By Tim Milosch

The 2011 Pew Research Center study, “Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Network Sites” is one of many evaluating the experience of the young on social media. Given ongoing concerns about the effects of social media on young people, the headline is hardly surprising or shocking. However, the subtitle of the report, “How American Teens Navigate the New World of Digital Citizenship,” raises a few questions1: What is digital citizenship? If social media heralds a “new world” requiring a new kind of citizenship, what are the implications for our practices of citizenship in our temporal, physical communities?

Digital citizenship is a concept of citizenship defined in terms of a heavily mediated technological environment. This fundamentally changes the classical function of the citizen from one who participates in and contributes to a physical community to one who merely exists within a space.  This should be of concern to parents, academics and society at large. Digital citizenship as a technological construct reduces the noble concept of classical citizenship to a sum of transactions, which poses a danger to developing citizenship within the context of a local community. Like Huxley’s Brave New World, the implicit assumption of the need to leave classical concepts of citizenship behind for a new ethic appears to be less than utopian. When it comes to a governing ethic for communication and interaction online, digital citizenship is a concept that sacrifices much to achieve little.

This essay uses Ursula Franklin’s holistic-prescriptive dichotomy of technology to critique the concept of digital citizenship as a governing principle for modeling and teaching online interactions.2 It argues that concepts of classical citizenship provide a better framework for engaging in digital spaces, specifically on social media platforms.

Digital Communication Platforms as Built Environments

To understand the problematic nature of a concept like digital citizenship, it is essential that we first define the nature of the digital environment, specifically the digital communications environment populated by social media platforms. Ursula Franklin succinctly defines technology as a built environment that “like democracy, includes ideas and practices; it includes myths and various models of reality. And like democracy, technology changes the social and individual relationships between us.” Franklin does not just view technology as physical tools, but as a system that “involves organization, procedures, symbols, new words, equations, and most of all, a mindset.” She does not assume technology to be in a vacuum, or a collection of amoral tools waiting to be used by moral actors. Rather, technology use creates a dynamic interaction between tools, users, and communities. That interaction is defined by Franklin as being one of two forms: prescriptive, or holistic.

Prescriptive technologies are understood to be those that are grounded in procedure, automation, and repetition; human workers are machine operators as opposed to skilled users of tools who control the creative process. The end user experience of social media fits this definition of prescriptive technology very well. Limitations placed on the form and type of content and the focus on a limited range of interactions such as like, reply or share on Facebook are all markers of a prescriptive technology.

Holistic technologies, by contrast, are defined by skill and craftsmanship. According to Franklin:

Holistic technologies are normally associated with the notion of craft. Artisans, be they potters, weavers, metal-smiths, or cooks, control the process of their own work from beginning to finish…. Using holistic technologies does not mean that people do not work together, but the way in which they work together leaves the individual worker in control of a particular process of creating or doing something.

In the world of social media and online interactions, the difference of prescriptive and holistic technology could be understood as the difference between using a popular platform like Facebook or Snapchat, and creating one’s own platform like a WordPress site.

The key point that Franklin makes in relation to prescriptive and holistic technologies is their respective social and political impacts: prescriptive technologies foster cultures of compliance, while holistic technologies foster cultures of cooperation and individual efficacy. Seen through Franklin’s interpretive framework, digital citizenship must be understood in light of the nature of the technology in question. In this essay, that technology is social media, broadly defined as synchronous and asynchronous tools and platforms that enable online communication and networking.

As a built environment, social media exhibits three distinct properties: limitations on use, values of the builders, and influence on user behavior and thought.

First, a built environment enables some things, but limits others. What is understood by this property is that any built environment is constructed within another environment. It is a system within a system, which necessarily limits its scope and function. In the social media world, Twitter’s 280-character limit is a recognizable example of this aspect of built environments. The tweet is an iconic characteristic of that particular ecosystem.

