Howard Rheingold

Hi, this is Circulating Ideas, the librarian interview podcast hosted by me, Steve Thomas. My guest today is Howard Rheingold. He’s a pioneer in the world of digital literacies and virtual communities and he’s the author of Smart Mobs and his newest book is Net Smart.

Howard Rheingold, thank you for coming on the show with me today.

Entirely my pleasure Steve.

I wanted to have you on the show because I read your book and as I was reading it, it really struck a chord with me that a lot of what you were talking about in there is stuff that we’ve been talking about in the library world for a long, long time and it, we, I think a lot of librarians see as being our mission in the world almost and I have a quote from you that really made me 100% want to interview you on the show and that is, I think this is from your interview that you did with Henry Jenkins recently. “We already have a well understood social role for a critical thinking tutor. That’s librarians.” So librarians, we always, we deal with life-long learning issues, public library throughout our whole lives, kids and school libraries and academic libraries and college and I wonder, we’ll go into the five fundamental digital literacies that you identify in the book a little bit later, but how do you see librarians as fitting into teaching society as a whole about these new required digital literacies?

You know I’ve actually been talking about the role of librarians in the digital age for quite a while. I wrote a nationally syndicated column back the mid 1990s in which I was talking about the ways in which technology was outpacing our institutions, our educational institutions’ ability to keep up with them and said the same thing about librarians. We do have an institution that is a public place with professionals that are dedicated to helping people understand the literacies and the literatures that enable us to be an educated and democratic society. And, of course, since then the budget crisis on all levels have been, had a lot of pressure on libraries. And not as much now as it was when I was first writing about it, but the picture of libraries as repositories of books and not as institutions where citizens have access to information and knowledge and the skills to access information and knowledge I think has been predominant and has been important to me to help people understand, to help librarians understand, you know back in the olden days when I first started talking about this 15 years ago, there was a radical split among the vast majority of librarians who saw themselves as custodians of physical books and the small faction of librarians who are interested in digital media. And I think that that’s no longer the case and now I think it’s important for society at large, for parents and teachers to understand that the role of librarian is more important than ever with these digital literacies that the new technologies have thrust upon us whether we like it or not.

Right, like you said those are the essential skills in living in 21st century society now.

Yes and you know that’s what prompted me to write this book. So I have a daughter who is a millennial, she’s grown now, but when she came of age, when she first started writing papers in middle school was when search engines came of age and it occurred to me then that we are at an intersection  point in that in the olden days you could trust the authority of text. There was an author and an editor and a publisher and a librarian who all vetted those books before they got into your hands and you might disagree with them, but claims of fact, you could pretty much trust the authority of the text. When I sat down with my daughter to show how her search worked, I had to tell her you can’t trust what you get back, you have to figure out whether this is good information or bad information and I’m sure all of the librarians listening to me know that that’s traditionally been part of part of the librarian’s role to help people understand how to find, not only find information, but to evaluate that information. But the need for that particular skill is now, I think, orders of magnitude more importance and it occurred to me, it can’t help but to occur to anybody that we are challenged in a number of ways. Not just about search and credibility. Our attention is challenged by these devices. How many times a day do you see people walking down the street looking at their phone? I read a statistic from the Pew Internet In American life study that said one in six Americans have admitted to bumping into something or someone while walking down the street texting.


And, of course, we’ve all had that frightening experience of seeing somebody in an automobile next to us on the freeway who appears to be texting. So, it’s not just search and credibility, there’s a whole new set of essential skills, essential as in maybe your life depends on it. Certainly if you are searching for medical information that may be the case, that are not really being taught in schools and when I thought about writing this book I thought, “How am I going to get these skills out” and I thought, “Well if I can provide a text for librarians and teachers and parents, then perhaps we can get this information out more quickly.” Although ideally I would love to love to see search and credibility skills taught in the public schools, I don’t think we have time to wait to adjust the curriculum in the current system. We need to begin teaching people now.

Right and it’s almost more, it’s harder sometimes for the everyday person to know whether it’s good information because before, like you said, it’s in a book, but even on the web you could say, “Oh well that looks like a nice site,” but there’s so many good tools now for building a website, somebody can have a completely horrible, disjointed view of the world and it looks like a wonderful, put-together site that they put a lot of effort into and it looks authoritative now, but it’s not just.

