How Did Howard Rheingold Get So “Net Smart”?: An Interview (Part Three)

You talk in the book about what you call “network knowledge.” Can you define this concept? What kinds of things do you think the ordinary internet user should know about the ways networks work and why?
Networks of the technical and social kind — and especially their combination — have become particularly important today because of our growing reliance on networked devices and online social networks. At the same time, knowledge of how technical and social networks work is emerging from empirical research. Network science is illuminating the way the structure of networks influences what can be done within and with them. Social network analysis — which predates the Internet — shows how people use networks (sparsely knit, loosely bound) as well as communities (densely knit, tightly bound) in their daily lives, offline and online. Research into social capital has revealed the importance of networks of trust in informal collective action. Some of the most important political conflicts over the future of the Internet, such as the net neutrality debate, are tied up with issues about the architecture of the Internet.

Knowing how to cultivate and make use of personal learning networks has become a life skill in school and the workplace. And Manuel Castells has argued, with impressive evidence, that the linkage of global communication networks with human social networks is transforming world civilization into a “network society.” None of this knowledge is particularly complicated, at least at the level of grasping the fundamentals. But the practical lore is embedded in a number of different disciplines that the average web user is unlikely to have studied.

So when I say network knowledge I refer to the knowledge of how a small world network works, the role of trust and reciprocity in social capital, the importance of centrality and structural holes, bridging and bonding capital, the architecture of participation that grows from the Internet’s end-to-end principle, the differences (and advantages and disadvantages) between communities and networks, the importance of portfolios of loose and strong ties. Each of these terms has a technical meaning within network science, sociology, political science, but each also has practical application: If you know how to do it, you can use networks to find people who know what they are talking about  and you can engage those people and learn from them. You and others can get things done together online more effectively.

I’ll just give one example here. Of course I’ve detailed this lore in Net Smart. The architecture of the Internet — the way in which information travels and is controlled — was deliberately designed to be decentralized by the authors of the TCP/IP protocols. Instead of a centralized switchboard like the telephone system, the packets that carry information on the Internet contain their own addressing and other metadata and are cooperatively routed around the Internet in a decentralized manner. The control doesn’t lie in a centralized switchboard, but in the way the packets encapsulate the agreements about how the system works and the cooperation of all the nodes in the system enables information to find its own way around.

One important philosophical foundation of this architecture (and certainly there were many technical reasons behind the design of the protocols) was that the creators of the protocols knew that they could not foresee  how people would use the system and — most importantly — would innovate within the system’s rules — in the future. If control of how information moved around the Internet was centralized, future innovators might be forced to ask permission or argue for a reconfiguration of the control mechanism. If anybody at any node can invent a new way to use the system — a World-Wide Web, for example, based on protocols that conform to TCP/IP and build on it — there is no need to ask for permission or reconfigure the control mechanism.

As we’ve seen, this philosophical basis for a technical architecture led to unprecedented innovation. The freedom to innovate is one of the most important things at stake in the net neutrality debate. Will future innovators, perhaps in their dorm rooms, perhaps barefoot geniuses with smartphones, be able to invent new ways of knowing, new industries, in the future? Or will they have to work for one of the big content or communication companies?

“Architecture of participation” is a term Tim O’Reilly used to describe the way Internet services can be configured so that individual acts of self-interest add up to public goods that are useful to everybody. I love social bookmarking, for example, not just as a personal knowledge management tool, but as a way of both sharing and discovering resources and expertise. When I select a site to bookmark, select a snippet, add tags, I am doing something that I need to do for my own interest. But when Diigo, delicious or the newer curation sites make it possible for me to make my decisions public at no additional financial or time cost to me, then my decisions aggregate with the decisions of others.

