Digital Citizenship: Cultivating an Online Presence in Our Virtual Communities, Part I

By Your Salonniere

On Twitter, on Facebook, and most any other social network we get to paint ourselves as the protagonist of an ever-unfolding plot. We become, each of us, bricoleurs, crafting a digital collage of who we want to be and who we think we are. Our friends, colleagues, and family interact, shaping our intersecting narratives with their own twists that either reinforce ideas about ourselves or contradict. With the click of a button, for the most part, we can edit ourselves and each other.

Our digital community provides a place where we share our passions and obsessions, boast our children’s accomplishments, confess our doubts, seek counsel, crack quips, and announce milestones. We fashion splinters of our selves to sometimes put our best foot forward or to fall flat, accidentally or intentionally, on our digital faces. Thankfully and hopefully, most of us have our own online cheering section, people who take the time to read and respond to posts. These support networks become a lifeline.

The idea of Netiquette already seems so outdated in light of these quick-silver micro and macrocosms we leapfrog through. Its no longer just about playing nice but the democratic nature of the internet necessitates cultivating citizenship and meaningful engagement. What does digital citizenship mean and how do we best shape the little corners we share within our multiple communities?

Digital citizenship means you share an investment in your online communities, you care about the well-being of those in your community, and you seek to promote outreach and advocacy for your own community and for others. This engagement works the same as citizenship in your own brick and mortar neighborhood.

Ask yourself are you really listening to your online communities? Are your posts concerned with other digital citizens or are you simply indulging in your own private universe? What you put into your digital engagement is what you get out of it. We can get so hung up on recognition, on stacking those likes and comments on our individual posts that we forget we’re cultivating a shared citizenry.

In The Guardian article  Blogging the Fine Art of the Confessional  published 13, March 2011, Scott Rosenberg writes:

Too often, today, we meet people online who are frantically promoting themselves and their businesses – all the time pretending that what they are doing is not advertising or marketing but rather “being sociable”. Long before the internet’s advent, the academic world concocted a phrase that describes what’s happening when we do this: we are commodifying our own authenticity. In plainer language, we are selling our souls.

Commodifying our authenticity means solely indulging in self-promotion. True reciprocal engagement requires not only posting authentic parts of ourselves but also listening authentically.  Pay attention to who pays attention and respond in kind–more on this later. Yet, at the same, we need to understand that attention doesn’t necessarily include or even preclude respect or true admiration. When we log on and before we click “post” we need to consider what exactly we’re seeking. Are we just trying to gain favor or build community? Are we one upping our old high school rivals? Of course, there’s ways to respectfully and professionally throw your weight without simply grubbing for attention. The stealth advantage of online social networks is that you have time to compose your communique. Interactions don’t need to be off the cuff. Language counts, and we get a chance to measure our words carefully.

Who we are online is not who we are in life. We pretend its autobiography, but the interactive nature of social media contorts our self-narratives into biography, and any literaste knows that what we digitally post, at the end of the day, is an artful form who likes to dress up as non-fiction but really stands as fiction. Think of Pessoa’s heteronyms, his inventions of the self. Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, may embody an essence of self but the digital nature can dilute the original aura that Walter Benjamin talks about. We walk a fine line of trying to remain authentic, and the only way to truly retain authenticity is to recognize the participative power we all share in our digital citizenship. Online is the public’s public.

How do you measure your words before you post? How do you engage with your online communities? What concerns do you have about blogs, Facebook and other social media? Check back with the salon for Part II of this conversation.


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Rashaan, and I mean that. Really. I do! I swear it. I find Facebook overwhelming most of the time. It doesn’t seem designed for expressing authenticity, but rather for quickly sharing fleeting thoughts and links to short articles or videos and quick, text-shouts of fleeting acknowledgment when others do the same. Not that it isn’t sometimes a fun treasure hunt for cool media goodies and the rare real connection. I applaud the posts that do feel authentic, scarce as they are. For example, the other day a game designer friend and client of mine, Jude Alexander, said so simply on FB that she was designing and gave a little smiley. She’s designing a new game and she was in the throes of it and she stopped a sec to tell us. Maybe it’s because I know she truly is authentic that so brief a comment touched me. Or maybe this whole comment I’m making right now is actually a little publicity stunt for her at Who can say?

  2. Very interesting and thought provoking post. I’m glad you mentioned Pessoa and his heteronyms, the way they might or might not relate to our current-day world of digital avatars and alter egos and the notion of authenticity in identity in general. I might have a somewhat different take on online presence/community than many, maybe a more amateur-ish take you might say. I’m a writer who blogs and comments on other writers’ blogs in order to have sincere, authentic conversations about literature, art, philosophy, and the like. My primary interest is not self-promotion or professionalism, but simply this experience of authentic conversation, of connecting with others intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, aesthetically, ethically in a real way. There’s a vulnerability and openness that I’ve found I can have online that is hard to achieve in the physical world, where all the professional & personal facets of my life are interconnected and often collide in conflicting ways that demand necessary compromise. In other words, I feel I can rarely say what I really think or feel in my “real” life, I can rarely have meaningful conversations about topics that really matter. This feeling of dearth, lack of space/time for the meaningful, is what has motivated me to write fiction & poetry & essays in the first place. But I’ve been able to have conversations that matter through blogging and commentbox-conversing with other bloggers,
    and this blog world has become a surprisingly important, nourishing, and authentic community for me.

