Digital citizenship in process: Notes from the Baku IGF

By Anne Collier

I’m sure we’re all pretty aware that the Internet and social media are global, but do we think enough about how digital citizenship has to be global too, then – how, by definition, it’s more a process than a static concept that can be taught? “Digital citizens” of all ages all over the world are co-creating this new sense of citizenship as we’re collectively figuring out how best to use, shape, create, participate in, and regulate social media and the Internet. The jury’s still out, as they say, and we’re the jury.

We’re working out the rights and responsibilities such as access, participation, and freedom of expression, and what it means to be informed, or literate, digital citizens. What are the norms of behavior and what is one a citizen of?

Those are some of the issues discussed by a group of about 50 of us – from age 13 on up and from countries in East Asia, Western and Central Europe, the Caucasus, and North America – in a workshop (one of dozens) at the Internet Governance Forum in Baku, Azerbaijan, last month (here‘s our report). More than half of us actively participated, especially teens and 20-somethings, in a discussion that kept our tireless microphone handler running.

View from various parts of the world

We heard that, in neighboring Georgia, where “citizenship” (by itself, without the digital part) “is a very unfamiliar term” to the older generation, digital citizenship takes the form of civic education – being “engaged in solving local community problems” – and is being discussed in about 30% of the schools, integrating “social media tools” into class work. In Hong Kong, however, “there is no such discussion in school,” we heard from a young Chinese participant. Tech instruction is focused on how to use specific computer applications not on socialization, and there is little if any such discussion in families, he said, suggesting that youth are left more on their own concerning online activities. Even so, a peer of his had helped organize thousands of youth to participate in peaceful protests in Hong Kong using social media.

We heard young people from the UK referring to digital citizenship largely in behavioral terms – how to act online (perhaps because this is how digital citizenship is presented to them in school, as it is to students in many developed countries in school). One said he behaves very differently online and, when asked how so, said, “Cautious. Definitely cautious. Respectful. I take [into consideration] other people’s views. I understand people are from different countries. More respectful and conservative and cautious. Definitely.” On the other hand, a teen from Denmark said he behaves no differently online – the norms he follows online he learned from his peers, parents, and others offline, and from trial and error in online interaction just as everybody learns social norms in everyday life.

Drop the ‘digital’ part?

So we discussed whether the word “digital” shouldn’t just be dropped altogether, what one Western European nonprofit executive said her organization had decided to do, since people everywhere make less and less of a distinction between online and offline life. “For us, ‘digital citizenship’ is not a good term. We actually started talking about ‘citizenship in a digital era’.”

There was great energy to the discussion. As I looked around the room, it was clear that – as we were discussing – we were also practicing and together shaping digital citizenship. I’d be sad to see this dynamic process locked into cement or reduced to a curriculum “taught” in top-down fashion by adults to a single demographic called children. Only logically, doesn’t that dictate, rather than demonstrate, what citizenship is? If nothing else, practitioners of digital citizenship must honor and model citizens’ rights of participation and free expression, right? Tell me if you disagree (please comment or send me an email via anne[at]!

Related links

* Notes from past forums: “Digital citizenship reality check: Notes from Nairobi’s IGF”, “Next stop: Crowd-source digital citizenship”, and “Why digital citizenship’s a hot topic” in 2010
* How a teacher in Washington, D.C., is learning with her students: “5th-graders teaching us about teaching digital citizenship”
* Several ways I could stay in touch from Baku: “The sweetness in social media use”
* “What does ‘safe’ really look like in a digital age?” and what that has to do with digital citizenship
* About the very dynamic learning process called for in a digital age and why: “The whitewater-kayaking kind of learning needed today”

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