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We need to get going with the digital citizenship instruction that will help us live together, learn from our mistakes and move on (online and offline) in the very public digital age.

By Anne Collier

Readers, this is turning out to be a series on digital citizenship, because the “Jessi Slaughter” story powerfully illustrated why and how much this baseline online-safety education is needed. Yesterday in Part 1, I looked at the kind of online behavior that citizenship lessons need to address and how we can help our children avoid it. Today: the goal of citizenship instruction, which hopefully starts the minute a social digital device is put in a child’s hands (or in preparation for that!)….

The “global village” is increasingly mirrored on the living Internet – the one that we the users update in real time with our thoughts, images, behavior, sociality, and productions. I hadn’t thought about the overused global-village metaphor in a while, but it resurfaced at the end of an important piece about “The End of Forgetting” in the New York Times Magazine yesterday – what it calls “the first great existential crisis [and I’d add most basic parenting crisis] of the digital age.” What we all, including and maybe especially parents, are being called on to consider is, what the indelible memory of the social Internet – if it remains indelible – does to something civilization has long valued: redemption, the chance to change or even reinvent ourselves.

The fundamental fear

Consciously, or not, whether we’re hearing about young people being tagged in inappropriate photos, texting or posting mean comments, or exploring identity in obscure sites or virtual worlds, we are deeply and justifiably worried that they won’t have a chance to learn from their mistakes and move on. Is the Internet taking second chances away from our kids?

“It might be helpful for us to explore new ways of living in a world that is slow to forgive,” Times Magazine writer Jeffrey Rosen suggests. He explores technologies in place and in development which help users erase search strings, conversations, emails, and other pieces of our digital footprints. Great: those will be helpful and may become ubiquitous. They may help us erase mistakes and do better spin control, but will they help us achieve forgiveness? Will they help us transform? Heavy questions, I know. But the answers have never felt so remote, and this – to me – is one explanation for all the fear associated with our children’s use of social media.

Back to the ‘global village’

But besides technology, and I think much more far-reaching, is the human piece of the solution – as Rosen put it, “new ways of living in a [digital] world.” That’s where “digital citizenship” comes in: It opens up some space in classrooms and in families for us to do this exploring and find ways to live together and function in communities of the digital sort.

“The central task of citizenship is learning how to be good to one another,” I’ve quoted writer A.J. Patrick Liszkiewicz as saying. We have to develop – and I believe we already are slowly doing so – the social norms for living under these newly out-of-[our-]control conditions that are creating a global village in the sense that, in terms of communication and information distribution, time and distance have shrunk to nearly nothing. Redemption, forgiveness, the ability to move on come from humanity, not technology.

An ancient social norm

In the Times Magazine, Jeffrey Rosen points to an example in ancient times: “In the villages described in the Babylonian Talmud … any kind of gossip or tale-bearing about other people – oral or written, true or false, friendly or mean – was considered a terrible sin because small communities have long memories and every word spoken about other people was thought to ascend to the heavenly cloud. (The digital cloud has made this metaphor literal.)… Although the Talmudic sages believed that God reads our thoughts and records them in the book of life, they also believed that God erases the book for those who atone for their sins by asking forgiveness of those they have wronged. In the Talmud, people have an obligation not to remind others of their past misdeeds, on the assumption they may have atoned and grown spiritually from their mistakes.”

A perfect example of a social norm that developed in order to allow people to live together and change – what 11-year-old “Jessi Slaughter” now needs and deserves and what anyone making mistakes (whether or not there’s guidance or support at home or school) while living with the relentless recall and in the close non-physical proximity of the digital age. As I wrote above, I believe such norms are developing, but this is a messy, unnerving transition time we’re in that requires a little more vigilance and a lot more tolerance, I feel, on everybody’s part. Which is why digital-citizenship education is as urgent as it’s important – why citizenship needs to be turned into a verb.

In other words, at the individual level where we all operate (in homes and classrooms), the goal is to turn users (of all ages) into stakeholders in their own and their communities’ wellbeing. Stakeholders are active, conscious participants. So at the societal level, the goal of digital citizenship is to create the positive social norms of the social Web – actively, consciously, respectfully, and collaboratively – as citizens.

Related links

* Of spin control: “Trend: Users monitoring their own privacy online,” about the new category of reputation-monitoring products – SafetyWeb, Bynamite, etc. – aimed at correcting digital footprints. Some consider them part of the monitoring category of parental-control technologies, but they’re just as much for the broad and growing swath of Net users concerned about reputation, privacy, or spin control, and they’re only one category of the technologies Rosen describes in his article. He also looks at footprint-erasing technologies.
* For a bit more on how good citizenship is protective (and why it’s a verb): “How to teach Net safety, ethics, security? Blend them in!”
* Past writing on users as stakeholders: “Who’s in charge in virtual worlds?“, “From users to citizens,” and “the guild effect
* “Social norming: *So* key to online safety”

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