Does more information mean less quality?

As Internet use spreads and more people have the opportunity to raise their personal voices, information quality becomes a greater issue. I have always been told that the Internet is a secondary resource for academic research. However, whenever I need information on anything, my first resource is Google and, the second, Wikipedia. Although I will not use the Internet as a resource for my academic work, I believe that utilizing these tools will lead me to other sources, including contact with diverse conversations and perspectives about the topic I’m researching. Ultimately, I end up finding valuable information that can be used as reference in my research such as books, articles, ideas, etc.

So what are the issues which arise from the quality of productions created and distributed via the Web? Born Digital states why information quality matters:

More generally, information quality matters, whether online or off, because we base our decisions on it. Recent history is full of examples where low-quality information has led to bad decision-making… in both the private and public sectors.

The first question I would ask is: Do we benefit from the variety of information available on the Internet?

I don’t believe that we should focus so heavily on the negative aspects of producing knowledge on the Internet that it might overshadow its positive effects. As we have more information being produced by more people, we will innevitably have a wider range of information and ultimately issues of quality will arise. However, we will have more information, more points of view, and more chances of questioning our own knowledge and expanding it.

In The Wealth of Networks, Benkler discusses the idea of “Being on the Shoulder of Giants,” which refers exactly to the opportunity (and necessity) of us creating new knowledge based on what has been already done by others in order to keep expanding outwards, especially in regards to information and innovation. In a Berkman Center luncheon, we learned about the mechanism of collaborative work in a Contest and how useful information gives structure to new useful information while what is not useful is discarded.

So I understand that having more people producing information will inevitably generate more questionable information, but I also believe that a wider range of opinions and perspectives is incredibly helpful. What stands out is the role of Digital Natives in this environment where information is widely spread, not always being quality information. As Digital Natives, we need to be skeptical about what is available on the Internet. What is necessary, is that we work on our critical apparatus, learning how to question all information in order to reach quality information.

This topic has been an ongoing discussion, especially among educators. DNs have access to much more information than what a professor can store, so critical thinking is an essential tool that these DNs need to be equiped with in order to manage the massive amounts of information that is available to them.

Popularity v. Quality: Assessing Information Quality in a Commercialized Internet

In some ways, the Internet is a giant popularity contest. Worth is assessed by Google PageRank – a formula based primarily on how many people link to a site. Every news site prominently displays the most read, most commented, most e-mailed stories. Social news sites such as Digg, reddit, and del.icio.us exist as an aggregation of what is popular around the web. Another level up, PopUrls serves as an aggregator of aggregators, displaying all the most popular headlines from other news-sharing sites.

There is a collective fixation on what is most popular, with the assumption that what is popular is also most worthy. Websites that show up on the first page of a Google search are more reliable than those on subsequent pages. There’s good reason for this kind of trust in popularity. Unlike the days when information was controlled by few hands in just a few media channels, the Internet is an incredibly democratizing medium, where both the barriers to entry and costs of participation are low. If you build it, they will come. The cream will eventually rise to the top. Popularity, then, can be become a shorthand for quality.

Now that social media has been a buzz word for a while, marketing companies have scrambled to exploit these principles. Advertising in the form of pop-ups and banner ads still abounds, but the savviest marketing mimics viral popularity. Whatever mistrust we may harbor toward corporate advertising, our guard comes down a little in social media. The Internet is perhaps the most democratic media platform we have ever had, it is still not a level playing field. A part of digital literacy is the ability to distinguish what has genuinely risen to the top and what has been inflated by outside influences. Popularity, then, is not always the most reliable metric for quality.

A particularly timely example in this week leading up to the election is astroturfing. Accusations of astroturfing, or formal PR campaigns that aim to give the impression of grassroots movements, have been thrown around by both the McCain and Obama campaigns. Nebulous definition aside, Astroturfing is difficult to prove, but it’s also fairly spot something fishy. A public relations firm after all, no matter how well staffed, can’t really imitate the organic interactions of a real grassroots movement.

