Literacy and Identity on the Web

We at Mozilla are creating a new, open learning standard for Web Literacy. I lead that work with my colleague Carla Casilli. Recently we’ve had many discussions with the community about where ‘identity’ fits into the whole picture of web literacy. I’m tempted to argue that it doesn’t.

Let me explain.

It’s easy to bundle up one thing with another thing that seems conceptually similar. It’s also easy to conflate one term with another - which is why I wrote a post last year entitled On the important differences between literacies, skills and competencies. So when it comes to talking about web literacy and identity on the web, it’s easy to conflate the two. But I think they’re different.

We’ve defined web literacy quite broadly as the things to pay attention to if you want to get better at reading, writing and participating on the web. Being web literate can form part of your identity (“I am a literate person”) and can empower you to shape the way others perceive you.

But I think attempts to retro-fit identity into web literacy are doomed to failure; we’re talking qualitatively different things here. This quotation from McLuahn (that I used in my doctoral thesis) is helpful to illustrate why:

Our extended senses, tools, technologies, through the ages, have been closed systems incapable of interplay or collective awareness. Now, in the electric age, the very instantaneous nature of co-existence among our technological instruments has created a crisis quite new in human history. Our extended faculties and senses now constitute a single field of experience which demands that they become collectively conscious… As long as our technologies were as slow as the wheel or the alphabet or money, the fact that they were separate, closed systems was socially and psychically supportable. This is not true now when sight and sound and movement are simultaneous and global in extent. (McLuhan, 1962, p.5)

Representations of the self in online spaces are necessarily disembodied. This means that the only way we can build and sustain online identities is to become literate enough with web technologies to begin with. One is dependent upon the other - and therefore it’s easy to conflate the two. Offline, however, the two are distinct: you can have an identity while at the same time being wholly illiterate.

I need to think this through a bit more, but unless someone has a very strong argument in the opposing direction, I feel sure that identity might be related to web literacy, but it’s not part of it. What do you think?

I’m on Twitter as @dajbelshaw


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