Oh we have astroturf sites as well in which people who have a particular agenda are paid to hide that agenda and convince people of things which actually are not true. And then there are cloaked sites like the site

Right, right.

That I and other librarians often use to show people our, everything is not what it appears to be on the web. And there are joke sites, there’s the online pregnancy tester. It’s a joke, but it’s kind of a scary joke. So, there are any number of ways you can go awry with online information that looks legitimate at first. So I get into some detail in “Net Smart” about what do you do about that and what are the tools available. And there are tools and techniques available that any librarian can show people, any teacher and any citizen can use. It’s not a secret, it’s just that it has not been compiled in a way that people can use it easily.

Right, so that, we sort of started talking about, we’ll go ahead and jump into that, we’ve hit a couple of things in your list of five fundamental digital literacies. The first one is attention, which we talked about a little bit there with you talking about people bumping into each other and. [laughs]

Well, it’s not just the bumping into each other.

And there’s more to it than that, yeah.

We, these screens are attention magnets and it’s not just our mobile phones. We are all sitting in front of computers for much of the day and social media is a wonderful social and practical and educational resource, but it also affords distraction. There are all these opportunities to watch the latest cat video, or to click on that link that somebody sent you, or that you see in the Twitter stream and we’ve seen a number of books about how our use of social media is destroying our attention span and shallowing our culture and I think that’s important to pay attention to these critiques. It’s always important to pay attention to critical use of technologies, but I also think if they skip the question of, “Well can we learn to deploy our attention more effectively?” And I think that the key here is that social media afford distraction, but they don’t compel distraction. You can learn how to pay attention more effectively with all of these claims on your attention. It isn’t going to just happen and on the other hand it’s not rocket science. Mindfulness or metacognition of mindfulness doesn’t sound scientific enough. It is a proven way, proven from thousands of years of contemplative traditions and abundant contemporary neuroscience that paying attention to your attention can lead to your ability to manage your attention more effectively. So I talk about how you can do that easily and begin to get control of where your attention is going when you have all of these claims on your attention coming in through the many screens in your life. I call it info-tension when I teach it to my students and in “Net Smart” I lay out in some detail how to go about not only arranging for streams of information that are relevant to your needs to come in to you in an organized manner just in time. But also, how to deploy your attention so that you’re not overwhelmed by it, so that you use these streams of information appropriately and still get done what you need to get done during the day.

Right and I know that it seems a lot of this stuff is sort of amplified by technology, this attention, but it’s not like, I always think when teachers take away cell phones they act like, in the classroom, they act like technology created kids goofing off. I mean it might facilitate it or make it a little bit easier, but kids will always find ways to have their attention taken away.

Well it’s always been the case that minds wander in the classroom and it’s never been the case before that a professor has to compete with the entire internet. I think you need to make a distinction between K through 12 where students really are not supposed to be texting with one hand behind their back.

Right, right.

And the college classroom where students, many of them feel an entitlement to have their laptops open, they’re taking notes, they are searching, they’re checking Wikipedia, they’re checking to see whether the professor knows what he or she is talking about. They’re chatting with other students about what the professor is talking about, but it’s very easy to slip from there to just checking your email for a minute, or Facebook for a minute. And that’s a problem that some college professors are in denial about. They just ignore it. Some college professors and in some cases appropriately say, “Close your laptops I need your full attention.” In my case I teach courses on social media so I’m trying to teach the students how to be mindful about how they use their laptops in the classroom. So, it’s not a simple issue, but it’s not difficult to deal with it I think if you confront it as one of managing your attention effectively in the context of what task are you trying to accomplish at the moment? If you’re trying, if you’re in a classroom and you’re trying to learn, there may well be times when it’s appropriate for you to use your laptop. It’s probably undoubtedly not appropriate for you to be off on Facebook in the classroom. It’s probably not appropriate for you to be texting your friends under the desk. Nobody teaches us this. I think it’s something that those who learn how to manage their attention will be more successful, it’s not just for the benefit of the teacher or the professor. It is really for the benefit of the learner who is going to be living in a world with multiple claims on their attention and things that they need to get done during the day.

Right. And that does become obvious into the second literacy that you identify which is participation and that, as part of the first one you need to need to know when to participate in certain parts.

