Users of Online Intermediaries as Citizens

Most naturally, social media providers and search engines see their users as consumers.  As commercial enterprises, they aim to reap profits, which users help secure with advertising and information revenue.  Yet they should also view their users as citizens.  Because intermediaries are designed to enable public discourse, they facilitate the formation of a citizenry.

Citizenship is not simply a matter of legal status enjoyed by members of a body politic, though it serves that crucial role.  It refers to one’s engagement in public life as well.  Public participation is often viewed as essential for members of a democracy to form a citizenry.  As John Dewey wrote, citizenship extends beyond the legal dimension to include “all of the relationships . . . involved in membership in a community.”  For John Stuart Mill, citizens are individuals who develop their faculties through active engagement in public life.  In this sense, citizenship “provides what other roles cannot, namely an integrative experience which brings together the multiple role activities of the contemporary person and demands that the separate roles be surveyed from a more general point of view.”

Online intermediaries provide essential tools for citizenship.  Individuals rooted in our national polity connect, debate, and pursue common interests on intermediaries’ platforms.  Seeing users as citizens is important for intermediaries interested in understanding what is at stake when they host and index cyber hate.  This leads to the question of how intermediaries impact citizenry in the Information Age, to which I will turn in my next post.

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