03/15/2013 05:51 pm ET Updated May 15, 2013

Citizenship in a Digital Era

In an era where we face a daily deluge of online petitions, emails from candidates, and provocative political tweets, what does it mean to be a citizen? The image of Americans crowded into a town hall to debate current issues has been replaced by that of a single person in the dim light of a screen, digitally connected to millions of others. Yet Americans still often define citizenship in terms that resonate with early conceptualizations of the role: duties (such as voting) and rights (such as freedom of speech).

Ever since the early days of this democracy, when citizenship was limited to land-owning white men, the definition has evolved to adapt to changes in American life. Indeed, as Michael Schudson points out in "The Good Citizen," the first ideas about citizenship were modeled on the monarchy, where the wealthy had power to make decisions. But when states allowed all white male adults to vote, Americans banded together to form associations that bridged the disconnect between the individual and the state. Public officials recognized this new conception of democracy by creating the first political parties, and allegiance to a party became a primary motivator the go to the polls.

Ultimately, though, citizens began to detach from parties, and citizenship revolved around intelligence. Voters were required to take literacy tests and prove their legal citizenship to the country in order to be let into the polls. But a resurgence of civic participation in the 1960s fostered a new form of citizenship: the rights-regarding citizen. The Civil Rights movement inspired the nation to embrace more varied modes of civic participation, and opened the flood gates for an evaluation of citizens' rights and entitlements.

In the late 20th century, Schudson suggested we had moved on to the "monitorial citizen," who scans information to be aware about different viewpoints and focuses on the headlines to get a sense of the political climate. The idea was that people were simply too busy to be fully engaged citizens, but they would be ready to participate when called upon.

So where are we now? In the digital world, we have shifted from formal in-person group associations to loose online social networks to gather information and organize civic action. The 2008 and 2012 elections saw a massive increase in the use of technology for civic purposes, and the Obama administration has been adapting that campaign technology to governing strategy, through initiatives like "We the People" and "Organizing for Action."

Yet citizens are human -- we are ultimately autonomous agents with free will. Even with a diverse array of information, we tend to perceive information selectively, categorizing it in a way that favors one interpretation over another. In other words, we are all biased in our information processing -- information tends to be selectively perceived in ways that are congruent with our existing needs, goals, values and beliefs.

We are also plagued by selective exposure, which basically means tuning out information that we don't like or doesn't fit with our views. Say you're a staunch Republican -- you're probably unlikely to watch MSNBC for your news in favor of FOX. If you're liberal, perhaps you rely solely on certain muckrakers on Twitter.

What our increasingly digitized world has created is a citizen who can select him or herself into narrower and narrower echo chambers, where the true definition of reality can vastly differ depending on which chamber you've buried yourself in. We end up "knowing" different facts about the world. Take the debate over the sequester. If you have been paying attention to conservative sources, you might think that the whole thing is Obama's fault. Liberal, and it's clearly the Republicans in Congress. But it goes beyond simple partisan selective exposure. We also focus on issues that are important to us. Don't care about the economy? Meh, forget news about the sequester; I'm sure someone will figure it out... when are Kim and Kanye having that baby?!

Technology has proven to be a double-edged sword for citizens -- an increasingly diverse information environment with myriad connections, alongside increased personalization and competition for our attention. In this way, our current media environment actually facilitates our natural tendencies to descend further into our own little worlds. Rather than expanding our views, many technological tools -- think Google and Amazon, for example -- personalize our online experience to such an extent that even the ads we see are based upon our own interests and search history. Personalization may, even if unintentionally, further isolate individuals from the rest of the world.

Much scholarly research has assumed an informed, rational citizenry, but we need to rethink this paradigm in the era of the digital citizen. Indeed, recent research (see this paper for a review) demonstrates that emotions, rather than rational decision-making, often drive our decisions. The ideal of the "dispassionate mind" is simply not how citizens think and talk about politics. What's perhaps even more alarming is that the more sophisticated people are politically (i.e., the more they know about an issue), the more able they are to develop complex rationalizations for dismissing information they don't want to believe.

The digital citizen is one who has civic duties with access and choice, who voices opinions and hears them echoed, who is empowered to impact the state of the nation. The question remains, though, as to how we create technology that facilitates this new conceptualization of citizenship. Do we isolate ourselves into more personalization, customization, and physical disconnectedness? Or do we create technology that embraces diversity of opinion, action, and information, however messy it might be? In the end, such discord--as hard as it may be to hear in our echo chambers--is what our democracy is founded upon and relies upon to thrive.