When to participate and how to participate and I think the question of participation is probably one of the most powerful changes that digital media have brought to us. It used to be in the old days that if you were a newspaper reporter or you were a publisher or a broadcaster and you had access to expensive printing presses and distribution facilities and television stations then a relatively small number of people could broadcast information and entertainment that influenced most people. Now, of course, everybody who has a laptop, who has a smart phone, has a printing press and a broadcasting station and television camera, television station in their pocket. We wouldn’t have the web today if it wasn’t for the  individual participation of millions of people. It was not built by a government, or by a private industry. It was built by millions of people putting up websites and linking to other websites. And I think that that basic participation is in something of a danger today. A lot of people think Facebook is the web and Facebook enables people to share with each other, but it dictates how to share.

We can’t lose the bloggers, we can’t lose the people who organize Wikis, we can’t lose the people who use their laptops and their smart phones to organize legitimate political activity. So much has been invented by people who use the technology. Google was invented in a dormitory room, as was Yahoo, as was Facebook. We need to teach young people that it’s important for them and important for the future of the information commons that they will be living in for them to participate and not just be passive recipients of what others send to them. And it’s not just I think a matter of citizenship and duty, it’s a matter of personal success. The people who know how to use a blog to advocate and a Wiki to organize, who know how to search and vet information, who know how to organize a virtual community, a support group, a political demonstration. Those people are going to personally be more successful than others. So, in “Net Smart” I continually make the point that these digital literacies point inward, they point outward. The people who know them will be more successful and the more people who know them, the better the informational environment will be for all of us. It’s going to be better if more people contribute and not just a few professionals and I think that it’s, there’s so many easy ways to contribute and there will be a new one tomorrow. Today the new one is Twitter, a few years ago it was blogging, YouTube, it’s, I could probably spend an hour just naming ways where for no financial charge people can broadcast their views to the world, can organize with others. It’s an amazing capacity. We shouldn’t lose it and we will lose it if individuals do not know how to participate.

Right. And do you, I had this down to ask about later and you kind of brought it up about people using Facebook and my ideas, for Facebook and then AOL before it, but this closed version of the web. But, what do you think makes people, why do you think that’s so appealing to the masses in general? Is it just a safe place from the wilderness of the internet? Or.

You know AOL served as an on ramp to the internet. AOL tried to keep this walled garden, but they simply couldn’t. So, AOL brought a lot of people that didn’t understand technology online and then somewhat unwillingly introduced them to the internet. Facebook has brought so many more people online. They’re approaching a billion users around the world and for most of those people, they don’t know about all of this history that I’ve discussed. They know the web is there, but they don’t understand that they could create a web page easily. They know that they can share on Facebook, Facebook makes it very easy for you to share your photograph, or to write the equivalent of a blog post, but you don’t own those things. Facebook owns those things and you can’t control. Of course with a website, if you learn a little HTML and a little CSS you can make it look however you want. Facebook insists that you make it look the way they want it to. And I think that is potentially dangerous. That if Facebook, a private company that has proved to not have a lot of regard for people’s privacy, who is essentially selling the information we’re sharing with each other, if they become identified as the internet and as the web, we may lose that rich, vibrant and extremely valuable upwelling of content of all kinds that has made the web so attractive and enabled Facebook to be attractive. I’m not against Facebook, I use Facebook myself, I’m just concerned that people understand that there’s more to the web than Facebook and that you can do more than Facebook allows you to do.

Right and then there are obviously other forces, governments among them, with things like SOPA and PIPA that are trying to also contain the internet and. [laughs]

