05 February 2012

Journal #1 - How do we perceive ourselves (and others) in the real and digital worlds in which we live?

At first, I argued the importance of perception. What does it matter how you are perceived because it doesn't change who you really are?!? But the more I pondered this question, along with the reading assignment, and a conversation with my students, my opinion shifted and now I think perception of yourself does change who you are.

As I was considering this question, I began to come around to the influence of perception. Let me give you an example of my line of thought. If you are perceived by a particular person as someone who is always cheerful and always joking, then when you make a comment to that person they automatically take what you are saying as cheerful and joking. In other words, how you mean things and how you are perceived shapes the entire conversation (contact) with that person. Therefore, what you say is completely open to interpretation and that interpretation is completely based on how people see you. It's amazing that how you are perceived carries such weight! And I hadn't really put together how important perception is, until now.

Ok, so now I can understand the importance of perception - especially in face-to-face interactions. But what about the importance of escaping perception that people do online? For example, in the reading there was a girl, Clarissa, that used her online role-playing identity to be a boy during the day and a girl at night. There wasn't an opportunity for her to explore different gender identities in face-to-face interactions because she couldn't change how she was perceived. But online, she was able to change how she was perceived and could therefore "experiment" with being a boy and the perceptions that go along with being a boy.

Another example of changes in online perception came with how adults were perceived by some teenagers. In the reading, the authors suggest that interactions online can widen the circle of contact with adults for teens - specifically that they could interact with adults that aren't family or friends of the family or educators. To me that is saying that they could interact with adults who didn't know who the teenagers were and therefore didn't have any particular perception of them (i.e., that they were a "trouble-maker" or a "class clown" or some other label). When teens contacted these adults, they were sort of "blank slates" and therefore the adults couldn't judge them from perceptions, but only judge them from those specific interactions. I think this is what really makes teens want to talk to these adults, the lack of judgment and previous perceptions.

But please don’t think this only applies to teens. Very often you get adults who pose as children online…sometimes for the wrong reasons, but sometimes because they view being a child as having freedom from responsibilities. In the “real” world, most adults have many responsibilities, like holding a job, paying bills, raising kids, being politically correct, being environmentally responsible, understanding complex political issues, and so on. Perhaps, by becoming a kid online, they want to change how they are perceived (i.e., from a responsible adult to a kid without responsibilities). This is something that would be impossible in a face-to-face setting, but is completely possible (and often done) in the online setting.

While reading this article, I was thinking about Clarissa (see above) and asked my students about “Faraway Lands” since I hadn’t heard about it before reading this article. My students didn’t really know anything about it, so I started giving a brief description based on the reading. Before I could describe too much, a young lady exclaimed that it sounded like World of Warcraft. She went on to explain that she has been playing W.O.W. for years as a few different characters including a male elf character and a male wizard/mage character. Another teen chimed in that he played a few different ones as well. When I asked about the change in genders, he said that he did have one character that was female, but she was a very good warrior that could “kick some a**” and just happened to be “hot” too. Well, the rest of classroom started relating their W.O.W. experiences and soon I began to realize that these teens were trying on identities not only inside role-playing games, but in various online media. For example, one girl had a MySpace profile as a boy and another girl had an email account set as a boy which linked to several online gaming and social profiles, including a blog. All of this really made me sit back and wonder about perception. I hadn’t realized how much perception defines someone and how much escapism online identities provide. I guess I hadn’t really thought about it before now. I understand teenagers wanting to explore their own identity by trying on different online identities – I mean, figuring out who you are is what makes the teen years so darn confusing. But, now I understand that everyone – all genders, ages, races, in short, EVERYONE – needs to escape how they are perceived from time to time because that perception can sometimes be a stone around the neck. In face-to-face interactions, you can rarely escape from that burden. Online, though, you can escape it with just a few clicks. Now, I finally see the appeal.

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