Are you a good Netizen?

First, let’s take a visit to the cemetery for technology jargon.

“”Cyberia”” is here; surely no one uses this play on words anymore, unless you can’t come up with a name for your Internet cafe. “”NetSlaves”” is resting peacefully too — while this term was used to describe overworked employees

at the height of the dot-com boom, many of the oppressed are now looking for a new master. There are many others (can we please put “”dot-gone”” out of its misery?), but despite all the odds, “”Netizens”” is still standing.

This Friday will see the latest phase of a public-interest online project called “”eCommons/Agora.”” Developed in collaboration with the University of Toronto, Human Resources Development Canada’s Office of Learning Technologies and a slew of open source volunteers, we’re basically talking about a simple Web site. It will offer search engines, research reports, a news service (called NetiZen news) and the oft-promised “”much more.”” But it is not so much the product that is important here. It is one of the most Canadian examples of the effort to promote the Internet as a vehicle for social consciousness, which might be called the Netizen mythos.

The word “”Netizen”” was probably first coined by Michael Hauben in a 1992 article called “”The Net and Netizens: The Impact the Net Has on People’s Lives.”” Hauben wrote that Netizens are “”people online who actively contribute towards the development of the Net. These people understand the value of collective work and the communal aspects of public communications. These are the people who discuss and debate topics in a constructive manner, who e-mail answers to people and provide help to newcomers, who maintain FAQ files and other public information repositories, who maintain mailing lists, and so on. These are people who discuss the nature and role of this new communications medium. These are the people who act as citizens of the Net.””

The term has since gained wide currency, much to the dismay of those who hold its do-gooder roots dear. Part of the problem is the broad scope of the definition. Most corporations, for example, own Web sites with FAQ lists and provide help to newcomers. For a lot of people, Netizen probably means someone who uses the Internet, though its survival doesn’t mean it has become a part of everyday usage. If it did, there would be no need to refer to the awkward-sounding “”Internet user.”” Even though we use the verb “”surf”” for searching the Internet (never mind that it would be very difficult for even the most agile spider to surf a web) we don’t talk about users as “”surfers.”” At its core, Netizen implies a sort of membership, which is why I am capitalizing the first letter. To be a Netizen is to belong to and serve a higher power.

As a forum to share ideas among Canadians, the eCommons shows us how the idea of Netizenship is becoming more regional than many would have predicted. There are similar online support centres in Lithuania, for example, as well as France and many other countries. Though business has become globalized, the grassroots nature of social activism means that it will take some time before these groups have a similar interdependency. Some regional differences are important — in Japan, for example, Netizen would mean “”network citizen,”” and even the word citizen can carry a different meaning there than it does in North America — but there is also much common ground. For all the crackpots and conspiracy theorists out there, many Netizens are often bright, engaged participants in the new economy.

The question is whether those within the industry are becoming Netizens themselves. Certainly their technical expertise allows them to assist others in making better use of the medium. In a corporate enterprise, the IT staff is required to help the organization better communicate and exchange best practices. These are the same goals of Netizen groups like eCommons. It would be nice to think that these professionals would turn their technology talent to something more than building a business or their own resume. No, not all IT managers will consider themselves Netizens. Just the best ones.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Shane Schick
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