This kind of behavior isn’t limited to political campaigns of course. When it was revealed last year that Whole Foods CEO John Mackey had spent at least seven years posting under a pseudonym on Yahoo Finance forums, in which he pretended to be an unbiased third-party and posted critical comments about a rival company that Whole Foods was looking to buy, there was a collective outrage online. There is something particularly odious is this way of gaming the system that seems to go against the principles of the Internet.

There is also, of course, the entire industry of search engine optimization. The point is that the popularity game, is in fact a game. In social media, quantity can become synonymous with quality. Post count, number of followers, incoming links – these are the numbers that govern the game. The most popular lists can also be facile and rather unvaried. Explore a little. There’s a whole world out there. Randomize, and no, the I’m Feeling Lucky button doesn’t count.

-Sarah Zhang

Guest Post: Digital Natives, Digital Classrooms

Today, we’re delighted to publish a guest post from Eleesha Tucker, National Volunteer Coordinator for the Constitutional Sources Project. –Diana Kimball, DN intern

On October 15 I attended the Born Digital discussion at the Google offices in DC where I was interested to hear Professor Palfrey’s perspective, but found myself even more engaged when he would defer to Sarah and Diana as the resident Digital Natives.

I hope to contribute to the discussion as a Digital Native myself with experience as a teacher in a digital classroom. For the school year following college, I taught high school history to juniors and seniors at The Walden School of Liberal Arts, which is a public charter school with an expeditionary learning philosophy. Walden provides each student with access to a personal laptop while in the classroom and on an individual checkout basis for homework. I would call it a digital school. Most lessons in each subject used the laptops, once a week students met in mentor teacher groups to check their grades online from the school’s website and an overwhelming majority of students had Internet access at home, though it was not a particularly affluent area. One hundred percent of my lessons connected somehow to the Internet, either by my personal preparation or by how I designed assignments. Because of the student performance in their assignments by their research or through their presentations projected from their laptops, I realized there is a possibility that the increased digital engagement could be changing student learning styles.

At Walden, one science teacher often joked about hosting the Walden Olympics, where one event would include the student browsing on a laptop, listening to his lecture and then taking a test on the delivered material. This stemmed from his allowance of laptops during his instruction as long as they performed well in assessments. I wouldn’t let students browse their laptops when I was lecturing. It made me too jealous for their attention, but perhaps my colleague understood something I didn’t regarding a changing trend in learning style. At home, these students would listen to their iPods, write a paper, browse the Internet and text a friend almost simultaneously; then, we would expect them to be one track during their schooling hours.

Born Digital has debunked the myth that Digital Natives are dumber than preceding populations, but I’d be interested to know how the digital world is affecting learning styles. Instead of identifying students as visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners, perhaps we should identify students as a hybrid of them all: digital. If students thrive at home in an environment of high stimulus, perhaps the methodology of sitting at attention with eyes on the teacher is contrary to the evolving needs of the population that teachers are trying to reach. It should at least be a possibility brought to teachers’ attention so they can consider it when designing assignments and managing the classroom.


Eleesha currently is the National Volunteer Coordinator for the Constitutional Sources Project, which created and continues to add to the most comprehensive online library of constitutional sources, found for free at www.ConSource.org. Within the next six months, Web 2.0 technology will be added to surround the certified library and she is in the process of designing this new technology to meet the needs of the Educational Community. After ConSource is well established for the education community, she plans to return to the classroom.

Pirates, peers and intellectual property

With the advent of new media devices, the way information circulates is reformulated. In this blogpost I would like to talk a bit about the origin of copyright, issues that have arisen from its creation, and how this tool is used today, observing which purposes and interests it stands for.

In his book, “Intellectual Property and Copyright Issues in the Global Economy,” Downes writes that the history of copyright beginning with the creation of the printing press in the 15th century. The historical context in which copyright law emerged was characterized by the innovation of reproducing information at less cost, and the ability of transporting and registering information at a higher speed. Before the printing press, everything had to be hand written. During those days, the basis for introducing the copyright law was to protect the right of authors so they could profit from their own work.

