Shifting from “Digital Tattoo” to “Digital Dossier” – Words Matter In Digital Literacy!

October 30, 2023

In the rapidly evolving and ubiquitous onlife world, our lives are increasingly intertwined with the use of technology. Our digital presence, comprising of personal data and activities, is continuously being recorded and stored by various online platforms. As this reality has gained more attention and understanding, the terminology used to describe our digital presence online has also expanded. In this article, we will explore why we believe the phrase “digital tattoo” should be phased out, and why the use of the phrase “digital dossier” is a more appropriate term when educating youth and teens about digital literacy.

The term “Digital Tattoo” draws a metaphorical parallel with a physical tattoo, suggesting a permanent and indelible mark which can never be removed, hidden, or forgotten – some will even say that the internet never forgets. However, comparing personal digital artifacts to a tattoo is somewhat misleading. Yes – in the past, body tattoos were permanent and unchangeable, but today many can be removed, altered, or even covered up. Today, the same can be said for many digital artifacts (1)

The term “Digital Tattoo” often conjures up the suggestion that all regrettable choices and mistakes posted online can’t be fixed. Yes – sometimes they can’t, however, many times they can. It implies that any online action, regardless of its context or relevance, will leave an everlasting impact on an individual’s reputation especially when it comes to post-secondary and employment opportunities, which is not necessarily true. This can lead to unwarranted anxiety and fear among users who may feel they are forever burdened by their past online activities. If youth are taught that the internet never forgets and that they can’t repair mistakes they make online, then emotionally and psychologically they may think there is no moving forward, which for some can cause severe anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideations to percolate.

Instead of using the phrase “digital tattoo”, we believe the phrase “Digital Dossier” is more accurate given its focus on the comprehensive nature of data, rather than emphasizing its permanence. It allows room for growth, learning, and change, enabling individuals to take control of their online identity and make conscious decisions to shape it positively. The term “Digital Dossier” acknowledges the privacy challenges, while at the same time emphasizing the need for responsible data management and safeguarding.

Words are powerful, and we have first-hand experiences seeing how the suggestibility of the phrase digital tattoo can create a sense of hopelessness about one’s online reputation and privacy, especially with youth and teens who are going to make mistakes online. In contrast, the phrase “Digital Dossier” better captures the essence of a collection of accumulated data that sometimes is very searchable, but can sometimes also be editable, manageable, and malleable over time.

As we navigate the complexities of today’s onlife world, using appropriate and accurate terminology is crucial to foster a better understanding of our online presence through digital literacy. The term “Digital Tattoo” and saying that the internet never forgets may have been popularized to underscore the importance of responsible online behavior, but it falls short in capturing the fluidity and potential for change and growth inherent in today’s onlife world. 

Embracing the term “Digital Dossier” acknowledges the expansiveness and malleability of our onlife presence, highlighting the potential for growth, change, and conscious curation of our online identities. The mantra that the internet never forgets, associated with a digital tattoo, while cautionary, fails to encapsulate the fluidity and adaptability intrinsic in today’s onlife world.

Through evolving data regulations, such as the “right to forget”, improved data management practices, and the rise of encrypted and ephemeral content, individuals now possess more agency over their digital dossiers, challenging the notion of the internet never forgets. As we continue to educate and navigate the onlife world, employing accurate and empowering terminology, like “Digital Dossier,” becomes important in shaping a more comprehensive understanding of digital literacy and encouraging responsible onlife behavior with our youth.

Digital Food For Thought

The White Hatter



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