Lately I have been thinking a lot about the term Digital Citizens. That term is typically used to talk about how people in the real world are learning to incorporate technology into their lives in order to engage in social, community and political activities and efforts. Avenues for this participation include social networks like Facebook, blogs and microblogs such as this site and Twitter, and crowdsourcing efforts such as Wikipedia. Governments are even trying to capitalize and encourage this effort by opening up big data for individuals and organizations to analyze. FoldIT for Playstation leverages Playstation gamer’s skills in protein folding, and this collaborative, competitive environment has resulted in some remarkable scientific insights.
Emerging now is a further extension of this idea, “The Good Digital Citizen”. Now that so many competently and confidently use these tools, there are concerns that people need to learn how to use them responsibly. For example, CommonSenseMedia.org lists tips for teaching children how to be good digital citizens which includes things like thinking about what you say before you write it, and there is a specific focus on how to engage with others respectfully, i.e. stop bullying. And Google is now supporting these kinds of efforts with their own supplementary classroom materials. There is some real merit to these ideas-it used to take a lot more effort to publicly say something mean, snarky or just plain stupid, and texting while driving is a habit that needs to be squashed. And, there is a lot of discussion now about harassment of female gamers in the gaming community and what we can do to make that social enterprise more open and friendly to what is fast becoming its largest constituency.
But there are also some real concerns about trying to codify a particular path to “good” or “proper” digital engagement, and who exactly is considered qualified to evaluate our digital habits and their worth. Putnam’s 2000 Bowling Alone was used for years as proof that media was leading to a decline in civic engagement and a loss of social capital. More recently, Constance Steinkuehler and others have begun to punch holes in that thinking, arguing that this perceived loss really only applies to passive media and that online networks and collaborative environments such as Second Life, World of Warcraft and Minecraft represent the new “bowling alley” or third place where social capital is gained, cultivated and used. Of course, building social capital with those half way around the world won’t necessarily help you keep your local streets clean, but I think that there are lots of efforts now targeting this kind of technologically enabled local network.
I recently was reading Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together and she discusses the death of our personal engagement with others. She tells the story of a mother, waiting to meet a prospective nanny, walking into the girl’s apartment and asking a roommate of the prospective nanny to tell her that she has arrived. The roommate responds by texting the prospective nanny (Turkle details that the roommate has splints on her thumbs and we are to assume that this is from her excessive texting) even though the prospective nanny is only in the next room. When the mother asks the roommate why she does not just knock on the door, the roommate is shocked, stating that this would be intrusive. Although Turkle is a great author and many of her points are valid, my concern with this kind of argument about our relationship with technology and what it is doing to our relationships with others and our community is that it is reactionary rather than contemplative: it relies on what I like to call a “Why, I never!” argument-we are just supposed to KNOW that this is wrong. And, it forgets that every new technology brings changes to how we engage with others. I am certain that before the telephone it might be normal to come over to a house unannounced, while I know that I was always taught as a child to call before you come over. So, what is the next step? How do we encourage good citizen practices without stifling emerging social trends? Will this all just work itself out naturally?
In upcoming parts of this series, I want to extend the idea of digital citizenship to cover specific technology platforms. What is the process of becoming not only a citizen of Second Life or of World of Warcraft, but a good one? What virtues and values must one cultivate, and how can those values and virtues of your digital citizenship collide and correspond with our physical world citizenships?