The Obama Foundation Doubles Down on Digital Citizenship

07/25/2017 11:22 am ET Updated Jul 25, 2017
Digital Citizenship
E. Grabaer
Digital Citizenship

The recently-launched Obama Foundation wants to hear from us.

One of its first initiatives is to encourage better “digital citizenship.” In order to tackle this big and important topic, Glenn Brown, the Chief Digital Officer at the Foundation, is turning to all digital citizens (that’s us) to help him determine ”what it means to be a good citizen online.”

Brown announced in a blog post that he wants us to answer three questions about this topic in the channel of our choice (many have already heeded his call). So, Mr. Brown, here you go...

1. Who’s a model of digital citizenship in your world?

In our world of teachers, schools and students Principal Shaheer Faltas, of Greenwood School in Mill Valley, CA, stands out as a model of digital citizenship. Here’s why:

In 2011, Mr. Faltas was the new principal at a small public charter—Journey School—in Southern California. That’s when our school experienced its first incident of cruelty online.

For an entire week following the incident, a steady flow of apologetic students, concerned parents, and frustrated teachers, flowed in and out Mr. Faltas’ office. Watching him deal with this event—surely a preview of changing times—opened the door to a crazy idea. I asked him if I could teach “digital citizenship” to middle school students. This, I assured him (secretly hoping I was right), would preempt future problems related to social media and ease the traffic in and out of his office. Faltas, who had no idea what digital citizenship even was at the time, said yes. That was 2011. Those classes did end up preempting future problems at our school, but more importantly…they became a model for other schools.

Today that little experiment—now called Cyber Civics-- has turned into a full-blown curriculum that’s being taught in schools in 30 US states, plus the U.K., Canada, Ghana, and New Zealand.

Faltas is, we believe, a digital citizenship model for principals around the world for recognizing the fact that students will spend more time using media than sleeping, eating, or hanging out with their families. He knew they MUST be taught how to be good digital citizens.

2. What habits do you want to change about your online life? What practices would you recommend for others? What’s one simple thing you could do to improve your “digital health”?

The habits that we—our small, dedicated team at Cyberwise and Cyber Civics—find synonymous with digital citizenship are kindness, truth, integrity, and compassion (see the video below). We do our best to practice these habits and model them through our work, particularly our work with students. We believe the one simple thing we can all do to improve our “digital health” is to role model digital citizenship for them. That means putting down our phones once in a while to practice being a better citizen in “real” life. Because practice makes perfect.

3. What people or organizations do you think exemplify digital citizenship when it comes to questions of embracing difference — of thought, identity, or any other variable that you value?

Holy cow, there are so many good people and organizations that exemplify digital citizenship and work tirelessly on its behalf. Unfortunately, you probably haven’t heard of most of them—Sue Scheff, author of the new book Shame Nation, Richard Guerry of Public and Permanent, Lynette Owens of Trend Micro, Marialice Curran and David Ryan Polgar, founders of the Digital Citizenship Summit, Alan Katzman of Social Assurity… and so many others.

But here’s a name you’ll know. Although we don’t know actor Ashton Kutcher we applaud him as one of many celebrities who also exemplify digital citizenship. In addition to being an actor, Kutcher’s been around the tech scene for a long time too. One of his many tech ventures is a company called Thorn that’s created a technology to fight child sexual exploitation—maybe you saw his senate testimony? He spoke about how Thorn can help law enforcement identify trafficking victims more quickly and can narrow down investigations on the dark Web—a breeding ground for sex trafficking. It’s a powerful tool that can make the world better.

How does this exemplify digital citizenship? While digital citizenship has traditionally been about safe and responsible use of tools, today it encompasses much more than this. It is about empowerment. It’s about action. It’s about using our powerful technologies for social good, and that’s what Thorn exemplifies.

But that’s not the only reason we selected this particular celebrity as our example. It’s more personal than that. Almost ten years ago I saw Kutcher speak at the California Women’s Conference in Long Beach, California. He sat on a panel called “Changing the World through the Web” with Randi Zuckerberg from Facebook, Premal Shah of Kiva, and Joe Rospars, who was the new media director of the Obama election campaign. They talked about all the great tech innovations aiming to make the world better at the time. The final question from moderator Kara Swisher asked the panelists to consider “what the digital world needed most.” All the panelists responded with very “techie” answers but Kutcher who said,

“I think we need more hugs.”

Today as we are all still trying to define digital citizenship, doesn’t that just say it all? Digital citizenship = more virtual hugs. It’s the simple and straightforward definition we’ve been searching for.

So, Mr. Brown, thank you for asking for our two cents.

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