The Crosshairs of the Split Hairs: #digciz

This week, Mia Zamora and I are kicking off #digciz 2017 with a conversation about digital citizenship, and what it means in a world wherein “the digital” is increasingly a delivery system for surveillance and spectacle and amplified uncertainty.

(Or maybe that’s just my take. Maybe it’s different in your world. Maybe you see it differently? I would pay big cash money to see it differently so I am open to being invited over. Please note I actually have no big cash money.)

In any case, the month of June will be a #digciz-fest of epic proportions *if* y’all come out and play, and Mia and I have the privilege of leading us all out of the gate with a few provocations and a #4wordstory conversation about what good citizenship means in participatory spaces.

Here’s my opening salvo. :) (I’m a bit of a shit about the word “citizenship”…)

Grumpy Cat, ultimate Digital Citizen, makes the perfect Rorschach Test for your own interpretations of digital citizenship! Is he saying:

a) Even online, we are all people. Kumbay-effing-yah.
b) Digital citizenship sucks because people. People suck.
c) It is irritating to even have this conversation. Stop being a digital dualist.
d) All of the above?

I myself am still not entirely sure. A little over a month ago, I wrote up a talk on citizenship and identity that I didn’t manage to explain very articulately…and got comments like it was 2008 up in here.


Or rather: publish half-baked lightbulb moments more often, *if* you like the hit of attention/engagement/validation that comments apparently still provide, even years after blogs were supposed to be dead.

(Disclosure: I am actually that person who likes the hit of attention/engagement/validation that comments apparently still provide, just if there were any questions. But we do not acknowledge that publicly, do we? Because decorum. Or the games we play around palatable identities in an attention economy.)

Only my discomfort with totally half-baked posts – or the rarity of lightbulb moments in my life – will save y’all from wanton comment-chasing, folks.

Which brings me back to the actual lightbulb moment that I’d had in the middle of that talk I tried to write up.

Digital platforms and digital affordances – underpinned by the capitalist enclosure of participatory digital spaces over the last decade or so, with its surveillance and metrics and constant advertising of reductive versions of our identity back to us – do NOT lend themselves to good digital citizenship, in the sense that they do not foster a space I would actually want to be a citizen of, to whatever (limited) extent the citizenship model holds when conceptualized in the border-free digital realm.

They do not lend themselves to good digital citizenship because they shape and direct human behaviour in ways that privilege capital and circulation and extremes, rather than, say, collaboration or empathy. Or even just being alone with one’s thoughts.

They increasingly shape the logic of our learning spaces to Silicon Valley’s concept of what that should be. Spoiler: that tends to be “individualism, neoliberalism, libertarianism, imperialism, the exclusion of people of color and white women.”

They foster spectacle and scale and virality and dogpiles and dragging and while there are moments of justice and glory in it all, at its logical endpoint it’s a Hunger Games.

(Wait. Mixed my dystopias.)

Of course, if you’re reading this, chances are good you don’t live in that web, that digital space. Humans have agency. Technologies or platforms are not determinist. I read my comments section. Got it.

Most of the people who’ll ever click on this post will come to it through the variety of still-quite-participatory communities that form my network, and our collective constellation of “digital” remains very much not-entirely-subsumed by capitalism and spectacle. We resist. We share. We care.

My research was really clear about the caring, the ways in which we make ourselves vulnerable to each other, even in the strange collapsed contexts of academic Twitter.

I’d venture that in most digital spaces that build any sense of ongoing community over time, people do the same. That‘s why I’m a bit of a shit about citizenship.

The web, and the capacity of strangers to receive my words – all of them, even the ugly ones or the half-baked ones or the things I couldn’t say out loud – once gave me back some sense of myself as being able to contribute to a world I wanted to live in.

It gave me a sense of being a citizen – in the rights and responsibilities sense, in the belonging sense – of something I was invested in more than I’ve ever, frankly, been invested in the concept of Canada as a nation-state (no matter how much Trump has done recently to make me appreciate that particular concept and its vulnerability, AHEM).

But the operations of scale and visibility and capital – especially capital – mean that our platforms keep creeping up on us, shifting, creating all kinds of insidious ways to monetize our caring and our sharing and in doing so, shape how we relate to each other…and in the long run, who we get to be in relation to these digital spaces.

