Internet and Digital Citizenship

The Internet is a can of worms.

My mother recently mail-ordered a box of shoes off of the Internet. She has done this several times in the past and has overall been reasonably happy with the experience. This time, however, was different. Not only were the shoes she ordered uncomfortable, but she couldn’t even get her foot into one of them. Think Cinderella’s stepsisters: doesn’t fit no matter what you do.

After this experience, we had a conversation in which I mentioned that maybe she should post a comment about the problem on the Internet, so that future buyers wouldn’t be faced with the same problem. Her response was almost immediate: “You aren’t going to guilt me into writing a review.” This response intrigued me and I found myself asking, “What is it that immediately made her jump to talking about guilt?” Is there an expectation for how we are supposed to behave in relation to our interactions with the Internet world? Is there some evaluation of “moral good” that my mother would be transgressing by not writing a review? And perhaps most succinctly, if you use the information on the Internet are you responsible for contributing to it?

This simple question opened up several lines of inquiry. Should people be responsible and identifiable for what they write on the Internet? When is it ok, necessary and/or wrong to be anonymous? Is it better to contribute fewer quality reviews or provide more aggregatable ratings? What about biased information? What is the role and responsibility of curating systems limiting or expanding what people see?

I think the answer to these questions and many others besides is tied to our expanding and ever-changing ideas of what it means to be a digital citizen. Much like in the real world, a “good citizen” obeys the social and the legal laws put in place by the communities they engage with. Or at least the laws that they think are important and carry a penalty that outweighs the advantages of not doing so (think about speed limits). The problem with the citizen analogy is that we don’t elect people to represent us on the Internet and protect us the way we do in the real world. Social shaming might occur for egregious transgressions, but this can too quickly get out of hand and break etiquette rules.

It can be a far cry for some from mail-ordering shoes to revising our paradigm of Internet participation and digital citizenship. For others it’s just another can of worms they would rather leave closed. If we leave it out of sight and out of mind it can’t hurt us, right? Maybe not but let’s not forget the tragedy of the commons, the “theory of a situation within a shared-resource system where individual users acting independently and rationally according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users.” That sounds strangely similar to the current state of the Internet, doesn’t it?

I won’t claim to have any solid responses to these questions, but I do believe that this is a  problem for all of us. Whether you are a philosopher, economist, legal expert, artist or scientist the Internet is a commons in which we all interact and which is continually becoming an integrated resource we can hardly live without. Thankfully we have the Internet available to help us solve this problem. So let’s take some of these worms and go fishing.