Netizenship from first principles

I'm an uncle of two nieces and one nephew. They will all be citizens on the world-wide-web soon enough.

The boy is starting school this August. He will be getting his hands on a browser and logging on to the internet before long.

His parents (both conscientious teachers) will do their best to keep him restricted to the Kids version of the internet, but this regulation gets harder and harder as both the boy and his local-area social network grow bigger and bigger.

I know the internet well, and frankly I'm somewhat terrified of the thought that this sweet kid is soon gonna occupy this space. It's a wild, dangerous place. Full of wonders, to be sure, but it's becoming increasingly harder to steer away from the bad and only enjoy the good.

The thought of him and his cousins entering this place terrifies me a little bit. On the other hand, I'm thrilled about the prospect of getting virtual visits from them in my native environment.

I'll do my best to make my little patch of the internet frontier a pleasant place for them to hang out in. Between me and their parents we can clear out a nicely hazard-free path, so their walk over to my little net-hut is safe.

But eventually they're gonna want to venture beyond the safe paths. They'll walk ever deeper into the dark forest and its undergrowth, where neither their parents nor their uncle can fully protect them.

*An alternative metaphor has them delving ever deeper into the upside-down world of The Abyss.

The bottom line is: Us elder netizens got to equip these kids with the tools they need to take care of themselves, because where they're going we cannot go all the way with them.

Some of these tools will take material shape. Others are immaterial, like the ability to synthesize knowledge into 'common sense' and 'best practice'. I will attempt to hand down a good bit of both.

The timing for handing down these tools and pieces of knowledge is determined by context and coincidence, as the process of netizenship is profoundly personal. As a rule of thumb, netizenship should start as a read-only, single-player experience. Write-access and two-way communication needs to be introduced gradually, for the safety of the newcomers as well as the existing residents of the web.

For the tools and practices introduced below, assume gaps of several years between the milestone lessons to be learned.

Essential Tools for Internet Explorers

In my home country of Norway, we're mountain people. If you find us on a map you'll see our land is literally made up of one continuous mountain chain.

Over the centuries our shared cultural knowledge of safe mountaineering has eventually become encoded as nation-wide rules for every responsible hiker to abide by. First made official in the 1950s, the rules were updated as recently as 2016 in response to increased tourism and modern equipment tempting risk-takers to venture beyond their capabilities.

They go as follows:

  1. Plan your trip and inform others about the route you have selected.
  2. Adapt the planned routes according to ability and conditions.
  3. Pay attention to the weather and the avalanche warnings.
  4. Be prepared for bad weather and frost, even on short trips.
  5. Bring the necessary equipment so you can help yourself and others.
  6. Choose safe routes. Recognize avalanche terrain and unsafe ice.
  7. Use a map and a compass. Always know where you are.
  8. Don’t be ashamed to turn around.
  9. Conserve your energy and seek shelter if necessary.

Similar rules exist among veteran netizens for how to traverse the web safely and responsibly, but we have yet to codify them properly. I'm looking forward to taking part in that effort, but to start with I will simply introduce three tools and accompanying practices that I believe to be absolutely essential for practical internet participation.

It's assumed that you've already learned the basics of web browsers, web links and web sites, so let's dive in to the ever-expanding World Wide Web of internet stuff!

You will begin (or restart) your experience of the internet by reading. The most visible parts of the internet are made up of web pages. Much like books, web pages are primarily made up of words, so reading is fundamental for traversing the web world.

Once you've found some sites with cool stuff to read and play with, you will probably want to come back for more. Some of those things you'll find will even be living things, still evolving, changing over time.

Time for your first internet lesson:

Knowledge storage

On the internet, most things can't be picked up and taken away from there. In the physical world you can pick up a shiny stone and put it in your pocket; the internet won't let you do that. Usually you can only remove something that you yourself put on there.

But you can still take lots of internet things with you on your journey. Many things you'll find on the web carry within them one of the most magical capabilities of the web world: They can be copied! ✨

You can get copies of all sorts of things on the internet, like games, songs, books.., even the recipe for chocolate cake. But web pages – articles made of text – are the easiest to copy and store, because they take up very little space. Think of how you can easily keep notes of 10 different cake recipes in your back pocket, but even one whole cake would never fit back there!

When we make copies of web pages, we are storing knowledge. To take useful things with you on your journey through the web, you need a Bag of Knowledge πŸ‘œ; a magical storage-space for web artifacts.

bag-of-knowledge By Lise

There are many internet tools (web apps) that act as a Bag of Knowledge, but few do it in a way that puts you in control. In future lessons you'll learn how to recognize trustworthy apps, but for now I've carefully selected the best tools available. In this case, that tool is Omnivore.

In order to acquire your magic bag, you will need to do something important: Create a new user account. When you create a new user account on Omnivore, you attach that new piece of your digital identity to your Bag of Knowledge, effectively proclaiming your ownership of that bag by sticking your name-tag to it.

Which brings us to your second lesson:

Web identity

Most likely you have already done this a handful of times with games and applications that asked for at least two things, often three:

  1. a user-name
  2. a password
  3. an email

Each such account is a representation of your web identity πŸͺͺ. Not only does your bag now exist on the internet, but so do you. The moment you've signed up for such a user account, you're no longer a nameless observer.

When you look at the internet, the internet looks back at you.

These accounts that you sign up for will form an increasingly detailed representation of your digital self. Some identities are kept private for your eyes only, while others are meant to be shared publicly to connect with others.

It is absolutely critical that the core of your digital identity belongs wholly to you alone. Every time you entrust an outside party with authority over your digital ID, you compromise your digital autonomy and inherent right to self-determination as a netizen.

When you signed up for Omnivore, you did indeed entrust someone other than yourself with a piece of your ID. But fear not! Omnivore is an open, user-aligned application; it doesn't try to own your identity, it merely wants to interoperate with it. Once we have set you up with your core web-ID, your account on Omnivore will henceforth act as one of many extensions to your core identity.

Your core web-ID will act as your internet-wide keeper of the three aforementioned building blocks foundational to ones web identity:

  1. a user-name (extends to personal web domains)
  2. a password (extends to password-less authentication)
  3. an email (extends to inter-personal networking)

The right tool for this job is Weird.

None of this needs to be fully understandable at this point however, which is why Omnivore lets you delegate identity-authority to it until you're ready to assume full responsibility of your digital ID at a later point in your netizenship journey.

With your provisional identity set up on Omnivore, the real fun can begin. Having an identity on the internet makes us discoverable by the others, on our own terms. Sharing the contents of your bag with other people is the best way to discover cool new stuff. Better yet, it's a great way to meet new friends!

Time for the third and last lesson of this introductory chapter:

Shared knowledge

I have my own bag of knowledge, and I keep most of it open for everyone to access freely 🌐. This is a great way for me to learn about new things and meet new people, because anyone who looks into my bag is invited to tell me about other things they think I might enjoy, based on what they found in my bag.

As an example, here's a list of three children's books I enjoy:

This list acts as an invitation on many levels:

That's a lot of potential engagement enabled by a mere list! Such is the power of the internet, as it adds connectivity glue to knowledge artifacts. Collective sharing of this fashion lays the foundation for a social network built on genuine shared interests and common purpose, rather than anti-social games of status and domination.

You're now equipped with the most essential tools needed for sense-making in the web world:

Next up, we'll learn how to follow information that moves.