Digital Citiz-wait, what?

I have a confession to make. I’m … a Millennial. I grew up with the internet, I learned how to use AOL as a kid, I have had private email since I was ten years old, and I can maintain 4-5 separate chats like a boss. My first personal website was through Geocities, and I created it in 5th grade. I’ve been consistently blogging since I was thirteen. I didn’t get my first cell phone until I was 16 and had a part-time job to pay the bill, but I knew plenty of kids at school who had them. And before that they had pagers.

So I always find this concept of “digital citizenship” a bit bizarre. Like, there was never a concept of “playground citizenship” or “book citizenship” or … I dunno, whatever else you might think of in terms of citizenship other than a person’s legal status in a country. And there are no consistent ways of qualifying digital citizenship or restricting someone’s abilities online based on their “citizenship” status, so this is a horrible, horrible metaphor.

Let me explain.

Bullying. There is cyber bullying, but there is also face-to-face bullying and passing-notes bullying and social exclusion. These things predate the internet, and teaching kids about cyber bullying is not teaching them about proper use of the internet. It’s about teaching them to be decent human beings.

Copyright. Omg, everyone who used Napster and Limewire and Bittorrent knew (or knows) exactly what they were doing. And they didn’t care. And photocopying significant portions of books at the public library is illegal under copyright law, but the libraries still supply photocopiers (or now more often scanners). Students who commit plagiarism generally know exactly what they are doing (sure, there are some who don’t know how to properly paraphrase but there’s a huge difference between not properly citing something and not citing it at all or paying someone else to write your paper). We can educate people out the wazoo about what is legal in using or sharing copyrighted works, but they’re going to do the illegal things anyway and it isn’t limited to digital formats.

[Side note: During a recent iMovie training that I began with a talk on copyright and Creative Commons, omitting academic fair use because I didn’t want the students’ brains to explode, I asked what types of materials is it okay to use without obtaining permission first, and the very first answer was “Anything that comes up in a Google search.” Which screams of ignorance about how copyright works on the internet, but I distinctly remember all of the pictures in my elementary and middle school reports being photocopies of the pictures and illustrations from books that I most definitely did not obtain permission to use, so yeah, not really.]

Etiquette. It is difficult to convey tone with the written word. Even the best writers of the modern age are “interpreted”, with many interpretations possible, because of this. And in a quick email or discussion forum post, it is so easy to not effectively communicate one’s thoughts. Which leads to flame wars and people being offended and all sorts of misunderstandings on the internet. And in the semi-anonymity of being online, or complete anonymity of having a username not connecting to one’s identity, it is far too easy to go overboard with name-calling, rude comments, and the occasional trolling.

This, perhaps, is the one thing unique to the internet, but even then it is not ignorance of how to use the medium. A troll knows they’re being a troll. The issue is that it provides opportunities people otherwise might not encounter unless they happen to be members of the British Parliament or comedians. (My favorite moment from a House of Commons debate was when one MP simply said, “You, sir, are an idiot.” It was glorious and I wished Congress could be as direct.)

So here, again, it is not an issue of teaching netiquette and digital citizenship. It’s about teaching people to be decent human beings and to use blunt speech and insults only in contexts where they are appropriate (some might say there are no contexts, but that is a very different debate). And maybe work on basic writing skills.

I often feel as though the concept of digital citizenship is an attempt to frame the culture of the internet age in terms those uncomfortable with it can grasp. And it strikes me as yet another way to point to the otherness of youth.

Just look at the way activism is viewed in the Millennial generation. We aren’t perceived as active enough because we don’t protest in person, but I was at the New York City protests against the impending Iraq War on 2/15/03. That protest, and the protests held around the world that day, didn’t accomplish a thing besides give me a sore throat. You know what has accomplished something? The Predditors Tumblr. The It Gets Better Project. And Twitter played a major role in the Arab Spring.

When the campaigning POTUS does a reddit AMA and small children can figure out how to use the iPhone, it’s a sign of the times. We’re already digital citizens. We were born here.