Identity and Branding as Reflected in Student User Names and Avatars

As I wrote my previous post about identity I realized that the idea of identity as meme or brand was on the margins of what I was thinking about? When do we begin addressing some of these further important ways to represent self or construct our self to students? Isn’t this a foundational concept in the importance of literacy and digital citizenship?

In flogging that dead horse of needed 21st century skills, the familiar concept of preparing student’s for the workplace, I would think that branding would be critical from the stand point that as a person moves through all the career positions and companies they work for then their identity will be less and less vested with who they work for and more with themselves. But when I read articles professing the critical importance of branding

and even a magazine devoted to the topic, I’m a little bothered and concerned for what we might potentially be teaching our students. And yet, we are in a global economy right, what implications does that have if the competition to succeed is that much more difficult. What are we to make of the concept of branding and identity when students so commonly and purposely use misinformation for their identity?

At the same time I was wondering which of Mike Ribble’s  nine themes of digital citizenship covered the concept of digital identity and branding. I could see the concept fitting into several areas but most involved treatment of others. It seems the idea of digital identity is more for the treatment the external self and conditioning the perception of others.
brand-called-you-cover.jpg (JPEG Image, 476x600 pixels) - Scaled (85%) by you.
Jeff Utecht also had also been reflecting on branding and identity and raised some thoughtful questions as well as practical thoughts about when to introduce the concept and how to use these ideas in the classroom. As he points out, Clarence Fisher has worked on creating a classroom identity with his Thin Wall blog that students work under, and this is probably I think the best way to help the students internalize the ideas of team work, collaboration, and cooperation. I came away from the article though  with realizing that a student’s branding or identity will need to change over time. And while It is interesting as two of his colleagues did to create an identity for their children, digital identity for me involves the freedom to explore how other’s perceive one’s identity differently than what a parent chooses for you at birth.

When I think of identity and playing with identity in the past before computers I first think of artists and fashion designers, and those who had to meet the demands of their patrons and pursue their creative focus while satisfying the censorship waiting for anyone who dared not represent the world as the church deemed appropriate.

Perhaps the first modern artist that I am aware of to play with identity in the photographic medium is Marcel Duchamp who created the pseudonym Rose Selavy and placed “her” image on perfume bottles and used the name as attribution for several of his art works. Later in the 20th century I think what our student today would like to do is similar to the work of Cindy Sherman and her series of pictures in which she appears as vastly different persona. While our students may not go so far in creating their identity, I’m still struck by Dana Boyd’s words,”that social network profiles are where youth write themselves into being.

I think there is a natural tendency to play with the concept of identity and branding as it is the synthetic other that people around us see. Do we choose to idealize or modify our identity and brand for what we would like to be? What do we do with students who want to use frightening user names or identities? Last year one of my sixth graders used the user name “evilpsycho2” and the other students knew he wasn’t and were’nt uncomfortable with him using it. I wasn’t so comfortable but at the same time I couldn’t in my mind jusitfy forcing him to change it because I also knew him and had also set up the use of user names as an opportunity for the students to play with and have the freedom to come up with their own.

Today as students create content for others beyond the walls of the classroom we see that identity and brand are becoming more important as the number of people they reach with their content grows as well. I wonder what kind of effect this sizable audience will have on young students. We discuss all the time the importance of an authentic audience and authentic projects for our students but not how large the exposure should be.

From a practical standpoint I always tell my student to try and find something that represents them, but what if they want to do the opposite?

This year I had my students use three avatar creators to represent themselves. I gave each an assigned user name which incorporated which section they were in and a number. I told the students that they were to plan on keeping these identities for most of the school year. Last year when I gave the students the option of creating their own user names it seemed appropriate for sixth graders, but then I had students changing their user names repeatedly and it was difficult to keep track of. Several students also repeatedly changed the icon or avatar to represent themselves and also used copyrighted images and objects which didn’t really relate to themselves other than they thought the image was “cool.”

So this year I spent more time with the fourth graders helping them brainstorm and reflect on what they wanted.

I let them choose from one of three avatar creators:
Build Your Wild Self
Skype’s Wee World
Become an M&M Character

student avatars one by you.

I then created a screencast using Jing showing the students how to capture their avatar using Skitch and then to upload them to our classroom Flickr page.

As you can see most of the students chose Skype’s wee world characters but a few did use the other avatar creators. Later I also created a screencast showing how to upload the image to our Class Blogmeister account.

So where do I stand on all this, my primary concern is for my student’s safety and awareness of the danger’s inherent in revealing too much personal information and their responsibilities as digital citizens, but at some point in a student’s learning it seems this push to hold back and blur the true identity must begin shifting towards posting an identity that draws people to them, something that appears trustworthy and holds value.

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One thought on “Identity and Branding as Reflected in Student User Names and Avatars

  1. I’m going to have to read this one again. Excellent blog post! I’ve been thinking about this topic lately as well. Looking forward to checking out the links you added here for more insight.

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