Napster’s secret to success was a form of architecture of participation in which people provisioned a resource (music) in the act of consuming it. Set aside for this discussion the ethical and legal issues around stealing music and just look at the architecture. When Napster users downloaded music, it wasn’t from a central server, but from another Napster user online at the same time who had the music the downloader sought. By default, the folder where Napster stored downloaded music on users’ computers was open to other Napster users who were searching for music at the time. Cory Doctorow called this “sheep that shit grass.” The web itself is an architecture of participation. This is a real and not too difficult to understand implication of specific affordances built into online networks.
Many have talked about a pyramid of participation in which many consume information online but few actively produce it. These models are clearly hierarchical with production valued more than consumption. Yet, concepts like curation, which is central to your discussion, or circulation, which will be central to my forthcoming Spreadable Media book, focus on mid-level activities  which are more widespread in our culture and which nevertheless have been central to defining digital culture from the beginnings. You describe tagging as a “fundamental building block” of networked communities.  Can you share more about your understanding of curation as an important form of participation?
I don’t have the figures at my fingertips, but my guess is that there are orders of magnitudes more participators in web culture than there were in print culture, in terms both of raw numbers and as a percentage of the population. There were far more readers than writers when the printing presses was the mode of production and the transport of physical books was the distribution channel.

I think there is an answer to the problem of the rising tide of noise online — spam, porn, misinformation, disinformation — and that lies in enabling people to find the good stuff and to make their choices public in a way that adds up. Certainly that, crudely put, is where Google’s search algorithm came from — when millions of people began putting links on their website, their choices added up to the input for PageRank.

The wisdom of the crowd is not infallible and it’s important to always start there — triangulation by finding three independent sources or looking at the material in question three different ways ought to be applied to collective decisions along with all the other information found online. Crap detection is about the kind of critical thinking and verification tools and techniques that can help people avoid wrong information.

Curation, however, is about the social production of decisions about which information is worth paying attention to. As I detail in Net Smart, we’re seeing the evolution of hybrid social and algorithmic systems for transforming large numbers of individual decisions into valuable metadata. But at the fundamental level, curation depends on individuals making mindful and informed decisions in a publicly detectable way.

Certainly just clicking on a link, “liking” or “plussing” an item online, adding a tag to a photograph is a lightweight element that can be aggregated in valuable ways (ask Facebook). But the kind of curation that is already mining the mountains of Internet ore for useful and trustworthy nuggets of knowledge, and the kind that will come in the future, has a strong literacy element.

Curators don’t just add good-looking resources to lists, or add their vote through a link or like, they summarize and contextualize in their own words, explicitly explain why the resource is worthy of attention, choose relevant excerpts, tag thoughtfully, group resources and clearly describe the grouping criteria. Think of these little information details as the metadata for a collective intelligence.

There’s one formula for collective intelligence: introduce a large number of people making refined decisions to a platform that makes it easy for them to share those decisions, add intrinsic value to the curation platform that serves the curators’ self-interest, mix in  ways for individual curators to group and communicate. If it sounds easy, the hidden difficulty lies in recruiting a sufficiently large population of participants.

I see three linked occurrences that provide some hope for raising the quality of information people are able to access: Curation platform companies such as Diigo, Delicious, Pinterest, Digg, Scoop.it, Pearltrees and many others are engaged in a commercial competition that is driving development of higher quality, easier to use, more rewarding services. More people are using curated resources through social media sharing via Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus .And more and more people are learning to make their curation decisions more effectively. That’s why I interviewed Robert Scoble and Robin Good via video and made the videos available online as well as extracting quotes from my book. I can see curation as the basis of an entire course, and of course it has a long tradition in the information sciences that have evolved from library science.

You enter into the debates around “Playbor.” When and how does the “architecture of participation” become exploitative? How conscious do you think users are about the trade-offs they make in deploying certain commercial sites as tools and resources for participatory culture?

I have learned a great deal from Fred Turner, Trebor Scholz, and Mirko Schaeffer about the way some profit from the actions of many, so I believe an important part of social media literacy, comprising components of crap-detection, participation literacy, and collaborative skills, is the habit of asking oneself who is profiting from one’s actions online — and what they are giving back in return.

I know that when I upload a video to YouTube or a photo to Flickr and take the time to tag them that I am contributing a small amount of monetary value to Google and to Yahoo, which of course adds up to a very large amount of money when that small amount of value is contributed by millions of people.  When I take into account of leasing my own server to share my videos and photographs, the network effects of sharing with YouTube’s or Flickr’s large population, the software I would need and the time it would require to host my own media, then, to me, the value proposition that Google and Yahoo offer is a fair one.

Yes, I also know that tracking cookies and other mechanisms invisible to me are used to compile my use of these services and other online activities into valuable commercial metadata and for more nefarious dataveillance purposes. So, knowing this, are participative resources like YouTube, Flickr and many others an evil plot? You can argue this politically, but again I believe the better answer lies in education: in medicine the legal doctrine of informed consent compels my doctor to explain what might happen to me when I give consent to operate upon me. I’m giving Google and Yahoo my informed consent. But I’m informed.

