Critical Literacy: Teaching with Hoaxes

When I was first exposed to the “Internets” in fifth grade, I was given a stern warning to not only watch out for safety but also not to trust everything I read online. To illustrate this point, our Information Studies teacher pointed us to a website bemoaning the death of California’s Velcro Crop (see below). I think I took her words to heart, as I’ve learned to look at Internet content with a critical eye. Anything that doesn’t pass the “fishiness” test I don’t believe.

Yet in a 2006 study by the Naeg School of Education, every single seventh-grader in the study fell for a website about the fictitious Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus (again, see below). When told that the site was indeed a hoax, the students had a hard time identifying clues why and some still insisted that the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus did insist. In the world of Wikipedia and an user-generated content, critical literacy is a crucial skill to teach our students. Below, I’ve compiled a list of hoax websites that all seem to have a stake in legitimacy. How can you tell they are fake?

I provide these links for your amusement but also to discuss how hard it can be to spot these hoaxes. Some websites are obviously better hoaxes than others, but wouldn’t you usually trust a .org website such as for Dihydrogen Monoxide or a website as slick looking as RYT Hospital? The intentions of these sites may be educational, artistic or just for fun, and they certainly are not malicious. Yet they can be easily misconstrued by the uncritical reader.

So how do we exercise critical literacy? Certainly the old rules still apply: look at the dates, the url, and the source of the information. But I’d like to add one more thing: Google. If you’re not convinced of the legitimacy of a site, search for what other people are saying about it. Look for corroborating evidence. Chances are, if you’re skeptical, someone else was too.

via Thinking 2.0

-Sarah Zhang

Digital Youth, Innovation, and the Unexpected

cross-posted from Dr. Palfrey’s blog

The MacArthur Foundation’s Series on New Media and Learning, published by the MIT Press, includes a book called Digital Youth, Innovation, and the Unexpected (2008); open access version here. I opened this book first when I was writing a chapter on Innovators, for Born Digital, a book I’m co-writing with Urs Gasser. I had reason to come back to this book again in thinking about the Task Force we’re chairing, called the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, as there’s a chapter that centers on risk and moral panic in the context of Internet safety. (I’ve previously written about the series as a whole and the volumes Youth, Identity, and Digital Media and Civic Life Online.)

As with the other volumes in the series, there’s much in this book that informs and provokes.

The first essay, by editor Tara McPherson, has a title with particular to the lawyer interested in this topic: “A Rule Set for the Future.” It did not disappoint. This first essay serves both as a guide to the book as a whole as well as a description of six rules to lead to a bright future. As McPherson points out, “This volume identifies core issues concerning how young people’s use of digital media may lead to various innovations and unexpected outcomes, including a range of unintended learning experiences and unanticipated social situations. While such outcomes might typically be seen as ‘positive’ or ‘negative,’ our investigations push beyong simple accounts of digital media and learning as either utopian or dystopian in order to explore specific digital practices with an eye attuned to larger issues of history, policy, and possibility.” (p. 1) She promises that the book will take up a broad range of issues within this frame, including “policy, privacy and IP,” and to do so in a way that will inform a series of core questions, about what’s really new here, the historical background for these changes, the manner in which these changes are occurring, and what recommendations one might make for “policy, curriculum, or infrastructure.” (p. 2)

These issues that McPherson raises are in many ways the same questions we are seeking to answer in Born Digital, to be honest. She puts them nicely here. (And as a side note: the first footnote of McPherson’s opening essay points to the fact that there have already been — at least — three books on roughly the topic that Urs and I are working on: Prensky’s Don’t Bother Me, Mom — I’m Learning; Tapscott’s Growing Up Digital; Howe and Strauss’ Milliennials Rising.)

The bulk of McPherson’s opening essay is devoted to laying out “six maxims to guide further research and inquiry into the questions motivating this study.” (p. 2) These six maxims, or rules, are wonderful, both on their own and as a guide to the essays that follow. I will not ruin it by citing them all in this blog-post; you should read them for yourself if you are interested enough in this topic to be reading this paragraph of this obscure blog post. I will say that in Rule 4: Broaden Participation, she cites to a number of the prominent cyber-lawyers, including Lessig, Boyle, and co.

