Thriving Online – Rheingold’s Digital Literacies

I’ve not read a better book recently about how to thrive online than Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart. As well as being incisive and self-aware, Rheingold is able to relate easily his ideas about getting the best out of our online lives in a straightforward and personable way. Rheingold’s lifetime of experience as a host of virtual communities, and more latterly as a sage of online sociability, is invaluable. Unlike many other books about our digital lives, that seem to be pushed around with increased frequency and hyperbole, this is a book that has it where it counts. I’m certain that the ideas represented in this account of what it takes to thrive online will stand the test of time for many years to come. Not only are these ideas smart, they are founded in pragmatic common sense that makes them relevant, while they remaining critical and sceptical, something that Rheingold obviously learnt over the years of hard-won experience. Which he continues to encourage us to do as pioneers of the network-based world.

thronehowardclose2-supercrop1In five sections, Rheingold explains how “critical thinking about media practices has become an essential, learnable mental skill.” (Rheingold 2013 p.33). A skill that Rheingold believes we can master and use to challenge some of the prevailing social, academic and intellectual orthodoxies about learning, communicating and the many dilemmas that we face in our networked lives together. Social media and network society has the power, according to Rheingold, to act like “potential tools and weapons in the[…] struggle[…] over participation”.  Which means that we have to learn to use social media well and make our exchanges and interventions count where they matter, in order to add positively to our experience in the global, information overloaded and networked realms.

We are living through unprecedented change, and need to figure out how to adapt to that change pretty quickly. Figuring out the best strategies to get on with each other, and to ensure that we remain trustful, honest and reciprocal is the highest priority, according to Rheingold, regardless of when, where and how we choose to present ourselves online. Because Rheingold was in at the start and knows a lot of people who have been building network culture since its early days, these recommendations are made with the knowing grace of an insider who’s passing on his wisdom to help out those who are users of social media, but who might find it easier to have a congenial guide help them find their way around.

The five literacies that Rheingold outlines are:

  • Attention! The Fundamental Literacy.
  • Calibrating Your Crap Detector: What You Pay Attention to After You Pay Attention to Attention.
  • What It Takes to Participate in Participatory Culture—and What You Get Out of It.
  • Clueing in to Collaboration: Making Virtual Communities, Collective Intelligence, and Knowledge Networks Work for You (and Us).
  • What You Need to Know about Network Smarts—from Small Worlds to Privacy Settings, from Weak Ties to Social Capital.

What most interests me, though, is not so much the sound advice, the level of detail and the pertinent examples that Rheingold brings forward, which are all excellent, but what he talks about in the last chapter, in terms of how we need to face the challenge of the future using a new set of ideas and affordances – or literacies – to help guide what and how we should be thinking in this new environment. So we are challenged with social literacies, digital literacies, media literacies, network literacies, and on and on. A whole load of different types of literacies for which we each have to grasp and understand. To put it bluntly, I’m not certain that the summation Rheingold makes in his last chapter is actually about the need to elicit and strengthen new forms of literacies at all, or at least not in the traditional forms that literacies have been articulated and characterised in more recent periods of our cultural development. Instead, there seems to me to be more potential in the fact that Rheingold is urging us to move on from traditional debates about literacies, and instead look at new forms of affordance and capabilities that don’t have the same levels of traditional social investment and cultural capital.

Being net savvy I’ve looked at the Wikipedia entry for literacy: “Literacy encompasses a complex set of abilities to understand and use the dominant symbol systems of a culture for personal and community development.” And which goes on to suggest that “in a technological society, the concept of literacy is expanding to include the media and electronic text, in addition to alphabetic and number systems. These abilities vary in different social and cultural contexts according to need, demand and education.” I have no problem with these working definitions of literacy, and indeed I agree with them and the implications that they raise about our growing need to look at a wider scope of situations that we ought to be grappling with to make sense of our world through-them and of-them. I’m just not so sure that this set of capabilities and affordances can be equated with the idea of literacy that’s being used in these debates.

Perhaps I’ve failed to recognise the wider point of change, when literacies became thought of as something useful and skills based, rather than about understanding and inculcation into a whole way of thinking. Literacies should now perhaps be thought of as capabilities and affordances in order to better suit the sense that they are being used for practical purposes. Rather our literacies being about interpretation and hermeneutical understanding, they have become a tool to lubricate social, civic and economic interactions. Not that I would personally ever worry about this, but didn’t our literacies once represent an effort for humankind to get closer to god?

In other words, when did literacies become something that we practice, in the form of a skill, rather than something that we strive for? When did literacies stop being about understanding the intentions of the author and the meanings that are potential within a text, for which reflection and contemplation gave us the answer? We’ve moved on, it seems to me, to a world in which literacies are understood as a functional tool used for the purpose of utility in an economy of social and symbolic meaning exchange. I’ve just have a nagging doubt that in a previous, forgotten age, which feels like a shadow, an echo, or a memory, that somewhere, and in someway we used to think about life being meaningful for itself, rather than simply as an expedient skill. Have we forgotten this by replacing our search for meaning with these new, exciting and expedient toys of corroboration, connection and know-how? Where’s the space for a discussion about know-what?

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