What should be the age of digital majority?

Last week Jessica Reingold of the University of Mary Washington  suggested that educational institutions committed to personal student domains should make students’ development of such spaces a gradual process.  I asked how such a process might apply to younger netizens, since I have a couple at home and have been thinking about this.Jessica made an argument that surprised me.  I’d summarize it thusly, although by all means go read Jessica’s post and make up your own mind as to how shoddy a job of summarizing I have done.

  1. Adolescents say, write, and express many things they later regret (sometimes not all that much later in the grand scheme of things).
  2. Between the Internet Archive , Google and like entities, everything published to the public web is both public and permanent.
  3. Therefore, putting stuff on the public web before you are, say, 20, is a bad idea.

It struck me how Jessica’s suggestion puts “first blog post” in the same age range as “first vote” and “first (legal) alcoholic beverage” as the sort of event that goes along with no longer being a minor.  Tim Berners-Lee referred to the notion of an “age of digital majority” in a 1996 speech.  To the extent there is an age of internet majority, existing law sets it much lower.  Current US law allows a 13 year old to sign up for a website without written parental permission. My kids are about that age, which is why I’m thinking about this issue now. Even setting aside the many children younger than 13 who have all sorts of social media accounts, this raises some questions.

Jessica suggests that young people should wait to have a permanent web presence until after society has judged them to have enough judgement to drive a car, vote in elections, or join the armed forces.  Why set the bar so high?  She writes:

Adolescents are still developing and discovering who they are (I’m still discovering who I am and i’ve finished my undergraduate degree!) and I’d imagine it’d be difficult to develop a digital identity without some sort of foothold on what you’d want that to be and if you’d want it to mimic your in-person identity or not.

Even though I’m middle aged by most measures, I know that my identity is still developing.  How does one decide one’s identity is stable enough to document?

When the notion of personal digital identity is introduced can also have an effect on the digital habits a person develops.  Jessica asserts that for new college students, “Sticking them with the task of trying to create a digital identity that’s not in the form of preset social media norms is like asking them to have multiple existential crises.”  Perhaps the difficulty she mentions here happens because, by the time we discuss with a young person the notion of digital identity, they are well trained feeders of the Facebook, Twitter and Google data mines.  Is there an opportunity to start the process earlier so that a young person learns the habits of digital identity building , even if they are highly scaffolded, instead of those of preset social media norms?

Let me continue with a caveat that is big enough it probably should have been at the top of the post rather than buried 500 words down. The questions I’m asking and Jessica is, to her credit, trying to answer are not questions I had to deal with as an adolescent.  I was over Jessica’s suggested age threshold at the dawn of the public web, and was over 30 before I made my first blog post.

Even so I wonder if Jessica’s cautious approach may unintentionally limit the extent to which a young person internalizes digital identity building. Alan Kay is reported to have said , “Technology is everything invented after you were born.” Does waiting until someone is 19 or 20 make it more likely that digital identity tools will feel like technology per Kay’s definition?

Unlike Jessica, I’m not sure to go about all this.  The model she proposes has, I think, a good sense of progression from simpler to more complex tasks.  I do wonder how well tying the process to formal entities like majors and courses will hold up in the long run.  As I’ve worked on my digital footprint, I’ve consciously kept it disconnected from institutional affiliations.  As one moves through life, these come and go, and I worry that content tied closely to an affiliation long past will be effectively orphaned.

Looking back at this, it reads much more like a rebuttal than I intended it, but I’ll leave it out here anyway, hoping it will expand the conversation.


2 thoughts on “What should be the age of digital majority?

  1. Jess Reingold

    “How does one decide one’s identity is stable enough to document?”
    Haha that’s a huge question! It’s definitely one to consider though!

    “As one moves through life, these come and go, and I worry that content tied closely to an affiliation long past will be effectively orphaned.”
    This is so true, and that’s why when I visit classes I recommend the students create subdomains for their courses and leave their top-level domain for themselves.


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