You are here

Becoming-Imperceptible, or How to Disappear Completely

Primary tabs

Teach students about managing their online presence
Image Credit: 

"Whitechapel" via an untrained eye's Flikr stream

Brief Assignment Overview: 

In this assignment, students learn about the importance of protecting their information and image online, and in turn, take measures to delete themselves from the myraid places where they are visible/vulnerable.

Type of Assignment: 
Assignment Length: 
Pedagogical Goals - Rhetoric: 
Pedagogical Goals - Digital Literacy: 
Additional Pedagogical Goals: 
Research
Advocacy
Other (Please describe)

Increase student awareness of their digital “presence” and its dangers

Required Materials: 

Collective student access to the internet. Projection screen for main classroom computer.

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

The internet’s memory is gargantuan. Nearly every keystroke one makes is recorded in some way, and used for some purpose by companies and corporations. Sometimes this information is put to uses that we don’t approve of, e.g., marketing or identity theft. The European Union believes this kind of misuse is such a problem that legislation called “The Right to be Forgotten Online” has been proposed.

The purpose of this assignment is to make like the EU and fight back against the misuse of information that one provides online. Students begin by researching various ways to attempt to disappear from the internet. Simple searches like: “how to disappear from the internet,” “how to delete yourself online/from the internet/from Facebook,” and so on, reveal a vast array of possible ways for decreasing one’s online “presence.” There are even online services (like “Reputation Defender”) designed to do information-removal for its clients. Therefore during class instructors can have students research the options available for decreasing their internet visibility, and then have students move to implement it. Instructors can also have students share the tactics they found with other students, and show them how/what they themselves did to diminish their existence online If the instructor wants to require students to accomplish something specific, they can ask them to find a least one-two novel form(s) of digital deletion and implement it/them. This doesn’t have to be anything major, though. If nothing else, students can research how to delete something like a thread-post on Facebook, etc (pssst…there’s an invisible ‘x’ that appears in the upper-right hand corner of FB posts that allows you to delete them), but even small implementations can make a difference.

In order to help students see the value in such an undertaking, consider a couple of approaches: One is to explain to them how online companies and corporations use their data to persuade them (rhetorically) to view media and buy products that they might not otherwise view or buy (e.g., Amazon.com’s recommendations). That is, there is an unperceived rhetoric of manipulation that is silently operating on the internet all the time! Students can also see the value in such an assignment by realizing how vulnerable their information is online. A great way to demonstrate this vulnerability is by virtue of what a colleague of mine christened “The Facebook Blitz.” This involves getting on Facebook and accessing the information that your students have made public (but probably don’t realize it). When you come to class, though, and show them everything you’ve found (e.g., embarrassing images and posts, personal information that is public for anyone to see, etc), students are often shocked, and become more willing to engage in some type of deletion activity, even if only to change their privacy settings on Facebook and Myspace. In sum, this assignment involves lessons in rhetoric, memory/forgetting, and digital media visibility/vulnerability.

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

In preparation for the assignment, one should consider reading about the EU’s “Right to be Forgotten” legislation and/or a selection from Mayer-Schonberger’s Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in a Digital Age. It’s also a good idea to navigate around and find potential deletion tutorials for students to use, and it’s always a good idea to try these various deletions yourself before having your students try them!

Instructions For Students: 

Becoming-Imperceptible, or How to Disappear Completely

The internet’s memory is gargantuan. Nearly every keystroke we make is recorded in some way, and used for some purpose by companies and corporations. Sometimes this information is put to uses that we don’t approve of, e.g., marketing or identity theft. The European Union believes this is such a problem that legislation called “The Right to be Forgotten Online” has been proposed. The purpose of this assignment is to make like the EU and fight back.

Step #1:

We’ll begin by researching various ways to attempt to disappear from the internet. Simple searches like: “how to disappear from the internet,” “how to delete yourself online/from the internet/from Facebook,” and so on, reveal a vast array of possible ways for decreasing one’s online identity. There are even online services (like “Reputation Defender” and “Web 2.0 Suicide Machine”) designed to do information-removal for its clients.

Step #2

After you find a particular “deletion tactic,” write down what it will take to enact it as well as what you think about it: Will it work? What will it accomplish? Is it a good idea? Now you need to decide: do I want to enact this form of deletion myself? If not, keep looking until you find one that you’re okay with. If you find one you’re comfortable with, go ahead walk through the steps, taking notes about what you had to do. However, the form of online deletion involved doesn’t have to be massive. For example, you could research/enact something like deleting a thread-post on Facebook, etc (pssst…there’s an invisible ‘x’ that appears in the upper-right hand corner of FB posts that allows you to delete them).

Step #3

Present to the class (in small groups) what you found out! This can be either a particular tactic for online removal and what you think about it, or how you went about deleting yourself from something. Please at least have something to share concerning your research, even if you didn’t delete yourself from anywhere. That way, everyone can get participation points!

Evaluation Suggestions: 

In my own course, I deployed the above assignment as an in-class task for participation points (based on whether students did the in-class research and presentation of their findings). However, it would be very easy to formalize the assignment, e.g., by turning it into an outside-class research task, or by turning it into a short writing assignment one hands in for points. If you’re feeling your oats, you could always offer extra credit to anyone willing to delete something like their Facebook account while everyone watches! : ) You’d not only provide the class with an interesting and dramatic demonstration, but if a student is desperate enough for points to delete their Facebook, they probably don’t need to have it as a distraction from their work anyway! ; ) I joke, of course, of course, but in joking I want to highlight that there ARE ethical ramifications with this assignment, so please exercise caution not to pressure students into anything problematic or irrevocable.

Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

Students generally seem to like this assignment, but it helps a lot if you can grab their attention from the get-go with a “Facebook Blitz” or the South Park clip of Stan Marsh removing himself from the internet (or both). Students are often reticent to delete anything major, but even having them learn to delete cookies from Google (to slow data aggregating) or to change their Facebook privacy settings is a win in my book. One of the most important things to come out this assignment, too, is that it’s a conversation starter—it leads students to think about an issue they may have never considered before. My main advice after having done this assignment myself is to come up with concrete examples of things to delete or edit so that your students will have something specific to do/discuss. Giving points/credit is also a must!

Additional Resources: 

One great way to have students prepare for this assignment is by reading a selection from Viktor Mayer-Schonberger’s Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in a Digital Age. The first chapter contains especially relevant anecdotes that students may find interesting.

Here, for example, is a wiki on how remove yourself from the internet step by step, and includes tutorials on deleting yourself from Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Flickr, StumbleUpon, Myspace, Paypal, eBay, Craigslist, wikis, Alma maters, gaming sites, blogs, forums, and so on:

WikiHow - Instructions to Delete Yourself from the Internet

Search engines also collect the data we put into them in order to sell products. For example, Google, Yahoo, Bing, PeopleFinder, and other sites all aggregate data:

WikiHow - Ungoogle Yourself

If students are feeling really ambitious, they can visit this site recently featured on South Park called Web 2.0 Suicide Machine. However, this type of deletion is massive and CANNOT be undone, so advise your students accordingly!!!

The Suicide Machine

Course Description: 

Rhetoric, Memory, and Forgetting

Total votes: 531
Rate this lesson plan