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Digital Citizenship: The Internet, Society, and Participation

Author: Karen Mossberger, Caroline J. Tolbert, Ramona S. McNeal
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008
Review Published: September 2009

 REVIEW 1: Carlos Nunes Silva

For some observers, Internet use is likely to fragment the sense of political community and to accelerate the decline of social capital, while for others, on the contrary, it has the potential to advance citizen participation in society and to increase economic opportunities. In Digital Citizenship, Karen Mossberger, Caroline Tolbert, and Ramona McNeal offer strong evidence, based on data collected in national surveys in the US, that Internet use benefits economic opportunity, civic engagement, and political participation. The book adds new insights, supported by a careful statistical analysis, and is a valuable addition for all those interested in citizenship and ICT public policy issues. It also includes summaries of the methods applied, which will certainly prove useful for students and researchers interested in similar statistical analysis.

In the introductory chapter, Mossberger and colleagues discuss the concept of digital citizenship, or the ability to participate in society online, and the rights and opportunities that individuals have for full participation in society through the use of the Internet. Digital citizenship is defined as the ability to participate in society online, and digital citizens are those who use the Internet on a daily basis. Since digital citizenship requires educational competencies as much as technology access and skills, technology inequality is seen as one more element of the larger set of social inequalities.

In the first part (chapters 2, 3 and 4), the book explores the relation between digital citizenship, equal opportunities, civic engagement, and political participation, and assesses the benefits of social inclusion in society online. Chapter 2 shows how Internet use leads to higher incomes, controlling for other factors such as education, occupation, and age, and how education and training in digital skills are essential components to narrow digital inequality. Chapter 3 explores the benefits of diverse forms of Internet use (e-mail, chat rooms, and online news) for civic engagement, concluding that the Internet promotes political discussion and increases interest in politics, voter turnout, and political participation. In chapter 4 the book addresses different forms of political communication on the Internet and examines how civic engagement translates into political participation. The evidence collected suggests a positive correlation between political participation and online news consumption, a pattern reinforced by the different forms of two-way communication over the Internet (e.g., chat rooms and emails), demonstrating the mobilizing potential of the Internet.

The second part of the book (chapters 5 and 6) examines and discusses patterns of exclusion from society online and the consequences of that exclusion. It provides a review of prior research on digital exclusion, examines trends over time, and describes the factors leading to digital citizenship. Among other conclusions, it is suggested that technology disparities based on race and ethnicity tend to persist, as well as gaps based on income and education, while the gender dimension appears to be no longer a barrier for digital citizenship. Minorities seem to remain off-line because of cost, while in the case of older and less-educated citizens the reason appears to be mainly lack of interest. In sum, these findings show that digital inequality reflects class or socioeconomic divisions, as well as racial and ethnic divides, corroborating previous research findings on similar issues. It also explores digital inequalities associated with broadband, concluding that there are gaps in broadband use linked to social factors and not only to differences in the infrastructure (urban-rural divide), a pattern similar to those found previously in the frequency of Internet use. Also in this case, the evidence shows that appropriate physical access is not the only factor, since technology skills are also a critical factor.

In sum, the findings presented in this book show how digital citizenship is crucial to prosper in the information economy and how this is even more important for those in the lower part of the economic and social hierarchy. Findings point to increases in civic engagement, which seems to contradict previous forecasts that politics online would fragment the sense of political community or accelerate the decline in social capital. On the contrary, the evidence examined in this book demonstrates that the use of the Internet is linked to civic engagement, a trend reinforced by broadband access. Age, income, and education explain most of the disparities in access and use, but race and ethnicity are also important influences. And as the authors suggest, "if Internet use enhances civic engagement and political participation, then exclusion from digital citizenship exacerbates existing inequalities that are based on race, ethnicity, income, and education" (149).

In the final section of the book, in chapter 7 ("Public education and universal access: Beyond the digital divide"), the book offers recommendations for future public policy at federal, state, and local levels, centred on the promotion of universal access and equal education, which should not be ignored by decision-makers as they are grounded on solid empirical evidence. If fully implemented, these recommendations, namely one about "free municipal broadband as a way to extend high-speed access and develop widespread digital citizenship" (156), will probably advance digital inclusion and, through that, economic opportunity, civic engagement, and political participation.

In short, what Digital Citizenship so well demonstrates, with detailed empirical evidence and accurate statistical analysis, is that the basis for citizenship in the information age is quality public education combined with universal broadband access to the Internet, increasingly the most common communication and information medium in contemporary developed societies.

Carlos Nunes Silva:
Carlos Nunes Silva, PhD, is Professor Auxiliar in the Department of Geography at University of Lisbon, Portugal. His research interests include local government policies, urban and metropolitan governance, history and theory of urban planning, and ethics in urban planning. He is also interested in the role of information and communication technologies in urban planning and in the societal impacts of e-Planning.  <cnsilva@fl.ul.pt>

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