Shouldn’t everybody be? I certainly don’t argue with and wholeheartedly support efforts to create free, inexpensive, open-source services. And I do think it’s always important to be wary of the actions of monopolies. But mostly, I’m for informing people about possible exploitation of their labor.

I think trade-off is a good way to think about it. So much of the “entertaining ourselves to death” mass media journalism has trained us to see complex issues in starkly simple and manichean terms. Maybe the way Playbor works is that a big capitalist corporation makes profits by providing a service that has to compete with other services seeking to exploit our attention, decisions, and media (again, beware monopolies). And maybe it also provides a platform upon which participatory cultures can be built.

In the business world, some cooperative corporations such as Mondragon in Spain enable the workers to also be shareholders; Mondragon owns banks and other industries. Might some future entrepreneurs create playbor hybrids that are cooperatively owned? Critiques are important and it is especially important now to think critically around our use of media, but in addition to critiques, attempts at better ways of doing things are also important.

One thing I took away from Mirko Schaeffer’s Bastard Culture was his argument that I (and Henry Jenkins) promulgate a “narrative of participation” that promise empowerment to those who learn to participate online, and that this narrative is being manipulated and exploited by corporate culture producers. Well, in the spirit of crap detection, I agree that it’s always good to ask “who profits from this?” and “who is funding this?” I decided to contribute to the profits of book publishers every time I bought a book, and in turn I gained knowledge and entertainment. Of course, book publishers weren’t able to use technology to wring further profits out of observing how I read their books and how I share them.

Again, it comes around to being mindful. I want to be mindful in my agreements to be exploited and I want to be mindful in the way I frame my narrative of participation. Participation is empowering. But that doesn’t mean I think it’s utopian.

James Paul Gee has used the term, “affinity space,” to describe what he sees as highly generative online spaces where learning and knowledge production takes place within groups of people who share common interests. He argues for this term because he feels that many of these spaces do not share the social cohessiveness or emotional connections we might associate with communities. As the person who coined the term “virtual community,” I need to ask you how important is it that online networks have attributes traditionally ascribed to communities in order to function effectively?
Barry Wellman calls this “the community question.” In 1955, George Hillery compiled 94 different definitions of community in sociology papers, and one of the most important roots of contemporary sociology goes back to Tönnies decrying the shift from gemeinschaft to geselschaft, often translated as the shift from community to society that occurred in the 19th century with industrialization, urbanization, the rise of capitalism.

As Wellman notes, there’s a long history of a kind of pastoralist nostalgia: community is seen as something wholesome that people used to have, but which has been eroded, debased, replaced by modernity, mass media, social media. Most definitions include some people who communicate in some way over some period time and have something in common.

Wellman introduced me to finer distinctions. What most people have in mind when they talk about community are people who are geographically linked, densely knit (many or most people in one’s group tend to know one another), and tightly bound (relatively few from outside the boundaries of the group). Networks, however, are not bound by geography (which was true before the Internet — think of diaspora communities of emigrants, or national/global businesses), are sparsely knit (most people don’t know each other — does your teacher know your spouse, your mechanic, your doctor?), and loosely bound (people from different groups/networks are not uncommon).

I also like how Wellman et. al. describe what people get out of communities — information, social capital (favors for and from others), support (emotional, financial), and a sense of belonging. I think it’s fair to say that unless there is some other compelling factor that forces people to provide one or more of these benefits (e.g., your boss says you have to communicate and share information with your colleagues), you are more likely to get them from networks of people who communicate regularly and have come to trust one another to some degree. This kind of trust comes from familiarity, from small exchanges of informational favors, from shared experiences, jokes, the kind of trivial but humanizing knowledge people gain about each other through “small talk.”

From these characteristics, I think community and networks ought to be considered as part of a continuum of social relationships. Some relationships have greater depth, longevity, degree of commitment than others, and so do some networks. A community of practice, for example, might not widely share the kind of trust that would allow you to leave your children with someone for the night, or the kind of trust you’d need to take a long automobile trip with each other. But you might recognize a member of a network as someone who has proved to be helpful to others, who doesn’t act like a jerk, and someone you’ve communicated with about matters of mutual interest — whether it’s technical lore among engineers or various tricks of the trade among online gamers.