Copyright allows owners of information to control what happens with their original productions. Any kind of circulation of copies from the original version will be protected by the copyright law and ownership rights are guaranteed by it. However, the original purpose of copyright law has evolved through the years, and today it is percieved much more differently. As Downes notes, these “creative acts” come to be “commodities” – morphing readers and writers into consumers and producers. It is due to this process of turning creative productions into commodities that the copyright is described as the “enclosure of the information commons.” From the moment that copyright law starts being used, “commons” are no longer seen the same way and are regulated by a new set of conditions. Once information becomes a commodity, it is controlled by conglomerates which have money to generate information and create corporate rules of production from which they can profit. The reason for creating any kind of information ceases to be attached to the quality of the information and becomes exclusively based on how “sellable” the product is, rather than the product as simply a piece of human creativity.

This argument leads to the influence of copyright law on the free flow of information. On the one hand we can understand that copyright was developed to protect the author’s right. However, when art or information becomes a commodity, its use is dictated by the power of corporate conglomerates such as AOL, Warner, and Universal Studios. The existence of copyright law guarantees that the information available on the market is protected, which should benefit the free flow of information. However, once copyright law centralizes the power of choice in the hands of those who own the power to produce, reproduce and circulate information, it also restricts the number of authors producing information. Only some will have their work reproduced either because there is not enough money for all the information to be circulated or because the information may not go along with corporate interests. Therefore, copyright at the same time enables and impedes information to flow. On the one hand it allows information to be spread all over the world but it also restricts the sources from which this information will come, privileging points of view which are compatible to the interests of some corporate minorities.

In this context, I see the Internet as a possibility to change this scenario. In his seminal text “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin talks about the effects of technology on the reproduction of art. At a certain moment of history, reproducibility of information reached such a high level that it took away the tradiational aura that used to surround art work. As a consequence, art work has become more accessible. Having this process of reproducibility allows the production of art work to be subsumed to corporations that would have the means to reproduce in big scale (nowadays we might say globally) art work according to their interests.

With peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing through the Internet, copyright is being challenged, and the flow of information and its use is being drastically changed. The Internet allows information to be reproduced for lower costs and decentralizes the power of production which used to be owned by corporate conglomerates. With online peer-to-peer file sharing, a diverse range of productions are offered for free worldwide. The potential effects of this kind of activity are that people may benefit from the equal and free propagation of all categories of information which come from different places and defend different perspectives. The sharing of information through the Internet represents an important change, increasing the possibility of people having their voice heard around the world, as Martin Laba writes in the book “Pirates, peers and popular music”:

the story of peer-to-peer file sharing is infinitely more than a story of the shift from the analog to digital technology and technological capacities, it also details a profound shift, a deep and active engagement with the possibilities – some obviously illegal – of new enabling technologies.

Reproducibility has become so widespread that it has decentralized the production of information and enabled people to have voices as loud and powerful as corporations. As a result, traditional productions of knowledge, such as the Britannica Encyclopedia, are competing with online tools such as Wikipedia; and P2P file sharing has become pervasive, especially in regards to reproducing music. In Born Digital, Palfrey and Gasser note, “Shawn Fanning let the genie out of the bottle when he released Napster. Not even a federal court could put it back in.” I believe other genies as Fanning’s benefit all counterhegemonic activity that happens on the Internet. It seems that means can still be controlled by noncorporate power, at least for some time, and that might result in activities from which society can benefit.

Google DC: Thoughts on Policy

As Diana posted earlier this week, we had joined John Palfrey as part of the DC Talks series at Google’s Washington, D.C. office. I just wanted to echo that it was an fantastic experience, and I am truly privileged to have taken part. Since we were in DC no less, one of the salient questions that emerged was how Digital Natives will affect policy as we move into the next decade or two. In his post at in reaction to the DC Talk, Drew Bennet has a great analysis of the issues at hand.

Will we see a dramatic shift in priorities that will lead to the development of new paradigms and new solutions for internet policy conflicts? Will a digital native in the White House do for broadband what Eisenhower did for highways?