In her essay, “Practicing at Home,” Ellen Seiter does the unexpected: she “draw[s] out the similarities between learning to play the piano and learning to use the computer.” (p. 28-9) One such similarity is the barrier to entry of cost. Overall, it’s a worthy exercise. She informs nicely the issue of how to conceive of digital literacy in the curriculum. Her assessment of the digital divide data and literature, with an overlay of concerns about cultural capital and participation, (e.g., pp. 37-8) invoke Henry Jenkins’ fine work on the participation gap as a better way to think about the relevant split. (There’s also a critique of a passage in Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks on related grounds. (pp. 41-2) Ultimately, as Seiter admits, hers “is a pessimistic essay,” (p. 49) though one worth engaging with, especially for those of us who are hopelessly optimistic.

Justine Cassell and Meg Cramer take up the safety issue in the third essay, which is why I picked the book back up again now. It is a bit unexpected to see this essay in this volume — it fits less neatly than some of the others do with the rest — but is very helpful, especially when thinking about what we should really be worried about with respect to young people online. Cassell and Cramer lay out the facts about how great the risks are to young women of using the Internet, wonder why the media portrayal of the issue is quite so hyperbolic and misaligned with these facts, and ultimately “argue that the dangers to girls online are not as severe as they have been portrayed, and that the reason for this exaggeration of danger arises from adult fears about girls’ agency (particularly sexual agency) and societal discomfort around girls as power users of technology.” (p. 55) Cassell and Cramer do an especially nice job of placing into historical context the worry around teens online, in light of previous, similar fears that cropped up as earlier communications media became popular.

Christian Sandvig’s piece on “Wireless Play and Unexpected Innovation” offers a nice overview of how unexpected innovation may happen and what the prerequisites are for its occurrence. He locates Eric von Hippel within the literature and Sandvig’s own argument, which, as a von Hippel devotee, I found a helpful anchor for aspects of his argument. (p. 89) The last paragraph is an accurate — possibly scolding, certainly daunting — call to action. “‘Participatory culture,’” Sandvig contends, “will only move beyond the elite if the desire for decentralized control and widespread participation can animate changes in our society’s fundamental structure of opportunity.” (p. 94)

A cluster of essays that drive down further on the literacy and curricular questions follow. Sonia Livingstone offers insights aplenty in her strong essay on Internet Literacy. She stresses “the historical continuities between internet literacy and print literacy,” to great effect. (p. 115) She ends with a challenge nearly as ambitious and daunting (and just as accurate) as Sandvig’s. Paula Hooper has an instructive take on the use of programming in the curriculum. Sarita Yardi writes up a fun take on the “backchannel” in the classroom — “an exciting innovative space for a new learning paradigm.” (p. 160) Henry Lowood dives deep into games and “the expressive potential of machinima.” (p. 191) Robert Heverly reviews the topic of “growing up digital” and its impact on identity, privacy, and security — with many themes invoking the work of danah boyd (such as persistence).

The second-to-last essay, by Robert Samuels, is the most challenging. He argues, off the bat, “that in order to understand the implications of how digital youth are now using new media and technologies in unexpected and innovative ways, we have to rethink many of the cultural oppositions that have shaped the Western tradition since the start of the modern era.” (p. 219) Like the challenges at the end of the Sandvig and Livingstone pieces, Samuels’s argument strikes me as right, and hard work. He also argues “that we have moved into a new cultural period of automodernity.” I admit I did not understand it in full. (p. 219, 228-33) But I suspect that I like the idea of what he sees ahead: “by defending the public realm against the constant threats of privitization, we can open up a new automodern public space.” (p. 238) It sounds like something you need a whole conference on to understand properly, rather than the one-way street of a 20-page essay.

