Four Kitchens

Five keys to digital literacy

4 Min. ReadDigital strategy

You may use technology, and you may live in a digital world, but are you digitally literate?

You don’t need to be a technologist yourself, but thinking about how you access the technology you use—and want others to use—serves as a foundation. Think of it this way— you may not need to know how to fix your brakes, but you do need to know enough about your car to know what the brakes do and when to use them. To put it in digital terms, before you can evaluate a wireframe for user experience, you need to make sure you and your users agree with what that experience is supposed to be. Digital Literacy grants us a common language to talk about things like user experience, content management, social media, open source coding, or just about anything involving the Internet.

There are five core principles to digital literacy. On any given project you develop, it’s likely each of these areas will be handled by different members of the development team, and it’s highly unlikely you’ll need to think about all five of these areas equally. But no matter how much emphasis you place or remove from any one of these areas, they’re all still present to some degree, so always keep them in mind.

  • Audience: who’s coming to your content. Think about your audience as comprising three circles:
  1. In the first, smallest circle, you have your targeted audience—the people you’ve already hooked or who are already looking for you; these are the people you directly address.
  2. In the next, slightly bigger, circle, you have your stumblers—people who found you by accident, people who clicked on your piece because it was posted on their friend’s wall, people who fell into a linkhole and just happened to stumble upon your content; these are actually the people you write for because you want them to move into that smaller first circle.
  3. In the third, infinitely big, circle, you have everyone else. These are people you can’t account for, can’t address, can’t write for, but nevertheless have to consider. Barack Obama might be reading this blog—we can’t know—but if you stand behind your content and believe in what you’re posting, and you’ll be okay.
  • Metadata & Tagging: the web only works if things are tagged appropriately—not only the main content, but also whatever smaller pieces (like images or links) might be embedded in that content. For every post and file you share, including information about creation date, data type, and author can be just as important as knowing what keywords to use.


  • Graphics: pictures, charts, headlines, video, and sound (yes, sound). You don’t need to know how to create graphics, but you do need to know how basic editing and embedding work and what make a good graphic different than a bad one. You need to know when to include or create a video vs a podcast vs an infographic. And you need to know that the same information will be understood differently when presented in different forms.

  • Linking & Framing: how you present the information. A frame is a way of presenting something; it’s the context around a thing that makes you consider or reconsider that thing’s worth. If you put a Chagall in a dimestore frame, it starts to look a lot like the work a school kid. Wire-framing a website is a form of framing, but so is the order you post announcements in: both create kinds of context that allow the reader (/viewer/listener) to interpret a particular train of thought. Likewise, links are an important aspect of framing because every one of them tells your readers “I vouch for this thing and the site it’s on.” And every time someone links to your content they’re saying the same. Even the link itself is a way of presenting the information, so there’s a difference between linking like this and linking like this:
    Neither way is right or wrong, they’re just different.

  • Rights & Accessibility: licensing, production, and reproduction of content. As producers of content, you absolutely must consider who can and can’t consume your content (accessibility) and who can and can’t reproduce your content (rights). It may seem obvious to say, but deaf people can’t consume podcasts, blind people need to use screen readers, and sensitive content shouldn’t be open to everyone to find. Accessibility is about all of these things. As for rights, make sure you have the right to use whatever image, video, soundclip, PDF, etc. you’re posting on your site. And make sure that people who want to reproduce your content know what kinds of use you find acceptable and what you don’t. Know how attribution works, make sure you’ve tagged everything properly, think about who’s coming to your content, and most of the time the rights and accessibility will work themselves out.

That’s it. Everything you need to know to be a well-informed citizen of the Internet can be contained in those five areas. You may notice that coding itself isn’t listed. That isn’t because skills like coding or web engineering and development aren’t important—they most certainly are!—it’s because you don’t need to understand them to appreciate what they produce. I don’t need to understand typography and font design to appreciate a subway sign. It might add nuance—knowing that Chicago’s “L” train uses Helvetica while BART uses Univers tells me something about their intended user experience and purpose—but it’s far from crucial for my understanding what the metro signs are telling me.

And that’s what the core set of digital literacy skills is supposed to allow—a common language we can use when talking to project developers, digital strategists, web designers, and each other, about these crazy things that live online.