tech tips for writers / Todays Author

How to Make Your Characters Digitally Literate

digital literacy‘Digital literacy’ is one of those buzz words floated by experts as being granular to the 21st-century. It’s on everyone’s tongue but figuring out what it means can be daunting. ‘Literacy’ is simple: the ability to read and write–so ‘digital literacy’ should be achieving those goals digitally.

Not that simple. Here are a few of the definitions I found:

the ability to find, evaluate, utilize, share, and create content using information technologies and the Internet.“.

–Cornell University

“the ability to use digital technology, communication tools or networks to locate, evaluate, use and create information”

–Digital Strategy Glossary of Key Terms

“the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers:

–Paul Gilster, Digital Literacy

“a person’s ability to perform tasks effectively in a digital environment… includes the ability to read and interpret media, to reproduce data and images through digital manipulation, and to evaluate and apply new knowledge gained from digital environments

–Barbara R. Jones-Kavalier and Suzanne L. Flannigan: Connecting the Digital Dots

Philosophically, these are all good definitions, but after fifteen years teaching K-8 and grad school, I know ‘digital literacy’ is much more complicated than a couple of sentences, especially when we’re talking about kids baptized in iPads and smartphones.

Here are the seven transformative skills required for your digitally-literate characters, to properly reflect them in this new world:

Basic tools

Digital literacy implies skills your characters comfortably use throughout their day:

  • digital devices–such as laptops, iPads, Chromebooks, or desktops
  • a digital calendar–with due dates, activities, and other events
  • an annotation tool (like Acrobat, Notability, or iAnnotate), to take notes wherever they are
  • some method of communicating quickly–messaging, Twitter, and/or email

social mediaSocial media

Social media had the reputation as a gossip column–where people meet to chat inanely–but it’s not anymore. Over a billion people use Facebook and Twitter every day. That’s over 80% of internet users, about 70% in high school or under. It crosses both sexes and all income levels. In short, it has become the communication method-of-choice for millennials and younger, where users share information, collaborate on ideas, and update deadlines.

To represent characters as they are in the real world requires a nod to social media.

cloud computingCloud computing

The digitally-literate character can start something in one place and finish it in another. It may require switching between the work PC and the home Mac or sharing a report with team members without worrying that you don’t have email addresses. Cloud computing makes all that happen and most people have at least one. If you have Gmail, Apple, MS 365, you have a cloud. If you have Dropbox or Box, you have a cloud. It’s accessible from anywhere with internet or WiFi, on any device, by whoever you give access. People have come to expect you to be that versatile so present-day characters need to be.

Digital databases

Physical libraries are often closed when inspiration strikes. Plus, their supply of resources is dictated by how many shelves they have. The Library of Congress, while almost infinite (with a copy of every copyrighted tome) can only be accessed from Washington DC.

Digital databases are the new library. They’re infinite, everywhere, and welcome visitors at all hours. Writers should learn how to roam these virtual halls and access not only online libraries but dedicated databases like the Smithsonian and the History Channel. Your character should be facile in  using these as part of their daily research, even if that’s to find a coffee shop or the answer to a simple library

Virtual collaboration

Writer’s groups struggle to find a time that works for all participants, agree on a meeting place, and then actually get there.  Virtual collaboration has none of those problems. Documents can be shared with all stakeholders and accessed at will. Many digital tools (like Google Apps) allow writers to review submittals for a critique group even if the dog ate their printed copy. Meetings can take place in the bedroom or their backyard, through virtual sites like Google Hangouts and Skype. A wide variety of resources can be shared without lugging an armful of materials to the meeting and ultimately forgetting to bring half of them home. These get-togethers can even be taped and shared with absent members or rewound for review.

Writers should become comfortable using these if for no other reason than that their characters may use them, especially if they’re under forty.

share information

Evaluate information found online

Just because information is online doesn’t mean it’s not ‘fake news’. Writers will quickly lose their reading audience if they don’t present accurate information that fits the facts. To do that, writers need the tools to evaluate the reliability and veracity of what they find online. This includes questions such as:

  • is the site legitimate or a hoax
  • is the author an expert or a third grader
  • is the information current or dated
  • is the data neutral or biased

Digital citizenshipcollaboration

Because we-all spend so much time online, we need to learn how to act in that digital neighborhood. This includes topics detailing the rights and responsibilities of digital citizens, such as:

  • cyberbullying
  • legality of online material
  • buying stuff online
  • digital footprints
  • privacy and safety while traveling the digital world

Being a good citizen of the digital world is no different than the physical world. There are practical strategies that revolve around proper netiquette and an understanding of the culture that permeates a vast, anonymous, Wild West-like territory often defined by the accountability of those who visit it.