Second, a built environment embodies the creators’ values and priorities. Different digital communication technologies embody certain ideas about how human beings communicate and interact, or should communicate and interact. In this sense, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg offers a perfect example of an “environment builder” who designs with certain values in mind:

We may not have the power to create the world we want immediately, but we can all start working on the long term today. In times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.3

Note the assumption of the ability to shape the world via a platform, the assumed implicit good of collaborative work, and the belief in a social responsibility to shape the world a particular way. Zuckerberg is not alone in this kind of optimistic belief of the social good of his platform. Technologists and social media entrepreneurs have all voiced similar viewpoints about the power of the Internet to reshape human society for the better.4This is an important point to understand and remember: builders build because they believe they can change something about their world.

The third property is that built environments influence behavior and response. Especially in the case of a technology like social media, the nature of the environment built around the technology will influence the communication that takes place within it—the good and the bad. “It’s Facebook official” is a euphemistic expression of social expectations embodied in the world of social media. In this case, the phrase “Facebook official” comes to be understood as a necessary means of validating a life experience. It implies a feedback loop designed to encourage the sharing of life moments with one’s network, which in turn encourages similar behavior via replies and additional information sharing. It becomes sharing primarily for the sake of validation as opposed to sharing for the sake of collaboration, education, or information.

This is not to say that these other forms of sharing do not happen on social media platforms, but to point out that platforms designed for personal sharing necessarily limit these other purposes for sharing in favor of personal validation. This will become important later on when I discuss the transactional nature of relationships in the social media environment.  

To sum up, social media technologies constitute built environments that limit human interaction within the bounds of the builder’s values and expectations of human behavior. As prescriptive technologies, social media platforms also intrinsically foster cultures of compliance. Within this environment, digital citizenship is best understood as proper human behavior in the particular constructed spaces of social media.5 I will expand on this definition later, but in terms of the relationship between digital citizenship and social media, two critical consequences come out of such a definition.

First, we must accept that the aspirations of digital citizenship to promote a set of values are necessarily limited. This may seem odd since built environments influence behavior and response. But influencing and/or changing behavior and response is different from changing the nature of that behavior and response—i.e., the implicit value claim. One could still be a racist in 280 characters.

The behavior (expressing an opinion) is changed in that it can be done anonymously or with a pseudonym, but the value expressed (racial superiority) may remain unchanged. Recent controversy over Twitter’s “shadow banning” of accounts labeled as engaging in hate speech demonstrates this limitation. As a prescriptive technology, Twitter can enforce compliance to some community standard for content and thus influence behavior and response on the platform. However, there is no proof that such enforced compliance actually changes values. Thus, digital citizenship’s aspirations to a more positive and inclusive digital commons, as Zuckerberg outlines above, may reach further than reality.

Second, because it is a byproduct of a set of prescriptive technologies, digital citizenship is reduced to a similar prescriptive role, as opposed to holistic human interaction. In this context, digital citizenship must be understood to be a thing different from temporal citizenship, neither an extension nor a replacement of it. If social media platforms largely function as prescriptive technologies in that they limit content type, mediate interactions, and filter information that reaches the end user, then this creates a programmatic outcome, or user experience. This should be a cause for concern when we compare digital citizenship to the classical concepts of citizenship found in ancient Greek thought that continue to undergird democratic societies.

Classical Citizenship and Community

Adopting the language of Franklin, we can say that classical concepts of citizenship sought to view the citizen holistically as opposed to prescriptively. The citizen is first viewed as a person, and, as a person, a moral actor within a community.6 So it is incumbent on political philosophers to define the nature of the person, the community, and the moral education necessary to shape that person into a good participant within that community.7

Because classical citizenship understands the individual in the context of a community, the individual becomes identified with a place and its culture. Aristotle provides such a perspective in his Politics:

The city is thus prior by nature to the household and to each of us. For the whole must of necessity be prior to the part…. For if the individual when separated from it is not self-sufficient, he will be in a condition similar to that of the other parts in relation to the whole. One who is incapable of sharing or who is in need of nothing through being self-sufficient is no part of a city, and so is either a beast or a god.

Within that space, the citizen has a role to play that shapes his sense of duties and responsibilities to the community. The community and the temporal space in which it is located provides both purpose and frame in which to fulfill one’s social role. This is a capacity that the asynchronous nature of social media platforms does not, and cannot, provide.

