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On Being a Good Platform Citizen

And our relationships with social media

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A while ago the Obama Foundation (Full disclosure: they are a much-appreciated Postlight client!) asked an important general question: “What makes a digital citizen?

I’ve been thinking about that question for a while. You can look at it from many angles.

Is it about making good things?

Since the Internet is, for me, all about making things, or building tools to help people do things, I tend to see digital citizenship as almost a side-effect to effectively and ethically following your craft.

For example, a “good” website is easy to index, usable by people who have different levels of neural and physical function, doesn’t track people very much, has a simple, clean design, and works across all reasonable platforms. I.e. it’s “accessible.”

Good digital citizens make good accessible websites and help other people make those, too. Jeffrey Zeldman is thus a good digital citizen, for his work in promoting web standards, as are Karen McGrane and Ethan Marcotte for their work in responsive web design.

Is it about community tech?

Or it could be about the kinds of things you make. For example, there are people building local, community tech—places like Heat Seek, helping people get access to heating, or BetaNYC, which seeks to build community around tech in NYC. There are other local orgs like PathFinder.vet, which helps Vets find housing and benefits. (And I’ve been an advisor and fan of Vets Who Code for a while—a not-for-profit giving vets mentorship and levelling them up as programmers.)

These organizations might rely on technology to effect change, but they might also just use off-the-shelf tools like SquareSpace to get their messages out, too. They’re more focused on the external mission than the internal standard of quality. How can we understand their role in furthering citizenship?

Or is it about platforms?

Most people, alas, do not make websites but rather visit them, or use their mobile analogues. They use Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, Slack, and Twitter. That got me wondering, what makes for a good platform citizen? Which is actually a fun exercise. You don’t have to be too formal about it. I’ll do Twitter, then Facebook:

What makes a good Twitter citizen?

  1. Additive! Posts fun, useful, fresh links and pix.
  2. Responds to respectful DMs when possible.
  3. Gives others credit for jokes, points, etc.
  4. Manages thirst.
  5. Blocks and reports bad actors.
  6. Accepts that people may not share constant sense of outrage.
  7. Doesn’t write “This.”
  8. Amplifies others without exhausting everybody.

What makes a good Facebook citizen?

  1. Hits “Like” on most things.
  2. Reads posts about our public school.
  3. Posts Snopes links to combat hoax spreads.
  4. Mutes racist uncle, or engages with racist uncle.
  5. One “my wonderful husband/wife” post per year max.
  6. Writes sympathetic comments regarding dead relatives.
  7. Doesn’t unduly creep on exes and crushes.
  8. Rage-quits quietly, with minimum of drama, no more than once every six months.

Two observations from the above: Obviously these are personal lists. Yours would be different! Looking at them, I can see some patterns (at least for me.) Twitter citizenship is about managing your ego while supporting the ego needs of others, while Facebook citizenship is about bragging less while ethically consuming the nonsense of others.

Do I even know how to be a good Facebook citizen?

Does Facebook want me to be a good citizen, or does it just assume I’m a bad-person-in-waiting who might need to be blocked and program accordingly?

Is it even possible to be a citizen of Facebook or Twitter, or are we just…patrons?

Here’s my challenge: Identify any platform. Facebook, Google Chat, Slack, Twitter, Amazon, DeviantArt, Tumblr, Gmail, Snapchat, Tencent, eBay, SalesForce, Spotify, Reddit, Groupon, and yes, even the weirder corners—the meme-driven/messageboard/adult sites, too. I think modeling out “what makes a good citizen of X” is a great comparative exercise. How is a good citizen of Genius like or unlike a good citizen of Medium?

Which leads me to my last questions: To participate in modern culture is to participate in web platforms. I want my participation to be meaningful. But is it possible to be a true citizen of a commercial social platform? Is “citizen” even a valid concept here? Because we’re more than customers, and less than voters. So…what are we?