Well there are political struggles that are essentially over control of the internet. Control, as I said, used to be in the hands of the people who could afford a printing press or a broadcasting station and that was useful to the political powers that be, that they got their backing from those people and those people brought in the votes for them. Now it’s anybody’s game and people come from anywhere and politicians are nervous about it. At the same time we have incumbent industries, recording industries, the motion picture industry, they’re threatened because they had depended on having the monopoly on the means of distribution and they no longer have that monopoly and I’m all for paying the people who create intellectual property, that’s how I make a living. I think that in many ways the measures that the recording industry and the motion picture industry have pushed have somewhat disingenuously painted those as ways to make sure that the creators of property are compensated. Musicians are pretty poorly compensated by the music industry as it exists now. It’s really about control and the copyright as it originated in England and was substantiated in the U.S. Constitution was about giving a temporary monopoly to the creators of something valuable, so they would have an incentive to create it. And the temporary part of it meant that eventually that would become part of the public domain and others could build on it. And we have a very rich culture in which scientists and scholars have built on the work of others, so I think it’s important both for individuals to be compensated and incented for creating and for their creations to be useful to others. It’s getting to the point where pharmaceutical companies may spend a great deal of money sponsoring a certain kind of cancer research that they may use in their medications which is more power to them. They may put those things beyond, behind pay walls so that another cancer researcher who wants to build on that information may not afford, or may not be able to have access to that, so I think that there are some dangerous consequences of being too stringent in the way we protect intellectual property. So we’ve got something that never existed before, you know the, if you’ve read the Larry Lessig’s book on free culture, he talked about the way the sheet music industry tried to kill the Edison recorder, about the way the motion picture industry tried to kill the VCR and in neither of those cases did it actually kill the music industry or the motion picture industry. In fact, I think the motion picture industry makes more money from video recordings now than from its theatrical releases. But, never before in history has an incumbent industry been able to use the political process to stop innovation. The buggy whip manufacturers were not able to stop Henry Ford. The early motion picture industry, the monopoly patents of Edison were so stringent that the independents moved out to California to be beyond the reach of the goons that Edison hired to beat them up if they didn’t pay him and eventually the courts decided that Edison could not control the motion picture industry. That’s where Hollywood came from. So this is an old story and I think that you really have to be a technology geek and a policy wonk to understand that these bills like SOPA and, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is just, there’s a new one every year that. These are not entirely about protecting the creators, they’re about protecting the middle-man and could end up impoverishing the public’s fear. Again I think that librarians should teach people to be good digital citizens and to acknowledge and to attribute and to not use copyrighted material without permission, but I also think they ought to educate them about fair use as well. We live in a society in which our medical researchers, scientific researchers, our scholarly research depends on fair use, education depends on being able to use quotations in text books without paying a fortune for it. As a college professor I already do pay a fortune for readers, it costs maybe $100 or $200 to get a collection of excerpts from books. I’m happy to do that, I make money on excerpts from my books, but now we’re seeing these pay walls going up on all of these sites that have information, so I think it’s important to educate people about these battles. I think that’s part of digital literacy.

Right and so the, going to the next in our list of literacies, the next one is collaboration. Can you talk a little about that, of how that’s.

Well certainly. I think that we don’t understand on a daily basis how miraculous it is. If you are a cancer patient or you are a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You communicate every day with people who give you emotional support, in many cases financial support, information that you need, people that you have never met and may never meet face-to-face anywhere in the world and it doesn’t really cost anything to create a virtual community. My last book was called “Smart Mobs” and we’re now seeing from the Middle East spring to the changes in the way money is raised for political campaigns in the U.S. that the emergence of what I call “smart mobs,” people using the internet and mobile devices to co-ordinate with each other is really changing democratic participation. We’re seeing collective intelligence, many, many people acting together in small ways to create large things like Wikipedia, or the web itself. There are so many genres of collaboration in which the tools are free. You can create a Wiki, a blog, a virtual community in just a few seconds. It’s not entirely free, the people who provide it want your attention, they sell your attention to advertisers, that’s how culture works in this country. I was an editor of a magazine for four years and believe me, subscribers don’t pay for magazines, advertisers do. So, that’s the price we pay, but we have access to miraculous free tools. We have, from free search to free virtual communities. So how do you participate in these? How do you instigate them? How do you convince others to join you in a collective enterprise? I tell the story of, in the book, about Jim Grey a computer scientist who went missing in a sailboat in San Francisco bay a couple of years ago and his friends convinced NASA and Google to give them aerial photographs of the part of the Pacific where he had gone missing and they used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to cut those photographs of 3,500 square miles into half a million little pictures and then they induced thousands of volunteers to look to see if they could find Jim Grey. They did not find Jim Grey, but what an incredible effort. It used to take a government to do something like this, this was a bunch of people’s friends. And we’ve seen similar efforts after the Asian tsunami, after Hurricane Katrina, people using online media to put together collaborations to help their friends and their neighbors. Enormous power from the medical support to disaster relief to creating knowledge, creating new tools like open source software. We’re just at the beginning of that and this gives incredible opportunities to young people. These are the, professions of tomorrow will be lead by the people who have the experience deploying these kinds of collaborative tools and again I think it’s just a bonanza, that the tools themselves are pretty much free. What’s not, the tool doesn’t teach you how to use it. So, knowing how to collaborate has become an essential literacy along with the others.

