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This content is taken from the University of York's online course, Becoming a Digital Citizen: an Introduction to the Digital Society. Join the course to learn more.
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Digital society and the information age

Digital technologies have permeated our everyday tasks and interactions in the 21st century. They have changed the way we learn, work and socialise. This reliance on the use of technology in the modern world has led to much consideration of the consequences for society regarding how we engage and interact with each other and how we make use of these digital tools and communications channels.

When thinking about digital society we first need to consider the information society; which is very much linked to the advancement of digital information and communication technologies, not least the internet. Information society refers to societies in which the creation, dissemination, use and manipulation of information has become significant to political, economic, social and cultural endeavours. So what does this mean for the everyday citizen?

The information society has brought many opportunities to a wider social group than ever before. A large proportion of the world’s population, especially those in the western world, have access to information sources and technologies that can enable them to engage online in a plethora of activities, be they economic, social, political or educational. We can take control of our own learning through engagement in free courses such as this one; we can start up an online business without the need for lots of capital (for example, selling crafts on Etsy); and we can broadcast our views and opinions to a global audience, while socialising across geographical boundaries.

What do we mean by digital citizenship?

We have suggested that the ‘digital citizen’ is a person who develops the skills and knowledge to effectively use the internet and digital technologies; who uses digital technologies and the internet in appropriate and responsible ways in order to engage and participate in society and politics. When we interrogate this definition of digital citizenship we need to think about levels of complexity: on a simplistic level we might take digital citizenship as the ability to access digital technologies and stay safe. Indeed, you can see from the aims of this course that these are some of the ideas that are used to structure our discussions and activities. However, we also need to consider and understand the complexities of citizenship as we start to become a digital citizen, using digital media to actively participate in society and political life.

If we look a little closer at the field of ‘citizenship studies’ this will help us to understand what this may mean in a digital society. A citizen is defined as an individual character who is viewed as a member of a society; of the state. Citizenship considers an individual’s behaviour in terms of rights, obligations and functions of said citizen. The obligations (or, if your prefer, duties), of the citizen include work, taxation and obedience of laws. Rights include civil rights such as freedom of expression and speech, and rights to a private life; political rights, like the right to vote or stand for office; and social rights to health care and welfare. In this course we will be considering these rights as we look at the multiple layers of what it means to be a citizen in the modern world and how legislation and the government shape our ability to be democratic citizens.

What does this all mean then in the digital age?

We have said that being a digital citizen requires active participation online, not just access and use. In their book “Being Digital Citizens” (2015) Isin and Ruppert suggest that if we constitute ourselves as digital citizens, we have become subjects of power in cyberspace. We are enacting ourselves on the internet, considering and understanding the opportunities presented by this medium, such as anonymity, communication, and influence. In short we can use digital technologies to engage and participate on many levels in society and political life.


Engin Isin & Evelyn Ruppert, (2015). Being Digital Citizens. London: RLI.

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This article is from the free online course:

Becoming a Digital Citizen: an Introduction to the Digital Society

University of York