In the final essay, Steve Anderson and Anne Balsamo explore perspectives on the current state of digital learning. I am glad I made it this far in the book — propelled by the fine essays that preceded it — because they take up some efforts near and dear to our hearts at the Berkman Center, including Prof. Charles Nesson’s Harvard Law School/Harvard Extension School/Second Life class, CyberOne, taught with his daughter and my law school classmate Becca Nesson. (p. 249-51) Anderson and Balsamo end with a spirited manifesto for “Original Synners,” which I intend to think about adopting in my own teaching. (p. 254-7)

Taken together, these essays fit together as a series of detailed examples that string together issues that are not immediately connected in one’s mind. McPherson predicted as much in her opening essay. As she puts it, together, these essays, “encourage us to recognize that innovation as a cultural phenomenon often happens in unexpected places (as does learning) and produces unanticipated outcomes. They remind us to ask who innovation serves and how we might best reap its benefits for broader visions of social equity and justice. And, finally, they underscore that the term ‘innovation’ is value laden and historically complex.” (p. 5) It’s worth making it all the way through; the connections become clear in the full telling of the tales.

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Finding Each Other: Digital Natives and Communities of Interest

On Sunday, the New York Times ran an article on transgendered men at women’s colleges in the US. The entire article was sensitive, fascinating, and raised some provocative questions. It’s been hovering on the most-emailed list at the Times for over 24 hours now, so I have to imagine that others found it to be as engaging as I did. The most interesting part, though, at least in relation to the work we do here at Digital Natives, was the comment a college freshman named Rey made about the role of the internet in forging supportive communities for transgendered individuals:

For most of high school, Rey spent hours online reading about transgendered people and their lives. “The Internet is the best thing for trans people,” he said. “Living in the suburbs, online groups were an access point.”

The article mentions that Rey entered this sphere through a familiar portal: he typed the word “transgender” into Google.

Rey’s deeply personal story uncovers one corner of the larger schematic: the internet is where it’s all happening. For teens whose parents, schoolmates, relatives, or close friends don’t have the answers, there are countless supportive communities online. The trick, as usual, is finding the one that fits—and being able to identify the ones that don’t. This article is interesting to me in particular because Rey found this support on the internet years ago; memories of those online groups now constitute the foundations of his transgendered experience. Though he is now in college, the internet came into play at exactly the moment in his adolescence when he had questions that needed answering…and Google was the first place he turned.

Rey’s experience points to a larger trend toward online communities of interest as formative spaces. One of the most powerful capabilities of the network that constitutes the internet is the way it enables people to find others like them, to gain knowledge and support, and to feel not only less alone, but more connected. Whether a group of transgendered teens, railroad fans, soda pop experts, or victims of specific crimes, these communities of interest offer more than just “interest”; they offer access to experience.

How have communities of interest, online or off, shaped the lives of people close to you? How have they shaped your own life? What are their dangers and their rewards? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth

cross-posted from Dr. Palfrey’s blog

I’ve been making my way with care (and great pleasure) through the fine series of books that the MacArthur Foundation and MIT Press have put together on Digital Media and Learning. There are six in total, each worth reading. (I previously blogged about the volume on Youth, Identity, and Digital Media.)

I’m trying to finish the edits on Born Digital, the book on related themes that Urs Gasser and I are writing. The sticky chapter for me at the moment is called “Activists.” It will probably end up as the next-to-last chapter. I think it’s crucially important as a topic. A few weeks ago, our wonderful-and/but-tough editor at Basic Books said the chapter had to be rewritten from scratch, starting with a blank, new page (she doesn’t like Microsoft Word much). As I’ve gone through the rewrite, I am working in inspiration from another of the DM&L books, Civic Life Online. As I’ve felt about the others, it’s a great contribution to our understanding of a critical topic. The entire collection of essays is worthy of a read; I point out just a few things that jumped out at me, but I don’t mean to imply that other segments aren’t helpful, too.

The opening essay, by editor W. Lance Bennett, sets the frame for the book. He looks at “Changing Citizenship in the Digital Age,” and compares two paradigms: one of young people as engaged and active in civic life, the other as disengaged and passive. He argues that we need to “bridge the paradigms” or else our youth, digitally inspired or not, will continue to get disconnected from formal civic life. He argues in favor of a better approach: show young people how, through their use of new technologies and otherwise, they can have an impact on the political process (p. 21). In the process, we ought to enable young people to “explore, experiment, and expand democracy.” Sounds quite right to me.