Unlike online communities that are centered around common interests, the temporal community of the classical citizen is built on a diversity of persons and roles, but unity of purpose. In Aristotle’s analysis of the city, the unity of purpose is the good of the polis.

Christian thought extends this concept of citizenship to describe the emerging culture of the church in the first century. The apostle Paul, for example, describes the Corinthian church as being made of many parts, but being one body: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ…. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” Each member of the church, like in a polis, has a purpose and role to play in the bigger purpose of the community. In the classical conceptualization, both pagan and Christian, citizenship requires both community and purpose to be fully realized and developed. Within that context, conflict resolution and self-control become marks of wisdom and virtue as those who practice such things help build the community, but this is only possible because the community is understood to have a common purpose that demands certain things of its citizens.  

Digital citizenship, on the other hand, cannot create such a community on the Internet writ large, or on individual social media platforms. As a tool of communication, any social media platform is a byproduct, or outgrowth of a community, not a community itself. More broadly, as an infinitely customizable environment, the Internet offers no stable base on which to build a purposeful community. Digital citizenship must therefore view the individual in the context of this environment and adopt an amorphous ethic of individualism, which threatens to remove the concepts of communal purpose and common good in the physical realm from our conception of what a citizen ought to be and do.  Unfortunately, advocates of digital citizenship do not appear to have considered this atomization of the individual and its potential negative impact.

Digital Citizenship: Idea as Technology

For being a more recent term, digital citizenship can mean different things to different people, so for the purposes of my argument, we will use the definition articulated by Mike Ribble, founder of the Digital Citizenship Institute: “Digital citizenship can be defined as the norms of appropriate, responsible behavior with regard to technology use.”8 Ribble further breaks this definition down into nine key elements:

  1. Digital access: full electronic participation in society.
  2. Digital commerce: electronic buying and selling of goods.
  3. Digital communication: electronic exchange of information.
  4. Digital literacy: process of teaching and learning about technology and the use of technology.
  5. Digital etiquette: electronic standards of conduct or procedure.
  6. Digital law: electronic responsibility for actions and deeds.
  7. Digital rights and responsibilities: those freedoms extended to everyone in a digital world.
  8. Digital health and wellness: physical and psychological well-being in a digital technology world.
  9. Digital security (self-protection): electronic precautions to guarantee safety.

Each item could be analyzed individually, but there are a few key observations to be made that are germane to digital communication technology and social media. First, the expectation of full and complete access into a safe online environment (access and rights and responsibilities).

Second, the teaching of and adherence to established “standards of conduct or procedure” (etiquette). Ribble’s definition of digital citizenship, writ large, assumes a participation in and acknowledgment of certain rules of behavior in the online space. Though some of these aspects of digital citizenship would be considered common sense (maintaining one’s privacy and data security, for example), in the areas governing interaction, Ribble’s concept appears to define citizenship in terms of playing by the rules set out by platform designers. Additionally, there is an assumption of full access and participation as a good (communication and commerce).

Though Ribble is not naïve to the drawbacks of using digital technologies, he nonetheless promulgates a perspective of digital technology that assumes its use as good, and therefore worthy of full participation and engagement.

In a way, Ribble participates in a rather optimistic view of the Internet as the great promoter of social understanding and progress. This view is articulated by Eli Pariser: “So when I was growing up in a really rural area in Maine, the Internet meant…a connection to the world. It meant something that would connect us all together. And I was sure that it was going to be great for democracy and for our society.”9

Such a view, which Pariser later goes on to critique, can be referred to as the Utopian Internet Vision. This vision believes that educated individuals, using the Internet, can connect with a diverse range of people and ideas and reach ever deeper levels of understanding and social cohesion. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg also gives credence to this perspective in a reflection on Facebook’s social role: “For the past decade, Facebook has focused on connecting friends and families. With that foundation, our next focus will be developing the social infrastructure for community — for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all.” According to Pariser and Zuckerberg, the Internet, and social media by extension, is supposed to bring people together, not drive them apart. Ribble’s concept of digital citizenship encourages a similar approach to the Internet and online interactions through a “play by the rules” advocacy that calls on all participants to adhere to accepted standards of behavior.