The next one on the list is, that we talked about a little bit earlier, the, I guess, the nice way of saying it is the critical consumption of information and then you also have it listed, I think you pulled it from Hemingway, the crap detection? [laughs]

[laughs] Yes, Hemingway was quoted in The Atlantic as saying that every journalist needs a foolproof internal crap detector and so I find that that gets people’s attention. If you want to be more polite about it you can call it critical consumption of information, but it’s absolutely essential that people understand that it’s up to them, it’s not, you can’t trust the authority of the web page, you have to go see if there’s an author for that web page and look up that author. What are the author’s sources? And look up those author’s sources. So there are a number of services in which you can check the citation index of someone who claims to be a scientific or scholarly expert. It’s not rocket science, it’s not even as hard as learning arithmetic, it’s just that the knowledge has been sequestered and fortunately we have librarians who know how to do that and who have, who ought to be where students and young people turn to learn how to do these things.

Yeah and I think Wikipedia is a good example of when you need to have a good crap detector because it’s a really good, I mean there’s lots of good information in there, but you have to be aware that it can be changed at any moment by anybody who just is playing a joke, so you have to know when is, when do you trust this tool.

Well with Wikipedia in particular I think the, what Jimmy Wales the co-founder says is I think an excellent tool. Wikipedia is not the best place to stop your research and to trust as the ultimate source. It’s an excellent place to begin your research because Wikipedia has a policy of no original research, everything in Wikipedia has to come from a verified source and they argue about the validity of the sources that they cite. Just go look at the talk page behind any Wikipedia page and you’ll see the Wikipedians arguing about it. Look at the, you want to learn a new subject, look at the sources that Wikipedia links out to. It’s a great jumping off place and it’s a way to learn about things that you’re not going to find in other texts. Again, you need to understand that what was on Wikipedia yesterday may not be on Wikipedia tomorrow. You need to understand how to vet a Wikipedia page as much as anything else. But, it’s a tremendous resource and it ought to be used in schools. In the book I tell the story of, that Henry Jenkins tells about a school teacher who had his students write something about the book they were studying, which was Melville’s Moby Dick and to edit the Wikipedia page on Moby Dick and  then when the Wikipedia editors challenged them, they challenged, they stood up to the Wikipedia editors and argued for their changes and ended up having their changes become part of Wikipedia. So I don’t think Wikipedia should be kept out of schools at all, I think it needs to be used as a tool in context.

Yeah, that’s exactly how I use it. It’s, it’s a starting point or sometimes if it’s an obscure pop culture thing that sometimes that’s the only thing that you can find about it. I mean if it’s a comic book character that appeared once 20 years ago, that may be the only place you can find information about it. [laughs] So. The last digital literacy on your list is network smarts.

Well this one is one in which I’ve brought together pieces of knowledge that again are not rocket science, but they are sequestered in a number of different disciplines and the person who understands how networks work is going to be empowered today because we live in a network society. The fact we’ve, humans have always lived with social networks. Social networks predate Facebook and the internet since forever. There’s an argument, Robin Dunbar the anthropologist and others argue that we are humans because of our social capacities and particularly social learning, but since the world has been wired up, since the telegraph, the telephone and the internet, we’ve been able to extend and amplify our social networks in ways that we’ve never been able to do before. So we live in a world in which the dynamics and the structure of social networks are extremely important. We’re now seeing what’s called network science emerging. Most people have heard of this six degrees of separation experiment that demonstrates that every person on earth is separated from every other person by, at most, six jumps. Well that turns out to be a characteristic of a lot of different kinds of networks, from ecosystems to your immune system, network scientists are understanding the ways in which the structure of networks affects what the nodes in that network.

