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June 20, 2005

Netizenship and Evolving Identity

Sari Feldman is the Director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library and a Board Member of OneCleveland. Sari and I have been asked to write an article about OneCleveland and our collaboration with Libraries, Universities, and Museums.

The thesis of our piece is that more than a technological ultra broadband network, OneCleveland is a network of leaders and applications positioned to help transform our region.

If transformation is an important part of the end goal of our efforts,it begs the question how individuals, "Joe Public" might be impacted and indeed personally transformed by the exciting activities underway. This led me to the notion of netizenship.

Netizenship, obviously borrows from the more conventional notion of citizenship. The origins of the word citi-zenship comes from someone who has an identity and a sense of belonging associated with a city. In western civilization, space (house, office, community, city, state) has always been correlated and associated with a sense of belonging and identity (house goes with home, office goes with professional identity, community with cultural, city with citizenship, state with nationhood).

Space however is often times a physical given, identity and our sense of belonging (or alienation) is always historically constructed. States are formed by proclamations; nations are borne, contested, and divided. Living in a physical community bounded by streets and byways is a right, citizenship; equality of citizenship is contested, fought for and often lost in struggles for power.

Throughout Western civilization, places such as the ancient Greek agora, the New England town hall, the local church, the coffeehouse, the village square, and even the street corner have been arenas for debate on public affairs and society. Out of thousands of such encounters, "public opinion" or dominant ideology are slowly formed and became the context in which politics and details of our daily life are framed. Although the public sphere never included everyone, and by itself did not determine the outcome of all parliamentary actions, it contributed to the spirit of dissent found in a healthy representative democracy.

Many of these public spaces remain, but they are no longer centers for political discussion and action. They have largely been replaced by television and other forms of media - forms that arguably isolate citizens from one another rather than bring them together.

There is an argument, which asserts that disembodied exchange of video, and text is not a substitute for face-to-face meeting - it has its own logic, its own ways of forming opinion. These attributes will powerfully affect the politics that emerge in our digital era. To understand how our notion of democracy will change - and I believe it will change radically - we need to understand how the Net differs from historical public spheres.

At its core, and we can debate much of this assertion and many of the assumptions, traditionally, a person's identity is defined by contact. Identity is rooted in the physical body. This stability forces individuals to be accountable for their positions and allows trust to be built up between people. It also limits discourse as we are limited by socially derived norms, rules and practices that privilege some and deny voice to others.


The Net, however, allows individuals to define their own identities and change them at will. A person might be an aging white male hippie one day, a teenage girl the next, an aboriginal activist a third. Life on the Screen as Shirley Turkle refers to this sociological reality is not consonant with forming a stable political community, as we have known it. Dissent on the Net does not lead to consensus: it creates the profusion of different views. Without embodied copresence, the charisma and status of individuals have no force. And yet, the ability to project power, privilege, to use anonymity and to celebrate and validate some and hurt and disparage others is very much part of the growing reality of Netizenship, the development of a sense of identity, a sense of belonging on the Net.

It is true, the conditions that encourage compromise the hallmark of the democratic political process, are lacking online. On the Net, since identities are mobile, dissent is encouraged, and "normal" status markers are absent, it is a very different social "space" from that of the public sphere.

We must remember that the Net is something entirely new, and its effects on democratic politics can not be predicted using historical precedent. The Internet threatens authority and the state (unmonitorable conversations). The Net mocks private property (the infinite reproducibility of information). It rejects hierarchy and flaunts moral propriety (the dissemination of pornography). We are sitting at a new family dining room table; one that vaguely looks familiar but in reality has many different features. Where do we begin our table manners? How do we begin our conversation about the table or our manners? We are engaged in collectively creating new voices, new norms, and new principles of discourse in creating Netizenship. Competing core values, between freedom of speech and entitlements of protected groups is just one of the many elements of our new contested terrain.

Posted by lsg8 at June 20, 2005 12:59 PM and tagged Bytes 

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