Kathryn Montgomery traces a growing youth civic culture in the second chapter. Her emphasis is on the 2004 get out the vote (GOTV) efforts. She challenges the movement toward the insertion of corporations and their brands into the Rock the Vote process and other online communities. This strand of argument brought to mind the core themes of Montgomery’s recent book, also by MIT Press, called “Generation Digital: Politics, Commerce, and Childhood in the Age of the Internet,” in which she builds out further on the issues of corporate branding in the online space and marketing geared toward children. To build on the growing youth civic culture, Montgomery calls for “a broader, more comprehensive, multidisciplinary effort, combining the contributions of communications researchers, political scientists, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, economists and young people themselves.” This too sounds right, though I was amused to see us lawyers left out of the mix of who might be useful — especially when the “key policy battles” that she refers to earlier in the chapter include intellectual property, net neutrality, and online safety, which seem to me issues on which lawyers might have something to say. (Perhaps we are indeed more trouble than we’re worth.) Lots of mentions here, too, of the work of danah boyd and Henry Jenkins to keep bad things from happening in the Congress.

In “Not Your Father’s Internet: The Generation Gap in Online Politics,” Michael Xenos and Kirsten Foot take up the fascinating question (to me, anyway) of how young people are getting their news and information about politics. They argue, as many others do, that young people do so in ways that are generally quite different from the ways that older people do. Young people, they find, are more likely to access news and information about politics either online (and in social contexts) or through comedy programs rather than through print newspapers and evening newscasts — which seems true enough. “Clearly coproductive interactivity is foundational to the way that young people, more than any other age group, engage with the Internet,” they claim. (p. 57) They do a nice job also of linking their theories back to the actual uses of the Internet by campaigns and pointing, in the process, to the kinds of interactivity that work for campaigns to engage young people by building a sense of efficacy and trust. (p. 62) They call, in the end, for a balanced approach between “transactional and coproductive web practices.” (p. 65)

Howard Rheingold has a typically (for him) colorful and engaging piece on the bridging of media production and civic engagement. It’s great to have his voice directly in the set of essays, especially since many others throughout the MacArthur series cite or quote him, especially for his work on Smart Mobs. Rheingold, not surprisingly, has the money line of the whole book, perhaps the series: “Talking about public opinion making is a richer experience if you’ve tried to do it.” (p. 102). He then sends the reader through a tour of exercises and points us to a wiki where we can play ourselves. Many of us talk about Media Literacy. Rheingold (like Henry Jenkins and others) is doing something about it. Right on.

Much in the same spirit, I loved the opening line — as well as what follows — in Peter Levine’s essay: “Students should have opportunities to create digital media in schools.” (p. 119) I get teased for this, but I believe it’s true not just for younger students but for law students, too. Levine’s four strategies are convincing. Marina Bers, our neighbor at Tufts, expands on this point. She uses a lively set of examples (including pulling the reader briefly into virtual worlds). Just as helpful, Bers sets the challenge of developing an effective civics curricula into a helpful theoretical framework. Kate Raynes-Goldie and Luke Walker take a deep dive into one of the most promising projects in this space, TakingITGlobal. They also set TIG in context of related sites.

Stephen Coleman, a British scholar and one of the giants of this literature, concludes the book with a short essay that puts the entire work in context for governments themselves. Coleman points to six things (pp. 202 – 3) that governments can do “to promote democratic youth e-citizenship” plus four “policy principles” (p. 204). Coleman links his themes back to arguments by Rheingold, Bers, and Levine in the process, bringing things full-circle.

I put down this volume hopeful again about what we can do to engage young people in civic life. It’s clear, from the work of these scholars, that we’ll have to expand our thinking about what we mean by “civic life” if we mean to engage these young people. It’s clear, too, that experiential learning — learning that is rewarding and fulfilling and encourages them to come back to these activities — is an essential part of what we have to do next, whether that’s something that we structure in the classroom or that we just encourage and promote when young people just do it themselves.