I asked the panelists if they felt today’s policy makers and presidential candidates were really addressing the issues that are important to digital natives and the researchers seemed to say that they couldn’t be sure yet. It seems the digital natives are only beginning to come of age when it comes to their political and policy preferences…

When I was initially asked these questions at the panel, I admit I didn’t know how best to respond. Working on Digital Natives in the dual roles of researcher-subject has trended me toward a lot of self-analysis, but it has only brought up more questions in the process. Part of my difficulty with this question was how to tease out the various interactions. The question isn’t simply how will Digital Natives affect policy, but how will the two interact with one another. Because Digital Natives are not the policymakers now, everything that happens between now and that point will shape our attitudes on these issues. Could we have predicted a site like Facebook could embody and arguably even have set the standard for privacy online? It is indeed, as Drew also notes, that our opinions are still being formed.

Drew also writes of the dividing line between Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants.

Thinking back on some of the issues discussed – privacy risks, political engagement, online safety – I fear that digital immigrants, though they may have achieved vital access, will be at risk and at a disadvantage as the larger population of digital natives ascend.

This is a good question to ask because Born Digital focuses on current policy, at a time when Digital Natives are the ones affected by policy but don’t have an input in it. So what happens when the tables are turned? Tech policy in general – whether it’s in the realm of privacy, copyright, etc. – seems to be trending toward greater openness. I wonder though, at least when it comes to privacy, whether there will be a boomerang where a generation that has grown up without privacy begins to demand more control of their privacy. Or does privacy simply become something we value more as we grow older? How much of these differences are simply generational differences between young and old? How much of it is actually a function of the Internet?

I’m going to end on one more question, a question that I expected to get but didn’t: “How much time do you spend online per day?” It seems like a natural entrée into a survey of Internet usage, and it’s a question I often field from my parent’s friends. Perhaps that’s a nod to the savvy of the audience because I think there is no answer that that question. I am constantly online. Unlike the age of dial-up, there really is no distinction between online and off. I live on a college campus blanketed by Wi-Fi and even if I don’t carry my own laptop around, I can easily hop onto a computer and plug in online. The cell phones in our pockets no longer a portal only to the people in our phonebooks, but to the entire Internet. Email can be constantly checked on the fly. This kind of total immersion – there’s something unique growing up with this kind of constant access.

– Sarah Zhang

Digital Piracy – The Other Side

I say the other side because having stayed and explored the issue of digital piracy in the US, I have come to find there is a definite dichotomy in the way it is perceived and hence handled there and internationally.

Learning about cases such a Zach McCune’s, is definitely a step forward for the thousands of teenagers out on the Internet who are unknowingly downloading music or sharing files – as they can truly come to realize the implications of their actions. But in truth where does piracy truly begin? Can we classify the first time an 8 year old make a slide show and adds music of a known pop star without referencing them as piracy? Or is the first time that 8 year old downloads a music file without having to pay for it? For many teenagers, the line is simply too hazy to see through.

And so the question arises, why aren’t they taught the differences and definitions from an early age?

Evidently, it seems only recently have educators come to realize the intense implications of the Internet in digital natives’ lives – for the first time in my school’s annual anti-bullying campaign this year cyber-bullying was tackled as a separate and important segment of bullying – and so it is only now that issues like piracy can truly be explored.

On returning from my internship at Berkman, I have a definite understanding of the do’s and don’ts of online file sharing, but sadly it is not the same for many of my friends and associates; many of whom carry 8GB of iPods all filled with music obtained from sites like Limewire. And while many of them simply do not care about whether the recording industry is losing out on money, they do take a step back when I relate some of the incidents I heard of first hand and where many have had to face the wrath of the RIAA. And this is where the international aspect plays in – while downloading music is to a large extent gone unnoticed where they live, it is a major issue in countries like the US. And so results in incidents where many international students find themselves being sued for doing something in college which they had been doing freely for a majority of their life.

Piracy, like many other issues related to the lives of Digital Natives, has no easy solution. Especially because different parts of the world tend to be viewing the issue in varying degrees of importance. However, not all hope is lost – every time one digital native is able to relate this information to another is a step forward. And so the evidence is clearly in favour of implementing a system of education, which can inform them of the issue in a direct way.

I could not help but smile when last week I heard a friend shouting at her brother (currently a freshman in a US college) over the phone to stop downloading music for free as he previously used to.

Yesterday, she told me that he had listened to her and so stopped.

-Kanupriya Tewari

Turning Digital Pirates into Youth Legislators, a possible solution?