    Interactive blogging is like being both a writer & a reader at the same time. It’s like reading an ongoing book and being able to talk directly and personally to the author. It’s like writing and ongoing book and being able to talk directly and personally to your readers. I think this experience of intimacy through words, the connections that are formed through sharing and speaking about texts, is something that drives the literary impulse at the core.

    I just finished reading Claudia Rankine’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely,” where she quotes Paul Celan comparing a poem to a handshake. He can’t see any difference between a poem and a handshake, he says. In others words, a poem is an act of personal exchange, a meeting & an agreement, a point of contact, an article of trust. Trust is a hard thing to sustain and foster in the “real” world, especially the real world of professional literary activities where there is much competition, self-serving, careerism, one-upmanship, back-stabbing, and the like.

    A number of the bloggers I interact with blog under their real names, and some blog under pseudonyms. I belong to the latter group, although I’m still trying to figure out if I’m using a pseudonym or an actual alter ego. An alter ego that feels, in many ways, more authentic than my real-life self. My real-life self is a published author who exists quite fluently in the professional literary world. But in that professional mode of being, I cannot have the conversations that I have on my blog; in the professional mode of being, so much is about status & protocol & appearances & hierarchy. Under the polished veneer of “reputation,” there is very little room left over for the real. If I blogged under my professional name, it would be good publicity and help my career. But it would feel inauthentic to me, in the most soulfully damaging way possible. It would feel inauthentic to literature. At least for me. I am talking about my specific unique personal situation. I have seen others who are able to blend their professional and personal selves in a kind of public writing and public outreach that is true & authentic to all these facets of self. This blog is one example of such, and that is why I felt inspired to write this somewhat confessional comment. Hope this is okay, and that my comment contributes to the conversation.

    Doesn’t the very act of becoming an author amount to the creation of a public persona apart from one’s personal self? And yet literature itself is where the truest things can be said. Fiction of fictions! We live in paradox…

  3. Roz (Foster)- True confessional here. I can’t stand Facebook. I know I’m on it regularly, and I force myself to be on it though I always feel like I’m back in high school, trying to be “liked” but instead, being habitually exposed to all sorts of shenanigans that I don’t really want to be a party to. Or, I feel like I’m flipping through those fashion & beauty magazines like “Glamour” or “Vogue” where all the articles or posts are shouting, “This is how you’re supposed to be. This is how you need to act.”

    I have to say though FB has its moments. I’ve reconnected with dear friends from high school and college and reacquainted with colleagues from grad school, which has proved to be a wonderful support network in the flesh & blood and brick & mortar world. Truth be told, I wouldn’t be where I am today without Facebook. Can’t believe I said it, but that’s the truth.

    I love your point on authenticity. The medium doesn’t really engender authenticity, especially with that damn “like” button, which is really high school. I was the kid in school–if there are other kids like this–who hated to be absent because I carried this paranoia that when I returned all my classmates would accuse me of faking an illness just to get out of class, and, for some damn reason, I carry the same complex today when I’m on Facebook. I fear that all my interactions may be deemed essentially inauthentic and everyone can see right through me. Do I need to grow up or does Facebook need to?

    That PBS steampunk video really snagged my attention with this idea of re-purposing, and you raise the same point with the “treasure hunt.” We really do have to scavenge for “media goodies and real connections,” as you say. And I aim to re-purpose these treasures to generate authentic engagement in the hopes of leading to action in the flesh and blood world. Here’s to the challenge, and thanks for the dialogue!

  4. Roz (Ito)- Welcome to the salon! I’m so glad you stopped by and joined the conversation, especially with such thoughtful and heartfelt dialogue. There’s lots to talk about, and I may have to re-post some of your ideas from your comments directly onto the blog, if you don’t mind?

    You’re absolutely right. I think its important to recognize the construction of self online, and in every day flesh & blood life, as well. I know several dear writer friends who prefer to create an alter ego or use an alias, which, for them, is much more freeing, and they’ve really been able to let loose under the guise. Whatever helps us to engage authentically is what we’re aiming for, and any thing we post is a construction whether we use our real name or not, which I believe was Pessoa’s point.

