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 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

Searching for Jeeves Atop a High Google Mountain

When a friend gifted me with my own domain name this summer, it felt like he had handed me the keys to a new car. was a URL I could share with contacts; it would be one of the first addresses an acquaintance might type when searching to see if I had a website. In that way, it was a vehicle for controlling my online identity, a tool to help me navigate the information swamp the web has become by preventing confusion with other “Nikki Leon”s. What’s more, it was mine — my friend’s purchasing the domain meant it would not fall into the hands of the porn industry, overseas phishers, or the other Nikki Leons of the world. I imagined that just as the Internet seems to have only one Barack Obama or Seth Godin, I was on my way to someday being the Nikki Leon ordained by Google.

Wishful thinking. I know, of course, that Google doesn’t always care if you buy your own domain name. If you search for Nikki Leon as of today, the “real” me is in the third hit, a Digital Natives Project blog post. My personal blog, to which currently forwards, doesn’t come until halfway down the page. The Nikki Leon favored by Google, it seems, is a twenty-one-year-old Go-Go dancer from Palmdale California whose MySpace profile features pink leopard print and whose latest blog entry is entitled “If He Really Wants You…”

I’m actually not too troubled by this (seems she was meant for the spotlight more than I). It’s better than having the first hit for your name be a Gawker article about the real you, claiming that you “Used to Smoke Opiate of Masses.” This was unfortunately the case for a freshman at Princeton University this year. The student posted a long message to the “Princeton 2012” Facebook group that featured such choice phrases as “we are the 0.0000001% of the world,” and “We are the anti-Christs to save the world from the mercy of God, the self-pity that festers within the masses.” Having read the full post, I’d like to think it was a well-intended, if unsuccessful, satire of the “getting to know you” messages some freshmen write in their class groups (as an undergrad I’ve seen this first hand). Gawker didn’t much care whether or not the post was serious or no. Instead, Gawker bloggers mocked the student and circulated information about her high school and career aspirations, along with a picture of her from her high school website.

On the subject of controlling one’s identity online, a recent New York Times article aptly stated: “If you don’t dive in, other people will define who you are.” That is, if you fail to update your website or social networking profile with current, relevant information, the data others provide about you or themselves will crowd out your own. Diana Kimball wrote a very informative post last February about how to take hold of one’s digital identity. There is of course, a limit to how much the average user can control, and the more of an online presence a young person has, the more information they give others to take out of context, as with the Gawker scenario described above. Viewed in this light, the digital age looks a little grimmer, despite all its possibilities. The freedom to define yourself online is also a burden. With visibility comes vulnerability, and controlling your image becomes a matter of preserving your personhood.

The need to craft an online identity seems, at times, an existential issue, albeit more in the vein of Ask Jeeves than Sartre. Who is Nikki Leon? Google has its answer, though it’s not the one I’d give. So how does one go about maintaining a digital self without getting lost in the shuffle or falling prey to Gawker types? For my part, I’ll continue strengthening my ties to websites and bloggers, getting people to link to my URL, and doing the only other thing I can: praying to the internet gods.

Nikki Leon

(In the spirit of this post, no links to the Gawker article. Their Google rankings are high enough. Cross-posted from my blog.)

Getting Married in a Digital Age… (how google planned my wedding)

I’m getting married in a month. Life is good. And despite the best intentions of simplicity, our wedding seems to have become a huge undertaking. Although I don’t think that anything about planning an event or about getting married is fundamentally different because of digital technology, I have noticed a few trends and used lots of interesting tools in this process.

Communication (email and instant messenger):
I’ve been spending the summer here in Cambridge, MA working with the Digital Natives project. My fiancé is living in our apartment in Brooklyn, NY. Our families and friends want to help, and they are in Florida, New Jersey, and many other places. Email helps a lot. Instant messenger [Wikipedia] helps more.

98% of the planning we are doing starts online. Just about everything we’ve needed to find or to plan has started at a search engine. Almost every evening my fiancé and I are online working on doing something “productive.” While the merits of multi-tasking are certainly up for debate, the fact that we are “there” to bounce questions and ideas off of each other has been amazingly helpful in this context. We copy and paste URLs [Wikipedia], email to-do lists, and occasionally open up an audio or video chat for discussions that require more direct attention. Because of this, not being in the same room to plan together has become pretty much a non-issue.


The Location (maps):
We decided to have our wedding on the Jersey shore, in a little shore town that I grew up vacationing at with my extended family (Exit 63). It feels great to stay true to my NJ roots and throw a wedding in NJ (you’d understand if you were from the Garden State).

