Why don’t I want you to know about me?

I wanted to be a PROFESSOR.  You know.  Authoritative.  Knowledgeable.  Respected.  Tweedy. Ok, a little intimidating and sort of aloof.  You know, A PROFESSOR.  I was only 27.  I was worried students wouldn’t take me seriously — some weren’t that much younger than I was.  So I only told them professional things — like what I studied, where I did my graduate work, the latest communication theories I ascribed to.  The really exciting stuff, right?  I told them the PROFESSORy kind of things — and I got on to the lectures.  I showed them Dr. Shamp — I wasn’t Scott to them.  I thought if they knew about real me, it would change the way that they interacted with me.  So I kept my personal life private.

A couple of years in, I noticed something.  Other faculty knew their students.  What music they were listening to, the TV shows they were watching, the movies they liked.  Those teachers were actually incorporating that info into their classes.  They said the students really opened up when they could see themselves in the material.  So I tried asking my students about themselves.  You know, getting them to share.  But they weren’t having it.  They were just doing the class thing.  I finally asked one of my colleagues how she got her students to tell her about themselves.  “I told them about me,” was her answer.  Wow!

So now I tell my classes about me — one of my favorite topics anyway.  What I am reading.  What I am listening to.  What movies I like and hate.  My favorite TV shows.  And it works.  They tell me about themselves.  And the classes have changed.  We have expanded the examples we discuss. The topics are more salient and relevant.  And although this will sound like heresy, we even have fun in class.  So much for academic rigor!

Although I was wrong about a bunch of things, I was right about one thing.  Knowing about me did change the way they interacted with me.  But instead of undermining my authority, it enriched our understanding of each other.  Putting me and them squarely in the class makes the whole experience less about college and more about us. It has become a customized and shared experience.  My classes change every day based on what we do, what we want to do, and what we like.

So I have been putting together my first lectures for the semester. Yeah, that syllabus day where I just talk about what we are going to do before we actually start doing it — so I can scare off the lazy students.  I have been updating my “About Me” slide.  What I am reading (“Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy” — I’m a classical junkie), my favorite music from the summer (Allison Weiss — “Fingers Crossed” — she is an NMI alum), what summer movie sucked (“Inception”  being confusing does not make something smart), and how I know that Ali really wanted Frank, not Roberto (of course, if “Dancing with the Stars” is on hiatus, I resort to watching “The Bachelorette” — doesn’t everyone?).

Photograph by Andrew Davis Tucker

Photograph by Andrew Davis Tucker

All this self-disclosure has me thinking about the charged discussion about privacy that has been swirling around social media.  Frankly, a lot of the negative reactions are off target.  Mainly because they come from people standing on the shore not the ones swimming in the social media sea.

Yes, the internet and new social media tools (Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, YouTube, whatever) provide unparalleled opportunities to provide information about ourselves.  And, yes, these new media outlets are working to use this information to customize the messages they present to us.  And of course, that means datamining social media will lead to [insert GASP] customized advertising .  But help me out here.  How is that so bad?  Suppose I tell Facebook I hate Snickers (way too many peanuts) but love Life Savers.  Then suppose the the “New York Times” mines that info from Facebook and decides to stop showing me that darn “Hungry? Grab a Snickers!” on my iPad and instead inserts ads for butterscotch LiveSavers (my favorite!).  Doesn’t that actually improve my reading experience?  In short, knowing information about me that I voluntarily provide and can control (and, yes, I know that is a sticking point I won’t address right now) can enhance our media experiences.

Much has been made of young people’s new views on self-revelation.  For us geezers, it is hard to believe that kids want to share so much.  There is a stubborn and widespread misconception that this sharing proclivity is uninformed and naive.   But research has shown that young people are pretty savvy about how they use and control information they provide.  A report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project called “Reputation Management and Social Media” (Madden and Smith, 2010) found that most young people actively manipulate the privacy settings in social media — 71 percent of the 18–29–year–olds surveyed reported changing their privacy settings. And another study (“Facebook privacy settings: Who cares?”, boyd & Hargittari, 2010) found that “far from being nonchalant and unconcerned about privacy matters, the majority of young adult users of Facebook are engaged with managing their privacy settings.”

So if they do care about privacy, why do they share?  Because there is a pay-off for them. Bottom line, young people perceive a benefit from sharing info about themselves.  Just like my classes changed for the better, they are putting themselves back into the media mix.  And it is working to ensure their media experiences respond to them.

Media that respond to us is the future.  And you heard that from a PROFESSOR.  Impressed?

Scott Shamp is the Director of the New Media Institute in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. The New Media Institute is an interdisciplinary unit created to explore the creative, critical, and commercial implications of new digital communication technology. Shamp currently serves on the Board of the International Digital Media and Arts Association. He has been a member of iDMAa since its founding in 2003.
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