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A citizen of the network

20 February 2012 6 Comments
English: Passport entry stamp for citizens and...

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A few weeks ago I attended a workshop run by the ESRC Genomics Forum in Edinburgh which brought together humanists, social scientists, and science focused folks with an interest in how open approaches can and should be applied to genomic science. This was interesting on a number of levels but I was especially interested in the comments of Marina Levina on citizenship. In particular she asked the question “what are the civic responsibilities of a network citizen?”

Actually she asked me this question several times and it took me until quite late in the day to really understand what she meant. I initially answered with reference to Clay Shirky on the rise of creative contribution on the web as if just making stuff was all that a citizen need do but what Marina was getting at was a deeper question about a shared sense of responsibilities.

Citizenship as a concept is a vexed question and there are a range of somewhat incompatible philosophical approaches to describing and understanding it. For my purposes here I want to focus on citizenship as a sense of belonging to a group with shared values and resources, and rights to access those resources. Traditionally these allegiances lie with the nation state but, while nationalism is undeniably on the rise, there seems to be a growing group of us who have a patchwork of citizenships with different groups and communities.

Many of these communities live on the web and benefit from the use of the internet as a sort of commons. At the same time there has been a growing sense of behavioural norms and responsibilities in some parts of the social web: a sophisticated sense of identity, the responsibility to mark spam for takedown, a dedication to broad freedom of expression, perhaps even a growing understanding of the tensions between that freedom and “civilty”.

In the context of research on the web we have often talked about the value of “norms” of behaviour as a far better mechanism for regulation than licences and legal documents. A sense of belonging to a community, of being a citizen, and the consequent risk of exclusion for bad behaviour is a powerful encouragement to adhere to those norms, even if that exclusion is just being shunned. Of course such enforcement can lead to negative consequences as well as positive but I would argue that in our day to day activities in most cases an element of social pressure has a largely positive effect.

A citizen has a responsibility to contribute to the shared resources that support the community. In a nation state we pay taxes, undertake jury duty, vote in elections. What are the contributions expected of a network citizen? Taking one step back, what are those shared resources? The internet and the underlying framework of the web are one set of resources. Of course these are resources that lie at the intersection of our traditional states, as physical and commercial resources, and our network society. In this context the protests against SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA might be seen as the citizens of the network attending a rally, perhaps even mobilizing our “military” if only to demonstrate their capacity.

But the core resources of the network are the nodes on the network and the connections between them. The people, information resources, and tools make up the nodes, and the links connecting them are what actually makes them usable. As citizens of the network our contribution is to make these links, to tend the garden of resources, to build tools. Above all our civic duty is to share.

It is a commonly made point that with digital resources being infinitely copyable there is no need for a tragedy of the commons. But there is a flip side to this – when we think of physical commons we often think of resources that don’t need active maintenance. As long as they are properly managed, not over-grazed or polluted, there is a sense that these physical commons will be ok. The digital commons requires constant maintenance. As an information resource it needs to be brought up to date. And with these constant updates the tools and resources need to be constantly checked for interoperability.

Maintaining these resources requires work. It requires money and it requires time. The active network citizen contributes to these resources, modifying content, adding links, removing vandalism. In exchange for this the active network citizen obtains influence – not dissimilar to getting to vote in elections – in those discussions about norms and behaviour. But the core civic duty is to share, with the expectation that other citizens, in their turn, will share back; that working together as a community the citizenry will build, maintain, and strengthen the civic institutions of the network.

This analysis scales beyond individual people to organizations. Wikipedia is an important civic institution of network, one that accepts a tithe from the active citizen in the form of time and eyeballs but which gives much back to the community in the form of links and high quality resources. Google accepts the links we make and gives back search results but isn’t always quite such a good citizen, breaking standards, removing the RSS feeds that could be used by others. Facebook? Well the less said the better. But good citizens will both take what they need from the pool of resources and contribute effectively back to the common institutions, those aggregation points for resources and tools that make the network an attractive place to live and work.

And I use “work” advisedly because a core piece of the value of the network is the ability for citizens to use it to do their jobs, for it to be a source of resources tools and expertise, that can be used by people to make a living. And the quid pro quo is that the good citizen contributes back resources that others might use to make money. In a viable community with a viable commons there will be money, or its equivalent, being generated and spent. A networked community will encourage its citizens to generate value because this floats all boats higher. In return for taking value out of the system the good citizen will contribute it back. But they will do this as a matter of principle, as part of their social contract, not because a legal document tells them to. Indeed requiring someone to do something actually reduces the sense of community, the valuing of good practice, that makes a healthy society.

When I first applied the ccZero waiver to this blog I didn’t really think deeply about what I was doing. I wanted to make a point. I wanted my work to be widely shared and I wanted to make it as easily shareable as I could. In retrospect I can see I was making a statement about the networked world I wanted to work in, one in which people actively participate in building a better network. I was making the point that I didn’t just want to consume and benefit from the content, links, and resources that other people had created, I wanted to give back. And I have benefited, commercially, in the form of consultancies and grants, and simply the opportunities that have opened up for me as a result of reading and conversing about the work of other people.

My current life and work would be unthinkable without the network and the value I have extracted from it. In return it is clear to me that I need to give back in the form of resources that others are free to use, and to exploit, even to make money off them. There may be a risk of enclosure, although I think it small, but my choice as a citizen is to be clear about what I expect of other citizens, not to attempt to enforce my beliefs about good behaviour through legal documents but through acting to build up and support the community of good citizens.

Dave White has talked and written about the distinction between visitors and residents in social networks, the experience they bring and the experience they have. I think there is a space, indeed a need, to recognize that there is another group beyond those who simply inhabit online spaces. Those of us who want to build a sustainable networked society should identify ourselves, our values, and our expectations of others. Our networked world needs citizens as well


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  • Björn Brembs said:

    “while nationalism is undeniably on the rise” – maybe I live on a different planet, but in my eyes nationalism is a 200 year old idea that’s old and decrepit. Death is lurking around the corner. There may be some death throws here or there, but on the whole, the idea has run its due course.

  • Nad said:

    P.S: regarding my previous comment. In this context it would be interesting to know how much big commercial are involved in real world politics like e.g. in microtargeting for political campaigns

  • Nad said:

    correction:  big commercial are involved -> big commercial networks are involved

  • Nad said:

    It seems my previous comment disappeared, may be because I put an HTML link into it:

    so I repeat it here:

    You wrote:
    “Google accepts the links we make and gives back search results but isn’t
    always quite such a good citizen, breaking standards, removing the RSS
    feeds that could be used by others. Facebook? Well the less said the

    I find it more intuitive to compare big commercial networks like Google Plus, Facebook etc. with “ministates” and the respective companies with “governments”, rather  then with citizens. That is these “states” provide services (server space, maintenance etc.) and you as a user of such a network pay “taxes” in form of eg personal data, reception of adcampaigns etc. I wrote about this aspect and the involved problems at:

  • Cameron Neylon said:

    I agree with you on principle but you live in a country of your own nationality. At every turn it is getting harder and harder for those of us who have come to Europe from overseas (and pay over the odds tax and have never taken any public funds back out for support) to stay, live, or move around Europe. Anti-immigration and parochial sentiments definitely seem to be on the rise to me. That may not strictly be nationalism in the 19th century sense but its certainly a form of localism that I can’t buy into.

  • Nad said:

    “That may not strictly be nationalism in the 19th century sense but its certainly a form of localism that I can’t buy into. ”

    -just that this is not a speciality of Europe.

    I think I do remember that before working in the US I had to waive my right to receive pensions from the pensionary fund I had to pay in while working there.