Being that we are subway-riding city folk at the moment, we rarely have to worry about the mix of alcohol and motor vehicles. Obviously, the wedding was going to be a different story (The subway service in NJ is notoriously sub-par to, er, nonexistent). We really wanted to plan something where everything was walkable and everyone could celebrate as merrily as they desired to without having to worry about driving.

Using Google Maps and other similar map services, we were able to find a location for a rehearsal dinner, an outdoor pre-wedding barbeque, a location for the ceremony, and a hall for a reception, all within a few blocks of each other. While this would have been possible with a paper map, the combination of search engines and instant access to satellite images really helped us to feel out what we were planning.

Sat Image

Communication (the website):
Since most of our guests will be traveling to our wedding, and many of them looking for overnight lodging, we needed a way to help them find places to stay that were affordable, reputable, and in walking distance. We needed a way to communicate this information to our guests as it came in, both before and after invitations were sent. So, we built a web page and put a whole bunch of lodging options up there. While we were at it, we highlighted a bunch of “fun stuff to do while you are in town.” This is great because it gives us the flexibility to modify and update the information until a week before the wedding.

More importantly, textual links from our site to the lodging options and to the respective websites of other points of interest really harness the power of the Web, allowing users of our website to find all the information that could possibly need in just a few clicks.

We also used the “My Maps” feature on Google Maps to create custom maps of all of the points of interest, and linked those Google Maps from the entries on our website. This allows our guests to plan ahead a little and to really have a sense of space, helping us to keep everyone on foot and out of their automobiles.

Invitations (the mash-up):
My suggestion of sending out email invitations was shot down (correctly) without much consideration. My suggestion of talking invitations with customized voice recordings (“Hey Joe! Come to our wedding! See you in September!”) was shot down (unfairly). In the end we decided to create our own invitations and have them printed. Because we want to encourage people to explore the little shore town, we decided to include a little map of the area.

Google Maps again to the rescue! I navigated Google Maps to the area, took a bunch of “screen captures” of areas of the map, and then stitched them together in Photoshop [Wikipedia], an image editor [Wikipedia]. We found Creative Commons-licensed images and icons on Flickr that really helped communicate the smart but chill vibe that we wanted too, even with my meager artistic skill. To make the map simple and iconographic, I traced the map in the vector graphics [Wikipedia] editor, Illustrator [Wikipedia], with the help our friend Del.

Then, we emailed a PDF [Wikipedia] off to the printer and sent them via the good old fashioned postal service.



RSVPs (the semantic web):

My favorite part of this process so far is has been collecting the RSVPs. To keep printing (and environmental) costs down, and to keep our sanity, we decided to ask people to RSVP online. Although there are many methods of creating forms for websites [Wikipedia], Google provided the solution that was easy and met our needs. We created a spreadsheet in Goggle Docs, and then created a form that guests can fill out that dumps the data directly into the spreadsheet. Google Docs auto-generates the html code for the form, which we embedded into our website.

Wasn’t all of this a lot of work? Actually, no. It probably only took an hour. Opening and counting that many RSVP envelopes would have taken twice as long, and would have been a slow, cumbersome, and error-prone process in comparison. Better still, we get emails every time someone RSVPs, and checking out the notes people have written along with their RSVP a couple of times a day is a lot of fun.

The spreadsheet keeps running totals of guests and reception meal menu choices in real-time, and allows both my fiance and I to access it from our remote locations. We were able to invite the family members and friends who are helping us plan to view the spreadsheet.

Paying the Vendors (invoices & online banking):
Managing a budget for a wedding is tricky, but Internet banking has made it a lot easier. By using bill-pay services that both my fiance and I can access, either of us can arrange to send a check to a vendor at the click of a button. We can both have instant access to what is being paid when, and adjust our Google doc spreadsheet at the click of a button to make sure that we are still on track. Doing this on paper, or doing it over the phone, would have been vastly more difficult. [Wikipedia entry for Online Banking]

Paperless (contracts):
There are a few vendors’ relationships that require basic contracting. We could either wait for snail-mail, or buy a fax machine. Actually, we haven’t had a land-line phone in three years and rely exclusively on cellphones, so the fax wouldn’t work. However, internet fax [Wikipedia] services work well. (Checkout eFax or MyFax.) Because we have an account with a fax number, anyone can send a fax to us that will then arrive in our email inboxes as a PDF. It’s super convenient, and environmentally responsible to boot.

If someone needs to actually send us a piece of paper, we have it sent to our postal-to-email bridge, Earth Class Mail. Earth Class Mail scans all the paper that arrives in our PO Box and emails to the PDFs. (Earth Class Mail will also contact the senders of mail you identify as junk and ask them to stop sending it, saving countless pounds of junkmail from ever being printed.)


