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Researching a Public Figure’s Online Identity
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Inspired by Virginia Tech Libraries’ digital literacy initiative, I am sharing a series of activities that ask students to examine how digital technology shapes literacy and the ways that people interact with others in my recent posts. So far, I have posted an activity on the definitions of digital native and digital literacy and an activity on digital literacy and online identity.
This week I have a collaborative research project that students complete to learn more about how online identities work. Depending upon the depth of research you ask for, this activity will take anywhere from one to two weeks of class sessions for collaborative work and presentations.
In this scenario-based assignment, your group has been hired by the manager of a public figure to assess the online identity of their client. The manager wants an honest and objective presentation on the client, showing both the good and the bad. Your group will present to the manager, the public figure, and other members of the figure’s inner circle. The manager will use the information your group shares to create a plan to strengthen the client’s online reputation and improve the client’s overall reception with the public.
Step 1: Set up group collaboration rules and decide how you want to share the information that you gather with one another. You might set up a shared folder on Google Drive, for example, so that everyone can access what you find.
Step 2: Choose a public figure to investigate. For the purposes of this assignment, a public figure can be someone such as a celebrity, artist, writer, politician, public official, or industry leader. The public figure you choose must be a living person. Do not choose a fictional character, for instance. Additionally, to avoid any potential invasion of privacy, do not choose any students on campus. Be sure that you receive approval for your public figure before you proceed to the next step of the assignment.
Step 3: Create a list of the online places that your public figure has posted information or where others post information in response to or about your figure. Include the name and the link. Additionally, spend some time assessing the reputation of the sites and consider whether each site is a positive, neutral, or negative impact on the figure’s identity. Check places like the following:
- Social media sites (like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram)
- Professional networking and job search sites (like LinkedIn)
- Blogging sites
- Personal and work websites
- Video sharing sites (like YouTube, Vine, and Vimeo)
- Hobby or special interest sites (places where the figure might post or comment)
- News and current event sites (that might publish stories or interviews about the figure)
Step 4: Gather evidence of the public figure’s online identity. . Consider what the person chooses to put online (personally or through a proxy) and what others put online about that person by examining and collecting information like the following:
- the words that the figure posts
- the images that the figure posts
- the facts that the figure posts
- the opinions that the figure shares
- the products and services that the figure endorses
- the people that the figure recommends or mentions
- the messages that the figure shares (e.g., retweets, forwards)
Step 5: Review all the information that you have gathered. As a group, look for patterns and connections that appear among the different sites, building an online identity for the public figure you have researched. As you draw conclusions, use the journalist’s questions to think through ideas:
- who does the figure care about, talk about, appear with, and so forth
- what does the figure do, use, care about, and so on
- where does the figure go, visit, stay, and so forth
- when does the figure seem to be active (what time of day? what days of the week? any special events?)
- why does the figure share information online (what is the purpose or goal of the online identity?)
- how does the figure share information online (posts personally, forwards a lot of information, has a PR manager to do the work)
- how often does the figure share information online
Step 6: Use your research and analysis to create a seven to eight minute group presentation that describes the online identity of the public figure you have examined to the manager, the public figure, and other members of the figure’s inner circle. Share the conclusions that you have drawn about the strengths and weaknesses of the public figure’s online identity, including concrete details from your research as support. Conclude your presentation with some suggestions to strengthen the public figure’s online reputation and improve their overall reception with the public.
After working together to investigate someone’s online identity, students should be ready to examine their own online identities independently—and that is the topic of my next posts. I will share some specific activities that ask students to examine their online identities and consider what they can do to improve their reputation as digital natives. If you have suggestions for activities or questions about how to talk about these issues in the classroom, please leave me a comment below.
[Photo: Screenshot of Jazz Jennings' Twitter Profile, taken on November 30, 2017]
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