Consider these eight topics organic as you develop 21st Century characters. I’ve only touched on them–let me know if you have questions about any.

–published first on Today’s Author

More on the tech-infused writer:

Cover Your Webcam!

How to find stats for your blog

Top 10 (Tech) Tips for Writers in 2017

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers, and the upcoming Born in a Treacherous Time. She is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer,  a columnist for TeachHUB, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.


69 thoughts on “How to Make Your Characters Digitally Literate

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  5. Oh my, but these are skills I had to learn as a teacher and help my students with German projects. We used sites ending in “de” for Deutschland. Students would first comment that it was ALL in German. Of course I responded that it was all the better. This is a great post and informative for those who are mystified as I was when I initially learned the lingo and waded through sites. A good week to you. We are bracing for a BIG winter storm on Wed. with another foot of snow!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I should have mentioned the international sites–thanks for adding this, MaryAnn. Stay warm in all that snow. It’s 73 here in California. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to move (though the state government is totally nuts).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Agree on state government in CA. I recall sitting in one professional development class and was told I could not access so I got and then was on a roll with Iceland, Greenland and Switzerland (ch) to mention a few. I had outsmarted the district tech person! Ha. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Happy reading and writing.

        Liked by 1 person

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  7. Jacqui, an excellent comprehensive post and you touched on so many aspects of digital literacy and explained them thoroughly. It is an interconnected world and whilst this often eases our workload, at times it seems to do the opposite! Just seems to be so much to keep on top of! I hadn’t used collaboration until proofreading my book and then I experienced the huge advantage of this system. I wonder what the changes will be in the next few years…how quickly some of these points will date?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I love the way you instil confidence in your blog. Writers have to include tech, unless the story is set before 1990, even if it’s just fumbling for a cell phone in an over-stuffed hand bag. I have worried about it – like for instance if everyone uses google to find things out – why would a character ever ask an older character anything in a story? It seemed to me so much dialogue has become unnecessary … and in dangerous situations where a character is being stalked (for instance) they can just get on the phone to get help. Scene over. Unless you have placed them outside of cell phone coverage – not always realistic. I have over-simplified but tech does cause some problems for writers. People who don’t go shopping but order on-line – it’s not exactly action. Obviously my thinking is trapped pre-1990’s!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well, lots of people aren’t happy with googling. But, youngers are, say, teens and twenties. Others think it’s challenging to get Google to work or not worth the time. Like my husband. And calling for help–sometimes you need to address that they have no bars for their phone, they can’t call for help. That builds the drama in your story because lots of people will relate to that. Or, give them an alarm app on their phone that screeches when they activate it (to scare attackers away).


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    • Well, you didn’t live back in the days of your characters. But really, I know what you mean. Tech is a lot trickier than history, at least to me. I spend a lot of time testing that stuff out before writing about it!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks for an enlightening post Jacqui…I am just digitally literate yet to graduate many aspects…some of which seem too tedious. One advantage of digital world is that you can learn yourself at your own pace. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • The big ones are that millennials on down are digital so their characteristics need to reflect that in some way. How much depends on the story. Yours–maybe not much! Maybe an iPad where kids read your wonderfully fun books and then cook with their moms.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Great topic, Jacqui, and your coverage proves how little I know. This issue became a moat I had to figure out how to cross when writing one of my books. Since it’s set in current times, everyone had to have a cell phone at least, but this kind of communication gets in the way of telling part of the story. I had to work around the problem while incorporating modern communication devices. My characters are more digitally literate than I am.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Great post, Jacqui! I’m struggling right now writing a younger character, knowing she would be much more digitally savvy than I am. Does she tweet? IM? Instagram? Where I would send a carrier pigeon, she would probably opt for a text. This post was very helpful. As always, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m surprised how many books I read about modern characters that don’t address the digital leaning of the world. I see tech in everything around me from people buried in their phones to using computers for work and business. It just doesn’t seem to come out in many stories so I was driven to write this summary!

      Liked by 1 person

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