The problem with the mother


Link love: This post builds on the case study I contributed to the Eduserv workshop on Digital Identities at the British Library today. Everyone's case studies are lodged over at the Pattern Language Network site, along with Yishay's Slidedeck pattern language tutorial on writing a case study. It also moves forward some observations I made in my post Pictures of Children Online a couple of years ago.

From the workshop intro:

"We use the term ‘digital identity’ to refer to the online
representation of an individual within a community, as adopted by that
individual and projected by others. An individual may have multiple
digital identities in multiple communities.

Eduserv have recently funded three projects on digital identity as
a result of our 2008 grants call. This workshop will help the projects
gather case-studies about the ways in which digital identity is
currently manifest in UK higher education.

This event is aimed at people who have an interest in the issues
around digital identity in higher education including employers, HR
staff, careers guidance staff, standards experts, students and

Prior to the workshop we will be collecting a series of “stories”
about digital identity from people attending the event. On the day, we
will be working in groups to discuss and add to the series. Following
this, we will analyse the stories in order to find reoccurring themes
or patterns."

The group I worked with looked at two case studies, my own and Controlling Flickr Contacts, from Margarita Perez Garcia

Case Study: other people's identities

This study looks at issues of parental responsibility & identity disavowal
Created 08 Jan 2009 by Josie Fraser
What was the setting in which this case study occurred?

Like most people working in the field of social media, I have a purposefully easy to find online presence. I belong to multiple social networks, for work, for research, and for experience. The social networks (& I’m using a broad definition here, as outlined in )  I use most frequently are typically those that I can also most easily repurpose and use to maintain a constantly updated pubic presence – Twitter, Fickr, my own blogs, Delicious. Probably more importantly though, they are also the ones that allow me to socialise, discuss, hang out and meet new people. I started using the internet about 12 years ago to socialise, prompted by the physical limitations of being a single mother, of being broke all the time and not having a social or family network. For me the experience of being online was an extremely positive and liberating one, & remains so.

What was the problem to be solved, or the intended effect?

The primary issue was wanting to protect my son from harm, in the broadest sense, and to act respectfully towards him.

I am used to belonging to self-determined communities of people who I like and respect, who I often know exclusively or primarily online. It might seem like an obvious extension of my friendship and relationship building to share stories and pictures of my son, and to model a sense of my everyday experience – which heavily features the joys and logistics of motherhood -online.

However, there are several reasons why I don’t do this. Firstly, there’s thorny the issue of consent, and how my son negotiates and understands this at different points I his life.

There are also ethical, or just straightforwardly thoughtful, considerations. My mum has a particularly embarrassing picture of me that haunted the whole of my childhood. As an adult, I’m ok with it (no, really). Thankfully my mum was mostly sensitive about my particular loathing of this picture and didn’t get it out at every available opportunity – if she’d have put it online I can imagine I would have been mortified. Maybe not at the time she put it up, but certainly a few years down the line, and especially if anyone from my school had come across it.

There's also the issue of digital presence. Is it up to us to contribute to our children’s digital presence? Would you have liked your parents contributing to what searches of you might return? Perhaps by now I would have loved that embarrassing picture of myself – maybe it would have come to mean something entirely different to me. But at different points in my life it certainly wouldn’t have been at all welcome.

The other obvious issues are internet related child abuse and bullying. I’m very much against a moral-panic approach to using technology, and I also think it’s very important that we evaluate and regard risks appropriately. While the vast majority of child abuse takes place entirely offline, and is typically perpetrated by the victims family or immediate circle, that’s also no reason to dismiss the chances of a child or young person we know coming into contact with someone who could harm them. We take steps to educate them about a range of strategies they can use to look out for themselves in their offline and online dealings. In the same way, we need to model good practice ourselves.

Another reason for ‘protecting’ my son and not talking about being a mother was linked to financial insecurity. My career is on the way to being well established, and I’ve proven that I can manage to raise a child ‘alone’ (I moved closer to my mum and sister, so I have the luxury of a support network now) and so it worries me less that people might judge me and choose not to employ me because of my status as a single mother.

What was done to fulfil the task?

Initially, I kept all pictures of my son strictly within private, friends or family only permissions on Flickr. This has changed – I have a couple of pictures of my son as a small child in public. I’m similarly careful about the rest of my young family members too – I posted a picture of my  then 14 year old niece last year only to have it immediately favourited by a complete pervert. I removed the picture from public view, and blocked the pervy guy.