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The Internet is Not Eroding Our Culture

Whenever I get those personal statements asking me to “Indicate a something that has had a significant influence on you and describe that influence,” I’m always tempted to pick — at the risk of sounding like a maladjusted nerd — the Internet.

Amy Goldwasser’s Salon article about the Internet and and its impact youth culture got me reflecting on this. Refreshingly, it takes a largely positive view of the Internet, defending it against recent surveys proclaiming ignorance in teenagers and writer Doris Lessing’s Internet-condemning Nobel Prize acceptance speech last year. Lessing, using some very harsh language, had said,

How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by this internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc.

No disrespect to Lessing, but I think her dismissal of “blogging etc” arises from complete misunderstanding of the Internet. Of course we should ask how the Internet has changed our lives and our ways of thinking — that’s one of Digital Natives’ goals, no less — but that impact is surely not so negative. In her article, Goldwasser gets at the true impact of the Internet: it teaches us to be active. She calls the YouTube-CNN debates, cultural phenomenal like MySpace, and especially blogs productive and lauds the teens who produce them. These ideas reminded me a lot Lawrence Lessig’s superb TEDtalk from last year. Although he approaches it from the angle of copyright law, he also argues for the shift from passive to active consumers of culture. It is the Internet that has unlocked this potential.

So when I speak of the Internet as the single most influential force on my life, that’s exactly what I mean. And for the record, I don’t think it’s nerdy, or nerdy in a bad sense, at all. On the Internet, I have not only learned about the Nash Equilibrium and Pedro Almodóvar and copyright infringement, but also learned to engage in discussions about them. The last line of Goldwasser’s article particularly hit home for me.

One of [these teenagers], 70 years from now, might even get up there to accept the very award Lessing did — and thank the Internet for making him or her a writer and a thinker.

In my mind, this isn’t a maybe, but a definitely. There Internet has contributed too much to our culture to not have this kind of impact. We no longer look at a screen passively; we can type on our keyboards and pick up our cameras to post something in response. It is an outlet for active communication and productive discussions. I probably won’t be winning Nobel Prizes, but I will still proudly thank the Internet for teaching me to think.

Update:A Vision of K-12 Students Today is a great video that makes the point I’m trying to make in an elegant multimedia format. It’s no doubt inspired by Michael Wesch’s equally brilliant video about college students, A Vision of Students Today.

-Sarah Zhang

The Permanent Record, Pt. 2

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about reputation management for teens that sparked a lively conversation in the blogosphere. This came as something of a shock, but was ultimately a pleasant surprise. As anyone who’s ever blogged has probably found, having people disagree with you is one of the best ways to figure out what you really think. Sam Jackson, a fellow Berkman intern, stepped out first, with a sharp comment on the post. I’ve reposted it here; it’s a good argument in its own right, and it will put my response (below) in context.

Have to completely disagree with you here on some of these things. Although it is sensible to be careful about using full names online, there is no reason to wait until college as some sudden arbitrary point in time to start branding yourself on the web. If the implication is that people are going to be searching for you before then, then you should have something; if it’s because you don’t want people to see what you have up before in college you ’suddenly’ shift and reform your internet use-patterns, then that makes sense. But my website– samjackson.org — probably helped me get into college, and at the very least was in many ways responsible for my being an intern at Berkman.

Furthermore, if there are ties between the two–if someone can click on your ‘reputable’ blog and find links to your ‘old, pre-adult’ Flickr or even check the wayback machine for things… really, there is no reason to not be responsible all the time. I have more to say on this topic, I guess I should post about it sometime! Especially from my interactions with new media professionals and lots, lots, lots of people in the college admissions sphere–I would just have different prescriptions, I guess.