    I love what you said about blogging as reading & writing continually. Its like annotating in the margins of a book except its in relatively real time dialogue with other people, so there’s quite a bit of danger and risk involved in that interaction. Though there’s the digital trail left of the meeting of the minds, just as in marginalia. What’s interesting to me is how we all “seem” to be equal in the digital world. We can barely tell skin color, gender, socio-economic status, etc. And, in this somewhat “level” playing field–I’m trying to qualify these words here since its not absolute–can help us feel at ease to speak our mind, but, at the same time, also sets up a false sense of closeness since the usual divides, like you say, aren’t readily apparent.

    I think we’re always authoring ourselves, all the time, digitally and in flesh & blood, whether at work, in the classroom, I’m an educator, or even with our neighbors, friends, and family. We’re showing and wrestling with splinters of selves, as Woolf says. I read an interesting article in The New Yorker about the psychology of motivation, where one expert said we often think of ourselves as dualisms battling each other out. There’s the lazy part of our self and the motivated part, but, really, we have multitudes contained within us, I believe Whitman once wrote, and we have to know when to hand off what action and identify which thought is coming from which splinter of self. So, just as we’re sifting through selves online with strangers and friends, we’re also sifting internally through selves who are also strangers and friends. My head’s reeling now, but the thought actually comforts me more than this idea that we have some finite sense of self who is always constant, and we always have to self correct.

    Thanks again for your thoughts. I look forward to sharing more dialogue with you!

  5. Salonnierealexis (I just noticed you have “real” in your gravatar login!),

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. Yes, please feel free to re-post any of my comments you like onto the blog!

    I completely agree about the construction of all selves as being Pessoa’s point. And this idea that we’re always authoring ourselves, all the time, in our various roles in life and in relation to others. Yes the “real-time” immediacy of internet dialoguing can definitely get a bit dicey at times. I think of the digital world as potentially a very volatile place. Which is where your idea of netiquette becomes important, which is really just being socially decent in the digital sense, recognizing that the person receiving your words on the other side of the screen is actually a real person, not just some virtual entity you made up as a projection or target. It seemed to me that more flame wars happened in the 1990s and early 2000’s, but that somehow people seem to have gotten more mature online in recent years, maybe as we’ve all gotten more used to these new online ways of communicating. I kind of compare it to early seasons of America’s Next Top Model, where there was tons of trainwreck drama between the contestants, but in later seasons the contestants seem to be able to handle themselves better in a more sophisticated way, as if they had learned from watching so many repeats how best to conduct themselves on reality TV. But then again, I’m not on Facebook (none of my selves), so have no insight into the hijinx that go on there!

    Your comment about the apparent “leveling” of social identity in the digital world is right on point. Sometimes I wonder if I would be at all compatible in real life with the various people I interact with digitally. In the digital world, it can be so much more about the purity of ideas, connecting on that level. How would that translate to a meeting in daily life, where the material social/cultural divisions of age, gender, class, race, etc. become readily evident? On the other hand, my real–life social groups have generally been motley crews anyway, a collection of people with different backgrounds you might think would never mix.

    Which New Yorker article are you referring to? I’ve fallen behind on my recent issues and would love to dig up that article and read it.

  6. Roz Ito- Great comparison to “Top Model.” We’re definitely evolving and adapting to this virtual environment, which is scary and exciting. I keep thinking about how the resources change in the digital landscape and wondering what are the resources available that we may or may not be competing for? Is it attention? It is real connection? Are there any other resources that we strive for?

    Unfortunately, I can’t remember which New Yorker article it was about the multiple selves. I went on a trip abroad over the summer and packed about ten past issues that I had yet to read, some of them dating back to 2008. I ditched each of the issues after I read them and apparently didn’t record any reflections in my journal. My bad. If I remember, or find any decent notes that I wrote it, I’ll let you know.

    I’ll be re-posting your comments tomorrow. Thanks for the wonderful dialogue and inspiration.

  7. So many good questions! I thank you for this post. It gave me a place to expand my personal understanding of why I participate in on line discussions.

    I use the LIKE button sparingly, choosing to place a comment instead, so that the writer can hear my voice as I have heard theirs. When I do use that button, I think of it, and imagine others may also, as more of a nod of the head – a silent agreement, as one would when sitting face to face with a friend. As they speak, we sometimes just listen and nod.

    I want to pick up on the definition found in the quote you chose -“we are selling our souls.” On the outset, this sounds like a bad thing. I however see in it a positive. This is my nature.

    Selling is no more than offering a service, product or idea for consumption. To give the best of ourselves, to make clear who we are and what we do best is how we impact existence. I know no other joy greater than seeing someone for who they truly are. I know everyone is not authentic… yet. I seek and interact with those that are on that path or best yet, have arrived.

    Social media intrigues me in ways I did not expect. The measuring of words is what I find so delightful. Twitter, with its limit of characters is joyful to me. I could live without it, but it’s fun and exciting to briefly touch minds all over the world.

    There is so much depth to the conversation above, I am not attempting to engage in all of it. I do want to acknowledge Roz Ito’s reference to being “socially decent in the digital sense” Good manners are always in style!

    Many thanks again to you for this post. I’m going to go share it now.

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