Are Facebook, Twitter Preventing Students from Being “Good Digital Citizens”?

digital worldThe digital age demands new competencies in order for us to be fully literate citizens. With information now being created by everyone on various web platforms, we need to critically think about what and how we consume.

Today we are also all content curators whether we like it or not, as we decide what we want to read (skim?) online, retweet on Twitter and who we’d rather hide on Facebook.

The participatory nature of these new media platforms has made cultivating a personal web presence very important. This can range from the simple, such as connecting with your friends and meeting new ones, to the complex, like building a portfolio to help you land a job.

And it’s easy to utilize ready-to-go services like Facebook and free blogging providers like Tumblr or Blogger (owned by Google) to start building your “digital footprint.”

But should you be wary of relying on these pre-packaged third-party services for all of your web curation and creation needs?

Yes, say Jim Groom and Tim Owens, founders of the project Reclaim Hosting.

They argue that younger generations, especially college-age students, “are not being adequately prepared to be good ‘digital citizens’ of the 21st century” and these types of services ‘do not allow for online experimentation or for a true understanding of how the Web works.'”

A service like Facebook, for example, has an extensive Terms of Service that dictates what you can and can’t do and its available features enforce its vision. There is very little room for experimentation by users, and everything complex going on under the hood remains vague and mysterious. It all has been simplified so much for the end user that there’s little to do but post simple updates and scroll around clicking on whatever happens to catch your eye.

Reclaim Hosting attempts to make the personal side of the web a much different story. It offers hosting space and a number of tools to help install WordPress so that students can explore the web while tinkering with it and understanding it on a deeper level.

The service is aimed at educators and institutions, not students themselves, and Reclaim Hosting is scalable, able to accommodate a small individual class or an entire university. But the bigger question is will it be sustainable? With these types of projects, grant money often allows it to launch with fanfare, but as time goes on it has to face a financial reality. Where will the money come from? Currently Reclaim Hosting covers the cost of hosting and offers domains for $12/year.

It appears that near the beginning Reclaim Hosting ran on a $5,000 grant, but what will the story be down the road? Can it stay financially sustainable? They mention in the FAQ that the current arrangement is only for the first year and that in the future they will offer a “competitive monthly fee.” for hosting and a domain. Another challenge is the fact that since most students are not cognizant of this problem themselves, they won’t care enough to lobby for it or demand that someone address these issues of online participation.

It’s also interesting to step back and think about what exactly defines a “good digital citizen.” For example, I self-host and “own” my web space, but must abide by the rules of my host who controls the servers where my files reside. This service could theoretically fold and disappear (unlikely but probably a lot likelier than Facebook folding) or impose new rules on what I can or can’t do. And I didn’t code most of my theme designs from scratch; I tweak popular WordPress frameworks that have their own limitations and pre-packaged qualities. Similarly, Reclaim Hosting offers several pre-selected configurations that are convenient to install but necessarily limiting. This makes sense. After all, if you started with the absolute basics of how to build a website (beginning HTML, CSS), you would have to study for many years in order to reach any level of comfort with designing a website according to current design standards and principles. While it’s true that this type of situation is still more creative and ripe for experimentation than Facebook or Blogger, we inevitably brush up against some of the very problems that projects like Reclaim Hosting aims to address.

Overall, Reclaim Hosting is a very interesting project with a positive vision for students and anyone else who wants to better understand the web they work with every day.

And it appears they are having success, as on Feb. 3 they announced they had surpassed 1,000 users, or “reclaimers.” Groom and Owens are excited to continue the project as a result and plan to set pricing for subsequent years soon.

How do you think a service like this will fare against the shiny bells and whistles and addictive nature of the Facebooks of this world?

And do you think we need to fight against companies like Facebook and Google in order to be “good digital citizens?”

Image credit: ilco


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  1. Ben Bulben says:

    I think it boils down to what Reclaim Hosting can provide and at what cost. Are they offering features that people want and can’t get anywhere else? I use GoDaddy for hosting and a WordPress template for the site. It works fine for my needs, and its reasonably cheap. I wouldn’t go with anything else unless there was an obvious enhancement or benefit.

  2. Andrew,
    Thanks for this post about Reclaim Hosting, we appreciate your thinking through what this experiment is about on your blog. For us Reclaim Hosting is really an extension of our day job at UMW, we have already been thinking about a lot of these questions with Domain of One’s Own at UMW, and this project enabled us to let any faculty or student at any institution experiment with this approach for their class (or even at the level of an institution). We imagine it will be specifically focused around the possibilities within higher education because that’s what we know, but that doesn’t mean we are turning anyone away who wants solid, affordable hosting.

    Ben’s point about what we offer is a good one. We don’t really consider ourselves in competition with Godaddy, Bluehost, or any of the major commodity domain registrars or web hosting companies. We’re more interested in demonstrating that it is possible to make the open web part and parcel of what a class, school, or university can provide it’s students and faculty at scale. The new pricing will probably come in around $25 a person for domain and web hosting for an individual account per year (which is a fraction of most major companies for solid support, hosting, and awesome features like Installatron), and the price is considerably cheaper if an institution signs up for accounts in bulk.

    More than anything we hope to build a community around the idea at the heart of this service. Provide a space where academics and students can share what they are doing, how they are using their spaces, and the possibilities of experimenting beyond what’s being done currently. We have no illusions it’s for everyone, but we do know it’s fun to do—that’s why we are continuing. And as you point out in this post, there’s some real potential in turning a whole generation onto the possibilities of becoming sysadmins of their education online.

  3. Thanks for the great comment, Jim. Your reply to Ben’s point makes a lot of sense, and beyond just the price of the service (which I do agree sounds very reasonable), I think that the community aspect can be the real game-changer. If you look at successful web services (even WordPress itself!) it’s mostly due to the fact that there’s an active community of dedicated contributors trying new things, hacking their way to solutions, and then sharing the results. I think that when you can foster that type of environment, it’s a recipe for success.

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