I’ve thought about how deep citizenship goes ever since the day, several years ago, that I was in a rush and about to jaywalk. As I started leaning into the street to bolt across, I noticed the woman next to me, face buried in her phone, was unconsciously following my lead and already stepping off the curb. She would have been a goner had I not told her to be careful.
The reality is that our behavior strongly impacts the community around us just like we are more likely to litter if we observe someone else littering. So, too, goes our online lives.
In this article I aim to introduce some simple practices that simultaneously improve your experience of digital life and contribute towards making it better for everyone else too.
TEN PRACTICES OF SMART DIGITAL CITIZENSHIP
- Use a different email addresses for Facebook than you do for work, signing up for email newsletters, etc. Your email address is precious to a marketer, and not necessarily because they want to spam you. Once you add your email to get a free ebook or white paper, they can then upload it to other platforms (namely Facebook). If the email address matches your account on that service, they can run highly targeted ads along the lines of, “Hey bro, you haven’t visited for a while. Don’t you want to know how to make a bazillion dollars online?” I do not think there is anything wrong with this tactic, per se, but if you are trying to keep your business and personal worlds separate, this is something you need to be aware of.
- Recognize attempts to manipulate your emotions. I don’t have a problem with a countdown timer being used during a product launch or an online course that is legitimately only going to be available for a short period of time. Too many lazy marketers, however, try to use the ‘scarcity tactic’ in completely superficial ways. Dropshippers, for example, have virtually unlimited stock of their products, but sometimes throw up a countdown timer of some sort to manipulate buyers into a false sense of urgency. I have also seen this tactic used for a ‘software as a service’ (SaaS) product that I had open in a browser window and was still able to purchase even though the countdown timer had been on ‘zero’ for several days.
- Utilize money-back guarantees unapologetically. In some ways the online space is quite different from the physical world. The best example of what I mean is demonstrated in the economy of digital products and the unconditional money back guarantee. You don’t owe anyone an explanation for asking for your money back and don’t have to feel bad because it’s a ‘digital product’ and can’t be physically returned. In fact, speaking as a self-published author that fully embraces the digital model myself, I can honestly say that I really don’t want to rip people off and am not interested in keeping the money of people that don’t get value out of my product.
- There’s almost always a coupon. If you do a little googling, you can find a coupon code for just about anything. Be aware of websites that are cropping up that just try to steal SEO juice from legitimate sites like RetailMeNot. I’ve been pretty impressed with the Chrome browser extension Honey, though, and generally find it to be better than Googling for coupons.
- You can, and should, opt-out of a Facebook ad if you aren’t interested in it. If you don’t like an ad for any reason, in the upper-right hand corner of the ad you’ll see a downward pointing arrow. Clicking on the arrow will bring up a menu that, when you click it, gives you the option to “hide” the ad. This improves your experience of Facebook, helps train the algorithm on the kind of ads you actually enjoy, and saves the business money by not showing ads to people that aren’t interested in it. In other words: it makes Facebook better for everyone.
- Vote with your wallet. If you insist on using free services for your email, news, and other services, you are going to have to accept advertising. I would argue, though, that actively seeking out ways to pay for serves ultimately better serves your interests. If you are the paying customer, then the company will seek to make you, rather than advertisers, happy first. If you care at all about things like net neutrality and online privacy, paying for the online services you use is a simple habit that you should get a lot of satisfaction out of.
- Ad blockers make the internet worse. Internet marketers are constantly monitoring their ad performance to see what consumers, which means you, like and respond to. Platform algorithms isare working hard to put content that is legitimately interesting to you, in front of your eyes. Ad blockers prevent this process from maturing.
- Study the art of debate. “Keyboard activism” gets a bad rap. When was the last time you went to a city council meeting or a local civic event that involved public participation in democratic institutions? Robert Putnam decried the loss of community engagement (“social capital” in his terminology) way back in 1995. I believe that much of that engagement still exists, but it has transformed and moved into online and other spaces that social scientists are still figuring out how to measure. If you don’t hang out listening to speakers at the public square anymore, you need to take your participation in online debates (even the memes that you ‘like’) somewhat seriously. Algorithms track everything. Big data tools like meta data on google searches are being used to inform policymakers where the public stands on issues. Furthermore, if you read the work of people like Jonathon Haidt and Jay Heinrichs, and follow podcasts like You Are Not So Smart, then with some deliberate practice you will learn how to evaluate sources and be a vocal participant in online debates without it sapping your time and energy.
- Be conscious of what you share. Other people can see when you respond to a page’s posts (like a local news channel asking you to “vote” on a political issue with a like, heart, angry face, etc.). Also, there really is a difference between a like, love, angry face, etc. If you REALLY see something you like and want to give it a big boost in the algorithm, give it some LOVE (hearts), not likes.
- Take your personal InfoSec seriously. Adopting a few simple habits to protect your personal information security is going to be very important in the near future. If you take some remedial steps now to lock down your digital life, you will really be ahead of curve (the old adage “you don’t have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun the person next to you,” applies when it comes to making yourself a difficult target for hackers). Honestly, it’s a pain to set up a password manager, but once you get used to it you will barely think about it. Think of it like paying taxes; a chore to deal with, but that’s the price you pay to live in modern civilization.
I am essentially making the argument that citizenship is more than just making sure you are registered to vote and recycling your newspapers. It is stewardship over yourself as well as the community; the idea that we all influence each other in unknown ways, so we should make an effort to live out the values we purport to uphold and intentionally build the culture around us that we want to reside in.
As more of our lives are spent in virtual space, I urge everyone to deliberately cultivate a positive online culture through behaviors and habits that help make the internet a better place.
Maybe, if we behave as though the internet is the place we hope it will be, then someday it will live up to our expectations.