It shouldn’t, and probably doesn’t, come as a shock that one can buy a passport. With 12 months and $700,000 to spare, the Schengen Area is your playground. $150,000 and 4 years and you’re good to frolic down under. It’s programs like these that remind us that for all the talk of globalization and a borderless world, borders remain pretty solid. There’s insanely high barriers for those lacking capital–money, time–who seek to cross borders for extended periods of time. In order to obtain a US H-1B visa, a skilled-immigrant visa, one has to successfully navigate a lottery process with under 33% chance of success. This only makes one eligible to apply. The process, if successful, will cost one’s employer about $9000. Yeepers. Seems like you’ve got to pay your way into the big leagues.
Passports: Freely given?
The internet has been proposed to be the cross-border nation we all get to share in–globalization for all! You can have a seamless conversation with someone across the world(if your Wi-Fi can handle it) and engage in commerce with almost any (unsanctioned) individual… for a while, one could even get married online! Yet the internet continues to find ways to become more like the world(I’m not talking about the metaverse) by building borders within itself. The internet today looks much like the real world: pay-to-play.
Netizenship is a new word that has arrived in recent years to describe the invisible privileges and obligations of being a member of the online world. It has been used to describe the ease with which one can go about their virtual lives and how their online presence impacts offline lives. The term refers to an individual’s ability to be an active participant in society and how others view them due to their access to various aspects of daily life, including education, culture, commerce, and politics.
A netizen is a citizen, one who can fully participate in society. In a perfect world, everyone would be a netizen. The internet has become as necessary to human communication as roads or footpaths. It’s also one of the most powerful ways for individuals to make their voices heard! It’s a privileged space, the internet, and while it may appear open and borderless to billions of people around the world, it might have more borders than ever before, especially if you don’t have the ability or money to pay through them.
You need a device to access the internet. A data plan of some sort. In some spaces, a particular language even: not just English or Spanish–some web spaces need a far more specialized tongue to occupy. People take advantage of the netizen privilege: educators are accused of violating the trust of their students, artists and musicians have their works stolen, others use Wikipedia to troll politicians. The list is endless, with many examples of people using the internet as a tool to effect material changes in the world. We likely do, too, as we casually flit through the expansive world wide web. As a society, we are becoming more aware that access to information does not mean individuals have access to knowledge. Still, we don’t seem to have learned how to filter content to account for this flaw. All it takes to shout on the internet is access, and it just so happens that access is something that can almost always be bought. With money, tech-savvy, or even a penchant for populist rhetoric.
The internet is an incredible tool for self-expression and communication. It has done wonders for us as a species by making information available to everyone. It, however, has also enabled people to become far more powerful than they were before this space was introduced into our lives–we’ve all lived through a Trump presidency and the tweet-storms it brought. We’ve also seen online power re-asserted by its denial: Trump again. While the internet was not originally conceived as a way to enrich those with access in other spheres of life, it has become one of the greatest bastions of power in the world, producing and re-producing real-world inequality.
Groups that may be historically disenfranchised use the internet in ways that may not be as obvious or accessible offline. It provides an opportunity to get together and create communities online where they’re free from social pressures and expectations. The internet can provide an outlet for self-expression and community for all kinds of people.
Today, the netizen is a privileged concept that comes with certain expectations attached. It’s a privilege that most of us do not think about until we are denied access to this space. Some groups are more likely to be denied access than others: women, people who don’t speak English fluently, people who haven’t had the resources to gain access from a young age. While much of this is made obvious by society and (for some) cannot be changed, it also becomes apparent on the internet where “your identity” is much easier for others to discover than in the physical world.
The internet has taken on some interesting characteristics of its own since it was first introduced for public use. It has become a space where the line between fiction and reality is blurred, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. When you’re online, you can choose how to present yourself, which may not accurately reflect your identity in any other sphere of life. Some parts of the internet even encourage you to (mis)represent yourself! Emojis, Bitmojis and the like provide online masks that are meant to enhance communication. Yet when the enhancement fails to fall in line with the face behind it, these tools do end up blurring communication! Some examples are harmless–the LOL sent at an unfunny joke–yet the concept should suggest that there must be more damaging cases to be found. The sarcastic text meant to be intentionally unclear: that can be read as polite or exceedingly mean. The posed Bereal(had to delete this app after 2 days it was torture). The internet creates anonymity and frees people from societal expectations in ways that the physical world simply cannot provide. Yet there are almost no repercussions for those who choose to harass others in ways they wouldn’t have the option to do offline. Truth, falsity-these things have become less clear on platforms as they’ve evolved over time, making a space where “your identity” is up for grabs to be taken or denied at will by others. One can easily assert their online identity, and just as easily have it taken away by another’s assertion of its invalidity.
The internet has given us a place where we can have control over how we present ourselves to the world. Millions of people use it every day in positive ways, demonstrating ways in which the internet has transformed society. But with all the possibilities and opportunities that being an active participant on the internet might afford you, there’s still one thing that remains true about this virtual space and its borders: you can only be a netizen if you have access to the internet. That access isn’t as naturally given as a passport(which is admittedly a somewhat terrible example because passports don’t come equal, and aren’t always free either? Maybe let’s focus on the residency behind the passport—it’s essence). It is bought.
So as we tweet tweet tweet, or blog, or post tiktoks, or whatever else it is you find yourself doing on the internet today, think about what it cost to enable that action. It probably isn’t as much as it takes to buy your way into a country. It is, however, almost assuredly more expensive than $free.