Digital Civic Engagement & Digital Citizenship

Digital and online spaces, including social media sites, have often been lauded for their democratic potential (see, for example, Lester Faigley, 2003). But, as W. Lance Bennett (2008) put it, "Democracy is not a sure thing" (para. 1). Karen Mossberger, Caroline J. Tolbert, & Ramona S. McNeal (2008) wrote that the "Republican vision" foundational to the United States' representative democracy was "based on the development of civic virtue among the citizenry," and thus an active and engaged citizenry is central to the maintenance of a healthy democracy (p. 47). Further, from this perspective, "it is the duty of citizens to be informed participants in the exercise of democracy" (Mossberger et al., 2008, p. 47). But what does it mean to be an informed participant and engaged citizen within our current cultural context? What does it mean to be a digital citizen?

Although non-traditional sites of civic activity, social media sites (like Pinterest and others) demonstrate the ways that everyday rhetorical, composing activities—like posting links to recipes and discussing them—can be situated as forms of civic engagement. These composing activities can be understood as engaging with issues that matter to the community (or communities) that one inhabits and interacts within. Notions of democracy, citizenship, and civic engagement have all been affected by (and in turn are affecting) the cultural and political shifts that have occurred with the advent of the digital age (see Warnick & Heineman, 2012). Mossberger et al. (2008) defined civic engagement as "a multifaceted concept, consisting of political interest, political discussion, and political knowledge" (p. 48). As Bennett (2008) noted, individuals are generally moving away from the more traditional and government-sponsored forms of civic engagement, but "there are impressive signs of youth civic engagement in ... nongovernmental areas, including increases in community volunteer work, ... consumer activism, and impressive involvement in social causes" (para. 3). Some have "ascribed civic engagement qualities to many activities in online social networking and entertainment communities" (para. 3). Bennett wrote that some scholars "argue that many forms of shared activity online (from blogging, to conflict and protest behavior in gaming, fan, and entertainment sites) represents forms of civic or media engagement" (para. 3).6 Like Bennett and the scholars whom he cites, I situate online activities, from mundane discussions within fandom communities to political discussions, as forms of civic engagement. Moreover, these forms of civic engagement are worthy of our attention as teachers and researchers of rhetoric, composition, and digital media studies, as they represent the everyday ways in which individuals use rhetoric to engage with the world around them and the communities to which they belong.

As social media sites can expand the idea of what counts as civic engagement, so too can these sites provide an understanding of how individuals can be active and engaged digital citizens. In accordance with this expansive notion of what constitutes digital civic engagement, I also subscribe to a more capacious notion of who enacts these forms of digital civic engagement: that is, who can call him/herself a digital citizen.7 As Mossberger et al. (2008) defined it, digital citizenship "is the ability to participate in society online" (p. 1). Furthermore, they defined digital citizens as "those who use the Internet regularly and effectively" (p. 1). For Mossberger et al., regular and effective use is characterized by daily use, and given the nature of technology access in our current moment, those who use the Internet daily could easily be labeled digital citizens (p. 1). However, rather than viewing digital citizenship as a definitive category, I think it is more productive to view the concept on a spectrum. Regular use, if more sporadic than daily use, can still potentially furnish individuals with skills and literacies to make them conversant digital citizens. Like its offline or non-digital citizenship counterparts, an individual's level of digital citizenship and digital civic engagement can vary by degree. On social media sites, for instance, users might exhibit varying levels of engagement as citizens, posting and sharing content or commenting upon, re-sharing, and/or liking others' posted content at different rates as suits their investment in the social media space at any given time.

The concepts of digital civic engagement and digital citizenship create the possibility for a more capacious understanding of what political civic engagement can be. Furthermore, looking at digital civic engagement and digital citizenship as they are enacted in spaces like social media sites, across the Internet, can potentially reconceptualize understandings of public rhetorics and what counts as significant rhetorical action. If situated on a spectrum of rhetorical activities and practices, political, civic engagements can become more fluidly defined in a way that can truly bring value to the personal. In short, what matters to the individual and his/her community can be viewed as worthy of serious rhetorical engagement. And although traditional notions of citizenship have focused on government-sponsored modes of civic engagement and interaction, the idea of the digital citizen—who participates in communities and conversations that matter to him/her—does have democratizing potential for what counts as civic and political engagement.8