1999 was a good year. I re-discovered a love of reading ignited by two classic pieces of literature set around children. I would dispute that they are children’s book but I seriously missed out as a kid – by not knowing about these books.
Sharing books with a group of post SATs year 6 children was a great experience. They were enthralled. That year I shared two literary masterpieces: The Dark is Rising – Susan Cooper and The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin.
We read the Wizard of Earthsea from cover to cover, and did some work comparing it with the entertaining but inferior Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. We meet the main character, Ged as a child and follow him through to becoming an apprentice wizard at a wizarding school. Once Ged is old enough he is given his ‘usename’ which is Sparrowhawk. From then on he is known by that and only his mother and mentor know is birth name. Knowledge of a person’s birth name is considered to give other people power over that person.
Sparrowhawk has a rival at the wizarding school and ends up in a duel (as boys do – but remember fighting is bad) it was interesting to listen to the kids draw parallels between that part of the book and the Malfoy – Potter ‘friendship’. In the duel something terrible happens and there is a rift in the continuum which releases an evil spirit which savages Sparrowhawk and leaves him for dead.
Sparrowhawk recovers and is stalked by the evil spirit for his entire adult life and as a result lives a nomadic existence. Until…..he comes to an understanding as to how to beat his nemesis. He must discover the birth name of the spirit. Sparrowhawk turns and chases the spirit to the ends of the earth, corners him, reaches out and names the spirit. Ged.
“Hey Mr Y!” said Ryan, “That’s a metaphor that is. It’s saying that the spirit’s name is his name – so Ged is his own worst enemy” That stands out as one of the most incredible moments of my career. Outsmarted by an 11 year old.
I happened upon a twitter discussion about usernames and security this weekend and it prompted me to recall Ged.
Perhaps we should exercise the same caution with children’s identity as the people of Earthsea did? There are several crucial items in tracing someone’s identity. Name is one of them. Therefore why should we be willing to risk naming children and attaching other bits of information to that name? A simple photo attached to a first name and a bit of context is sufficient to provide a potential abductor with a school address, a conversation piece, a name and face. It took me 10 mins of browsing local schools to find an example of such careless practice by a school who have been trained in esafety.
Blogging is a magnificent enterprise, changing the prospects of children. But one of the reasons it offers such authentic learning is because it is a high risk, high stakes environment. So when a child posts a comment with a picture of their work and their first name in the user name it is a piece in the jigsaw. If they post a picture of themselves in a later post, the jigsaw is building.
I suggest we take a leaf from LeGuin, let’s make it standard practice to support kids in choosing a meaningful ‘usename’ which encapsulates their personality and preserves their anonymity. This will help kids learn an uncomfortable truth of the web, if someone knows your name, they can search for you, information connects you to place and face. Someone who knows your name has ‘power’ over you – you can’t stop people knowing your name, but you can limit the power by reducing its proliferation on the web.
Children enter this life with no web presence. A usename is one way of keeping it that way. We are our own worst enemies, we give in to the endorphines released when we click ‘send’ or ‘post’ and pay no attention to any consequences.
My point is this. Blogging with your first name is of no consequence on its own, neither is a photo – the joined value of the information is more powerful. Are we enabling children to recognise the possible connections in the information they are leaving behind in their digital footprint and should we be making it easy to create an alter ego for the web, making the links more difficult to triangulate?