Exploring the etymology of ‘Digital Citizenship’

My post on renouncing my digital citizenship recently picked up steam on #OOE13. I wrapped up the “digital citizenship” month by reiterating how much I can not stand the term. This post sparked a wonderful conversation.

People asked why I came to this conclusion so I decided to recreate my trace of the term.

I began with the ISTE NET-S standards rewrite in 2007.



That year, in a noble effort, the standards evolved to more focus on the learner rather than on the tool. Before the relaunch the standard that best maps on to “digital citizenship” was social, ethical, legal and human issues. Sounds like a benign transition, right?


The term digital citizenship was born out of techno-phobia and fear mongering. How do I know this? Google Scholar.

I decided to search for the term “digital citizenship from the years 2004-2007. I figured this would best encapsualte the thinking that went around the redesign of ISTE standards.

I discovered digital citizenship had nothing to do with what I consider web presence. There was no mention of identity development, civic engagement, or agency. All things I would consider to be essential to online citizenship.

Instead all of the mentions of digital citizenship  referred to the dangers of the web and teaching students not to copy files and mp3’s. Fear mongering of the highest degree.

My quick literature review brought me to the work of Mike Ribble and Gerald Bailey. Their work seemed to have the greatest influence on the redesign of ISTE’s standards. The vision of “digital citizenship” included in the standards is one of control and fear. Just look at the abstract for Ribble’s and Baileys 5 step guide for digital citizenship (2004):

Over the last two years, it has become evident that a behavior pattern of misuse and abuse with respect to technology is beginning to emerge in our society. This outbreak of technology misuse and abuse is documented in continual news coverage on TV, in newspapers and on the Internet — both inside and outside of schools. The endless list of misuse and abuse includes hacking into school servers, using e-mail to intimidate or threaten students, illegally downloading music, plagiarizing information from the Internet, using cellular phones during class time, accessing pornographic Web sites, and playing video games during class. Therefore, if you are using technology in your district, you must begin to deal with digital citizenship in a significant way.

In the worldview used by ISTE digital citizenship is about porn and illegal downloads. Ribble and Bailey also outline their nine step approach to building digital citizenship (2004) by opening with more technophobia:

Recently, the popular press has pointed to increasing evidence of misuse and abuse of emerging technologies in U.S. schools. Some examples include using Web sites to intimidate or threaten students, downloading music illegally from the Internet, plagiarizing nformation using the Internet, using cellular phones during class time, and playing games on laptops or hand-helds during class. How can we address these issues?

The authors then go on to explain we should turn to ISTE’s standards to address the misuse of technology in schools. They then list nine components that make up digital citizenship. In defining each of those components Ribble and Bailey in no way begin to discuss the possibilities of digital texts and tools to lead to civic engagement. Each section instead begins with identifying improper uses and gives teachers strategies to correct student behavior.

Is that your definition of citizenship? Correcting bad behavior. It isn’t mine.


Here is a folder containing some of the work I used to draw my conclusions.

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