Furthermore, Ribble accepts a number of key assumptions in the Utopian Internet Vision. First, the nine elements of digital citizenship assume a particular type of actor to participate in the online ecosystem. That actor should be educated, aware, etc. It also assumes a basic goodness in humanity: in that if an individual is indeed educated in proper behavior online, they will see the benefit and behave accordingly. Finally, it assumes that participation in this built space is at least on balance a good that all will should benefit from. However, there are two significant problems with these assumptions.

First, by not defining what those accepted standards of behavior are (though to be fair, that would be a monumental task), Ribble ensures that his conception of digital citizenship will be interpreted in light of the accepted norms of individual platforms. So rather than an accepted set of rules and norms to broadly govern online interactions, we end up with a set of Facebook rules, Twitter rules, Pinterest rules, and so on.

This is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. The social mediascape is no different than other public spaces we inhabit in that since they all have slightly nuanced rules of interaction. However, where it becomes troublesome is when this loose, indeed, non-civic conceptualization of citizenship is accepted, imbibed, and taught, and we lose sight of what it truly means to be a citizen in the physical reality of a temporal, local community. Namely, we lose the idea of a shared code of conduct that governs life in a community making it increasingly difficult to encourage moderation in online interactions.

Second, and perhaps more troubling, the assumptions behind digital citizenship encourage a transactional view of citizenship where proper behavior expects a type of reward or compensation. Good digital citizenship is met with being allowed to use the public commons, being given free access to sites and sources, and seeing one’s social profile rise. This transactional citizenship contributes to a secondary problem of atomistic individualism.

In other words, our good is increasingly interpreted in terms of individual experience. We see this in the ongoing love for customizing the online spaces we inhabit and the concept of self-branding. Additionally, two other areas of temporal citizenship are undermined in the digital citizenship concept: ethics and the concept of rights and responsibilities. The former is outsourced to algorithms that tailor our searches and newsfeeds to our expressed interest (via what we have clicked on) and the latter is replaced with an expected right of access. As long as Facebook builds and maintains an environment in which one can interact, then it is Facebook’s responsibility to behave ethically while the end user merely consumes the product.

Carried to its conclusion, digital citizenship as taught and understood currently, lands the individual in one of two worlds. Either citizenship is understood to be merely transactional, or social interaction breaks down to atomistic individualism. Both places are detrimental to human flourishing and community. Digital citizenship may be a helpful analogy to describe an optimal online environment. However, as a normative guide for behavior and interaction, it divests citizenship of real meaning, which can have detrimental impacts on physical communities and one’s sense of belonging. If social media platforms are built environments that tend towards prescriptive, rather than holistic, application and use, we can expect a certain commodification of citizenship and personhood.

This commodification of the citizen leads to a decoupling of one’s sense of belonging from one’s physical space in favor of online spaces. However, those spaces provide a tenuous sense of belonging at best. Differing sub-cultural groups interact and engage in ways that expose the edges of those groups. Seyla Benhabib describes these cultural edges as being amorphous and constantly in flux, which can generate conflict in temporal spaces.10

Social media platforms supercharge this process at the speed of a tweet, exposing cross-cultural conflicts in a context of asynchronous communication that invites “call outs,” trolling, and other forms of harassment, as opposed to relationship building and conversation. Digital citizenship, as a taught concept, seems to have been unable to prevent this even as it shifts our attention away from citizenship as a holistic concept.

The ramifications of this shift away from a holistic understanding of citizenship are philosophical and theological. Philosophically, by separating digital citizenship from temporal citizenship, a wall is erected that would prevent classical concepts of citizenship from offering their wisdom to correct the excesses of the social media space. Theologically, shifting our concepts of citizenship from a holistic to a prescriptive understanding dramatically impacts how Christians can understand what it means to be citizens of the kingdom of God. Digital citizenship, then, is a concept in need of correction. Classical citizenship provides a higher vision for the individual’s relationship with a community and should therefore be reapplied to inform our online interactions.

