Summer has finally arrived here in the north, which means it must be time for me to have to stay inside too much, tapping away at the keyboard, teaching another edition of ED 654 – Digital Citizenship, etc. (AKA Nousion)

The first few weeks of the course are pretty sedate, with Nousionauts selecting and setting up their domains, installing WordPress and learning to post, outfitting their Twitter accounts, etc. But that just gives me even more time to dwell on the heart of darkness in the course: the whole troublesome concept of the retronym “digital citizenship.” What is it? Does it even exist? Does the prefix “digital” do anything useful?

Like “digital pedagogy,” I think digital citizenship, if it has any meaningful existence, is a function of the differential space between what can be done—and how we can live and be—in and amongst the digital that isn’t possible outside or deprived of it. Also like digital pedagogy, this seems more like a nice philosophical idea to muse about than one with a practical existence. Where such differentiation is being articulated, it seems firmly rooted at the safety and procedures stage of what Katia Hildebrandt and Alec Couros called Digital Citizenship 1.0.

Don’t get me wrong: citizenship is very clearly a thing beyond rules and policies. Joel Westheimer’s framework, which is a course reading, articulates just one of many ways in which citizenship can be conceived as process, agency, identity, collaboration, etc. I’ve just not seen, or figured out, anything which convinces me that the “digital” prefix is particularly useful beyond the 1.0 level.

This seems illustrated by the common conception when teaching about digital citizenship (and I use it too) that there is a kind of series, increasing in sophistication and importance, from digital skills to digital literacy to digital citizenship (with many permutations that modify the prefix—digital or web or information, oh my). But this often strikes me as categorical confusion, particularly at this model’s third stage, and beyond (fluency, anyone?) because it feels true to my experience that the divide between literacy and fluency or skills/literacy and citizenship marks a deep difference in kind.

Perhaps digital citizenship is simply useful as a term to avoid overloading those other terms, which is part of my argument for the using the phrase information fluency. But in that case I continue to feel that the difference isn’t the digital part, but the citizenship part: the part of being a passive or active, a less or more informed, a more or less visible person-in-the-world, some of which is potentially enhanced by technology, but is also often wounded by it.

I don’t have anything cogent to say about it but Bonnie Stewart’s recent thoughts on digital identity and citizenship (see also: the Facebook thread) resonate with me. Or at least strike the cracked bell in my head and heart that sounds so infrequently. To the extent that I understand Bonnie’s insight (and her response to my request for an “Explain it Like I am Five” version, “we don’t make a better society just by making ourselves better,” helps) I have to agree. In my own digital citizenship class I have often stressed that the “me” aspect of digital citizenship was only as healthy as the “we” (though I try not to be so twee in my phrasing). The self/I of identity is necessarily soft and shifting sand given how our identities—and here I reveal my 90s nature—are contingent, collaborative, always becoming creations.

Not unrelated, Alan Levine’s comment in which observes that “we seem to care more how we are seen than showing who we are. I see it in retired bloggers who bemoan a lack of ‘audience’. I see it in writing to be seen rather than writing for writing.” I’m probably being too sensitive all the way around, but since I am both a (mostly) retired blogger and feel like I recently, and inadvertently, insulted Alan on this very topic, I want to note that the phenomenon he is observing has many levels. If “audience” is a thing that can be passively measured with head-counts or hit-clicks, then “being seen” is the thing…and the audience is just a thing. But the “lack of audience” I bemoan is more verb than noun, it only exists through the conversation (and interrogation)…and that can only happen when there is an audience with which to converse. I’m sure my vision is blurred by hazy notions of the good old days, but the ubiquity and ease of what we already call “traditional” social network sites has greatly expanded—and deeply fractured—the audience. Which I “bemoan” not because of stats but because it has gutted the extent and level of conversations. And that happens not because such conversations can’t happen in these spaces but because the platforms aren’t oriented toward conversation or collaboration, but toward signalling and declamation. It’s possible to have significant, extended conversation in a loud bar full of people at every stage of inebriation and sobriety—and it’s possible to write fine poems from solitary confinement or create new melodies while shackled to a chain—but it’s hard to argue that such environments don’t make it harder and less likely. And I bemoan that.

The simplest and most useful rule for productivity1, where “something” can be an action of any kind:

1. Ask yourself what will happen if you ignore something. If nothing, or nothing important, or no one cares, then do so.

And the corollary:

1a. Ask yourself what will happen if you stop doing something. If nothing, or nothing important, or no one cares, then do so.

It’s astounding how many things fall into one of these categories.


  1. Note: I’m defining “productivity” here as “helping me get things done that make me happy(ish).”