When we need to sign documents, I slap a digital signature [Wikipedia] on the PDFs. This makes and image of my signature appear on any print-out, and also helps to secure the file digitally, making my signature disappear if the file is modified after I sign it. When sending these contracts back I either email them, virtually “fax” them back using our fax service’s email-to-fax bridge, or have a good ol’ US Postal service paper copy sent to the destination via our email-to-postal-mail-bridge, Postful.
While the fax services are cheaper than owning and maintaining an actual fax machine and phone line, the mail services are more expensive than regular postal mail. In the end, the two are pretty much a wash, and we get the added benefit of having everything we need on-hand at all times from our laptops, having it from states away, and no clutter in our NYC-sized apartment.

 …Using all of these various technologies certainly hasn’t changed the nature of the event itself. However, the technologies are helping us to plan a wedding more conveniently over a long distance, involving the people we want involved in planning to the exact degree that we want them involved, and getting surgical with a few of the details that we really care about, helping us plan an event that is more uniquely our own than would have previously been possible.

John Randall

Is Harvard Magazine Coping in a Digital Age?

We’re taking a break from “The Ballad of Zack McCune” this week to give you a glimpse into the world of print media — specifically, Harvard Magazine and the ways in which it is handling society’s shift towards the digital. As a small but growing pool of alumni trades reading class notes for skimming Facebook news feeds, how will alumni publications like Harvard Magazine continue to capture their interest? Cathy Chute, the magazine’s publisher, grappled with these questions and gave us some insight into Harvard Magazine’s current approach.

(This podcast was created and produced by Nikki Leon, with support and audio engineering by John Randall.)

Come back every Wednesday for more videos on piracy, young entrepreneurs online, and other Digital Natives related topics!

Nikki Leon

Got Missiles?

As a recent photograph depicting Iranian test missiles reveals, all you need to do if you’re one warhead short is break out Photoshop. That, at least, is what somebody affiliated with Sepah News (the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s media outlet) did with a now-infamous photograph. The picture, a view of three test missiles launching, was altered to include four (hiding one that failed). The photograph was displayed by many prominent news organizations (including the BBC, the L.A. Times, and the New York Times) before it was noted that portions of the dust clouds beneath the missiles were identical. Online news sites have been abuzz all morning, engaged in a debate over what, exactly, this means. As the New York Times notes, this is not the first time Iran’s state media has altered photographs for political ends. Nor is photoshoppery for private gain a new phenomenon (just ask the L.A. Times, which was unfortunate enough to find an emerging pixel jockey among its photographers in 2003).

What does this mean for Digital Natives? Could top-notch picture-tweaking skills land them lucrative jobs with a government spin unit somewhere? Perhaps. Before they even think of submitting a cv, however, they’ll have to master what Henry Jenkins and others at the New Media Literacies Project have labeled the “Transparency Problem,” the “challenge[ ] young people face in learning to see clearly the ways that media shape perceptions of the world” (read the NML whitepaper here). Scholars still disagree as to just how savvy kids are these days. As NML’s white paper points out, Ted Friedman’s analysis of the game SimCity could be read to suggest that gamers are more likely than other youth to identify a system and learn how to manipulate it to their advantage. NML also cites other studies that have shown exactly the opposite — that Digital Natives have difficulty separating the objective and subjective components of digital media (for example, in a case in which students played a game depicting both American and British accounts of the Battle of Lexington Green, the young players interpreted everything presented by the game as fact, rather than as a dramatization of two biased, contradictory interpretations)

John Palfrey and Urs Gasser argue that in some cases (among gamers or Wikipedia editors, for example) being a Digital Native improves young peoples’ ability to critique information online. For those youth who spend less time online, the opposite is true. Incidents like this week’s explosive photoshoppery are a reminder that students need to be taught how to evaluate online material just as they are encouraged to assess historical print sources. Students also need to be reminded of some complexities unique to digital media, including the way a website can change from moment to moment to reflect shifting views on an issue (the four missile picture is said to have quietly disappeared from the Sepah News website). This latest altered photo may not have been good enough to fool everyone for long, but as governments continue to expand their digital media arsenals, it is likely that propaganda of this variety will be produced with greater skill and distributed with greater frequency. It is up to teachers, parents, and Digital Natives themselves to ensure that young people will be critical enough to demand the truth.

Nikki Leon

Can you hear me ……now?