Sam’s pretty right-on about a lot of this. It’s true that if someone really, really wants to find your teenaged Xanga ramblings—whether that someone is a potential employer or an ex-girlfriend of the future—she’ll be able to. That’s true no matter how many precautions you take. If you’re publishing anything on the Internet, it’s probably findable somehow, and will be for a long time. However, as John Palfrey pointed out at our BB&N talk, it’s usually safe to operate on an 80-20 premise. In this case: if you take certain precautions, (such as using only a nickname as ID until you consciously decide to start your online “permanent record”), you’ll save your future self from being immediately connected to your nicknamed endeavors. Eighty percent of people, you could say, will only search your full name on Google. The other, industrious, 20 percent probably couldn’t be stopped anyway; they’re savvy and persistent enough to find info on you regardless. Both groups need to be kept in mind at all times when publishing information about yourself on the Internet, but a reasonable amount of laxness can be exercised, I believe, in situations where the 80% will likely never stumble on that specific realm of your online adventures.

Below, you’ll find my full response to Sam’s criticisms, originally sent to him in an email. Once again, I just wanted to thank Sam and all the other commentors for making this a truly interesting conversation. Keep ’em coming!

____

You make some very good points about not just choosing college as an arbitrary starting point. College doesn’t make you magically grown up. I guess my main point was, for parents trying to find some reasonable guideline to give their younger teens, this is not a bad one. When I was around 13 or 14, spending up to 6 hours a day on the internet (seriously!), my parents were very understanding and permissive; they only asked that I not give my full name out to strangers. There’s no absolute safety, but I think that was a good, easy-to-remember baseline.

Then again, what you point out is also very true. We should always be conscious about what we’re putting out there on the internet, and indeed, knowing that something will be linked to your name (potentially forever) could maybe cause teens to take appropriate precautions. You’re always findable; it’s just a matter of how much effort it takes to find you. Maybe sticking to full name from the get-go could keep that at the forefront of everyone’s minds, which would be good all around.

I probably shouldn’t have implied that younger teens can’t be trusted to manage their online reputations. That’s certainly not what I meant. High school, in fact, is kind of the ideal time to enter the blog world, find something worth saying, and say it. I think your experience clearly speaks to that! What I meant, I think, is that starting a life online can sometimes involve a lot of experimentation. Becoming conscientious, in a way, requires going through this process of experimentation first. I think that parents should be open to the possibility of their younger teens experimenting with practices and identities on the Internet. But I think that at least talking about “what names you use, and how people find information about you in the future, and how very little is really private when you put it out there” is a really good discussion to have. Thus, I maybe should have stayed away from a strict prescription, and leaned toward just “have this discussion.”

You probably noticed, though, that I’m all for claiming your own domain name when you’re young—even if you’re not going to use it for a bit, or even if you are. Having one central location for your online “identity”—especially a location that usually shows up very high in the search results—helps to make all the other locations a bit less important by comparison.

___

A quick shout-out, too, to Sam’s related blog post and Brian’s smart thoughts on managing your online presence. I tend toward being less alarmist and more optimistic, but it’s healthy to hear all sides of the debate. In the meantime, I’ll make an effort to be more controversial, more often…as it turns out, it’s kind of fun!

Mobile Reveries: Digital Natives and Text Messaging

This past weekend, my parents came to town. So did everyone else’s, to be fair; Harvard’s campus was teeming with bright-eyed parental figures, ducking in for a brief glimpse of their children’s lives during Junior Parents’ Weekend. It was wonderful to walk through the streets of Cambridge with my parents, showing them all of the exciting things I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by.

That is, when I managed to look up from my texting on my cellphone for long enough to point them out.

It really took having my parents here for me to realize the extent to which I depend on text messaging. I certainly wasn’t trying to be rude, and I doubt that my parents took offense when I pulled out my family-plan RAZR to respond to its digital chimes. I couldn’t help noticing, though, that this happened not once, not twice, but probably at least 5 times a day. And I think I’m on the low end. I tend to dash off long text messages with mostly-correct punctuation, so each text takes about two minutes to write; as my parents and I ran around Cambridge, I would sink into these mobile reveries where I was completely consumed by thumbing notes, making arrangements, and trading hellos.

A few days ago the New York Times ran a fascinating article about the “Text Generation Gap,” addressing the gulf between the ways that teens and their parents use SMS technology—often, in trying to communicate with one another. My parents are no strangers to technology, but they actually don’t text at all. This is not because they lack the ability or know-how; nope, it’s mainly just because they’d already shelled out for unlimited text messaging for me and my college-aged brother, and didn’t see the point in getting it for themselves. Every text message for them, then, costs money; mostly, in their efforts to keep a 5-cellphone bill down, they simply abstain. Thus, text messages—like Facebook messages—are simply not a mode of communication open to me for interacting with my parents.

