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Rewriting Online Narratives

posted: 1.10.11 by archived

It seems like every semester I begin this BITS blog with a post about personal narratives. So, I’m going to stick with the tradition. The personal narrative assignment is often the first prompt given in a writing class. I wrote about alternatives to the straight personal narrative last September, last January, and in October 2009.

But today I want to propose a very different approach.

Recently, a former student of mine named Christina Rothenbeck showed me a new Web site/search engine called Spokeo. The site gathers all the information about you that is available on the Internet. It advertises itself as “not your grandma’s phonebook.”  It’s kind of scary.


Look yourself up. Here’s President Barack Obama’s profile:2

Just for fun, here’s what the site initially reveals about me:


I don’t actually live in Morgantown, West Virginia anymore. The fact that a lot of the information is wrong, however, doesn’t diminish the creepy feeling I get. Especially when I can easily click to view a picture of my old house, information about my family, and so on.

Of course, the hook of the site is intended to get people to buy a monthly membership for access to even more information. If you want, you can follow these directions to remove yourself from the site. (Keep in mind that you need to provide an e-mail address to do so, so you probably want to give them an unimportant address.)

I have come to realize that, really, Spokeo is just gathering and revealing all of the information that is already available about each of us online. A Google search on anyone, by name, reveals a kind of story about his or her on- and offline presence. What unnerves us, however, is that we may feel that we don’t control this story.

This got me to thinking: What about creating a “personal narrative” assignment that asked students to go online and pay close attention to the story that is being told about them there? What story does their Facebook page tell? What does a Google search reveal? Is this story up-to-date with how they want to see themselves today and in the future? The assignment could generate some interesting discussion and reflective or analytical writing. This could include lots of multimedia content pulled from the Internet.

The next step might be to ask what we can do to revise, remix, or consciously develop our own online narrative. What are the mediums and means for generating content about ourselves online? What are the benefits and drawbacks of each of these avenues for self-definition? How much of the story is out of our hands? A final assignment might combine the analytical/reflective content with a multimodal narrative that pieces together fragments of preexisting online identity with new content to generate a revised online profile.

I can see a few key virtues to this alternative assignment. First, it asks us all to consider the fact that narratives already exist about us. We may have some control over these stories, or we may feel powerless to control them. It is worthwhile to pay attention to them, however, because story-telling and identity-shaping don’t happen in the ways they used to.  Second, we can generate critical thought and discussion about the ethics of the Internet. Finally, interacting with these online bits and pieces engages us multimodally, and reconstituting these elements for ourselves asks us to develop flexible and cunning strategies of composition.


Categories: Jay Dolmage, Teaching Advice, Teaching with Technology
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3 Responses to “Rewriting Online Narratives”

  1. Traci Says:

    This sounds like a great assignment. I especially like the way that students become aware of their online trail as a key part of their research. Really great 21st century writing assignment.

  2. Carolyn Lengel Says:

    You can probably get an interesting discussion going just by pointing out that even Barack Obama’s address is wrong….

  3. Konni Shier, Midlands Technical College Says:

    Super idea! My students do digital storytelling projects. You probably implied this, but I will certainly state it explicitly for my students: make sure the re-mix does not worsen your online reputation.