In social networks those nodes are people, what they can do. So that’s one realm of knowledge. Then there’s something called social network analysis that looks at the people that each one of us communicates with and who they communicate with and what their networks are and it turns out that, for example, there’s something called centrality. How many people in networks have to go through you to get to others? That may be very much more important than how many Facebook friends you have is how many people need to get through you. It’s very important in science or in industry if you’re a person who connects networks, who fills what the experts call structural holes. Then you are in a position to innovate for your organization and to advance yourself. There were social scientists like the sociologist Erving Goffman who talked about the way people try to present themselves to others and the way others perceive them, that our perfectly relevant in the age of the Facebook profile. And there’s the work of Manuel Castels and others who look at the big picture of the network society and the ways in which networks are replacing and subverting and changing traditional institutions. I think if the person who understands these things is going to be better off, in practical terms there’s this whole issue of social capital. The ability of a group of people to accomplish things together outside of formal arrangements like laws and contracts. Again, social capital has existed since forever, you will help your neighbors bring in their harvests, the barn raising, the informal, horizontal arrangements among people who share interests, whether it’s a church, or a neighborhood, those depend on networks of trust and norms of reciprocity. And it turns out that you can build networks of trust and cultivate norms of reciprocity online. Just being in a network does not mean that you will be able to cultivate or to harvest social capital, but if you know how, you can. And I think one of the most interesting findings in the world of social capital research is that in the physical world, in the neighborhood, doing a favor for someone else is the best predictor of whether others will do favors for you. And I believe from my experience, although I’m not claiming that this is a scientific result, that the same thing is true online. That people who are active participants and contributors and cooperators are people with whom others co-operate and to whom others contribute. Knowing how to do these things is essential to a college student, it’s essential to somebody who is working in an industry today. You can squander social capital or you can build social capital. So all of these little pieces of know-how add up to what I call social network know-how, or network savvy.

Right and what, even if we manage to internalize all of these literacies and we as librarians will then teach them to everybody and there’s so much information out there. Basically all the information in the world is a few mouse clicks away. How do you recommend people keep up with the know-how? How do we create and maintain personal learning networks?

So, personal learning network is something that I learned when I got online, when I got onto Twitter and I was first teaching using social media, I looked for people who knew what they were doing and I found that there were people who knew how to use these media in an educational context and I started following them on Twitter, I started following their RSS feed of their blogs, I started searching for things that they had written and I learned that they were talking about building personal learning networks similar to what I was doing. How do you find people who know what they’re talking about? And how do you pay attention to them? I think a lot of people dismiss Twitter as being trivial. I think you could say the same thing about the internet. You need to know how to use it. If you can find a list of people, you can make a Twitter list of them, you can make an RSS feed from people who have blogs, you can have information coming in on a topic that interests you.

If you know how to vet those people, how to tune into the ones who know what they’re talking about and tune out the ones who don’t, then you can learn a great deal. It’s not just who do you listen to, but, and who do you pay attention to, it’s how do you engage with those people. Can you provide information that would be useful to them? Can you build a network of people for whom you provide useful information and who will answer your questions in turn? So, I think building a personal learning network’s a perfect example of something that librarians can help people learn how to do that is essential these days. And not only is it essential, I think it’s, again, it’s a great gift. You used to be able to learn just from your teachers, from your parents, from the books in the library. You now have access to what is close to two billion people online. If you need, if you know how to find the ones who know what you need to know you can get streams of information from experts that were never possible before. You use your info-tension techniques to manage those streams of information and you use social capital personal learning network practices to payback the people from whom you gained value. Gain their trust and induce them to reciprocate, to give you information when you need it.

Right, I think it’s important that the, to engage in that digital literacy of participation at that point. That’s it’s not personal learning networks should not really ever be about you just sitting there sucking up information from other people, you should also be sharing that back out, what you learned and what your perspective is.

You know absolutely, every single one of these literacies is connected to every single other one and of course you can be a sponge and collect information, but you’re going to do a lot better and you’re going to do better for others if you learn how to participate and reciprocate as well. If you want to cultivate a personal learning network then pay attention to what the people who have valuable information for you. Pay attention to what’s valuable to them and pass it along to them when you find something. I get things all the time from people that I don’t know, but who feel that they owe it to me because I put out a lot of information that they find valuable as well.

Yeah and you talk in the book a little bit about how the internet as a whole is not just about personal empowerment, but by all these little things, by people adding these little things even just down to the smallest editing of a Wikipedia entry, or tagging a photo that it’s bettering society as a whole, for the public good is getting better for all this.