And nope, #NotAllPerformativity is negative and #NotAllSoCalledSlacktivism is empty, but platform-based and -driven behaviours that shape our sense of personal identity should be things we’re watching WAAAAY more closely than we seem to know how. Not just because we may be frogs boiling slowly towards whatever Mark Zuckerberg’s end game of world domination may be…but because polarization seems to be eating us alive, as a broader society, online and off.

The fracturing of social bonds and security is not digital. The inequality and uncertainty at the root of it is not digital.

But it all leaves us…confronted. Constantly confronted.

And the digital amplifies our confrontedness.

The digital demands constant signalling. Other people’s signalling confronts us. We create spaces to bond over that confrontedness. Performative wokeness devolves into factionalism. White supremacy festers its way into the open.

This seems to be the yearbook quote of humanity confronted by virtue signalling:

And then, as a FB friend quipped in the thread under my earlier identity/citizenship post…we get caught “in the crosshairs of the split hairs.” THAT.

I think THAT should be 2017’s yearbook quote.

And because we are human, we don’t even always completely notice the way our identities are being shaped by our social environments and what they naturalize…THEY JUST BECOME OUR REALITY.

So…what can we do? How can we envision and work toward something better? What kinds of civic and social spaces do we want, online?

Tell us your #4wordstories of what YOU want, using the hashtag #digciz.

The conversation will unfold for 48 hours or so, through June 1st. Or whenever we’re done. Our goal is to get a sense of what people think digital citizenship can be, but also to hash out some of the constraints and realities that shape what it is, for most of us. And what works. What we could be aiming for, as a model of human engagement.

Just a little model for human engagement. You know. Shoot the moon. ;)

21 Comments The Crosshairs of the Split Hairs: #digciz

  1. Sherri

    Somewhere between tearing up and raising my activist fist, I’m just so grateful to be one of those people who followed the link, thinks she gets what you’re saying but is probably also missing mounds, and is really, really glad that she read this now and didn’t mind writing a run-on sentence of epic proportions to say, yeah, we’re losing but we’re winning (a little) and thank you, my god, thank you.

  2. Vanessa Vaile

    How could I have overlooked spectacle as part of this conversation? Especially after sharing Theresa McCarthy’s “How do we defeat the spectacle?” post + more spectacle links.

    Talk about the elephant in the living room, the dead body on the couch.

    …that and reading/collecting way too much on digital media, which, instead of just distorting it, has become the news. Our contemporary version circuses. No bread, too bad.

    Then I realized how uncomfortable I am with the terms, “good citizenship” and “participatory spaces.” The word citizenship oozes Latin imperialism, colonialism. Read Cicero on the humanitas of the good citizen:

    “if fate had given you authority over Africans or Spaniards or Gauls, wild and barbarous nations, you would still owe it to your humanitas to be concerned about their comforts, their needs and their safety.”

    So I thought about other words and wonder how much and what kind of loading goes into all of them.

    1. Chris Lott

      ‘Then I realized how uncomfortable I am with the terms, “good citizenship” and “participatory spaces.” The word citizenship oozes Latin imperialism, colonialism’

      –So much this. ^^

      1. bon

        Late to my own comments because it’s been a weird week in my own digital citizenship but I completely agree…I’m interested in citizenship only really as a way of thinking about the commons, the collective, something beyond the individuated experiences that platforms tend to focus on and draw attention to. I feel like citizenship is a flawed and fraught frame for the parallels and explorations we’re trying to build…except literally I can’t come up with a better one, so I’m willing to go along with this one for now.

        My premise is that the design of most (cough ** capitalist ** cough) platforms encourages us to focus on metrics, on scale, on visibility…but if EVERYONE fully absorbs those messages we end up with a shared space that frankly, sucks. And for the most part, at least those of us in academic Twitter – who are colonized by other internalized prestige economies more than we sometimes are by money, even though many of us are precarious – tend NOT to engage entirely in line with the prompts of the platforms. which is great. we have microcultures that have some really positive elements to them, where people genuinely experience care and camaraderie and intellectual engagement, at least to an extent and at least some of the time. Sometimes more of the time than we do in our own f2f collegial environments, if we even have those.

        But it’s fraught…and at least for me, the online elements are getting harder to sustain my own engagement in as the commons discussions get increasingly crowded out by spectacle.

  3. Maha Bali

    “The fracturing of social bonds and security is not digital. The inequality and uncertainty at the root of it is not digital.

