Monday , June 24 2024
Howard Rheingold offers gems of wisdom about what he has learned during his 30 years of thinking about life online.

Interview: Howard Rheingold, Author of Net Smart: How To Thrive Online

Chances are if you reading this you are already online (since I am publishing this on an Internet site.) And odds are good you are also active in some social networks, perhaps Facebook and/or Twitter.

Therefore, you may think you know how best to get around the Internet pretty well.

Or maybe you sometimes get overwhelmed by all the emails you receive or all the sites you try to visit each day and just get exhausted.

Whether you are new to the Internet, very familiar or anywhere in between I think you would benefit from reading the new book by Howard Rheingold, Net Smart: How To Thrive Online.

 During his 30 years online Rheingold has been thinking and asking some of the more difficult questions about the meaning and impact of how we interact and live online. He coined the term “virtual community” and wrote a great book of the same name, in addition to several other good books you can learn more about at his Web page.

For the record, Howard and I belong to one of the same virtual communities. I consider him a colleague and a friend. But if his book sucked I would admit it and, fortunately, it does not.:)

Howard has a knack for looking at topics in new ways and he does that with this book. For example, we talk in the interview below about how the book stresses the importance of mindfulness and thinking about how you pay attention when online. I hadn’t previously given those topics much thought but he makes a good case for why we should consider these matters.

He also stresses the importance, when online, of what he calls “online crap detection,” writing, “Unless a great many people learn the basics of online crap detection, and begin applying their critical faculties en masse and soon, I fear for the Internet’s future as a useful source of credible news, medical advice, financial information, educational resources, and scholarly as well as scientific research. Some critics argue that a tsunami of hogwash has already rendered the Web useless. I disagree. We are indeed inundated by online noise pollution, but the problem is soluble. The good stuff is out there, if you know how to find it and verify it. Basic information literacy, widely distributed, is the best protection for the knowledge commons; a sufficient portion of critical consumers among the online population can become a strong defense against the noise-death of the Internet.”

Howard explains his intentions in the book’s introduction.

“Instead of confining my exploration to whether or not Google is making us stupid, Facebook is commoditizing our privacy, or Twitter is chopping our attention into microslices (all good questions), I’ve been asking myself and others how to use social media intelligently, humanely and above all mindfully. This book is about what I’ve learned.”
He goes on to write “I want to introduce you to new know-how (and how to know in new ways) by sharing what I’ve learned about five literacies that are in the process of changing our world: attention, participation, collaboration, the critical consumption of information (“aka crap detection”), and network smarts. When enough people become proficient at these skills, then healthy new economies, politics, societies, and cultures can emerge. If these literacies do not spread through the population we could end up drowning ourselves in torrents of misinformation, disinformation, advertising, spam, porn, noise, and trivia…..

“In the chapters that follow, I share specific advice about benefiting from and protecting yourself from today’s always-and-everywhere media. I direct this advice to worried parents, anxious and enthused students, concerned teachers, curious managers, ambitious employees, thoughtful entrepreneurs, reflective online enthusiasts, puzzled policymakers, and technoskeptics who are just trying to cope. If you need to know what to tell your children about life online, need help surviving and thriving in your own online life, or are grappling with the  changes that always-on media are bringing to your organization, I offer the following stories, advice, arguments, evidence, tools, and exercises for your use. I offer this book to people of any age who are willing to think for themselves about their part in Internet culture.”

Let’s get to the interview, which was conducted by email.

How did this book develop? How did writing this one compare to your past books as far as difficulty or ease doing the research and the writing?

As you know, I’ve been writing about digital media for more than 25 years. Tools for Thought was published in 1985, the same year the WELL started.

The Virtual Community, 1993, grew out of my experiences on the WELL (and my travels, physical and virtual, to online communities around the world). Smart Mobs, 2002, grew out of my interest in the convergence of the mobile telephone, the personal computer, and the Internet. In each case, I was asked by critics, scholars, and by myself: “Is this stuff you are forecasting any good for us as individuals and as a society?” In 1985, the “stuff” I forecast referred to personal computers that were less powerful than today’s throwaway toys. In 1993, “stuff” meant social communication via computer networks. In 2001, “stuff” meant trillions of text messages, netroots-organized political demonstrations, streaming video from phones.

Finally, after a lot of thought and study, I’ve concluded that the answer to “is this stuff any good for us?” is: “It depends on how many of the billions of people who carry printing presses, broadcasting stations, political organizing tools in their pockets learn how to use these media effectively and mindfully.”

So I set out the way I set out on all my books, by first looking at the literature — and of course the Web is a marvelous tool for that — then by talking to experts. Jimmy Wales, danah boyd, Jane McGonigal, and many others. I also interrogated my own experience. In that way, this book is different — in my previous books, I was in the background, but in this book, I’m the primary expert I turn to. It was a difficult book to organize, informationally, because the tools for researching, organizing information, are so much more powerful now. I used Devonthink as a database and Scrivener to organize my writing and Diigo to identify sources. The large end of the research funnel became much much larger, but the small end — my brain — is the same size it has always been. 😉

How did you go about researching and structuring this book? It seems like it would be a lot of work since there is so much to cover and so much has been written on some of these topics, some of it by you in prior books. Can you talk about how you used social media  – Twitter, if memory serves – to help distill some of your messages contained in the book?

