Friday, June 13, 2008

Are we Ready Yet? - Some of Us Perhaps.

The Cluetrain Manifesto makes the claim that, “we are getting smarter, more informed and more organised.” Of course Howard Rheingold probably originated the idea of "smart mobs".

There are aspects of the Internet that certainly prove that point. One clear example is the success of Wikipedia, and another is the use of spare capacity on people’s machines and off the network to transfer files, particularly music and video files. (A downside is the success of the Internet as a means of distributing pornography.) Also remarkable is the growth of online dating, and the high satisfaction expressed by most of the people who have tried to do that. Online dating is interesting because you have to “put yourself on the line” and people are very reluctant to do that. So of course there are a few “fake ID’s” but that entirely defeats the purpose. Those people are quickly exposed online. The general experience is that people are excessively genuine and helpful and even honest about themselves.

People who don’t know, often laugh at the idea of Wikipedia. How can a site which anyone can edit be credible? I can only say try it. Not only will you find pages for thousands of topics that would never rate a mention in any printed encyclopedia, but even on the most obscure topics there’s usually been some basic quality check. For instance a page that’s poorly developed is likely to be tagged with a statement saying that the page doesn’t meet the basic standards of Wikipedia and inviting people to verify the statements and to provide references. The English language version if printed like an encyclopedia would currently run to 787 volumes. Prof. Clay Shirky, estimates that Wikipedia represents the accumulation of over 100 million hours of human thought and effort. But this is a tiny amount of time really, given that TV viewers in the USA spend that much time every week, just watching advertising. Of all the users of Wikipedia, only some small number, ever edit a page.

Another way we get smarter is by joining groups of people who share our interests. When I first began to work on the Internet this was mostly achieved by joining a “listserv” and the best listserv’s were run by universities. Later there were sites like Yahoo Groups and several commercial competitors. It’s very hard work to build and sustain an active list. Hence lists come and go, but the best of them are very active and enormously valuable to their members.

In the last eight years web based social networks have become common. Each social network requires you join a “special group” and you have to go to a special place to get group mail, or to read about group activities. Because we all have limited time we can only be active in one or two places like this. So the idea that the Internet makes it possible to “connect to everyone” is a nonsense. However, there is a demand for each person to have a single identity and login that’s common to different networks. One day that will happen. Inside a network like this, it’s possible to “meet” the same person over and over in different discussions. So you “get to know” who these people are even if you live on the other side of the globe. In the process you get to understand more about how people are different, and how they are the same. You will also find that if you participate in the discussion that you develop an identity, that you “become someone” and the way other people respond to that, teaches you a lot about your own strengths and weaknesses.

However, the Cluetrain Manifesto was wrong if the word “we” was intended to include all Internet users. I’ve been disappointed for at least 10 years now at the low level of understanding and participation by most people who are “online”. Those who are “getting smarter” are in my view only about 10% of those who are online. The rest lack the confidence to join groups and to get involved. If you don’t join groups, and give your participation some time to develop, you can’t begin to benefit as a member. Prof. Clay Shirky has called his new book, “Here Comes Everybody” and like the writers of the Cluetrain Manifesto he’s making the claim of online benefits for “everybody”. That’s a claim that will prove false. There is a new digital divide, even in households where there is good Internet access, between those who participate and those who don’t.

Those who are engaged on the Internet are involved in a multi-person conversation that requires the development of new skills in navigation, in keyboarding, in understanding cultural and religious differences, in expressing one’s views clearly, in learning about the things other people are interested in. If this is your life, your learning rate is accelerated. If this is not what you do with your time, the chances are that you watch TV, each night becoming more and more switched off, more and more indoctrinated, less and less informed.

John Stephen Veitch
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