advice, am seriously considering keeping all this content online and public (and searchable through my shared user name). I am well aware that employers often look through applicant's social network activity to help get a picture of them as a person, so this may lead to my unemployment later down the road. But, I also have reasons for wanting these aspects of me to be up, and I want to defend that here.

One reason is that I think we judge others in a biased way. Imagine you are choosing between two people for a job as a high school teacher, A and B, who are otherwise equally qualified. For A, you can find nothing about them on Facebook - let's say it's because their privacy setting is too high. For B, you can look through their profile, and in a couple of minutes of browsing, you find a picture of them mugging for the camera with a beer in each hand. Instinctively, what you want to think is "Jeez, high school students are going to think this person's an alcoholic, so let's hire the other person."

The problem with this conclusion is you haven't considered what you haven't seen: given that this is Facebook, that there are no pictures of B passed-out-drunk in their own vomit is probably a point in their favor. More disturbing is that you have seen no evidence about A whatsoever; you know strictly more about B than you know about A and that B has a lower variance around what is normal Facebook behavior, and yet they were punished for giving you that information. To make an online dating analogy, this is like focusing on the fact that someone likes My Little Pony and thereby deciding not to message them, when the rest of their interests look compatible; but then turning around and messaging someone who wrote very little on their profile, but has listed no obvious clashes with your interests. (Raise your hand if you're guilty; I am.)

There are several cognitive biases reflected in this example: biased selection of information, leading to the availability heuristic, neglecting the base rate of compromising pictures on Facebook, and the preference for risk taking when the outcome is negative. The bottom line is that knowing more about a person is a good thing (provided there are no, say, pictures of them abusing animals), and all else being equal, the rational thing to do is to choose what has a less chance of being bad (or a higher chance of being good). I want my online activity to stand as indicators of me as a person, and I want this post to prove to the hiring committees that I'm smart and I know what I'm doing and that they're biased in an undesirable way.

That's the somewhat snarky, condescending reason, but I have a more idealistic and constructive reason as well.

As someone looking to go into teaching at the college-level, I believe that the learning experience extends beyond the classroom. This is (one of) the reason I'm hesitant about Udacity and Cousera and edX and all the other Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). I think it's a good thing that people are putting course material online, and that they are organized in ways that force interaction and engagement, but if you ask me whether a student online will learn as much as a student on a brick-and-mortar campus, given the same level of instruction, I will say no, hands down. It wasn't until recently (today, in fact) through a conversation with a friend did I understand why: it's because, deep down, I think that university education is more than about the knowledge learned in a class, and even more than the relationships you develop. It's about developing students into someone who enjoys, and is still continually, learning.

And you can't teach that over the internet.

Well, no, you can, but not in hour-long videos one hour a week for fourteen weeks and, I suspect, not even through seven years of irregular blog posts. What I learned from that conversation is that I believe this requires exposure to an atmosphere, a culture of learning. This means that students need to feel the energy of people excited about things, to have conversations with people only tangentially related to any course topic, to ponder questions where not only the answer, but also the path to that answer, is unknown. All these things are made exponentially harder when conducted through the medium of text on an online forum, especially not with teaching assistants whose focus is on answering questions about the course material and nothing more. I would argue that most of these things are not present even in physical classes, unless the participants are willing to digress; most of the absorbing of culture occurs in third places around campus, and requires a community open and dedicated to such exploration of topics. And while there are education startups that try to create such an environment - the company about which the article that started the conversation was written, Minerva, physically co-locate their students - having a culture where such learning is commonplace and expected is much harder to cultivate.

This is why I want to keep my tweets and my blog posts online and public, because I think it is part of the culture of education. My tweets may often be inane, but I think there is an undercurrent of curiosity, and it serves as a reminder to be observant of the world - I ask questions of social idioms, connect ideas from disparate fields, and comment on the nature of research. The very fact that I spend time writing short essays for my blog is evidence that I spent personal time on (somewhat) academic pursuits. While I wouldn't consider these things an essential part of my academic persona, I do think it is a core part of who I am, as well as a part of the culture that I want students to take part in. In the past, these tweets and blog posts have led to interesting discussions with both friends and students, and this is possible only because these artifacts are publicly linked and searchable. To make my tweets private and to take down my writings would mean losing this opportunity for conversation, and that is something I do not want.

Perhaps it is arrogant of me to put such importance in my own ramblings - more so for telling hiring committees that they're biased - but I think, too, this gives a very concrete picture of who I am.

This is who I want my students to be, and it's worth the risk of being judged if I can achieve that.