As always, but more than usual, the problem was in cutting down a thousand pages of material to a few hundred. So I went through a process of making a very wide research sweep, then spent an entire summer simply organizing the research, and then used Diigo, Devonthink, and Scrivener to distill it, then I had a lot of cutting to do. I write about personal learning networks in the book, and I certainly made use of RSS feeds from blogs and live dialogue with my Twitter network — really amplifications of the methods I first learned on the WELL in the 1980s.

I am curious if it’s getting more difficult to write books about technology and our relationship to it when technology is changing and developing so quickly?

Yes, as you know I’ve written often about the future. It used to be a lot easier to forecast the way technology was likely to go — look at the first paragraphs of Tools for Thought and Smart Mobs, for example. But now, the technologies, the enterprises they spawn, and the social practices that grow out of t hem are changing and mutating at a more rapid pace. So I decided to focus on the necessary literacies that were less likely to change radically as technology develops.

Why did you feel there was a need to teach people “how to thrive online”? I’m playing devils advocate here for a minute but are not many already online and thus thriving?

The Web is full of great information and not so great information. There’s a lot of venom and crap out there. With people texting while driving, Facebooking in class, doing medical research online and often using dangerous medical recommendations — the list is long — it is clear to me that a great many people don’t know how to get the most out of the media that are available.

Can you talk about your decision to spend time writing about attention and mindfulness as part of this book? At first I was surprised you brought these topics up but then it made sense as you tied it together with all of our internet experiences. Put another way, what do attention and mindfullness have to do with Internet use?

I think we’re all aware that always-on, everywhere-available media are challenging both the cognitive aspects of attention (e.g., research by Nass et. al. demonstrates that media multitasking degrades performance for 95% of the population) and social norms (Pew Internet and America Life survey reveals that one in six Americans admit to bumping into something or someone while texting and walking; Sherry Turkle warns about the damage of looking at your smartphone while your child is trying to talk with you; professors need to deal with students who are looking at their laptops in class). Entire books are being written about the distractions of social media. I don’t believe media compel distraction, but I t hink it’s clear that they afford it. The difference is how people manage our attention.

One of your more interesting chapters speaks about the importance of having good crap detectors when online and you do a great job explaining how to go about doing so. I agree crap detection is key. What’s your sense for whether most people do indeed do crap detection already?

How many Americans believe the President of the United States was really born in Africa? How many people don’t vaccinate their children, treat cancer and other serious diseases with quack cures they find online, check before passing along email with well-known urban legends and hoaxes? How many students copy and paste from Wikipedia and believe (as research I cite in the book has stated) that “if it’s on Google, it must be good information?”

Can you talk about collaboration? You see it as important that people need to learn how to collaborate online, and list it as “one of the literacies that are in the process of changing our world.” Why is collaboration so important?

The ability to find, know, communicate with, collaborate with other people online and offline is probably the most powerful amplification of human capabilities that the Internet offers. Think of how many genres of collaboration there are today — virtual communities, smart mobs, collective intelligence, crowdsourcing, social production, online marketplaces. We have wikis, forums, blogs with comments, crowdsourcing platforms, websites for coordinating everything from auctions to political demonstrations.

Humans are humans because we are able to communicate with each other and to organize to do things together that we can’t do individually. Our ancestors, surrounded by predators, were unable to run very fast, fight very well, lacked claws, wings, fangs — but they were able to organize collective defense and collective food gathering. More important, we’re the only species who are able to spread individual innovations throughout tribes, networks, civilizations, by teaching others what we’ve learned. The Web did not invent collaboration, but it enables people to collaborate with people they weren’t able to collaborate with before, on scales and at paces and in places we weren’t able to collaborate before. The Web itself is an enormous collaboration.

I’m curious what it’s been like for you, a long-time published author, to be joined by people of all stripes and of varying levels of experience, education and background, who are also writing but without the traditional book contracts. Do you ever wish for days when only professional authors were read and heard or do you like the fact that these days everyone, online, has essentially their own printing press. Put another way, collaboration and instant feedback can be great but can’t it also be frustrating if it makes it harder to get your own messages out there?

Absolutely not! The portion of the knowledge that I am able to find, assimilate, and propagate on a daily basis that comes from “amateurs” online is much larger than the considerable amount of knowledge I still glean from published books by recognized authorities. Yes, there is a tremendous amount of crap out there, which is why I believe crap detection — the ability to determine the accuracy of online information effectively and quickly — is an essential literacy today.

You have been writing about your life online for 30 years now. What do you consider the biggest positive development with technology during that time and the biggest problem that has come about during that time?


The ability of people to find others who share interests and problems and to share with and help them. The biggest problem is the amplified capability of people with destructive ends to connect with each other and to plot together.

In addition to writing books you are also a teacher – can you talk about what you teach and why? And have you given any thought to what you are going to write about next?

I teach social media issues and literacies. I started teaching because I didn’t see that many colleges were dealing with the individual and social issues raised by the use of social media, issues of identity and self, community, collective action, social capital, public sphere. I see it as an opportunity to introduce students to the literature, vocabulary, intellectual frameworks, and practical mental tools they will need to cope and succeed in their personal and professional lives. And now I am going to begin to teach social media literacies. I am very excited about the way social media can enable students and teacher to engage in collaborative inquiry during and between class meetings. I’ve gathered a large amount of my material on teaching and learning at — and I am planning to write one of the new, short, TED e-books about how to not only cope and thrive but how to get smarter with the online tools available to us, what is being called “the extended mind.”

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

Check Also

The Internet Is Forever, but We Are Going to Fade Away Anyway

Just keep in mind that one day we will all be gone, and none of this online stuff will matter anymore.