And if text messaging were an available avenue for parental interactions? It’s hard to even imagine, but I know it’s a reality for tons of families today. I know that for me, text messaging always feels a little like passing a note in middle school: slightly deviant, consistently effective. And definitely, definitely something that happens within my peer group, and not outside of it. I’m curious to know: why do you text? Who do you text? Who don’t you?

Q&A with Alexander Heffner, Founder of Scoop08

(cross posted from Berkman Center site)

Heffner, Founder of Scoop08, will be joining us at the Berkman Center to present at our weekly Tuesday Luncheon series at 12:30 PM ET. The event will be webcast live, and there are still seats available if you’d like to join us in person (email rsvp@cyber.law.harvard.edu if you plan to attend).

Berkman Center intern Yvette Wohn conducted an email Alexander, where they discussed new media, the election, and the difference between blogging and journalism.
What elements of “old school journalism” are you implementing into your new media?

In every feature on the site, we try to preserve the quality of our journalism to offer substantive reporting as well as a breadth of opinion. We distinguish between the work of our news correspondents and that of our columnists. And we try to thoroughly develop our stories and engage student editors and reporters in a virtual newsroom, in which they can interact and trade ideas before a piece is published. We care about ideas…fresh, innovative ones that will motivate young people to engage in the political process. For instance, earlier this primary season, we proposed a bi-partisan debate between both the Democratic and Republican contenders. We argued that such a forum would challenge the typical parameters of political discourse and not merely pander to the party bases. Another old-school style we like is the Q&A; one of our writers recently published an interview with New York City Mayor MIke Bloomberg about his flirtation with the presidency.

How does the editorial board deal with fact-checking?

Scoop08, like professional media outlets, has a crew of copy editors and fact-checkers. We pride ourselves on adopting the standards of classic print journalism, while still offering frequently updated rapid-fire blog reports and follow-up stories.

Is Scoop08 a blog or a news site? What do you think is the difference between the two?

Scoop08 is a news site, which contains a regularly updated blog of student observations on the presidential race. We are an online student periodical, which aims to publish the work — news and opinion — of as many young people as possible. Unlike blogs, news sites tend to offer more hard fact and to shape a diverse editorial voice, rather than promote an individual or group’s political views.

How different do you think campaign coverage is, if it done by students (especially from those who don’t have voting power)?

Many of our students are (or will be) eligible to vote in the 2008 presidential election. That said, regardless of age, the student lens is always intriguing. Students are more closely linked than many reporters to the world of academia, to their history textbooks, and to the study of politics. Our college and high school reporters offer insight into what students (and their professors) are thinking about 2008 political headlines.

Are the majority of your student participants under the age of 25?

Yes, if not every one. Our students participants come from across the educational spectrum, mostly in college and high school.

What kind of incentive do the writers have in working for Scoop08?

Scoop08’s engine is fired by the volunteer efforts of students across the nation. The incentive, in part, is feeling empowered in assuming a critical role in our democracy — and consolidating the student voice in a productive way. Besides the philosophical incentive, it’s an excellent way for students to develop their interest in journalism, both for first-timers and more seasoned journos.

What happens to Scoop08 after the election?

At the moment, we’re focused intensely on covering the 2008 presidential race: all of the remaining candidates, the central policy debates, the lead-up to the conventions, and every possible conceivable angle. In the coming months, Scoop08 plans to intensify its efforts to break news with more original, investigative reporting. We’re also in the process of assembling a team of chief correspondents in every state to cover what might be an unprecedented nationwide contest. Scoop08 version 2.0, an upgraded site launching soon, will also connect us to a broader cross-section of the blogosphere with more links to non-Scoop08 online stories that we encourage our readers to see. But after this year, we hope to continue reporting on the political scene and public affairs…the 2010 midterm elections, the 2012 race for the White House, and beyond.

