Digital Centership | Introduction
When I was a kid, I had a computer that my dad built from spare parts. I spent my summers coding in Basic and playing games that were stored on 5 1/4″ floppy disks. In the early 1980’s, Computers were for programming and playing games, not for communicating with other people. Most everything else I did as a kid was analog: in high school I had pen pals with whom I exchanged hand-written letters, and I spent my afternoons hogging the single phone line at our house gabbing with my girlfriends. I kept a paper diary and did my research at the library using Encyclopedias. When I was 18 I got my first email account which I thought was pretty nifty.
But the first time I had access to the world wide web, I was 19 and working as a temporary employee at a huge computer company in Silicon Valley. I distinctly remember my co-worker opening up an icon called “Netscape” and showing me a web page with the words “Yahoo!” at the top. He demonstrated how to type in a word or phrase and get all kinds of interesting results that I could explore. In an instant, my world changed.
Suddenly I had access to the whole history of knowledge (or a big chunk of it) and for a girl who didn’t get a lot of educational opportunities growing up, I was in heaven. (Amusingly, I often printed off web pages and kept them in a notebook for reference.)
Fast forward: In 2003 I got pregnant with a set of twins. Both my mother and my mother-in-law were living in other countries and I was in desperate need of guidance, camaraderie and advice. My boss at the time, who just had a baby herself, recommended some message boards for expecting mothers. I signed up and immediately found a tribe of women who provided me with information, yes, but even more importantly with moral support and encouragement. The women I met on those message board became my friends IRL (In Real Life), some of whom I am still friends with today (my twins are now 14).
The mommy message boards led me to a truly important and life-changing discovery. You see, the internet isn’t just a giant information warehouse or an electronic library …
The internet is people. /Heston
When social media as we currently know it today came on the scene (somewhere between 2006-2008), I was thrilled to discover that I now had immediate access to millions of people from all over the world. No longer limited by space and time, I now had the ability to connect with a convergence of people I’ve known throughout my life – and even those I may never meet – all in the same place. For someone who loves people and feels like human beings are the most interesting things in the world, I felt as though the entire universe had opened up to me.
I remain convinced that the internet is the single most valuable invention of the last century. Maybe even the last millennium. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I think the internet has increased the potential for helping humanity achieve some of our loftiest goals, including peacemaking, scientific discovery, global literacy and the eradication of some of the worst social ills.
But these things can’t happen on their own. As a digital media professional, I’m shocked at how many people still look at the internet as some kind of entity unto itself. I always tell people that the internet is a tool. Granted, it is a a powerful tool; but it’s value isn’t in its existence—it’s value is in how we use it.
The internet, and the digital media that we use to tell stories and communicate ideas, require a consciousness that includes our ‘real world’ activities; but that also takes into consideration the unique environments and specific rules of engagement that exist in the various cultures and communities that are constantly forming and evolving in online spaces.
Despite the incredible power of digital media, I see lots of very smart people struggling to use it in a way that benefits their mission or cause offline. I see social media being used in ways that are decidedly anti-social by well-meaning people. I see chaotic messaging around some of the most controversial subjects and deliberate attempts to remove nuance and critical thought through ‘meme culture’.
Those who seem “successful” online are often just the loudest, most aggressive voices; or simply the most prolific. They may garner lots of followers, but produce very little in the way of true social, economic or political impact.
Perhaps most concerning is the number of reasonable, intelligent people who choose to ‘opt out’ of online discourse. These folks either refuse to use the internet altogether, or they stay silent while the most polarizing voices dominate the conversation.
We desperately need leaders who have a positive vision for how they want the world to be – whether in business, social justice, academia, political activism or spiritual practice – and the knowledge, experience & work to back it up. We need them to be ready to simultaneously lead online and IRL.
Digital Centership is a term I invented. It is form of leadership that positions subject-matter experts and teachers at the center of online communities that they can influence toward productive public discourse; and connects them to real world outcomes. This kind of leadership will not emerge on its own. It must be consciously cultivated and supported through a network of individuals who all agree on a set of principles to which they will hold themselves and one another accountable.
For a cultural shift to occur online, it must start with a small number of determined, passionate people willing to prioritize the greater good over their own selfish pursuits or the short term, superficial gains of web traffic, likes and media coverage.
I envision a national network of professionals, educators and subject-matter experts who agree on core principles of productive digital engagement and are committed to support one another as leaders in transforming digital culture into a place where intelligent conversation, healthy conflict and rigorous truth-seeking are valued.
The internet is made of people, and it needs leaders who value people to lead the way. Are you ready?