Practicing Digital Citizenship, Part I: The Internet is Not Free

I have a confession to make: I have not been a good digital citizen. “What do you mean?” you may say. No, I am not a hacker or otherwise engaging in illegal practices online. My perversion is more subtle, even if also destructive. For the most part, I am an online freeloader, taking more than I give, more interested in knowing than being known, snooping rather than engaging, judging rather than dialoguing. I may not behave this way in the offline world, but here, this behavior is rampant. I have not practiced good digital citizenship, and this must change.

Ever since the beginning of the Internet in the mid-90’s, users have approached its content as free. Just think about how many subscriptions and books you would have to buy prior to the Internet in order to be as informed as you are today. The instant access to worldwide information is undoubtedly a gift. Yet, it is certainly not free of cost. There is a large infrastructure of computer, servers, network cables, routers and many other devices that make that possible. Furthermore, there is tremendous cost in human hours that it took to select, write, design, film, program and publish the content we see at our fingertips. On top of that, it is becoming increasingly evident how companies use the information we freely give in their platforms for profitable gains.

Clearly what we perceive as free of cost is certainly not free of value.

The freeloader mentality that permeates our Internet and social media usage ignores this reality, treating all of it as a free source of information for us to explore to our whims. Because we don’t understand the cost, we devalue it, abuse it, and even complain about it. We may be willing to pay big bucks for devices that we can hold in our hands, but not so much for goods that only exist in our screen.

The first step to changing this mentality is recognizing both the cost to produce and the value of the content that exists online. By this, I don’t mean that apps and platforms should charge for access. It does mean we should approach it differently. There is a cost in producing, and there is also a cost in consuming.

Spending time online, either giving or receiving information, means not spending time doing something else. Time, unlike money, is a resource we cannot recover.

Also, how we spend the time online matters. Mindlessly scrolling through a feed with hundreds of updates for 10-15 minutes is very different from spending that time reading informative articles in sites like SuperPosition. All self-promotion aside, the point is that recognizing the cost should help us become more intentional about our online habits. This is the first step towards becoming a better digital citizen.

Reality Changing Observations:

1. How many hours do you spend online (Internet, social media, computer and phone) a day?

2. Do you think you have been a good digital citizen? How so?

3. Can you list other hidden costs in the digital world? How does recognizing those costs affect your online behavior?

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