My grandfather worked for Bell Telephone, mother of “The Baby Bells”, aka “The Phone Company”, for his entire career, installing phones and running wires. My aunt worked for Bell as a telephone operator (and spent much of her career 60 feet underground in a nuclear bunker). My uncle worked DSL networks. At 4th of July barbecues, instead of talking about shopping or football, we talk about wonderfully exciting things like bandwidth, the unconscious effect of latency, and how the role of telephone has changed over the years.

According to granddad, early on in telephone history, many folks felt that phone conversations were so awkward and impersonal that they really didn’t enjoy using them. The reticence receded in waves as phone calls went mainstream. Phone users adjusted and began having succinct, purpose-driven calls. Over time, they began doing routine business, having personal conversations, and eventually becoming comfortable talking to people they hadn’t yet met in person. Eventually, of course, the telephone became an acceptable way to have important business conversations. (Which reminds me of the way we adopted a certain series of tubes I’m fond of…)

Initial reticence to using the phone is traditionally attributed to the lack of body language and facial expression in phone conversations, but most people don’t realize that the alien-ness of a phone conversation is also caused by uncomfortable conversational latency patterns. (..

Roughly speaking, latency is the amount of time it takes for a message to get where it is going. The speed of sound is roughly 340 m / s, depending on air pressure, humidity, temperature, etc. This means that normal conversational latency is about 6 milliseconds. If I were to speak to you from two meters away, my speech would take 6 milliseconds to travel from my mouth to your ear.

But suppose you and I were having a conversation via a local telephone call over the “Plain Old Telephone Service” (POTS) network. Even if you are on the other side of town, the timings wouldn’t much different. My voice leaves my mouth, travels to the phone just a few cm away (.06 milliseconds), moves a microphone diaphragm, and gets converted to electricity that travels close to the speed of light, which is negligible delay at that distance. When the signal gets to your phone, the process is reversed and the sound is pumped directly from your phone into your ear. Thus, speech of a local phone call is actually at least a whole order of magnitude faster than face-to-face communication. This conversational sensation was alarming to the first generation of phone users.

With nothing more than anecdotal evidence from my teenage years to back it up, I speculate that this lack of normal conversational latency, this “hyper–closeness” which has both the echo-location and the latency characteristics of someone whispering in your ear, helps conversations over local POTS phone networks to sometimes actually feel more intimate than face to face communication.

But this doesn’t hold true over long distance phone calls. If we talk on a POTS call from say… from San Francisco to New York, the time the electrical takes to travel along the wire is a lot longer, roughly 30+ milliseconds, creating a 60+ millisecond round-trip. While many of us no longer notice the latency in long distance phone calls, this latency was unsettling to the first generation of long distance phone users, who found that their innate abilities to tell a lie from the truth and by extension to make character judgments, having been honed by years of face to face conversation, were thrown off by the long distance delay.

At some point our long distance phones conversations started going over fiber instead of copper, bringing them closer to the theoretical speed of light and getting rid of some latency. But those gains were negated by the transition from analogue to digital, which costs a few milliseconds and is required at each end to bring our analogue ears into the loop, and is particularly slow in small, cheap, energy efficient devices (like cell phones). Add the unpredictability of wireless phones, network congestion, and you have wildly varying conversational latency.

Chances are that if you are reading this, you’ve grown up making long distance calls. I know that I don’t notice the latency in any POTS phone networks… but I can’t stand cell-phone latency. I constantly second guess my five year-old decision to ditch the landline. As a freelancer, I can’t stand negotiating fees on my cell phone, where I find it difficult to read a client and play the give-me-an-estimate / what-is-your-budget dance to my benefit. Trying to do so is mentally and emotionally exhausting. I echo generations past in my lack of ease in doing business using this confounded new communications technology.

The current crop of teenagers doesn’t know a world without cell phones. Having never (really) known much else, do these Digital Natives have different conversational patterns of micro timing molded by a life of cell phone latency? Has this age bracket lost a certain ability to unconsciously read truth or intention in a conversation from variations in micro-timings? …Or have they merely adjusted their conversational patterns to account for the immense additional latency? Do their “cell-phone” conversational speech patterns carry over in face-to-face conversations, or do these digital natives unconsciously work in different conversational rubrics when using different communications technologies? In terms of mental energy, what is the net effect of the effort required to switch back and forth?

John Randall

Google Book Search, Orphan Works and the Public Domain

Google Book Search has inspired passionate feelings and responses from many people since Google announced the project. Some, like Larry Lessig, view its scanning and indexing of copyrighted books as a legitimate activity under Fair Use. Others, like Siva Vaidhyanathan, are more skeptical of Google Book Search (and in Siva’s case, Google generally).

