Four Surprising Lessons I Learned From Students at #Digital4Good

“I can help, I will help, I did help!” — student leaders at #Digital4Good

Most of the conversations I have about online behavior have negative overtones. Sadly, it’s not just my professional discussions, which naturally tend to focus on the negative. It happens in my non-professional life too.

In fact, most conversations about the internet tend to begin and end with the far-from nuanced sentiment “the internet is the worst and people are awful.” Often, when we get together with colleagues, friends, or family, we immediately start talking about the unfortunate things we’ve experienced or heard about online.

But on September 18th, 2017, the conversation was different.

Last week, students, educators, and the tech industry came together for the very first #Digital4Good Day at Twitter Headquarters to celebrate student leadership, and discuss the challenges facing digital citizens today. Organized by the non-profit #ICANHELP, the event was the first of its kind, but hopefully not the last.

We heard from students who created social media mentoring programs at their schools, founded volunteering organizations that have gone national, created a website for people with dietary restrictions, and much, much more.

For my part, I learned a few surprising and ultimately powerful lessons from those students. I’d like to share them with you.

Lesson 1: Relax: The internet isn’t all bad.

Like I said, it’s easy (and often tempting) to dwell on the negative, but it gets you nowhere. The students at #Digital4Good believe in a better internet, and they know it’s possible. After all, it’s their future that they’re shaping.

Instead of dwelling on the negative uses of social media and other platforms, these students are meeting such behavior with kindness and respect at every turn, often taking the higher road and respecting everyone involved when facing hate.

That’s a lesson we can all use. These students are shining examples of individuals facing the nuanced complexities of our digital age without giving up or giving into despair. Inevitably, we all make mistakes on and offline.

We could all use more patience and understanding when relating to others, and we can certainly pay more attention to the positive things going on around us.

Lesson 2: The kids are alright.

My colleagues and I left #Digital4Good impressed and inspired by teenagers going above and beyond to improve their local communities, both online and off.

Students discussed the challenges of online civics at an impressively composed and wise level. They dove into the most challenging dilemmas social media moderators face today, including:

  • Freedom of expression in the digital age
  • Defining hate speech — where is the line crossed?
  • Political posts and political propaganda on social media

They tackled these complex questions thoughtfully and with surprising wisdom for their ages. They demonstrated the compelling power of minds set to positive motivation.

Like I said, they have already improved their online and offline communities. And they are committed to doing more and bigger things.

Lesson 3: Forget IRL. The internet is officially real life.

“Our lives are blurred across online and offline. Everything is real life. They’re just different formats.”

A panelist said this during the Tech Power Panel, and it rings true for students in 2017.

When I discuss user and player behavior with my colleagues, we make a point of avoiding generalization. Very few people are always “good” or always “bad.” We are all subject to change and many things can affect our behavior online, from day to day.

Sometimes, we even see people not only taking responsibility for their actions — but also taking on the challenge of making online spaces better for everyone. Those users and players know the importance of not being a passive bystander. They know that their actions matter and they understand the importance of voicing their opinions.

I ask you: does that sound similar to what it means to be a citizen? You have your rights and you have your obligations. Being an online citizen is still being a citizen. We are all accountable and responsible for our actions online just as we are off the screen.

Student leaders get this. And they remain committed to positive action despite all the challenges in front of them.

Lesson 4: It’s time to raise the bar.

We will and we must continue to discuss online behavior and how we can all play a part in improving things.

The example of those young leaders will remind me to talk more about the positive examples happening every day online. Nothing is as simple as “good” or “bad” online and offline, so let’s not dwell and get lost on the negatives.

I saw the faces of those Internet users I had previously seen behind an avatar speaking up against cyberbullying or encouraging new users on a platform. Their commitment was contagious.

As an industry, there’s a lot we can do, from the way we design safety into our products to how we facilitate systems where users can learn and change. It’s up to us to place our pieces of the puzzle with the same courage those teenagers demonstrate daily.

For my part, I’m committed to collaborating with industry partners, schools, and society at large to discuss our digital challenges and find actionable ways to increase the health of our online communities. Just recently I presented the Six Essential Pillars of a Healthy Online Community. In October I will be sharing how online communities can prepare for and react to worldwide events and trending topics.

Now, the real question is — what will you do to encourage good digital citizenship?

Feel like you missed out? Don’t worry — #Digital4Good was live-streamed on Periscope, and you can watch the recording.

Check out the Tech Power Panel discussion, featuring industry experts from friends at Supercell, Unity Technologies, and more.

Follow #ICANHELP on Twitter for upcoming events.

Follow me on Twitter for community building tips, new blog posts, and upcoming events.

Photos courtesy of @icanhelp

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