Sunday, October 7, 2012

Citizenship in Digital Communities

According to Ohler (2010), “citizenship arises when people gather in groups and inevitably ask the question, “what does it mean to belong here?””  This concept implies an active participation in the group or community. It applies to the physical domain (legal and geographic), to the cultural/social domain (ethnic, belief, common interest), and the electronic (digital) domain. Although not universally true, the social, cultural, and electronic domains are more alike in that people generally choose to be part of a group, either to help define the “what does it mean?”, or because the group appears to have an interesting and compelling journey in answering the “what does it mean?”. The use of the metaphor of citizenship is interesting in the context of these different domains and raises an important question: Is citizenship a function of origin (birth), residence, or behavior (participation)? Further, the follow-on question is: Is it possible for me to be a resident of a community and not a citizen?

For example, we may choose to move into a community for reasons of proximity to schools, church, work, or other communities where friends or family live, and as such, we may not always stop to ask ourselves “what does it mean to belong here?”  Having lived in three different neighborhoods (each for more than a year), without ever knowing my next-door neighbors or those who lived across the street from me, I realize that just being resident in the neighborhood did not necessarily make me a citizen of that neighborhood. What I cared more about was my citizenship in the other communities that I cared about - schools, churches, work, etc. One could argue that I was a citizen, just not a good one. I think it’s possible to be a “resident” without really being a citizen. In this sense, part of the definition of “citizen” must be linked to behavior:  the notion of being actively involved and engaged in answering the question, “what does it mean to belong here?”
Being a resident without being a citizen in any community denotes a sense of isolation. This isolation is lamented by writers such as Naomi Stephan and Patrick Overton.  After the great migration from the farms to the cities in the early days of industrialization, the front porch was where community was built. It was there where stories were shared, values were taught, and citizenship was modeled. But the proliferation of the automobile brought the disappearance of the front porch from the American landscape. Communities were no longer confined to the immediate geography. Mobility brought to us the wonderful opportunity to redefine our community to include those to whom we could drive (and exclude that pesky neighbor whose politics we never agreed with in the first place). 
As the front porch disappeared, our sense of isolation within our own neighborhoods began to rise. Wilkerson, et al (2011) ask an important question about the correlation of “neighborliness” – citizenship – and a “positive physical environment”, including front porches. Ohler (2010) writes about citizenship requiring virtuous behavior, and that our educational processes ought to teach that behavior to digital citizens. There is a very real need to educate both digital immigrants and digital citizens on the need for participation and virtuous behavior in these new digital communities. In essence, we need to take the “front porch” to the digital domain. There needs to be a place (virtual or otherwise) where the transfer of values can take place. In a society where isolation (i.e. being a resident without really being a citizen) has become a growing problem, there is a very interesting question to be answered relative to our digital communities. The question, however, is this: If people have never learned the meaning of citizenship (i.e., participation and virtue) in the physical domain, will they be able to learn and adapt those principles to the digital world? Certainly, the value of face-to-face encounter in the physical domain must be in the teaching (and learning) of responsible, respectful encounter and virtuous participation. Without a paradigm to transfer into the digital world, are these concepts too easily left behind by the unprincipled?
The shift into digital domain changed the nature of our communities in at least nine ways (six "gains" and three "losses"). First, we can be even more selective about our communities. It’s no longer necessary to put up with Aunt Edna at the family reunions just to see our favorite uncle. Now we select our “family friends” on Facebook. Alternatively, we can exclude Aunt Edna from our e-mail distribution list. We only belong to the circles that have the people we want to be “around” in the virtual sense. And if our circle gets too many people who get under our skin, we can just go start a new circle and “forget” to invite them to come along.
Second, by choosing to become a citizen of any community – including our digital communities – we gain the collective embrace and support of the citizens of that community. In addition, we explicitly or implicitly pledge our support of the greater good and adherence to the unspoken rule of order, whatever that may be. Conflicts always arise, however, that test our commitment to the community. The conflict comes when the resolution to a problem has two potential paths forward – one that benefits ourselves but not our community, or one that benefits the greater good of the community in which we live, but not ourselves. So in a sense, we may be forced to become “less of an individual” or “less of a citizen”. It’s a tough choice, and the ramifications to answering this question may not always be obvious.
