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The other day, I happened to be taking a virtual stroll through the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and I was struck by a statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Horemheb that was carved before he ascended the throne. At the time of its creation in the 14th century BCE, Horemheb, (whose name can also be transliterated as ‘Haremhab’) was a high-ranking military officer, but you’d never guess that from looking at the statue. We might expect to see him depicted as a warrior with weapons at the ready; instead, he’s depicted as a scribe sitting cross-legged on the ground with a papyrus scroll laid across the front of his linen kilt. A colleague tells me that this sort of thing was not uncommon, and it shows the scribe’s exalted place in Egyptian society. In a world where only a tiny fraction of the population was literate, the ability to read and write was akin to wizardry (indeed, a magician in Egyptian literature is invariably said to be a “good scribe and an exceedingly wise man”), and it offered a ticket to a more comfortable life. Of course, if Horemheb were alive today, he wouldn’t be boasting about his ability to read and write. Instead, he’d likely be highlighting his digital literacy.

What is digital literacy?

We live in an increasingly wired world even elementary-school children have their own smartphones. This makes the ability to navigate, interpret, and create in the digital space absolutely vital. But while Horemheb could learn his hieroglyphs and call it a day, digital literacy requires us to navigate a constantly shifting landscape. Consider The Company Formerly Known as Twitter–what began as a straightforward microblogging site is now attempting to metamorphosize into the digital equivalent of a Swiss army knife. Meanwhile, AI is revolutionizing the way we create. Digital literacy requires agility. 

What are the foundations of digital literacy?

Wan Ng argues that digital literacy ultimately rests on three core skills:

  • Cognitive is the ability to solve problems, make decisions, or think critically.
  • Technical refers to the ability to use technologies, whether that’s writing a blog post with a keyboard or using video-editing software to make a video essay. 
  • Social/emotional is more amorphous, but it includes things like understanding the Web’s social mores and practicing basic cybersecurity.  

Building on this, the American Library Association has devised a framework to understand digital literacy. It has five facets: finding, understanding, evaluating, creating, and communicating.


Finding is complicated by the fact that finding information online is very different from finding information in traditional sources. Say you wanted to learn more about Pharaoh Horemheb. In the offline world, you could go to your local library and either ask a librarian for a recommendation or browse the card catalog on your own. Chances are, you’ll be able to find a basic introductory book like Peter A. Clayton’s Chronicle of the Pharaohs. To find its information about Horemheb, all you need to do is look at the table of contents or perhaps the index. What you find there may answer all your questions, or it may suggest further avenues of exploration. 

Searching for information online, on the other hand, is often far more complicated. If you plug ‘Horemheb’ into Google, you’re immediately presented with around 549,000 results. The first page of results will likely include material from sources such as the Encyclopedia Britannica and University College London. You don’t need a degree in Egyptology to know that these sources are likely to be reliable. But Google will show you other sources, including Wikipedia and the Tour Egypt website, and you might not know whether they’re trustworthy. You might even be baffled by the fact that Horemheb’s name can be spelled differently in different sources due to the vagaries of transliteration (for example, the German Wikipedia article refers to him as ‘Haremhab’). If you’re looking for something more in-depth about him, you have the additional challenge of formulating the right search query. It’s a bit like going to a salad bar and finding that nothing is labeled.


Digital literacy requires more than just basic linguistic comprehension. Search engines don’t just give you text. You’ll likely find audio and visual material as well. Some of this material can have multiple layers of meaning. Memes such as Distracted Boyfriend are a good example of how there can be more than meets the eye when it comes to images on the Internet. If you don’t understand the cultural context, you might think the image is only about infidelity, but in time it has been used to make a variety of satiric points about people or groups who are distracted by something that seems new and appealing to them at first glance while ignoring things that are more familiar.


One of the best things about the Web is that it gives everyone a platform to share their perspective with the world. One of the worst things about the Web is that it gives everyone a platform to share their perspective with the world. You can’t always take what you see online at face value, as the Internet is rife with misinformation and disinformation. The former is simply false, while the latter is also inaccurate but is intended to actively mislead others. Put another way, your uncle who has a shaky grasp of economics is likely spouting misinformation, whereas Donald Trump’s claim that he actually won the 2020 election is an example of disinformation. Sometimes, it’s the result of simple mistakes or misunderstandings, but there are also plenty of bad actors out there who are deliberately looking to mislead others. One of the reasons many professors discourage their students from citing Wikipedia is that, while the site can appear trustworthy and reliable, at the end of the day it’s still a source that anyone can edit. The story of Jar’Edo Owens is a good example of why you can’t always trust Wikipedia. Luckily, the Web also offers a number of tools to help creators evaluate information

In a similar vein, creators should strive to make it as easy as possible for others to evaluate their work. This can be something as simple as using footnotes or hyperlinks to highlight the sources they’ve referenced. It can also mean being upfront about potential conflicts of interest, even if they aren’t actually an issue. For example, when members of EA’s Creator Network receive early access to new games for the purpose of making reviews, they will usually highlight that fact prominently in their video


The Internet has turned into a cornucopia of different types of information, from traditional prose works to video essays. Each has their own subtype, whether it’s a long, thoughtful rumination on YouTube or bite-sized videos on TikTok. Success in the digital world often requires creators to take a diversified approach to content creation. It doesn’t have to be a major headache, though. Even something as simple as supplementing traditional essays with social media content can work wonders. 

Another component of creating is understanding fair use. The transformation of content is a key aspect of the modern Internet. Memes are a good example of this, as they allow people to take an image and put their own spin on it. People also draw on others’ content for the purpose of criticism or commentary. But if you’ve ever listened to your favorite creator complain about false copyright strikes on YouTube, you know that this can be a minefield. Being digitally literate means understanding the fine line between copying/plagiarism and transformation.


While the Internet can seem like a bilious and toxic place, it can also provide fertile ground for genuine and meaningful connections. Long before Zoom and Skype, chatrooms and instant messaging apps allowed people to interact like never before. But while online interactions offer many advantages, they also have plenty of potential pitfalls. When we interact with someone face-to-face, things like body language and tone of voice can modulate our words. But when you’re only relying on the written word alone, it’s easy for things to be misconstrued. Something that was intended as a lighthearted comment can appear cruel or judgmental. Moreover, there’s no universally accepted solution to this problem. Sure, emojis can help, but they’re not appropriate for every setting. And like memes, they can have their own layers of meaning. As Michelle Cyca and Trish Riswick over at HootSuite put it, “[y]ou definitely don’t want to be the grocery store tweeting ‘Check out our eggplants!!! 🍆🤤’, unless you’re hoping to get some very NSFW photos in your DMs”! 

Successful communication also requires creators to understand the mores of Internet culture. A colleague of mine had an elderly family member who always wrote everything with the caps lock key engaged. To many netizens, this is considered bad form akin to conducting an entire conversation while shouting at the top of one’s lungs. While breaking these rules of decorum won’t necessarily render you a persona non grata in the digital sphere, it won’t make you very popular, either. 

Summing it all up

Digital literacy is just as important in the 21st century CE as hieroglyphs were to Horemheb in the 14th century BCE. But while Horemheb could learn to write in his youth and be set for life, mastering digital literacy requires us to constantly engage with an ever-changing technological landscape. Moreover, digital literacy is a matrix of many different aspects. Cognitive, social, and technical skills are its foundation, while on a more meta level, it involves facets such as finding, understanding, evaluating, creating, and communicating. Mastering all of these areas requires creators to be nimble and flexible, but the payoff is huge. They are invaluable tools to navigate the many ins and outs of our ever changing digital world.