In Conversation with Digital Lifestyle Expert David Ryan Polgar

In Conversation with Digital Lifestyle Expert David Ryan Polgar

David Polger image

A frequent speaker and respected tech commentator/writer, Digital Lifestyle Expert and Tech Ethicist David Polgar’s ideas and thoughts have been featured in The Boston Globe, Financial Times, Sydney Morning Herald, Forbes, HuffPost Live, New York Times, just to name a few.

With a background as an attorney and educator, he digs below the surface to examine our tech use from an ethical, legal, and emotional perspective. The result is a unique look into emerging trends and business insight, with an overall goal of humanizing the online experience.

Be Social. Be Smart. recently had the opportunity to talk to Polgar about his thoughts on social media use and digital citizenship.


1. David, can you tell us a bit about what you do and why you do it?

To me, our evolving relationship with technology and how we adjust to it is one of the most important issues facing society. Technology has a massive impact on what I like to call the 3Cs: creativity, critical thinking, and conversational skills. Whether the impact is positive or negative is all about how you use technology.

I am often referred to as a Tech Ethicist: exploring our relationship with tech from an ethical, legal, and emotional perspective. I have a background as an attorney and college professor. A few years ago I noticed that nearly everything I was writing and talking about dealt with the various ways technology was affecting our existence. In late 2012 I released a short ebook titled “Wisdom in the Age of Twitter,” which led to a few press and speaking opportunities. In late 2013 I gave a TEDx talk on “Mental Obesity” that led to a bunch more opportunities.

What I’ve come to realize is that more people need to be inserted into the conversation with how we use technology. We cannot fully expect that the creators of the apps, gadgets, and social media platforms will provide support with regards to appropriate and healthy ways to use their products. Their goal is to sell a product, which they are obviously doing with great success. It then becomes society’s responsibility to decide how those products are incorporated in regards to safety, privacy, and etiquette. Technology is having an incredible impact in shaping society, but too often we leave it up to the technologists to determine how we should use their products. We need to bring in psychologists, attorneys, educators, sociologists, philosophers, etc, to the conversation.

There is a line from Spiderman that says: “With great power comes great responsibility”. Emerging tech, especially social media, offers every person a great level of power. But how do we use that power? We see people who abuse their power through cyberbullying, trolling, and catfishing. At the same time, others use their power to raise money for charity, spread useful information, and communicate in an empathic manner. The clear distinction is digital citizenship.

2. How do you define digital citizenship?

I have noticed that “digital citizenship” has slightly different meanings throughout the world. For example, in the UK it seems much more closely associated with Internet Safety than in the United States. The definition I use is that digital citizenship is the the expectations of a digital citizen in regards to ethics, responsibilities, and etiquette. It is about being safe, secure, and savvy. It is a large umbrella term that includes all the values that are important to be a good person online.

It is analogous to the expectations we have for people as citizens. We expect them to meet certain societal norms in regards to respect, engagement, and etiquette.

Digital Citizenship is becoming an absolutely necessary skill because more people are becoming aware that it’s not enough to merely have access to tech and the Internet. Similar to driving a car, society instills a great deal of education and rules to ensure both individual and societal safety and enjoyment.

The Internet is only as good as we are.

3. How do you think young people can ensure their digital footprint reflects the way they will want to be perceived in the future?

For better or worse, we are all becoming our own brands. On the plus side, the social media landscape allows savvy individuals to reach a huge audience instantly. On the down side, there is a lot of work involved in curating an image that is authentic, relatively appropriate, and multidimensional.

Here is the struggle for young people and their digital footprint/digital tattoo: how do you project an image that is ideal but also authentic? Some people are so scared by the prospect of a negative online reputation that they shy away from social media or go towards anonymous posting and platforms that allows for impermanence like Snapchat. That is typically a poor strategy because most people now expect others do have a robust online presence. There are certain jobs, particularly in the media, where a strong social media presences is a requirement for the job.

To ensure that young people have a digital footprint that reflects the way they want to be perceived, they have to take control of their “personal narrative” that is being developed. Similar to a brand manager that is mindful of negative material about a product, young people need to be vigilant about the online content that is forming their reputation. It is wise to set up a Google Alert with your name, or other services like Mention.

It is also a good idea to have a regular checkup of your online reputation. What comes up when you Google yourself? The first page of Google is obviously the most important. Ensure that the narrative you want out about you comes out in the first page.

4. What is the benefit of two-way communication on social media?

Communication on social media is a double-edged sword. It allows for immediacy and broad connection, but also becomes a potential pitfall for impulsive communication. Social media has eliminated the gap between what is in your head and what is said, often with dire consequences. The major struggle is communicating with a sense of empathy, realizing that behind one’s avatar is a human being filled with emotions. We often have an “online disinhibition effect” that causes one to say something online that they would never say to someone’s face. That’s a problem. If you wouldn’t say the content to someone’s face, it is probably not a good idea to write it. Hiding behind your own avatar may make you feel safe, but you may be destroying your reputation in the process.

On the plus side, social media allows you to form connections and communicate with such a wide range of people. It opens up opportunities that would never exist without social media.

5. Can you share some examples of impressive digital citizenship?

One great example of impressive digital citizenship has been the movement towards crowdfunding, with sites like Kickstarter. This coincides with a recognition that the Internet is like a city: it needs positive, active engagement in order for it to be a thriving and welcoming place to be. Successful crowdfunding relies on the best aspects of the Internet and it is a place where people can help each other out and come together on a common cause. Instead of utilizing one’s digital power to taunt others through snarky comments, crowdfunding relies on people leveraging their digital power to benefit a mission. That’s impressive.

Another example of impressive digital citizenship has been young people changing the online culture towards cyberbullying and troll behavior. There is a great campaign that the Digital Citizenship Summit has partnered up with called #iCanHelp ( The campaign is about changing the tone online by injecting more positive messages, while also reacting properly to negative messages.

There has been recognition that negativity leads to more negativity, and positivity leads to more positivity. Online culture benefits from trying to reduce the vitriol online. One way to do this is by eliminating the ability of anonymous posting, which outlets like the Huffington Post have done.

6. What is your top tip for teenagers using social media today?

The best advice is to maintain control over your image, as opposed to letting others craft your online reputation. A young person should create a quality bio, have article posts, and videos that provide a window into their true personality. If those are missing, someone searching is going to form their opinion of them based on a smattering of other posts. Clarify who you are online; this is the best way to prevent others from wrongly perceiving who you are.


Twitter: @TechEthicist (David is Co-founder of the Digital Citizenship Summit)

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