The third change in nature is the loss of synchronicity. It’s no longer necessary to be there in real time. It only matters that you get around to communicating and responding in a time frame that doesn’t scream “I don’t want to hear from you again!” Loss of synchronicity doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In a world where people are managing multiple digital communities (generally while sitting through a lecture or dinner with the family!), precious little time is given to the art of critical thinking.  The world of “asynchronicity” (not a word, I know) brings the ability to actually think before responding to something or someone – of course, whether we use that ability is something entirely different. But we can be thoughtful, measured, and rational in our approach to communicating. No more “Ready! Fire! Aim!” like so often happens in our speech (at least I’ll speak for myself).
Fourth, we gain the opportunity to transform the way we think of ourselves and therefore the way people perceive us. If we want to be someone slightly different (or even radically different, for that matter!), than who we really are, we have the opportunity to do that. This however, has a disadvantage, because we can lose our ability to have physical encounter with folks, afraid that our physical self won’t match the expectation we’ve set with our digital self.
Fifth, by shifting into the digital domain, we gain by the ability to weave our social and community interaction into our day. Instead of having “dead spots” in our day – unredeemed time waiting in lines, or for the bus, train, or doctor – we’re on-line communicating. This asynchronous communication allows us to manage several communities at one time. In traditional, physical communities, we had to choose between being present at our cousin's birthday party or our best friend's bar mitzvah.
Sixth, we gain access to communities that we could never access before. If Fielding Graduate University didn’t employ the digital domain in its distributed learning model, many of us would never be able to participate in its graduate programs. We couldn’t all move to Santa Barbara, and the cost to commute is too high. Additionally, FGU probably wouldn't have the faculty they have if there was a requirement for everyone to be a citizen of Santa Barbara. But access has a broader, cultural context, as well. We can even reach outside of our culture and invoke cross-cultural experience without having to travel to exotic places and eat things we’re really not interested in eating.
In return for all those gains, or in McLuhan’s terms, “extensions”, we get “amputations” or losses. In the “always-on” digital world, we stay so busy that we lose valuable reflection time. This isn’t necessarily the same as a thoughtful response to someone. This is a crucial part of our critical thinking processes where we question, apply concepts, check our biases, and play things out to their logical conclusions. The result of this behavior (always-on) could very well be a generation of kids who cannot think critically.
The second loss what Ohler (2010) refers to as the loss of meta-information.  Voice inflections, expressions, and perhaps even context. With this loss of meta-information, too much is left to the interpretation of the reader. If the reader is dealing with a personal emotional injury in their life, odds are pretty good that they will interpret messages in that context. What the writer could have meant as a funny note or response could easily be taken as an insult by the reader without that meta-information.
Third, in the digital world, we can lose touch with the physical world. This may not be tantamount to losing touch with reality, but it’s only one step away.  If we lose connectivity with the physical world, we lose face-to-face encounter. Many of our cognitive processes are initiated by our sight. We see faces, body language, beauty, destruction, and a host of other things that aren’t always available in the digital world. But perhaps the amputation that will affect us the most is the loss of touch. Sometimes, there is nothing more communicative, more calming, more comforting, or more affirming, than the touch of another human being. Of all the senses we’re blessed to have, I believe the sense of touch has its greatest impact on our cognitive processes.
As we shift into our digital communities, we need to be mindful of these gains and losses, so that we can maximize the good and minimize the bad of taking up citizenship in the virtual world of the ether. I believe our work as media psychologists may be twofold. First we have a unique position as advisors and counselors to educational institutions and in educational processes.  The need to educate on what it really means to be a responsible citizen is probably never higher than right now – at the very front end of the explosion in digital communities.  Plato said “if you ask what is the good of education, the answer is easy: that education makes good men and that good men act nobly”.  We need to raise a generation of digital citizens who will act nobly. Second is to help citizens understand the implications and the 2nd and 3rd order effects of the tough choices between community promotion and individual promotion.  The ramifications could very well determine how long the digital domain remains a collection of civilized communities.

Cook, Scott (n.d.). The evolution of the Ameerican front porch. Retrieved on 10/4/12 from
Ohler, Jason (2010). Digital community, digital citizen. Thousand Oaks, CA. Corwin
Overton, Patrick (1997). Rebuilding the front porch of America: Essays on the art of community making. PrairieSea.
Stephan, Naomi. Reflections on reflection: or whatever happened to the front porch?  Retrieved on 10/4/12 from
Wilkerson, A., Carlson, N., Yen, I., Michael, Y., (2011). Relationships with neighbors; Does positive physical environment increase neighborliness? Environment and Behavior, 44 (5). DOI: 10.1177/0013916511402058 
McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. Critical Edition, Terence Gordon (Ed.). Berkeley, CA. Gingko Press, Inc.
Martin, Judith (2012). Miss Manners on sentiments in the digital age. Retrieved on 10/7/12 from:


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