A COP can function effectively without a great deal of affective component to communication, but it’s hard to think of a group that calls itself a community in which people don’t exhibit or signal emotion. This loops back to gemeinschaft-gesellschaft. When most people in the world lived in agrarian communities or small villages, then the people you work with, the people who provide professional services, your friends, and your neighbors were largely part of the same group. Now it’s easy to switch from your support group for people caring for aging parents, which is probably pretty community-like, to an online community of practice for educators who use social media, which might be convivial without being familiar. I think the community question is a good way for people to reflect on their relationships and obligations and the media they use to maintain them, but ultimately I also think we have not yet developed a rich enough vocabulary to describe the different varieties of sociality that different media afford — from skyscrapers and elevators to email and multiplayer games.

Humans keep changing the way we communicate — writing, the alphabet, print, telephone, broadcast media. And with new media practices come new social practices or new twists on older social practices. We attach familiar names to the new — horseless carriages and wireless telegraphs came to be known as automobiles and radios, and now we have Internet radio, shortwave radio, FM radio, satellite radio. Affinity spaces and hacker spaces, co-working spaces are emerging in the physical and the online world. So I do agree with Gee that it doesn’t make sense to call every affinity group a community, as well as agreeing with Wellman that people can receive the general benefits most people attribute to communities from online communications.

Howard’s Story:
I fell into the computer realm from the typewriter dimension in 1981, then plugged my computer into my telephone in 1983 and got sucked into the net. In earlier years, my interest in the powers of the human mind led to Higher Creativity (1984), written with Willis Harman, Talking Tech (1982) and The Cognitive Connection (1986) with Howard Levine, Excursions to the Far Side of the Mind: A Book of Memes (1988), Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming (1990), with Stephen LaBerge, and They Have A Word For It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases.(1988).

I ventured further into the territory where minds meet technology through the subject of computers as mind-amplifiers and wrote Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Amplifiers (1984) [New edition from MIT Press, April 2000]. Next, Virtual Reality (1991) chronicled my odyssey in the world of artificial experience, from simulated battlefields in Hawaii to robotics laboratories in Tokyo, garage inventors in Great Britain, and simulation engineers in the south of France.

In 1985, I became involved in the WELL, a “computer conferencing” system. I started writing about life in my virtual community and ended up with a book about the cultural and political implications of a new communications medium, The Virtual Community(1993 [New edition,MIT Press, 2000]). I am credited with inventing the term “virtual community.” I had the privilege of serving as the editor of The Whole Earth review and editor in chief of The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog (1994). Here’s my introduction to the Catalog, my riff on Taming Technology and a selection of my own articles and reviews from both publications.In 1994, I was one of the principal architects and the first Executive Editor of HotWired. I quit after launch, because I wanted something more like a jam session than a magazine. In 1996, I founded and, with the help of a crew of 15, launched Electric Minds. Electric Minds was named one of the ten best web sites of 1996 by Time magazineand was acquired by Durand Communications in 1997. Since the late 1990s, I’ve cat-herded a consultancy for virtual community building.

My 2002 book, Smart Mobs, was acclaimed as a prescient forecast of the always-on era. In 2005, I taught a course at Stanford University on A Literacy of Cooperation, part of a long-term investigation of cooperation and collective action that I have undertaken in partnership with the Institute for the Future. The Cooperation Commons is the site of our ongoing investigation of cooperation and collective action. The TED talk I delivered about “Way New Collaboration” has been viewed more than 265,000 times. I have taught Participatory Media/Collective Action at UC Berkeley’s School of Information, Digital Journalism at Stanford and continue to teach VirtualCommunity/Social Media at Stanford University, was a visiting Professor at the Institute of Creative Technologies, De Montfort University in Leicester, UK. In 2008, I was a winner in MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning competition and used my award to work with a developer to create a free and open source social media classroom. I have aYouTube channel that covers a range of subjects. Most recently, I’ve been concentrating on learning and teaching 21st Century literacies. I’ve blogged about this subject for SFGatehave been interviewed, and have presented talks on the subject. I was invited to deliver the 2012 Regents’ Lecture at University of California, Berkeley. I also teach online courses through Rheingold U.

You can see my painted shoes, if you’d like.

Howard Rheingold / hlr@well.com