Twittering and Digging in Action at SXSWi

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote talk at South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) won’t be remembered because of Facebook. His hour-long interview gave precious little insight into the current workings or future plans of the social-networking site. Instead, it revealed quite a lot about Twitter and Digg.

How so? Journalist Sarah Lacy’s interview style was widely reviled by the audience. Occasional heckling turned into real-time commentary on Twitter. As Leslie Poston at TECH.BLORGE describes it:

About halfway through the interview, my own Twitter screen lit up like a switchboard with comments that grew increasingly more combative, detailing what many were calling Sarah Lacy’s colossal “fail” of this important hour of people’s time.

Sensing that she was losing her audience, Lacy turned the questions over them, saying

Let’s go with the Digg model and let them have mob rule.

Not having been there myself, I don’t think it’s up to me to pass any judgments on the events. However, I do think what happened at SXSWi is emblematic of how digital technologies have changed our interactions. What Lacy called “mob rule” can be put more positively as crowdsourcing, which if Wikipedia and open-source software are any indicator, is an astonishingly effective way of getting things done on the Internet. Rather than empowering the little guy, the Internet empowers the crowds of little guys. The wisdom (or lack thereof according to some) of crowds has been a hot topic in many discussions. It is interesting to ponder the implications that this has for Digital Natives growing up in a world of crowdsourcing. Does it challenge authority? Does it add to the the pressure to conform and stifle minority dissenting voices? In any case, it certainly made an impact at SXSWi.

Note: Since I mentioned Twitter, here’s a shout out to our twitterfeed too. Most of it is blog action, but it’s another easy way to follow us!

-Sarah Zhang

The Internet: Politics as usual?

(cross posted from Corinna di Gennaro’s blog)

With the primaries in full swing and the upcoming elections, one cannot but ponder what role new technologies such as the Internet are playing in facilitating citizens’ engagement in the political process. Is the Internet actually making a difference?

The Internet has certainly lowered the barriers of participation – if one wants to get involved, there are numerous arguably low cost ways to do so. Social networking sites such as Facebook allow users to join groups or become supporters of one’s favorite politician. Political satire DIY videos abound on YouTube, from the downright entertaining to the more engaged ones. Finally, there is a series of innovative websites, for example Scoop08, VoteGopher and Generation Engage, which are entirely made up of user generated content allowing (especially young) people to voice their opinions and engage in political discussion.

But does online political participation matter if it does not eventually translate into some tangible offline outcome such as for example turnout at the ballots or door to door canvassing? To put it in other words, is the online participatory culture promoted by the Internet meaningful in itself – if it does not translate into a (offline) participatory democracy? Similarly, does offline political participation which was originated online matter if it is only short term and episodic (for example taking part in a protest organized on Facebook)? Is one off participation as valuable as long term commitment to a cause? After all, some of the most successful online ventures such as MoveOn.org and MeetUp.com can ascribe a big part of their accomplishments to the fact that they are rooted in local communities and offline social networks.

It is being argued that the Internet is really making a difference for young people’s political engagement. There is some evidence that the current generation of 18-24 year olds is more civically engaged than previous generations of young people. While it can be argued that Web 2.0 tools, from social networking sites to YouTube are the domain of the young, can we safely assume that it is the Internet which is playing a major role in engaging young people in the political process? How do we isolate the impact of the Internet from other exogenous factors such as the war in Iraq, the years of the Bush administration, or the 9/11 attacks as political scientist Robert Putnam has recently claimed?

While the Dean campaign was greeted as the first Internet election, online fundraising was the main feature of the novelty. Much has changed since then, thanks to the new opportunities for involvement provided by Web 2.0 tools. Unfortunately, studying these new trends is often fraught with methodological difficulties: how can we quantify the aggregate effect of the thousands of videos uploaded on YouTube; or of the scattered conversations and strategic planning which takes place online on politicians websites, users’ blogs and Facebooks groups? Perhaps the most important question to be asked is whether and how the Internet is contributing to the empowerment of individuals – as political efficacy and political trust are necessary conditions for becoming involved in the political process.