Similarly I don’t really talk about being a mother, although I’ve noticed this changing as my son becomes more independent himself.

Basically, I negated any public online identity that explicitly represented me as a mother for a long time.

What happened? Was is a success? What contributed to the outcomes?
Yes, it worked very well, since I have been consistent and systematic , had clearly defined rules about representing my son which I’ve stuck too. However, my son is getting older, his and my identities are both significantly shifting, and I’m wondering about ‘not having been a mother’. Was it just a handy tactic, or was it a cowardly disavowal of parenthood?  Is ‘being a mother’ in this sense important? For me, or for others?

Lessons Learned:
What did you learn from the experience?

Protecting your children online is actually really easy; watch out for the political speculation.

As we worked through stories to patterns, a very strange thing happened – the role of motherhood disappeared. And this was very clearly another compromise on behalf of the child – in order to demonstrate the meta pattern/problem concerning the protection of the child, we had to make the troublesome issue of the mother go away. The problem of the mother turned out to be that she was the mother. The problem wasn't one that could be solved outside the context of wide spread social and political change. So our title became Others First Managing the tensions between identity & personal responsibility, where identity is enmeshed and shaped by, in this explicit case, the vulnerable other of the child. From this it's possible to extrapolate the pattern on to a broader context – for example, anyone who needs to manage their own or another's online identity or personal safety. If we had more time we could have extended the pattern to look at different kinds of identity management – for example the management of being gay within a homophobic society, the management of responsible friendship etc.

What really struck me today was how the solution to effective protection – that could be interperated as concealment, repression, or confinement to specific circles, mirrors and perpetuates existing social inequalities – making already under represented and less visible groups – namely children and mothers in this case, though I'd argue the same strategy can be applied to a lot of other troublesome identities/bodies – as shadowy in online public spaces as they are off line. 

4 thoughts on “The problem with the mother

  1. Thanks for this Josie – it’s fascinating and raises so many questions. I think I might post on it myself.
    I would like to say that embarrassing photos may be an essential element of family life and growing up 😉 (not to say we should post them on the Internet). Imagine how bereft we’d feel if our parents left us no reason to castigate them in our teens!
    What struck me was the different perspectives on this: that of others on the taker/poster/mother and on the child; that of the child on viewers and on taker/poster/mother; that of the taker/poster/mother on others and on the child. Quite a triangle of relations!
    I had only posted scanned black and white photos publicly (deeming them safe by age). Recently, I felt safe to post some pics of my own children at (now adults) after they had scanned and uploaded images to Facebook. That seemed to render it safe, though I have detected a frisson of sibling teasing around one or two images.

  2. Thanks for your comments and I very much appreciate your pragmatic approach to embarrassment – I have the same feeling about ensuring children are subjected to reasonable amounts of dirt & germs 🙂 For myself, the issue has made me feel extreemly guilty about my thankfulness that my own mother is not online, posting pictures of me & telling people ‘what I am really like’. (Btw if you are reading this I do really love you mum x)
    Throwing in this link to a really interesting story on a Twitter mother who recently posted about feeling frustrated about her daughter and the communities response to it – it includes another dimension/stigmatized identity, that of mental health.

  3. One of the things that surprised me coming back to work after having my kids is how unacceptable it is to talk about how having children influences affects your day. I can be in a meeting with a group of women I know all have small children, have probably been up half the night, have anxiety about who is looking after them as we talk, and yet it is not mentioned. I always try to make this public. Parents (especially women) are in the workplace and how our parental responsibilities affect our work should be recognised. I find it so disappointing that in 2009 we are still cautious of exposing our parental responsibilites for fear it will influence peeople’s opinion of our ability to do our job. Shouldn’t we be standing proudly and showing everyone how you can combine kids and work?

  4. Thanks for the comment Rhona. I totally agree. The crux of the matter for me is: we need to protect individuals, for all kinds of reasons, but its also essential to make sure that social disadvantaged/less powerful groups have a voice. There is a risk that decoupling individual, specific examples from broader categories means that the representations of these categories either falls into the realms of the idealised or stereotyped, or privileges the the already more secure members of those groups. I think this is an important area for anyone concerned with social change or meaningful social engagement needs to be thinking about.
    Going back to the feminist issue (which doesn’t exclude men in the same situation since they are subject to the same kinds of discrimination/issues attached to what are perceived as female roles) – it is still a bit depressing that having children and parenthood are perceived as competition by the employee rather than what it actually provides them with: someone who can work flexibly, responds well to change and understands prioratisation and the importance of compromise backwards 🙂

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