Survive and Thrive Online

This is a letter I wrote, thinking of what a younger friend might need to know about the online world. 


My dear younger sister,

The Internet is a big place, full of liars, dreamers, elaborators, and collaborators. I want you to feel safe there. But there are a few things you have to learn. You’ll learn them in your own way, and in your own time. I hope you learn well. I’ve been working on my media journey, and thought you might learn from a few of my hurdles and highlights. So here they are.

Fear will not define me. Although I’ve considered myself a newbie to the Internet world, I’m seeing clearly how the digital universe develops with rapid updates and  a news cycle which takes seconds instead of hours, or even days. People have talked for years (take this ancient 2009 article for example) about the rapid news cycle, and we’re still not catching up. There are ways to breathe through the speed of the digital age though, and if I don’t catch a breath . . . let’s just say I should catch a breath. Dan Gillmor suggests a slow news approach to help remedy a cultural phenomenon of over-belief of quickly reported stories. And while I have agreed with that for some time – I still enjoy print news – the idea is to stay skeptical, and move at a human pace through the pixelated realm of information overload. Only bite off what you can chew, and chew thoroughly before swallowing.

This is important because one of the glaringly obvious take aways from studying media in the digital age is that all pedestals must go. Even big-time reporters flail now and then. They scratch the bottom of the barrel, instead of reaching for the sky. And while I can’t help but pity the proffesional journalist for loosing some of their edge in the competition, the mistakes can be unbearable.

All that said, when the rubber hits the road, this is my media. My digital citizenship in a technologically driven world. While I want to see the flourishing of a human soul off the screen, behind the pixels there are still people, stories, stunning photos, and instant video feed. If I want to have any impact in the digital world, I feel I have to start showing up. Make my media presence begin by signing in and logging on. Bringing with me skepticism laced with an optimistic outlook. The tenacity to study and a will to research. Not trust, but interest.

That interest can be my jumping off point. What do I want to know? And why. I had to write a blog. I had to follow the developments of a subject covered in the media. And I learned that I do care enough about things to dig them out of the screens around me. I can take ownership of my content. Facts and fiction are spewed out online at ferocious speeds, some with authenticity, and some in flagrant disregard for the humanity of human beings. So I can start by making choices. Sorting. Searching. Posting. Checking and re-checking. And deciding when to dig deeper, and when to let it go. It is my choice how much to invest, and how much to withhold. But I need to realize my media interaction is my responsibility. I can contribute and consume well, but what well looks like to me . . . I still building that definition.

And you can build your own definition, too. Good luck, and ask lots of questions along the way. What we learn in community always outweighs what we learn trying to work alone.



How I Learned the Internet

The web used to scare me, so I had no power there. Pushed and shoved by privacy policies and fears of censorship, my speech froze solid. I did not know my rights, and felt confounded by the internet. I didn’t know the rules. So, I backed away from the keyboard, daring only to post surface-deep information on Facebook, and worried that searching certain topics would get me on some government watch list. I had paranoia. But, at the core, I hadn’t a clue as to who had the power I feared.

I don’t think money is the reason specific groups have power — although money still talks, loudly. No, the web is run by those who study it. Those who know or care little for the internet will control nothing.  Financial status still impacts the digital divide, separating the lords from the peasants of the Internet. But there is more to the hierarchy than socioeconomic status. Dan Gillmor explains how “short-sighted” journalists have been in feeding their content to social networks like Facebook. In this sense, the journalists are users, and the social media platform(s) remain the owners.

But how can I own a thing in this mess? Richard Stallman spent many years fighting to free up software so people can control their own devices. Software merchants usually maintain rigid ownership of their creations, even after selling them to customers. As I studied, anxiety gripped tighter. I don’t own the function of the computer and phone I purchased, with my money? This must mean I’m not positioned where I thought in the web-based rift between those who are users and those who get used.

How do we learn media, and will we?(Media being an official word which means, essentially, the conduit for conversation from one person to many) In part, it is teaching ourselves digital literacy, and owning some portion of the Internet. Otherwise you will always be one someone else’s turf. From this point (knowing and owning) the levels of power are divided by the amount invested. Monetarily? Yes. But also intellectually. Giving one’s time to gain knowledge and use of the Internet is crucial.

Keren Elazari frames this entire topic beautifully in the video below. Hackers? Well of course they have power! But Elazari is suggesting that’s problem. In fact, a hacker is a shining example of how people gain power on the Internet. Those active, and not just in living on someone else’s site (such as Facebook or Twitter,) are those we should learn from.