Digital footprints

Dotsam. Defined as:

The wasteland of abandoned Web sites, Hotmail accounts, blogs, wikis, MySpace pages, etc., that their creators have ignored for months or years but which remain accessible. The word was coined in imitation of flotsam and jetsam; “flotsam” refers to goods that float in the water without having been thrown there, as after a shipwreck, while “jetsam” has been cast into the sea–jettisoned–usually to lighten a ship’s cargo in an emergency.

I did a quick check on myself and the oldest page I found was from 1997, a learning and teaching resource that shall remain nameless and is also defunct. Not a calamity and certainly nothing I wish I hadn’t written. When I wrote the material back in 97 the ability to publish to the net was not, arguably, easily available to everyone, certainly in universities. I remember filling out forms and visiting the faculty webmaster – “please Neil can I have some space?” the response was less than enthusiastic, and support whilst not grudgingly given was certainly given by someone whose primary concern was that I don’t do anything that will break the server (some mystical thingy which appeared to be something that sat under his desk!). The first webpage I loaded onto the server contained 4 images – each of which had been scanned from 10×8 photos at 600 dpi – the page took a while to load, in fact I think the phone call from the webmaster came through before the page did.

Today anyone can go online sign up for a dozen different tools to publish material online and be ‘live’ in minutes, and so the dotsam grows. Whereas you might have a vague sense of what you have written over the last 10 years, the dotsam created ‘about’ you by other people presents a completely different kind of problem.

Recently The Guardian published a reasonably balanced story about social networking in education. I and two colleagues, Sarah Knight and Philip Pothen, were quoted in it. Whilst looking for personal dotsam for this posting (or at least what I was going to post about) I found another story that quoted me “UK Universities brings web2.0 tools in education”. This piece was a rewrite of The Guardian article, in it they quote me:

Lawrie Phipps, JISC project Manager stated that universities can use web2.0 more sensibly in education. Social -networking sites allows students to create their own groups and academic communities in areas like bio-medicine.

No he didn’t! At least I was fairly sure he didn’t – so I checked in the original. The original quote is:

“We found social networking and instant messaging being used to support researchers working off-campus,” says Jisc’s e-learning programme manager, Sarah Knight. “Social networking was allowing students and researchers to create their own interest groups and academic communities in areas like bio-medicine.”

This is a fairly harmless misrepresentation, at least I think so, Sarah may feel differently. At least in this case Sarah and I were both saying similar things in the article. But what if we had been diametrically opposed and something that was said by one was attributed to the other?

With blogging, and the ability to instantly publish and cross refer works so easily on the net, this kind of incident will no doubt continue to occur. And it is not only things that you deliberately state online, I don’t think I’ve been to an event this year where there isn’t at least one person blogging what is being said by the speaker! A recent workshop I gave at a university was blogged by two delegates and their blogs referred to in a blog of someone who wasn’t actually there – the information was harmless, but the potential for the information to be misreported becomes greater the further from the original it travels.

Instant publishing might be a great idea enabling a lot of people to post thought provoking and interesting material and enabling a debate to be had. But we must be careful about who is saying what and how what we say is being used, The Guardian article mentioned earlier is a good example, several bloggers have used a headline quote from that article:

Lawrie Phipps, explains how the battle lines are being drawn: “Students really do want to keep their lives separate. They don’t want to be always available to their lecturers or bombarded with academic information.”

But they don’t use the line that I said directly afterwards to the reporter (and which admittedly is two further paragraphs away in the report).

“They appear to want to keep their online persona private but when you ask them whether they’d like instant communication with tutors or feedback on essays (via Skype or Facebook) the answer is always yes.”

The price of instant publishing for anyone that may be cited or quoted is constant vigilance!


  1. What do you mean by ‘less than enthusiastic’?

    I gave you space, I left you alone, I sorted out the SEED stuff…….and I still have copies of EVERYTHING.

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