Either way, there’s no doubt that Google Book Search is a big deal. A key fact to keep in mind is one that Lessig makes repeatedly; namely, that

Google’s “Book Search service” aims to provide access to three kinds of published works: (1) works in the public domain, (2) works in copyright and in print, and (3) works in copyright but no longer in print. As some of you may recall from the presentation I made a while ago, about 16% of books are in category (1); 9% of books are in category (2), and 75% of books are in category (3).

And today there’s been a key advance in determining the often-difficult-to-divine status of whether some books are in category (1) or (3) – also courtesy Google:

For U.S. books published between 1923 and 1963, the rights holder needed to submit a form to the U.S. Copyright Office renewing the copyright 28 years after publication. In most cases, books that were never renewed are now in the public domain. Estimates of how many books were renewed vary, but everyone agrees that most books weren’t renewed. If true, that means that the majority of U.S. books published between 1923 and 1963 are freely usable.

How do you find out whether a book was renewed? You have to check the U.S. Copyright Office records. Records from 1978 onward are online (see but not downloadable in bulk. The Copyright Office hasn’t digitized their earlier records, but Carnegie Mellon scanned them as part of their Universal Library Project, and the tireless folks at Project Gutenberg and the Distributed Proofreaders painstakingly typed in every word.

Thanks to the efforts of Google software engineer Jarkko Hietaniemi, we’ve gathered the records from both sources, massaged them a bit for easier parsing, and combined them into a single XML file available for download here.

This is, whatever your other feelings are about Google Book Search more generally, a wonderful advance in public accessibility of information. The list of what books are in the public domain can and will be used not just by Google Book Search in its ongoing (and arguably proprietary) book-scanning project, but also by other efforts like Brewster Kahle’s Open Content Alliance. Google comes in for a lot of criticism, but it’s worth acknowledging those times when they follow through on their stated goal of “organizing the world’s information,” and this is one of them.

One of the great challenges/opportunities that we face with digital information is the interface with print and analog information. There’s a danger – implicitly addressed by Book Search and the OCA – that our great knowledge resources from the past are ignored or left to molder, and the difficulty of determining copyright status has been something of a hurdle to digitization efforts thusfar. Recency bias will always be with us, but the possibility of making the great (and undiscovered or underappreciated) works of the past just as accessible to tomorrow’s students as the latest blog post or journal article is a goal to work towards.

Jacob Kramer-Duffield

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

Digital Niche Communities

Prof. Oke’s comment a couple posts back and the coming end of the year reminded me of something I’d much rather forget — college applications. Early college decisions are coming back this Friday, and as a college freshman, the anxiety and the nerves of last year are still fresh on my mind. The stress of college applications naturally spilled over into my online life, so fall of my senior year, I began frequenting the forums at College Confidential.

College Confidential
bills its forums as the “Most popular on the Web!” The community is largely devoted to undergraduate college admissions, and its boards are populated with threads about college essays, interview tips, and choosing the right college college. There are a sizable number of parents and administrators on the site, but the large majority of posters are anxious teens.

As I have blogged about before, it makes sense that DNs will go to an online community for support and advice in times as stressful as college application season. Although I learned a great deal from those forums, I always came away vaguely uneasy. Whatever I gained was undoubtedly balanced out by the added stress from being in such a distorted environment. The site, unsurprisingly, caters mostly to students aiming for elite colleges. College Confidential is the kind of place that scoffs at 2400s and 4.0s. This isn’t be very healthy, is it?

The Internet can connect you with virtually anyone anywhere in the world, but we invariably choose to connect with individuals with whom we have common interests and goals. This creates self-perpetuating niche communities that may be skewed away from the mainstream. There, one can find acceptance for many different sets of values. High-pressure college admissions is a relatively innocuous example, but what if that niche community was, oh say, a pro-anorexia site?

The possible danger here is that DNs are at ages when their values are still being shaped, and the Internet can foster behavior that is healthy neither physically nor mentally. The Internet certainly did once have a reputation for being the hangout of loners and freaks. While I no longer hold this to be true, what is true is that there are communities that encourage maladjusted behavior. The proliferation of pro-anorexia sites is a particularly disturbing example, where members get tips for suppressing hunger and purging. A typical post might go something like this:

“Today was good. Only 200 calories + 5 hours at work where i’m on my feet all day. I feel a little dizzy, but the happy and proud feeling is 100x better. Although, i’m dreading tomorrow. I have to go to a restaurant with my friends for lunch.”

[Disclaimer] I hope this doesn’t come off as paranoid, as I do believe the vast majority of online discussion (not including spam of course) is productive and healthy.