Exploring Digital Citizenship

In my previous post, I outlined a few elements that I think are critical components of both traditional citizenship and digital citizenship: rules, rights, identity, community/group membership, and public works. But what do other people and other sources have to say about digital citizenship?

1. Digital Citizenship: Rules and Rights

9 Rules to Good citizenship include things like respecting the rights of others, treating others courteously, and communicating with empathy.
This common infographic from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) lists 9 “rules” to “good digital citizenship.”

The very first google search result (which, of course, is always a responsible way to conduct research) for “digital citizenship” is DigitalCitizenship.net, tagline: “using technology appropriately.” According to this site:

Digital citizenship is defined as “the norms of appropriate, responsible technology use.”

This is a basic definition of digital citizenship, and a good place to start. According to this initial conceptualization of “digital citizenship,” to be a digital citizen, you follow the rules. You act respectfully, you follow copyright and intellectual property laws, you protect your personal information, etc. The infographic to the right from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) lists 9 “rules” to “good digital citizenship,” all of which I think are reasonable and useful guidelines for proper internet etiquette.

However, as I mentioned in my last post, the institution of “citizenship” encompasses far more than rights-protection and rule-following. When you are a citizen of a country, you know that involves more than paying your taxes and exercising free speech. It involves more than the protection of your personal property or your obligation to obey the speed limit. Similarly, digital citizenship involves more than this list of 9 rules and rights outlined by ISTE.org. Which leads me to my next definition…






2. Digital Citizenship: Rules and Rights… Oh, But Also, Community and Identity

An Atlantic article entitled, “Digital Natives, Yet Strangers to the Web?” challenges the basic definition of digital citizenship as being merely the “norms of appropriate, responsible technology use.” According to this article, most digital citizenship efforts focus on “simply teaching kids appropriate online behavior; of teaching them how to use gadgets, and how to use those gadgets appropriately.”

An infographic created by the author explains that 50% of teachers rate students' digital citizenship skills as fair or poor, while only 1/4 teachers say digital citizenship is taught at their schools. According to a 2012 Pew Research Survey of parents, 8/10 are concerned about kids' internet privacy, 7/10 worry about kids interacting with strangers, and 5/10 have monitoring devices or parent controls.
This infographic explains the common focus (or lack thereof) of digital citizenship education.

The article argues (and I am inclined to agree) that while we need to practice appropriate online behavior, this does not represent the complete scope of digital citizenship. More is needed.

In particular, this article focuses on a project by teacher Reuben Loewy called the “Living Online Lab.” Not the, “be-smart-when-you’re-online” lab, but the living online lab. Digital citizenship involves following the rules and exercising your rights, but, as in my original conceptualization of “citizenship,” digital citizenship also involves issues of identity and community.

This article argues that education should not stop “at the hardware.” Kids–and adults–need to do more than understand how to use these digital tools, or even how to use these digital tools “responsibly.” According to the article, “Kids not only need to be proficient in how to use digital technology…they also need to deeply, holistically, and realistically understand how the digital world works behind the scenes.”

Digital citizenship requires an understanding of how we’re using digital tools, why we’re using these tools, and the outcome of using these digital tools.

Digital citizenship influences our identity, and provides opportunities for group membership and community. Consider these questions related to digital identity and social implications:

  • How do digital interactions shape our identity? Our values? Our political opinions?
  • Do you think that spending time online pushes you to be a pessimist? An optimist? Neither?
  • What goes on “behind the scenes” online? Do you think that what we see on the internet is primarily an expression of people in power, or does it democratize information?
  • What kinds of power relationships influence the messages we hear, share, and internalize?
  • How do we interact with others (or not interact with others) and create community or tension online?

DigitialCitizenship.net proposes that good digital citizens observe the rules and exercise their rights when it comes to digital tools. The Atlantic article “Digital Natives, Yet Strangers to the Web?” adds to this definition: good digital citizens also understand and consider the impact of online interactions on personal identity formation and social interactions.

3. Digital Citizenship: Rules, Rights, Identity, Community… and also, the Work?

Another common conceptualization of citizenship is the “public works” view of citizenship. This is an energized vision of citizenship in which citizens work side-by-side to accomplish social change. This leads to my third and final conceptualization of digital citizenship:

Digital citizenship encompasses digital/online activism, in which individuals use digital tools to draw attention to issues in order to accomplish social or political change.

You probably recognize these political or advocacy hashtags: #BringBackOurGirls, #ICantBreathe, #icebucketchallenge, #BlackLivesMatter, #JeSuisCharlie, #Kony2012. What situations are they referencing? Even more importantly, did any of these hashtags influence real political or social change? Whether or not social media and online tools are effective forms of advocacy or activism is hotly debated. Some say no, governments can just monitor or influence citizen behavior using digital tools, rendering those tools ineffective (like here). Others argue that online activism just amplifies the voices in politics that are already loud, and doesn’t really offer new opportunities for the marginalized voices to be heard (as in here). Maybe online activism doesn’t even effect real change (see this article).

In particular, an NPR article by Evgeny Morozov explores the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of digital activism. According to Morozov, while digital tools have opened up new avenues of participation and increased the number of people who could partThis poster from UNICEF states, "Like us on Facebook, and we will vaccinate zero children against polio." It demonstrates the importance of pairing "liking something" with actual action.icipate, the quality/effectiveness of participation has declined as a result. Morozov argues that online activism erodes traditional/offline participation, and it is doubtful that online activism can impact true change. If you can click “like,” why would you put yourself into a potentially risky situation and go to a protest march?

Morozov describes the term “slactivism,” which many use in place of “digital activism”: “Slacktivism” is an apt term to describe feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact. It gives those who participate in “slacktivist” campaigns an illusion of having a meaningful impact on the world without demanding anything more than joining a Facebook group.” Is liking something on Facebook or tweeting something on Twitter truly “online activism,” or is it “slacktivism” or “clicktivism”?

Like Morozov, I am skeptical of the power of online activism/”hashtag activism” to influence real social or political change. Can it bring attention to a cause? Absolutely. Can it educate people about unfamiliar problems? Sure. Does it motivate people to actually donate, protest, or get involved? Maybe, but probably not. Does online activism alone- without any other tools- cause social or political change? I really doubt it.

So what do you think? #powerful or #pointless?

Putting the Pieces Together… 

So, how do these three conceptualizations of digital citizenship (and their respective supporting resources) relate to one another? The pyramid below represents my “working” definition of digital citizenship. The “rules and rights” definition of digital citizenship serves as the foundation; it is the most basic definition, but I believe you must have this definition in place to build up to the other definitions. As you move up the pyramid, you move into the definitions of digital citizenship that challenge us even more. The middle layer challenges us to consider how digital tools can be used to form and build community, and to think about how the mediums we use can shape the messages we hear, share, and internalize. Lastly, the top layer challenges us to think about how we can use digital tools (or not) to shape social and political change. Rights, rules, identity, community, and public work. Where do you think the definition of digital citizenship begins and ends?

This image created by the author illustrates a "pyramid" of digital citizenship. The rights and rules form the foundation, community and identity is in the center, while activism is at the top.