Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

Social Media and Sign Language Interpreters

February 1st, 2011

Professional Development/Certification Maintenance Workshop
New England Home for the Deaf, Danvers MA
30 January 2011

There were many things talked about at the same time during Stephanie “SC” Clark’s and Rebekah Barkowitz’s workshop, Navigating Through Social Networking with Confidentiality and Ethics. Not that they need my approval, but they did a great job with some tricky material. The reality is that the massive spread of social media over the last decade changes everything. We are not living in the same world that spawned the original (1960s) RID Code of Ethics, nor even the recently updated RID Code of Professional Conduct.

No one knows what recent changes in communication mean for our relationships with each other or where they will lead in the future. How can we know what to talk about now?

Seeking illumination!

Seeking illumination!

SC and Rebekah gave background information about some legal cases as well as precedents from employers who have policies about what employees can and cannot say about their work in online social media like Facebook. As workers, interpreters fall into a middle category (the always gray zone, as Sharon described it) which includes some of us being staff employees while many more are “freelance” – self-employed independent contractors. As SC and Rebekah proceeded with the workshop, responses and questions from the participants were welcomed. Slowly a “picture” of the issues as they concern professional sign language interpreters began to emerge.

I want to start with my last Aha, because it took some hours of reflecting and a helpful conversation with a colleague who didn’t attend but debriefed with me. The most striking feature of the talk during the workshop, viewed in historical terms, is that only a few people seriously questioned whether interpreters should not post comments to Facebook that are in any way related to an interpreting assignment. When someone did suggest that interpreters choose not to (even though we “can”), there was no uptake: in general it was assumed that interpreters will post about work on FB just like most FB-users do.

The fact that Facebook is a public space and the profession’s traditional confidentiality rules apply as they would under any other circumstances has been overwhelmed by the emergent social interaction made possible with online communication technology. My imagery might not be the best, but its like the gold rush, or any colonizing movement of people who “discover” a “new land” and rush to stake their claim. Interpreters – along with nearly everybody else – dove headlong into this new exciting territory and began to play there (more-or-less just like everybody else). It needs to be noted that the majority of veteran interpreters attending this workshop rarely if ever post anything remotely job-related to Facebook or other online social media. I emphasize this observation because we (the profession) need to understand our position vis-a-vis the new social reality. The point is that the older generations of interpreters could not assert the traditional value of confidentiality in the new timespace of social networking.

“Thank god my FB name isn’t my real name!”

Mikey got us laughing in the discomfort zone of wondering about the new boundaries. The conversation unfolded around what kinds of things would be “okay” or “not okay” to post. In other words, a surrender to the new communication technology has already happened. We are behind the curve, playing catch-up. The evidence from our talking with each other during the workshop is that “confidentiality” – in the ways we used to understand it – is gone, or at least seriously compromised. What this hard fact suggests is that our elected representatives and national office staff need to formulate questions that lead us toward answers that serve the profession and our clients well – all of us: Deaf, hard-of-hearing, and non-deaf (“hearing”). This is similar to the question that Jo asked when she was talking about Facebook as a “tool” for new generations. Rather than treating FB and other social media platforms (such as Twitter), as sites for interpreters, the Deaf community, hearing interlocutors, and institutional representatives need to police each other, is it possible to ‘go with’ the new flow and put the tool to productive use?

Atmospheric conditions? Mostly cloudy.

Atmospheric conditions? Mostly cloudy.

The strategy that Rebekah and SC used to stimulate our thinking was to ask us to consider the viewpoints of three potential audiences to status messages posted on Facebook: the Deaf community, professional colleagues, and the hiring/paying agency. Then they gave us several actual status messages to evaluate. Opinions varied quite a bit on what was acceptable and why, or not acceptable and why not. “It depends” remains the interpreter’s favorite answer! What we demonstrated is that meaning is always in the eyes of the beholder.

There were some observations that might be useful. For instance, in the first batch there was a categorization based on

  • naming the institutional site of a job and
  • comments that humanize the interpreter and the interpreter’s relationships with interlocutors and colleagues.

The second batch broke down into

  • comments that cast the profession overall in a bad light, and
  • a relational comment (that could be considered humanizing or insulting depending upon one’s predisposition and/or knowledge – or lack thereof – of the circumstances that inspired it).

Roughly, one could say (based on the given samples) there are two dimensions to consider: the institutional/macrosocial level and the interpersonal/microsocial level. When, how, where, and to what extent can Facebook be used as a means to leverage institutional respectability for the profession, as well as to draw interlocutors more actively into the processes of co-constructing understanding across cultural differences?

What do we want to protect for the future?

You’ll have to forgive some of the references here, but let me play a little bit. I’ve actually always had some resistance to the extent of the confidentiality rule. It has been repeated my entire career that interpreters used to tell their spouses, “I’m going out for ice cream,” whenever they received last minute requests, as if interpreters are on par with international spies. It reminds me of a few scenes in Fair Game, when Valerie Plame insists to her husband that she is “going to Detroit” (instead of, for instance, Afghanistan or Darfur) and “works at [such-and-such fake company]” instead of for the Central Intelligence Agency. As if he doesn’t know. (But then, he doesn’t know the specifics, but generally, he knows!)

The two prompts that we were given early in the workshop as a warm-up for the small group exercises referred to the screening and rating systems by which interpreters become certified. I didn’t know that these people’s identities are kept secret! I’m interested in the rationale, having just learned that the people who rate movies are also essentially undercover. This Film is Not Yet Rated documents the search for these raters who have incredible influence over what movies get advertised, distributed, and seen in the US.

SC made an important observation about modern-day compartmentalization, in which a person’s different identities belong to different physical places and are performed with particular people associated with those places – rarely if ever to meet. This is of course what is radically changed by participation in cyberspace: work, family, friends, activism, school, hobbies…. all our varied aspects can be brought together. Young people are mashing-up all these previously-separated spaces and we’ve got no choice but to react. The heart of the matter for RID is if we can move beyond gut-level reactions to proactive responsiveness.



Some of the resources shared by SC and Rebekah are definitely worth checking out, especially if you are a Massachusetts’ state employee. There’s a quiz about ethical behavior, which can be used to assess conformance with the MA State code of conduct Chapter 268A. They also shared some resources on making your Facebook page “nearly invisible” and otherwise learning how to take advantage of privacy settings. If you’re interested in some theory about challenges with understanding/interpreting online text (including email, SMS, etc), you might want to look at social information processing theory, which describes internet-based communication as “cues filtered out,” but is one of the first theories with a positive take on the kinds of relationships that can develop in cyberspace that are not possible face-to-face (for all kinds of reasons).

Getting nerdy

Finally, I want to describe two “discourses” that struck me as the main junctures of discussion during the workshop. First, note that I am making a technical distinction between conversation (in which we “share verses with” each other) and discussion (in which we bounce off each other’s utterances as if they were billiard balls). Conversation is generative – it can lead to new knowledge, new relationships, new possibilities. Discussion maintains the status quo (especially hierarchies of dominance and entrenched disagreements).

Discourses are patterned ways of talking: they represent particular attitudes or approaches to a topic and every human being is caught up in them, one way or another. Whatever we say, every time we say anything (and even when we say nothing), we are participating in one or several discourses. It is the cumulative action of discourses (many people saying similar things) that shapes social realities.

One of the discourses in the workshop represents our professional conditioning: it is habitual and traditional – one could say it is the ‘dominant’ perspective on interpreters’ professional conduct. This discourse was foreshadowed by the workshop title, which emphasizes confidentiality and ethics.” The second discourse questions this historical inheritance – some might call it critical or challenging, but if we’re interested in accuracy, I think it is a transitional discourse: it is the one we need to have until we figure out how to be in the new social mash-up where the old categories get all mixed up with each other.

The great benefit of Stephanie Clark’s and Rebekah Barkowitz’s leadership on these issues is that they invited and welcomed both discourses to be co-present in the room. For the most part, the two discourses bounced off each other, discussion-style. Conversations did occur, however, along the sidelines in small groups and during lunch. Hopefully as professionals we can make conscious choices toward conversation in order to mobilize our collective intelligence toward strategies and positions that enhance the profession by improving the intercultural communication service we provide.

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