    But it all leaves us…confronted. Constantly confronted.”

    I’m agreeing here and wondering why you used “confronted” (passive) rather than “confronting”? For some of us to be confronted, others must be doing the confronting and also the opening ourselves up to what others are doing. I’m not saying this to split hairs, but because I *think* you might be building towards asking how much agency we have in those digital spaces to be the citizens we intentionally are trying to be, rather than the citizens we find ourselves being in reaction to what we are confronted with. Or maybe it’s not what you’re saying at all.
    I’m wondering how much agency we had as citizens offline before all this digital stuff and I honestly think about my context and how little agency we had 30 years ago. And I’ll take all the bad because I get more options now. But I am constantly worried about the worst of the bad for the least privileged of us, and how our responsibilities as citizens is not only personal but collective…

    1. bon

      Thanks for this, Maha…

      I mostly used “confronted” because I think that’s the side of the equation people have problems managing. Of course, our actions have effects on others. Some of us do a better job living our lives as if that mattered to us than others do…but most of us get more upset by others’ impact on us than by ours on them. Unless we’re agonizing over a particular decision or confrontation (I do that)…but even then I’m probably oblivious to the twelve or twenty times a day I cause others to feel confronted because I’m driving too slow or driving too fast or asking too many questions or wearing my hair too weird or being too agreeable (ha!) or not being agreeable enough. So not really about agency so much as just…the ways we rub up against the world and are understood by others.

      I’m talking here not about our core relationships – but about the fact that increasing diversity on multiple axes and increasing relationality due to social media (ie just having day to day encounters with more ppl) means we’re confronted by MORE. And it’s hard.

      Being confronted is about others not meeting OUR expectations and often – if we’re healthy – we won’t even know or care that we haven’t met others’ casual expectations of us in casual encounters….but they may still carry issues with us due to those casual encounters.

  4. Keith Hamon

    Thanks for this, Bonnie. To my mind, this is a core issue, and you seem to ask the right questions: “What kinds of civic and social spaces do we want, online?” This is worth answering, and I look forward to #digciz.

    Still, I can’t help but pick up a wistful note in your writing of a time when the Net gave you a sense of “being able to contribute to a world I wanted to live in.” The Net is certainly more crowded now with economic, social, and political interests—many of which I find offensive—but I think we can still create spaces that we might want to live in. Rhizo14/15/16 has been such a space for me, despite a troll or two and some sputters.

    I also sense some frustration with the constant confrontations with other forces on the Net and with the difficulty of understanding how these forces shape our identity, often insidiously; yet, this often onerous engagement seems to me to be the very crux of humanity and all other complex, living systems: how to find a space that works for us. Edgar Morin says that this is one of the defining features of life and, therefore, unavoidable. The tension between trying to define ourselves and our spaces at the same time as the space is defining itself and us eventually defines both, but it can be a most distressing birth and emergence. In the long run, this struggle for autonomy within the constraints of our dependence seems to be about the only thing worth doing.

    And it isn’t limited to the virtual world we’ve created. Eduardo Kohn’s wonderful book How Forests Think details how natives of the rain forest (both human and non) must engage the forest in a sometimes fierce and game-changing struggle. It seems no one is exempt, not even in Eden.

    So let’s talk about this space we are creating. It is defining us even as we define ourselves, and we are woefully unaware of how it defines us. We will all benefit if we can be even a little more aware. I really look forward to this conversation, and I thank you and Mia for starting it.

    1. bon

      Keith, I wanted to truly take enough time to digest this and honour its contribution…but that made me slow in responding.

      I don’t know if I’m wistful…I agree we can still create spaces that are worthwhile. The ones that were particularly life-changing for me happened to be at a time in the past, that will not come again…but that’s not to say they can’t or won’t for others. The past tense is just me being factual.

      I think the tone you’re picking up around the “confrontedness” part of this is less frustration than panic…I’m trying to diagnose what I’m swimming in, and sometimes drowning in. Not just in the digital, but in many aspects of the world around me, where people default to defending and rationalizing their instinctive reaction, rather than considering what overall effect – what commons – it contributes to. I’m not saying I don’t do this too. But I’m trying to unpack it, because the complexity isn’t going to go away, I don’t think.

  5. Josh Weale

    Stumbling on a gem like this is what keeps me scrolling through my feeds. So I thank you…and blame you :)

    1. bon

      I more or less agree. So let’s take that as a starting place. What then? What next? What freedoms do you imagine and how do they operate?

