Guest Commentary: Egyptians demonstrate digital citizenship

by Stephen Balkam
CEO, Family Online Safety Institute

What has unfolded first in Tunisia and now in Egypt is an early harbinger of a new kind of web-based activism and people-centric leadership, in a part of the world hungry for something other than states of emergency and one-party rule.  While the role of social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook and others may well have been overstated by some, it is undeniable that the use of the web to organize and sustain many of the protests has been critical.  And what has emerged is a hopeful and potentially enriching experience of ordinary people claiming their rights of free expression and assembly and using the platform of the new technologies to make this happen.

Which leads to an intriguing thought that the young cyber-activists in Cairo are showing the rest of the world what it means to be a digital citizen.  We, in the online safety community, have been promoting the idea and ideals of 21st Century citizenship for a number of years.  Simply put, we ask how can we move the rights and responsibilities we take for granted in the offline world and move them into the online space.  How can we encourage the equivalent of rushing to the scene of an accident or reporting a crime or getting involved in your local community when it comes to the online communities we increasingly inhabit?  How can we promote new social norms of behavior in a seemingly rule-free, anything goes environment that much of the web seems to exhibit?

What has been remarkable about the recent events in Egypt is that ordinary people, without direct leadership or guidance from oppositional parties, have self-organized, acted, engaged and participated in a series of protests and demonstrations in order to bring about change.  Yes, many of these have become violent, often in response to brutal police reactions.  But what is more remarkable, is that these self-organizing digital citizens have also taken it upon themselves, to remove litter from the streets, protect their national treasures, direct traffic and create local pseudo-police forces in the absence of any credible law enforcement help.

So we in the West and those of us laying the foundational stones for this emerging concept of digital citizenship, have much to learn from our Arab friends.  They have shown a remarkable degree of self-organization using the new technologies.  They have also demanded their rights while also accepting their responsibilities.  They have used Twitter and Facebook in ways that were unimaginable to their respective founders and shown these and other social networking tools in a light contrary to their portrayal as time-wasting sink holes for narcissistic teens and adults who should know better.  I am hopeful that in months and years to come, we can travel to Egypt and see for ourselves how a nation with 50% of its population under the age of 25, has come to transform itself and the notion of what it means to be a citizen in this digital age.

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