The internet gives us all a platform to make our voices heard. That's incredibly powerful, but with that power comes responsibility. That's right, like any citizenship, your internet privileges carry with them responsibilities. "But I'm no troll," you say. That's not enough; there's more to being an upstanding citizen of the internet than just not trolling. Here's how you to embrace the responsibilities of your citizenship and become a model internet citizen.
What Is an Internet Citizen?
Being a citizen of the internet, like being a citizen of any state, nation, or even member of a small group, carries with it rights, privileges and responsibilities. As a user on the internet, most of us enjoy and cherish our rights of self-expression and the free flow of information provided to us. Still, being a citizen of the internet is just as much responsibility as it is a right. We're not entitled to our daily dose of LOLCats or time-wasting YouTube videos, and just because you have better things to do than troll people on Facebook or post flamebait in the comments of the blogs you read doesn't mean you shouldn't give something back to the very thing you take for granted. Here's how you can help make the internet a better place.
Photo via opensourceway.
Know Your Responsibilities: It's Your Job to Make the Internet a Better Place
The internet gives all of us the power to speak openly, and often under cover of anonymity, but with that power and freedom comes the responsibility to maintain it and make sure that the places we spend time in are the best they can possibly be. Think of it like your civic responsibility: people often say that you have no right to complain about a government unless you exercise your right to vote and change it when you have the opportunity. Real-world political issues aside, the same is true on the internet. There's a lot you can do to make sure the internet stays great:
- Contribute to Your Communities. Just like in the physical world, giving back to your community is a surefire way to make sure that the places you spend time are great places — and that they remain that way. Comment on the articles on your favourite blogs, forums or communities. Engage them. Agreement is always nice and certainly welcome, but constructive and respectful feedback when you disagree is even better. After all, no one gets better when everyone agrees with them, and no one wants to get better when they're surrounded by trolls. Better still is when you bring you own ideas to the table as part of a bigger, broader discussion. We'll get into this a bit more later, but actually participating with your own opinions, alternatives and perspectives — even when you agree — is the hallmark of a good internet citizen. When you dislike something on the internet, don't force others to separate your hate from your message — be positive and respectful, even when you disagree. When you disagree, make your points known, share your experiences that lead you to your perspective, and offer alternatives. When you agree or appreciate a piece, share your perspective and why you thought the piece was interesting, and even offer up a few ideas for further exploration or study based on your thoughts.
- Don't Fall for Negativity. The debate over whether the tone of the web is too negative has been going on since the web was born. Don't get sucked into it, and lead by example. If you're feeling jaded and unhappy with the way the comments on your favourite blog go, or the tone of political discussion on your favourite news sites, the best thing you can do is to adjust your own tone and be the change you want to see. (It may be a self-help cliché, but it's also good advice.) When you're confronted with that negativity directed towards you, well, you know what to do.
- Remember: Behind Every Keyboard Is a Person, a Lot Like You. The easiest way for the internet to stay a great place — or even become a better place — is for us to remember that before we succumb to keyboard bravery we're dealing with real people, not just letters on a screen. To that end, conduct yourself like you would in real life. It's difficult, and even more difficult when we choose — as is our right in many places — to operate anonymously and privately, but when we do, it's even more important, lest that privacy be taken from us. To that point, try to respect the privacy of others and be forgiving of their mistakes. Not everyone has your experience, your qualifications, or your perspective. Don't be afraid to have your say, forcefully if necessary, but be mindful as well. Corollary: Remember The Golden Rule.
- Familiarise Yourself with Communities Before Engaging. We've mentioned how important it is to get involved and contribute, but your contributions will go farther if you're familiar with the community you want to join first. Get to know their rules; in some cases, it can help to lurk long enough to learn the in-group language and informal dos and don'ts. Remember, you're likely contributing in a private place, so before you complain that you're being "censored" or your "freedom of speech" has been violated, remember which of your rights apply where (namely, that the First Amendment only protects public speech, and comments on a blog or Facebook posts are anything but, even if most sites try to offer their users that same freedom. The more you learn, the more likely it'll be that you'll be able to contribute positively when you do start talking.
- Give Back the Easy Way. Some of the best ways to contribute and give back to the internet community as a whole are the easiest. Consider licensing your content via Creative Commons, embracing an open linking or citation policy, or making your next development project open source. You may already be working on a project that's easily open sourced, even if it's an endeavour you want to make money from at some point. You encourage people to use, credit, remix, and get involved with your work and your projects, and by doing so you give the community a gift that keeps on giving.
- Synthesise and Share Your Own Ideas. We mentioned this when we discussed how to read more conscientiously, but part of reading and absorbing information is using that information to build new ideas. When you're ready to really give back, set up shop and share your own ideas. Get on the other side of the table, and be a content creator instead of a consumer. By doing so, you encourage other creators to keep offering great videos, articles and other media, and you also have the opportunity to add your own voice and your own ideas to the mix by sharing them with others. You don't have to start a blog to do this, although that's one way. Join a social network, start a Facebook Page, make your Pinterest account public. How you do it is up to you.
Be Aware of and Active On Issues that Pertain to the Internet
FInally, there's one more responsibility that you shouldn't take lightly: make sure you're aware of and active on issues that pertain to the internet. Whether you're campaigning against legislation like SOPA and PIPA, which threaten the internet as we know it, researching ACTA, which many believe is a greater global threat to freedom on the internet than SOPA and PIPA, or you're speaking out in support of privacy advocates and legislation to protect privacy like California's Reader Privacy Act of 2011, it's important to keep your eyes open and stay engaged.
There are plenty of organisations that work to preserve freedom of speech and expression on the internet and advocate for the privacy of its users, and they're eager to add your voice to their chorus. The internet is an always-changing, always-evolving entity. The real question is whether or not those changes are positive or negative from your perspective, and those changes are due to the will of its users, or the influence of organisations that represent specific interests. There are forces at work that spend their days lobbying governments around the world to mould the internet into a platform that suits their interests. Whether or not those interests align with yours is for you to research and decide.
This list of rules and guidelines to be a model citizen of the internet is by no means exhaustive, and isn't meant to be. Every community has different rules, every platform has different terms of service, and every citizen has their own rights — both real and perceived. The best thing for you to do if you want to be an upstanding citizen is to educate yourself on what rights you have with the services you use, give back as good as you get, be positive and upbeat, remember that the internet is a series of interconnected computer systems — largely manned by human beings, and get involved to protect the internet that you love and rely on every day.
We've said a lot about how important it is to give back to the communities you love, so what are some of your rules for being a good citizen of the internet? What personal guidelines do you live by when you interact with people on the web, share your opinions, or discuss new ideas? Let's hear them in the comments below.