I remember coming across a post a while ago by our friends at Global Voices about the way in which Hong Kong was fighting piracy in the country. In 2006, the state enlisted Youth Ambassadors to monitor the web and report offenses. Soon after this army of “teenage internet spies” was released into cyberspace, more than three-fifths of the offending postings were deleted.

It was an interesting approach to say the least. Although, I must admit that there’s something incredibly unnerving about boy scouts, girl guides, and other uniformed youths between the ages 9-25 being armed and honored as a youth brigade that sounds like it came out of a George Orwell novel.

So if the solution to the problem of piracy among digital natives is not implementing a teen spy program, what is it? As Diana wrote, “how should the black line between right and wrong be enforced?” Born Digital provides helpful starting points for what parents, teachers, technologists, and law makers need to work together on to accomplish. The two I found most important were to use the law to encourage Digital Natives’ creativity rather than stunt it, and also to educate DNs about what the laws are in a way that they will understand and appreciate – something which the Creative Commons project has been doing great work on.

Although I’m not not a fan of Youth Ambassadors and teen spies as a solution, I do believe it would be beneficial to have Youth Legislators. If this is an issue affecting, and arising primarily from, the Digital Native community, it is those that should be made a crucial part of the law-making process. As John Palfrey and Urs Gasser note in Born Digital, “In an environment where almost everything is possible, but not necessarily legal, it’s crucial that we teach Digital Natives about their responsibilities, as well as about their rights.” If we want young people to be engaged and interested in civics and their rights, and if we want them to believe they can make a difference in how those rights are dictated, we need to allow them to be active, vocal participants in the dialogue on where that “black line” should be drawn and how to effectively enforce it.

Piracy: The Invisible Line Between Right and Wrong

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It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience: last Wednesday, Sarah and I got to share a stage with John Palfrey, Pablo Chavez, and, best of all, Google DC‘s green bouncy-ball. Google’s DC office invited John Palfrey, Sarah, and me to participate in a book talk about Born Digital. Though the Digital Natives team has done plenty of these book talks lately, this was the first one where the Digital Natives interns got to tag along. It was amazing to see so many people at the talk, and we’d like to thank Google (and John Palfrey!) for giving us the opportunity to speak both as book interns and as Digital Natives ourselves.

The talk covered a lot of ground, but one of the most interesting questions tapped into this week’s theme: piracy. When Q&A time arrived, a line of handsomely suit-jacketed individuals rose and gently snaked behind the microphone, and eventually we got to this question, (paraphrased): “Whatever happened to the black line between right and wrong?” The question, of course, was posed in relation to peer-to-peer filesharing and media downloading in general.

So, whatever did happen to the black line between right and wrong?

Well, “right” and “wrong” feel suspiciously similar when both are accessed through desktop clients. One of the main findings of Born Digital regarding piracy was that, out of a sample group of Digital Natives, 90% engaged in “illegal downloading.” The other 10% downloaded music through iTunes. But only when their parents had given them gift cards to do so. For Digital Natives, downloading songs through Limewire or similar programs doesn’t feel “wrong,” necessarily. Downloading music through iTunes doesn’t feel “right.” Both feel, very simply, like the obvious way to get music: through a desktop client that pulls songs down from the cloud. And that feeling of obviousness is the new thick black line to be reckoned with. No record label, however beloved, is going to convince Digital Natives to retreat to CDs. Though the record labels are getting used to this fact—throwing their weight behind services like imeem and warming up to the new media marketplace of iTunes—it’s still a stark, confronting reality for many in the traditional music business.

It’s not that kids don’t have morals. It’s that they don’t understand why anyone would ever get music any other way.

These statistics in hand, where do you think the music industry and media conglomerates are headed? Where should the black line between “right” and “wrong” fall, and how should it be enforced? How, and to whom, should it be taught?

Thank you again to Google DC for an engaging conversation and an amazing opportunity. We’d love to see the conversation continue—in the comments, the blogosphere, and elsewhere!

Picture courtesy Jesse Thomas.

Creators’ voice: possibility and innevitability.

