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section heading icon     netizens?

This page considers questions of 'clickocracy', assent and indifference in questioning notions of the 'netizen'.

Much of the more fashionable writing about citizenship, digital polities and governance has a utopian flavour aptly questioned by Richard Barbrook's Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to the Global Village (London: Pluto Press 2007) and 1998 'The Californian Ideology' (with Andy Cameron) and evident in the Proposed Declaration on the Rights of Netizens featured in Hauben & Hauben (1998) -

To be a "netizen" is different from being a citizen. This is because to be on the NET is to be part of a global community.  To be a citizen restricts someone to a more local or geographical orientation ... Netizens are not just anyone who comes online. Netizens are especially not people who come online for individual gain or profit.  They are not people who come to the Net thinking it is a service. Rather, they are people who understand that it takes effort and action on each and everyone's part to make the net a regenerative and vibrant community and resource.  

or the somewhat less fatuous 1997 'Charter for Citizens of the Global Information Society' by Julie Cameron & Karin Geiselhart. The Declaration is an echo of the 1964 Cybernetics Conference Manifesto of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution and arguably has had as much effect.

A presentation by civil society advocate Izumi Aizu during the February 2004 ITU workshop on internet governance illustrates the persistence of claims about 'netizen' involvement, a meme that since the collapse of communism has supplanted bien-pensant hopes for socialism. It also illustrates the muddiness of much conceptualisation.

Aizu claims that

The Netizens are the main actor of the Internet development, as they are the great inventor and innovator of such tools as WWW, Mosaic or Netscape, the browsers, Yahoo by David Filo and Jerry Yang, students at Stanford University, or ICQ or Amazon are also developed mainly by users.  Missing them is like playing the football game without any top-notch players

Netizens will act as watchdog, or functions to provide appropriate Checks and Balances system, to counter other interests.  By involving them they will have more sense of responsibilities, too.  I also like to try to list some of the merits of having Netizens to participate.  First, Netizens have direct knowledge and rich experience of most issues caused by the use of the Internet.  If you are the parents, quite often your children know much better about using the Net than you are.  Second, Netizens are flexible, work more efficiently than many incumbent institutions where protocols and procedures take up too much time and act as barriers for timely decisions.  Third, Netizens are global citizens, not constrained by national boundaries.  There are many communities of interest, spread globally, irrespective of geographic or other existing social boundaries.  Netizen participation will increase diversity

Netizens will counter economic balance, not dominated by large corporate interest, but adding non-profit, non-governmental forces.  It will also provide cultural diversity, with multilingual environment.  It will reduce the magnetization of the minority, too.  By encouraging the Netizens to participate, affirmative efforts to listen to the minority groups, persons with disabilities, women in vulnerable situations, linguistic minorities, all will have more opportunities for their voices to be heard.  Netizens share the view with technical community that freedom at the edge of the network is the core value of the Internet.  Traditional telecom operators, or mobile phone operators, on the other hand, may not necessarily share this vision and tend to 'close' the network by inserting their central control that is convenient for the operators as well as many 'passive' consumers.  We are concerned that it may stifle the innovation and development of the Internet we have enjoyed so much so far. 

A fundamental objection to such aspirational statements is that Aizu and other enthusiasts conflate the use of the internet with participation in its governance.  There are no signs that most users identify themselves as global netizens or, more fundamentally, have the time, technical skills and mind set to engage in governance.

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version of September 2007
© Bruce Arnold | caslon analytics