Note: This is one in a series of excerpts from Jason Ohler’s book, Digital Community, Digital Citizenship, which explores the development of character education for those living a digital lifestyle.


Digital citizenship is the term the world of K12 education has adopted to describe the many ethical and character education issues associated with living a digital lifestyle. While it mighdescribe the imaget seem that the values associated with character education are eternal and wouldn’t change with the evolution of technology, the fact is that enough has changed that we need to call special attention to the unique issues associated with living side by side with the immensely powerful machines of our own creation, within a massively interconnected digital community. This is particularly true for our children, for whom technology and the issues associated with its use are largely invisible.

Let me set the stage by using a metaphor to explain why issues of ethics, morality, personal safety, and the greater social good seem much more complex and confusing now than they did in previous eras.

Our metaphor is a party celebrating participation, the hallmark of Web 2.0. In fact, we call this party Partycipation, pronounced just like its inspiration, participation. What follows is a description.

Partycipation has millions of attendees, with more joining each day. It costs almost nothing to attend, and you can do so from just about anywhere. At Partycipation you meet new people, make new friends, forge alliances, and conduct business— whatever your encounters call for. While you are free to identify yourself, this party has a masquerade option, so that no one really has to know your true identity. Thus, you can be whoever you want and say basically whatever you want to whomever you want about whatever you want. This also means that you never really know whom you are talking to either, or whether what they say is remotely true.

At Partycipation you can have multiple identities, allowing you to experiment with your persona as you encounter new social situations. At this gathering you also have access to an ever-expanding smorgasbord of resources that are dreamlike in scope and variety. You can literally think it, search for it, and find it—movies, old friends, animated children’s books, augmented reality tattoos, ideas for vegan dinner parties, group conversations dedicated to effective poodle grooming. You name it. It’s all there. You can take home a copy of much of what you see and hear, knowing that the owner will not lose his original. You can even modify whatever you find and give it back to Partycipation as something borrowed but originalized.

All of this happens with only passing concerns about injury or repercussions—to oneself or others. And bonus, you don’t need to dress up, and the only health issues are those associated with sitting too long. Given this much freedom, at this little cost, there were bound to be ethical issues at Partycipation. The foregoing is just one description of the social Internet. A competing metaphor is the “the Wild West,” but that image always conjured up too much gun slinging and too little civility for me. After all, many good things happen at Partycipation as well.

Regardless of what metaphor you prefer, it is the fact that many of our children attend Partycipation that drives much of our current interest in digital citizenship and character education especially tuned to living a digital lifestyle. In fact, there is one other aspect of Partycipation not mentioned above that also drives this interest and weighs particularly heavily on the parental mind: Partycipation can be used as a gateway to RL (real life)—and vice versa. The interplay between the two can be anything from complimentary to contradictory, from a direct way to reinforce an integrated view of identity to a way to circumvent public attention in order to pursue separate presentations of self. However it is used, we need to be concerned because, as Sherry Turkle says, “the job of adolescence is centered around experimentation— with ideas, with people, with notions of self.” Prior to the infosphere, adults could witness the identity play and development of emerging youth and intervene when necessary. As of the invisible world of personal networks, this becomes much more difficult.

However we may feel about Partycipation, we shouldn’t lose sight of how significant it is in the evolution of human endeavor. At Partycipation, people basically reinvent society through their use of a number of options regarding how to identify themselves, interact with others, and develop and distribute information and creative content. What the Internet presents us is, in many ways, the extreme freedom that the existentialists have been telling us has always been our natural state. We are free to create human nature as we see fit, and we do so by the choices we make. In the process, we establish norms, values, and a sense of personal and collective identity.

The result is that the carte blanche of Partycipation creates a window into the human condition and the nature of the human psyche that is historically unparalleled in terms of depth, scope, and intrigue.

Bottom line: While we might talk a good game about goals, ethics, and the greater good, Partycipation reminds us that we are what we do. We can respond to the freedom we are presented by Partycipation as seriously or lightly, as altruistically or selfishly, and as virtuously or nefariously as we wish. We can reinvent the world according to our better angels, or we can squander this opportunity by creating mountains of drivel and worlds of hurt. Connect-disconnect: It is up to us.

Adapted from “Digital Community, Digital Citzen” by Jason Ohler. Thousand Oaks, CA. Corwin Press: 2010.