When I think of DNs as creators, what comes to mind is our effort on the net to gather different users in innovative productions, converging different sorts of information. The results can be very varied, from projects such as Wikipedia to Online Jamming Jazz Sessions. I guess one important issue to be discussed when we think of our week’s theme, is that the Web actually turns us into voiced creators by empowering us to either embrace our own innovations and creativity, or collaborate with others’ projects.

Although Born Digital states that not all creators on the web are wildly creative, I believe that one important point of these tools is the possibility that DNs have the choice to be voiced and to gather to produce whatever they believe is relevant. Rock bands create their MySpace account, social networks create environments conducive for discussions ranging from music fan clubs to political activism. Whatever the issue, being part of such networks allows DNs to voice their perspectives on the world and share it with their peers.

Obviously, a great part of these efforts will only reproduce what was already in “non-digital” formats. During discussions about the development of Distance Education, me and my peers notice the effort to transport face-to-face instruction to online platforms. The same will happen with any sort of creation on the Internet that, having no other parameter, will usually reproduce what is standard in the non-virtual world.

But then, there is possibility and inevitability. Although many of the creations on the net are not as creative as one can expect, the routine of releasing information through the web has already become usual. From programming a new application on Facebook to creating a video or a blog on the net, these productions’ relevance is in their process of production. In his book, Wealth of Networks, Yochai Benkler discusses in depth how the interconnectivity of the online community has enabled people to collaborate, to create things together with a quality and velocity never seen before. For example, Wikipedia proved to be a great idea by acting as a kind of social network and linking people around the world. So all this is possibility, the web connects information and creations around the world, giving people the chance of producing something together.

This then brings us to “inevitability.” Creators and their creations rarely remain the same. Even though many of our creations on the web still reproduce what happens in “real life”, we have been contaminated by this new sort of interaction enabled by technology and this should inevitably pace the projects we are willing to do.

In Born Digital, a lot is discussed about the mashing-up of information, and how DNs get what is available on the net and make it their own. I myself really like this particular production, where the classic, charming tale of Mary Poppins was turned into a horror film (which is great to pass around with Halloween around the corner). This is serves as an excellent example of what I mean when describing possibility and inevitability in terms of web creation. In this video, for example, means of production have already changed profoundly and there is no way our usual ways of producing knowledge will be kept the same. More than that, I believe there is an urge for different types of production. It’s exciting to see what kinds of creative things DNs will do with these new tools in the future!

How about you? Have you seen any kind of creation that challenges standard productions? Have you or anyone you now participated in any creative sort of collaborative work? Do you see this as positive and fruitful?

“Our Time”: New Youth Radio Program Gives Teens a Voice

“Now is the time to either step up, or sit out.” This is the recurring theme of a compelling new youth radio program entitled, “Our Time: Teens and Politics,” the third collaboration between Generation PRX, a social network for youth radio producers, and KUOW. In this “One whole hour of radio stories made by teenagers,” teens candidly discuss a diverse range of topics including the Iraq war, global warming, and meetings with prominent politicians. The following excerpts by teen radio reporters serve as excellent examples of this compelling new youth special:

Lena tries to make sense of the relationship between the Iraq War and her personal beliefs on the value of protesting through an interview with a committed protester:

“Personal connections, friendships, loss… are often what galvanize people into taking action… But is that what it’s going to take? Do we have to wait for everyone to have a friend step on a landmine before we really organize or mobilize against war? Or will I, or will we all, continue to sleep in on Saturday mornings and rely on (protestors like) Alan Wolf to do it for us?”

Greg shares his experience of attending an extravagant dinner with former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich:

“It was like the Matrix, because in that movie the main character finds out that everything he thought was real was just a perception of real. He gets taken to a world which is parallel but very separate. I feel we’re just trapped in our own matrices, and the only way out is to realize that we need to understand other perspectives. I was there to see what they were all about, but I could never see them trying to figure out my life.”

By promoting an atmosphere of civic engagement and critical, political analysis among America’s youth, GPRX challenges pundits who argue that we are “Generation Q” or the “Quiet Americans.” Although political participation and civic duties have increasingly been transferred to the online sphere, initiatives by Digital Natives such as Our Time are neither to be underestimated nor ignored.

Keep up the great work GPRX!