Beyond Digital Citizenship

Given the observations above, the current concept of digital citizenship needs redefining, but what should take its place in terms of a governing ethic for online interactions? In this section, I turn from the theoretical to the practical to offer some questions and actions for individuals and organizations to consider and implement in bringing a classical understanding of citizenship to bear on their online presence.

Where and what are my local communities? Am I or am I not engaging them, and how?

Local communities can range from places of worship (if they are local to the individual) to volunteer groups to showing up at a city council meeting.11To what degree do we plug into these communities, interact with them, and build relationships within them? What would happen if our newsfeeds were characterized more by commentary on life in our temporal community rather than opinion on issues not immediately related to us?

What values do I share with these communities? How do I cultivate those values?

Do you share a love of teaching the younger generation with your local library? Do you want to help your church improve the lives of the local homeless population? If so, then you can identify some areas of shared values. But it is not enough to share values. Cultivating those values helps build a community of participation and interaction. In the classical model of citizenship, virtue is practiced and measured in our direct interactions with others. In the digital citizenship model, this is a secondary concern, at best, given the asynchronous and heavily mediated nature of online platforms.

Is my learning done with my communities in mind?

We live in the Information Age and are often consuming multiple streams of information on multiple devices simultaneously. What is all that information worth? How do you know you will make good use of it? Thinking about how the information we consume can be put to work for our local communities is a helpful antidote to consumption as an end in itself. It moves our information consumption towards more convivial purposes, to use Illich’s phrase.12

Do my online interactions reflect well on my communities?

This is more of a speculative question that occurred to me only as I started writing this essay. What if I considered my online interactions in light of how they represented my local community to the broader world? Would that improve the tone of my online interactions? Considering I interact with some people online, as well as in the real world, on a regular basis, I think it would. Another way of asking this question: Do people who know me both online and in person see two different personas? If I am Dr. Jekyll in person, but Mr. Hyde online, what does that communicate about my personal integrity to those I work with, do business with, or attend church with?

As we ask and reflect upon the above questions, we should be able to see potential actions emerge that we can take to promote citizenship online.

“Cleaning up (our) acts” online will not be enough.

It is beyond difficult to clean up a thing online once it is done. Once we put information online, it will be forever archived. It is not enough to say “I’ll not do or say that anymore.” Rather, we should be going beyond avoiding vice-like behavior and instead engage in and promote virtuous behavior. This is incredibly difficult in an online environment that can often appear to be overwhelmed with extreme emotional appeals and outbursts. Self-control thus becomes a more important virtue in the online world. Practicing self-control by limiting our online interactions and comments or by waiting a period of time to reflect on an answer before we post are ways we can practice the virtue of self-control online.

This can actually be the practical virtue of blogs. Sites like Mere Orthodoxy that publish fewer but longer pieces that require more time to write require deeper, more reflective thought than the more overheated and reactionary opinion pieces that often populate the clickbait world of platforms like Huffington Post.

Ask Good Questions

Learning to ask questions is another very practical way in which one can exercise self-control in the anger-inducing online environment. In the offline world, asking honest, information-seeking questions signals engaged listening and a desire to engage empathetically.13 This is just as valuable in an online environment, where asking questions of fellow commenters in a discussion thread allows for either engaged conversation, or a safe exit if one chooses not to respond. Either way, conflict is muted, if not avoided outright.

This is a practice I engage in extensively in Facebook comments. When I share or post something that receives a critical reply, my goal is to always ask a question first. Usually it is a question asking for further clarification, or the definition of something. It gives me pause before making assumptions about an individual’s values and motivations, and it gives the other person the opportunity to engage or disengage in the conversation without hostility.

Build online with citizenship, not digital citizenship, in mind

When I say “build,” I mean creating and owning an online space, whether a business, personal blog, or social media profile. Building our own platforms for personal or group use would be using the tools of the Internet and digital communication as holistic technologies as Franklin outlines above. It is the development and use of tools to create and craft with intentionality and purpose. A very good example of this would be the organization, Better Angels. Founded in 2016 with a mission to “depolarize America”, Better Angels utilizes the communication tools of the Internet to bring people of different political persuasion together in physical locations to discuss their differences and learn how to communicate across those differences constructively.

