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July 07, 2006

The Shared Idea Of Citizen

Dan Gillmor is a highly respected commentator on the subject of citizen journalism and, among other things, how citizen journalism will/might affect the ongoing shifts in the world of news organizations. This week, he responded to the proposed shift in language from citizen journalism to networked journalism by acknowledging the usefulness of the distinction and also sticking to his phrase. As he writes:

Not a bad distinction. But the most vital part of this is the fact that it leads us to a better informed citizenry. That is the ultimate goal, at least in my thinking.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “citizen” in four ways:

1. A person owing loyalty to and entitled by birth or naturalization to the protection of a state or nation.
2. A resident of a city or town, especially one entitled to vote and enjoy other privileges there.
3. A civilian.
4. A native, inhabitant, or denizen of a particular place: “We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community” (Franklin D. Roosevelt).
I’m a proud American (even when I’m not proud of my nation’s official actions or its political leaders). I am a citizen, for sure, in the first definition.

But in this context I use the word more to reflect the other definitions, not just as one who is a formal citizen of a nation-state. In a globalizing world, the distinction is less important than it used to be — not unimportant, by any means, but no longer necessarily the defining status of a human being. Before this radical evolution is over, in a few decades, formal citizenship may seem almost quaint.

The citizens I refer to are members of communities, large and small, geographic and interest-based. We inform each other, using networks and other tools.

Citizenship carries responsibility in any community. Indeed, the idea of being responsible to one’s self and one’s neighbors (virtual or otherwise) is an essential part of what I’m trying to accomplish.

Look closely at the dictionary definitions. With the exception of 'civilian', citizen is strictly defined with regard to place: nation, state, town and so forth. This is not surprising. Our parents and grandparents and all ancestors who came before them lived in places. They connected to other people and they shared values and shared fates with other people because they lived together with those people in places. Our shared idea of citizen is, therefore, replete with place-based content. So is our shared idea of community.

But our actual experience of what it means to owe loyalty to a group, or enjoy protections and privileges of participation in a group have dramatically shifted from the context of place to the context of organization -- whether that organization is formal or informal, for-profit, non-profit or governmental, or large or small. The same goes for our actual experience of the non-place specific meaning of community. In our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families, 'community' happens when we share purposes that we pursue with others -- not because of the addresses where we happen to reside.

All of which means that Gillmor and the rest of us need much greater clarity about the variety of issues Gillmor raises:

Do we wish to save the meaning of citizenship from becoming quaint?
If so, how do we strip it of place-requirements while simultaneously shifting the responsibilities of citizenship to contexts of organization and shared purpose?
Is 'interest-based' participation sufficient to support the meaning of citizenship? Are the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship contingent only on shared interest? Or, must there be shared purpose and the obligation to pursue those purposes together?

And. then, there is also this question:

Is the overarching objective of citizen journalism or networked journalism -- or, for that matter, any potentially powerful new idea related to the safety, sanity and sustainability of the planet -- to foster a better informed place-denominated citizenry? Or, however important that might be, would the more potent objective be to foster much better informed folks who can take responsibility to be the best possible employees/executives, customers/voters, investors, networkers, family members and friends -- that is, responsibilities in the core roles that define life in a world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families?

Posted by Doug Smith on July 7, 2006 01:30 PM | Permalink