      1. Simon Ensor

        Let’s take this conversation as a starting place.

        I would say that there never has been means such as these to weave dialogue such as this across frontiers, nor such a lens by which we can see humanity, neither such a metaphor/or reality of global connectedness, individual power, of mass movement of openness of imprisonment.

        Individual narcicism is threatened by the absurd scope for narcicism.

        We are left alone together with uncomfortable, gnawing questions.

        We have the means to share such questions widely like never before.

        Materialism is under threat.

        That is a potential space of freedom.

        I would say that the nature of FB and Twitter with their streams and likes are not conducive to deepening of dialogue.

        They distract more than they aid reflection.

        They numb more than they awaken.

        They alienate as much as they enable people to “find themselves in others.”

        Fake news, harassment, tribal trolling are products of these platforms.

        They reinforce people in their biases, their echo chambers, they are pressure cookers for fantasies.

        I don’t think you can have ISIS without such platforms.

        Fascism thrives in these spaces.

        Streams are a powerful means to accerate connections for better or for worse, and raise levels of stress, aggression.

        On writing this, I would say that we need to be well grounded, rounded, mindful and contemplative to nurture spaces of care, cooperation, creativity, while concentrating on who and what constitutes our local contexts.

        I worry that academia with its international networks becomes or should I say remains a refuge from those less privileged, less able to play congenial games of “scrabble”.

        NOT being engaged with people unlike us is a cop out.

        It is not enough to have Mastodon life-boats for the few while the mass are locked in SS Facebook.

        So I suppose that is where we have a responsibility as citizens to educate ourselves and others on the deals we are making with Silicon Valley and to imagine others – that is a space of freedom.

        I would say that we would do better to deepen bonds, reflection and dialogue with a few rather than broadcast to the many.

        A few doesn’t mean just those like us! Au contraire.

        Once suitably armed one can sow more widely.

        I take as a working premise small cell/group exchanging stories and moving as a group around then gradually separating to form deeply bonded groups/cells elsewhere and so on.

        Above all I would say that the more means of communication/production accelerate the more we have to slow down to a naturally sustainable human pace.

        I was reading a little about Mandela’s strategy for resisting his imprisonment – his deliberate slowing down, learning language of oppressors, mindful observation, seeing horizons when there were none, seeing imprisonment as a means to strengthen his own vision of freedom. Ultimately it was his jailers who were imprisoned not he.

        His was a long, slow walk to freedom – so must be ours.

    1. bon

      LOL says the child of a 70s bad divorce.

      The digital creates tensions that can stress some bonds – like I say about being confronted – and yet enable others.

      I’m not sure there was ever a time of idealized social bonds for everyone…

      1. Simon Ensor

        Yes it does create others.

        However I took as a starting point – Uber/Amazon et company.

        Idealized social bonds? depends on your image of ideal :-)

  6. Pingback: What Kind of (Digital) Citizen? |

  7. Leo Havemann

    Thanks for this Bon – so often your posts both resonate with me and make me think, there’s a lot more to all of this (which of course, is what you’re saying). This questioning of the concept of citizenship made me recall the recent FutureHappens2 event here in London (more info: which you were of course virtually present for as our opening provocation.

    The event involved a series of small group discussions relating to aspects of the theme of social media in education. I wanted to share my reflection on a particular part of that event which included many more topics. One of the discussion prompts was about considering how/whether using social media in learning and teaching might “support and build citizenship of a discipline or society”. In my group we found ourselves wondering: what is citizenship and what qualifies you for citizenship of a discipline? We can be a citizen of a nation-state, but are we citizens of society? We thought that perhaps if one is invoking the idea of citizenship then we are thinking about how one gains access to a bounded space, that there is necessarily exclusion from it as well as inclusion. And perhaps also that within that space where one is a citizen, there are collective rights and responsibilities. So while at first unsure, I think we came around to the idea that it may be useful, when thinking about the selves that we want to be, on social media, in some kind of educational context, to think about these selves as some kind of citizen, at least rather than as a consumer.

    Anyway, must agree there is a lot to be said for half-baked lightbulb moments.

  8. Pingback: What is DigCiz and Why I am Not Marina Abramovic: thoughts on theory and practice – Is a Liminal Space

  9. Pingback: Weightless or grounded? - Christian notebook

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *