Common in a variety of first year college curriculum is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, from Book VII of The Republic (1915). For an animated synopsis of the Cave, click here. In terms of using the Cave in first year curriculum, there are many opportunities to engage students in a variety of ways. One method in particular, is to have a discussion about online relationships. Using Plato’s Cave as the framework, the shadows on the cave wall can represent our encounters with individuals online, constructed representations of someone or something. Through prolonged engagements with the shadows, we begin to fill in the nuances of the individual, much the same way we do when reading a novel. A release from the cave could represent a move from online to in-person interactions. Much like the slave in Plato’s cave, the change would be difficult because our perceptions of reality would be shifting. If the Cave represented our Facebook profile, and the outdoors, an in-person interaction, how might we interpret the various characters and themes of the cave? Who are the shadow-masters (the people who are creating the shadows on the wall by operating the objects of fire)? What would the Sun represent? Could anyone ever retreat back to the Cave for anything else but to free the others? These questions could form the basis for reflective essays in which students examine the Cave through a familiar lens - online social utilities.

In a case study of an individual who used online social utilities for romantic dating, the Cave provided a unique frame to examine his identity development. The individual did eventual meet his partner in-person, and it was similar to the exit/release from the cave, with acclimating to the light and shifting their perceptions of reality. Certain elements of what they “knew” to be true remained the same, other aspects which have never been explored through online dating, the physical elements of interactions, were not yet negotiated. This type of critical thinking around topics of online identities and relationships during the first year of college could have a profound impact on how students use online social utilities.

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