Judgment & reputation online – and off

This week, I’m blogging and launching new web resources based on my experience in October as the Duvall Leader in Residence at the University of Kentucky’s Center for Leadership Development (CFLD), part of UK’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.

Monday, I blogged about one of my workshops regarding Democratizing Engagement. Specifically: has the Internet democratized community, even political, engagement. Tuesday, I launched a new web page about online leadership. Wednesday, I blogged about things I learned while in Kentucky for this program and presenting separately for the Kentucky Network for Development, Leadership and Engagement (Kyndle).

Today, it’s about a comment made repeatedly in student evaluations for one of the classes that invited me to lecture, one that’s given me pause ever since.

My visit at the University of Kentucky was focused on leadership development, and community development and engagement, as both relate to the use of online media. And as guest lecturer in CLD 230 Intrapersonal Leadership, my topic was “How to use social media and online collaborative tools to demonstrate leadership and to support a team.” During my lecture, I noted that text-based online communi­cations, unlike video conferencing, hide our weight, ethnicity, hair color, age, and other physical traits from each other online. That means, online, people are judged by the quality of their online performance, not their physical appearance or regional accent. As Susan Ellis and I note in The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook: “Today’s preference to actually see and hear each other online is a double-edged sword: it can make electronic communication more personal and personable, but it can also inject offline prejudices evoked by how someone looks.” I pointed out that, online, via text-based communications, I can’t judge people regarding how they look but, rather, by the quality of the character they show through their words.

The comment ended up on many of the students’ “guest speaker reflection” form the instructor, Grace Gorrell, asks all students complete during class. The comment struck a chord with many of these students, most of them in their teens or 20s. And that’s given me pause: about society’s obsession with appearance, and about stereotypes. Young people are quite aware of those two factors affecting people’s lives, including their own – and probably quite worried about such. There are advantages, and disadvantages, to being perceived as attractive during a job search, and even a Harvard degree doesn’t level the playing field for African-American graduates in the job market, a study by a University of Michigan researcher found. It’s likely that these students have experienced first hand or witnessed first-hand preferences given because of someone’s appearance, perceived ethnicity or age, accent, etc., or discrimination because of the same. I think these students really like the idea of being evaluated purely by their work and communications skills – by their character.

Are we giving young people the information they need to portray themselves online as worthy of employment, of being involved as a volunteer, of inclusion? Are we teaching them how to build trust among people they work with, with their neighbors, and with those they will encounter online – and why this is important?

And are we continually exploring our own prejudices that may be affecting how we work and interactive with others?

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