It’s Time We Normalize Digital Citizenship

April 13th, 2021 | 4:49 pm

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Why I founded a Digital Citizenship company — and how this concept can change our world.

Citizenship is a concept that has been discussed as far back as Ancient Rome — and has three main dimensions.

  • The first is the legal status of being a citizen, which is defined by rights, where the citizen is a legal person free to act according to the law and in turn, enjoying the law’s protection.
  • The second dimension is citizenship as a political agent — someone who actively participates in the society’s political institutions.
  • The third is the most obscure, psychological dimension of citizenship that deals with belonging to a community.

There is a lot of philosophical discussion around citizenship that has been taking place with renewed interest for the last thirty years. There are two main models of citizenship — one that focuses on the political agency of the citizen and one that focuses on citizenship as a legal status, meaning that citizens enjoy the legal protection of their status, but rarely exercise their political agency in shaping their society. In the real world, the latter is more prominent. But the frontier of digital citizenship remains young and full of opportunities to empower digital citizens to shape the “digital society.”

Becoming a Citizen

People are shaped by the values and moral unity of their society. First, these values come from the family, then they are reinforced in schools, sports teams, religious environments, etc. Gender roles, society roles and “schemas” are programmed into us — here is how to behave in this situation, here is what to do in that situation. When a citizen breaks the law, they break the social contract — the trust between them and society. That’s why there are consequences to crime — not only to punish the criminal, but also to set an example for everyone else. These consequences feel real and have real implications for our reputations, our future and our position in society.

Enter the Internet. A society all of its own — with few laws and no clear governing body. That was part of the plan — to have a space where all forms of expression were allowed. The Internet presuposed the active political agent model of citizenship — online users were expected to be self-governing, carrying the moral responsibility and boundaries of the physical world into their online interactions.

But something else was happening. The comfort of an alias and internet avatar gave a home for some of the most vile and abhorrent human behaviour. The most common examples of this are cyberbullying and online toxicity, especially towards particular groups of people with specific identities. The self-governance is not enough and while anonymity is slowly disappearing online, there are still very few consequences to our cyber actions. Unfortunately, the damage done is usually private, even if the harassment is out in the open. Unlike a broken window or a stolen car, the evidence of misbehaviour is subtle. Microaggressions are shrugged off. Toxic behaviors are passed off for inside jokes. Cyberbullying is under-reported. You gotta be cool with taking “banter” or else you are tagged as soft.

Grassroots Digital Communities

So what do we do? Police the Internet? Or can we take a grassroots, bottom-up approach and build up supportive digital communities for foster citizenship, empower identity and expression and cultivate a sense of safety? When I started ÉLEVEY, I wanted to focus on three C’s that are foundational to digital citizenship for me: cyberbullying, cyberdependence and cybersecurity. Our first step into this new venture has been exploring a collection of clothes that would mix art and gaming to spread a message about positivity and growth. ÉLEVEY is a digital citizenship company that is meant to attract and empower people who want to be themselves on the internet, to raise each other up and cultivate an inclusive online experience. Built on mutual trust, these communities have the power to change someone’s online experience, and that’s what we’re after. One positive digital experience at a time, we want to normalize integrity and equality. It starts with moderated communities, open and difficult conversations, fair and consistent consequences.

As we head into step 2 of ÉLEVEY, I’d love to hear your thoughts on digital citizenship and what we can do to help.