Getting online isn’t enough on its own. Everyone needs skills to read, write and participate in the digital world.
In 2018, the world passed an important milestone: more than 50% of people are now online. At this juncture, Web literacy is more critical than ever before.
We make hundreds of choices online every day. For many, it’s now routine to use our phones to pay for coffee or bus tickets, or ask a voice assistant to play our favorite song. But for most of us, the technology we use every day is a black box. We don’t fully understand the implications of the decisions we’re making — or the decisions others are making for us.
The basic Web literacy skills are important. But they don’t necessarily prepare us to identify and address the big questions and serious challenges like bias, harassment and concentration of power in our connected world. From the personal to the political, the role of technology in our lives is evolving rapidly. It’s vital for our understanding of the digital world to evolve too.
Parents share baby photos on social media without a thought. But as children age, some see intimate information shared about them online as a violation of their privacy. Even small decisions have lasting effects. We need strong Web literacy skills to make informed choices.
The internet makes it easy to keep in touch with friends and connect with like-minded people. But how is our well-being impacted by the time we spend clicking and scrolling? Knowing what the research says (and doesn’t say) can help us build healthier relationships with technology.
It’s critical that we understand how the internet is impacting our societies — and are ready to demand change when necessary. In most countries, the internet is both helping and hurting democratic processes. There is greater access to information about candidates, more transparent public data and new avenues for grassroots organizing. But it also facilitates election interference and the spread of harmful disinformation.
In the past year, we have gained a better understanding of how fringe groups, individual actors and governments and political parties exploit digital platforms to influence people. When governments propose solutions, there are risks of new harms. “Fake news laws” in different parts of the world (most recently Singapore) can seriously threaten free speech.
With deeper and more nuanced understanding of the digital world we can join global communities to help human rights defenders seek justice. We can create safer online spaces for young people to understand their sexuality. We can better understand the power dynamics of the online world, from the ad economy to the scale of mass surveillance.
Investing in universal Web literacy is more urgent now than ever. This means supporting educators and activists, and learning with diverse communities. It also means creating products that are intentionally designed to be easy to understand and modify or repair.
The more of us who understand the evolving technologies, norms and business models of the online world, the closer we’ll be to unlocking the full potential of a healthy internet.