Well you know there are some legitimate arguments about how much garbage there is online and noise and bad information and we really wouldn’t have the web or the internet if we had to license people to put their information online, if we controlled the quality of the information that was put online. We’ve, in order to get all of this information we’ve got to get a lot of noise as well. So I think the way that we improve things is by teaching people to discriminate between good information and bad information and to curate, to make choices about which information about a particular topic is worthwhile. And to make those choices public, we have a lot of different curation tools, from social bookmarking to all kinds of curation services that are available now. Even just tagging something, or liking something, or plusing something, that means that you’re not just filtering out the bad stuff, you are floating the good stuff up where other people can see it.

And you were one of the first ones to recognize, at least publicly, that the online world was coalescing into virtual communities and you even coined that particularly terminology. Is there any single thing where it clicked in your head that this is what was happening in the online world?

Well it happened a long time ago.


I wrote about that in my book “The Virtual Community” in 1992. It was when, you know I got to know people online and began to meet them face-to-face and there was one discussion about parenting in which we all got together and had a softball game and met each others kids that we were all bragging about and one day a few months after that baseball game, the first baseball game, one of those parents got online and said, “My son’s been diagnosed with leukemia and it’s the middle of the night and my doctor doesn’t want to hear from me and my family doesn’t want to hear from me and I’m terrified.” By morning an online support group had been organized and of course nowadays that’s not news, but in 1987 that was miraculous and we stuck with that family, we contributed about $15,000 to them for the extraordinary costs beyond what their medical insurance paid for and when their son died of leukemia the last two pews in the church for his services were occupied by people who had been part of that support group online. And the interesting thing about that story is that it took place in 1987. Well about 3 years ago I had cancer. I’m cancer-free now, but for a time I needed people to drive me to daily treatments and so I put up a schedule online, there’s a service called “Doodle” where you can get people to sign up for different time slots and just put out the word that I needed people to drive me to my radiation treatments every day for six weeks and people that I knew from my face-to-face world and people that I knew from virtual communities all signed up and the reason I’m telling you this story is that one of those people, who I really hadn’t had a lot of contact with in recent years, from 1987, the father of that young man who died of leukemia, he showed up to drive me to my treatments. So, you can’t tell him and you can’t tell me that there is no reality to these virtual communities. I’m not claiming that every collection of people who communicate online are a community., but I am claiming that the things that you get from community, information, support, whether it’s financial or emotional, a sense of belonging, you can get all of those things online.

Exactly and that sums a lot of why your book is important to, that we have to know these things, that this is a larger issue for society as a whole. And the last question that I wanted to ask you about was about your, the illustrator Anthony Weeks. How did you connect up with him and what made you want to use illustrations in that way in the book?

Well Anthony Weeks is actually a graphic recorder, I don’t know whether you’ve ever seen this, but some meetings have people who do a kind of cartoon-like rendering of what people are talking about on a big sheet of paper on the wall during the meeting. And he was a very talented graphic recorder for Institute For The Future, with which I am affiliated and he later became a student of mine, and I had him do a graphic recording in my class. So it seemed to me, I’m, I want to make sure that people understand that this book is as well vetted as it can be, it has 500 footnotes, if you don’t believe what I’m saying then go check my sources, I’m giving you the reference, I’m giving you the URL to go look it up on the web yourself, but it’s not meant to be a scientific tome. It’s not meant to be strictly a scholarly work, this is meant to be something for parents who don’t know what to do about their kids behavior on the internet, for teachers, for librarians and so I wanted it, to make it into a communication tool that people would feel comfortable with. And I felt that having some illustrations would help with that. I think also when you’re talking about very abstract things, it helps to make them concrete with pictures.

Okay, well Howard thank you so much for speaking to me today for the show.

Great, my pleasure entirely Steve.

Can you tell people the best ways to find you online?

Yes, you can go to and that has links to all of my work, including a link to the website for my book “Net Smart,” but also many, many of my videos and articles and the many syllabi that I’ve created and learning platforms, so that’s the central place to find information that I’ve put out.

And your painted shoes too.

And my painted shoes, and my paintings.

[laughs] All right Howard, thank you a lot for talking.