Our online creations are often front-facing projections of ourselves. Whether we are fully comfortable with that reality is beside the point. The fact of the matter is that such is the interpretation the world will give to what we publish. So, we can use that reality to publish and build with the goal of promoting virtue as both idea to be discussed and habit to be practiced in the online space.

Closing Thoughts

There are three immediate areas of the online world that I believe most urgently need an infusion of such citizenship-minded thought and action: marketing, business models, and social platforms.

The generally accepted strategy for Internet-based marketing is heavy content promotion using highly emotionally charged language. This is closely tied to the dominant online business model that is largely measured in terms of clicks and conversions. Though this might work for Google Ads, when it is applied to activities like journalism, it promotes sensationalized reporting that gets supercharged into particularly nasty online interactions. This breaks down the purpose of many social platforms that were originally built to connect people, not drive them apart.

Building online with citizenship and virtue in mind may mean writing new rules about minimal promotion and/or alternative business structures not so reliant on sheer quantity of clicks and manipulative language use. This may be too much to ask at this point in time, but unlike digital citizenship that requires a digital space in which to be practiced, classical citizenship can be practiced now. Perhaps only after rediscovering the wisdom and practice of what it means to be citizens in our physical communities can we more effectively engage our digital spaces.

Tim Milosch is a PhD student in Political Science at Claremont Graduate University. His research interests are in the areas of international relations, political philosophy, cross-cultural communication, conflict resolution, and citizenship.

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  1. Amanda Lenhart, Mary Madden, Aaron Smith, Kristen Purcell, Kathryn Zickuhr, and Lee Rainie, “Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Network Sites,” Pew Research Center, last modified November 9, 2011, http://www.pewinternet.org/2011/11/09/teens-kindness-and-cruelty-on-social-network-sites/.
  2. Ursula Franklin, The Real World of Technology (Toronto: Anansi, 1991).
  3. Mark Zuckerberg, “Building a Global Community,” Facebook.com, posted Febrary 16, 2017, https://www.facebook.com/notes/mark-zuckerberg/building-global-community/10154544292806634/; emphasis original.
  4. Kevin Kelly, editor of Wired magazine presents just such a perspective in this interview: Brett McKay and Kevin Kelly, “The Technological Forces That Are Shaping Our Future,” The Art of Manliness Podcast, last modified January 6, 2017, http://www.artofmanliness.com/2017/01/06/podcast-267-technological-forces-shaping-future/.
  5. “Digital citizenship can be defined as the norms of appropriate, responsible behavior with regard to technology use” according to Mike Ribble, “Nine Elements: Nine Themes of Digital Citizenship,” Digital Citizenship Institute, last accessed November 29, 2017, http://www.digitalcitizenship.net/nine-elements.html.
  6. Garrett Ward Sheldon, The History of Political Theory: Ancient Greece to Modern America (New York: Peter Land, 1988), 20 and 25.
  7. Aristotle, Aristotle’s Politics, 2nd edition, trans. Carnes Lord (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 223. Plato, Republic in Plato: Complete Works, trans. G.M.A Grube, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapoliss: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), 1015 and 1124. In the broader discussion of citizenship, there are discussions to be had on vice and virtue, human nature, and social order. However, for purposes of this essay, I restrict my comments to the citizen as belonging to a community.
  8. Ribble, “Nine Elements.”
  9. Eli Pariser, “Eli Pariser: Beware the Online Filter Bubbles,” TED.com, TED video, 9:04, Filmed March 2011, https://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles.
  10. Seyla Benhabib, Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 7.
  11. It would be important to note here that engaging local communities should not imply bringing our opinions and activism relating to national and international issues to bear in a local setting, but rather to understand our local communities on their own terms and reach outwards.
  12. Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (London: Marion Boyars, 1973), xii-xiii.
  13. Dan O’Hair and Mary Wiemann, Real Communication: An Introduction (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 2012), 162 and 164.

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