As I read through Chapter 4 of “Net Smart”, there was much of it that I appreciated: particularly the encouragement to dive into the participatory side of the Web – something that have been hesitant to try. I am one of those peopel that still views with suspicion the time-sucking aspects of social media and wonders about the fate of the information and photos that I =do= choose to post. I have long been concerned about what impact the Web would have on our ability to relate to each other. To me, the best example is the question of what happens to someone who is only versed in communicating online and you drop them off in a situation where they have to use the power of their personable skills to get hep – like convincing someone to loan them a few bucks for gas when they run out in some desolate spot. If you can only talk through a machine, aren’t you automatically at a disadvantage when you’re in a situation like that? Over recent years, I feel like that concern has lost some of its punch. For one, there are simply fewer and fewer places where online communication isn’t viable. And two, I think online communication has become so ingrained in our lives that it’s no longer a situation in which we are talking about so-called computer geeks who can’t talk to a girl. The vast majority of people are versed in both kinds of communication. It is no longer mutually exclusive. However, I fear we may be going too far the other way – now, overvaluing computer literacy and undervaluing other forms of expertise and experience. In reading this Chapter, there was one part that jumped out at me.
“In April 2011 (Joi) Ito was selected to be the director of MIT Media Lab, despite his lack of any college degree. ‘If you’ve never read any business case histories but if you’ve run a guild, organized a raid, or spent time resolving drama and disputes in World of Warcraft, your mind-set is well prepared for the real world in a very different way than a college MBA would be prepared to run a company.'”
Hold on. Full stop. This statement strikes me as utterly ridiculous. I will say first that I have never played WoW, but I have some experience with RPGs. I don’t understand on what planet someone thinks that experience playing this game (and it is a game) can be a SUBSTITUTE for a college degree. Now, I recognize that perhaps we are talking about a unique animal when we are talking about a “Media Lab”. However, what I read there was that the skills learned in WoW made this man “well-prepared for the real world” and implied that it made them at least equally as qualified as a college graduate to run a company. I can’t imagine that’s actually true. If participating in a game like World of Warcraft can be considered a substitute for a degree and experience that would help someone run a company (!), then what about similar real world experience? Is this something unique to being able to solve issues only within the online community? Because they seem like they certainly have parallels in the real world. For example, I’ve started and maintained multiple rock bands and participated in them for decades. In each case, I helped bring a group of people together, we wrote music, solved internal disputes, worked together, booked gigs, got ourselves to the shows as well as managed money and contracts and last-minute issues that cropped up. In other words, spent time resolving drama and disputes IN THE REAL WORLD. Yes, I get that there is not an online component here (or at least not a large one), but – again – it seems to me that manipulating and orchestrating online communities is no more challenging than doing it in the real world and, in some cases, could be much simpler (seeing as how egos and personalities and the threat of physical violence are either diminished or eliminated entirely). What I’m trying to say is that I feel like we are overvaluing computer literacy to the point where it is help up as equal to or superior to real world experience and communication. I understand that the idea here is to emphasize the non-traditional “qualifications” that someone who is versed in social media and online collaboration can bring to the table, but it seems to me like we are arguing simultaneously that participating and becoming proficient in online collaboration is both easy and somehow complicated enough that it equates to a college degree. That doesn’t make sense to me. It brings me back to my original point. We can emphasize online collaboration and literacy and the added value that it brings (both real and virtual) but, to me, there is a risk of stressing it to the exclusion of all else.
I’ll give you another example. In some parts of the book, it seemed like Rheingold was simply laying out the basics of human interaction, but casting them as new and significant because they have to do with online collaboration. For instance, he says we should encourage casual conversation to build trust. This comes as no surprise – it’s a time-tested practice. It’s called small talk. He also advises us to diversify our group, practice collaborating and make it easy to contribute to a shared knowledge repository. It’s like he’s instructing people who have never existed beyond the virtual people. To me, this is basic stuff about human interaction, but somehow when we put it in the context of online communities, we’re acting like it’s something brand new. He’s basically saying – reach out to a bunch of different people, work together and be nice about it. Look, maybe the point here is that people need to wake up and recognize the parallels between real-world collaboration and online collaboration. That is a valid point – one that should be stressed and one that Rheingold makes clearly. It just seems almost funny the way it’s laid out like it’s a brand new revelation. Do we need to be reminded that the virtual world was created by people and based on the ways people interact? Yes, the medium is different, but reading Rheingold, I was reminded again and again of the similarities between online and real-world collaboration, not so much the differences.
Later in the chapter, he says if you “know the territory, assume goodwill, jump in whever you can add value and reciprocate … you’ll succeed as a virtual community member.” That sounds like exactly the same advice I have given interns that come to work here. Jump in, get your hands dirty, help others and let them help you… Again, perhaps I am taking this the wrong way and should be appreciating Rheingold’s advice to those who may see the online communities as something more complex than it really is. If the point here is to stress that the way to build online communities is essentially the same way we build regular communities, then I think Rheingold can make that point. However, to me, this exercise regarding how to make online collaboration work pretends that it is something completely new and in doing so, seems to drive home the idea that succeeding online takes a unique skill set – an effort that, to me, does more to alienate the uninitiated rather than embrace them. At the risk of coming across as being too dismissive about an act that has great and obvious advantages, the idea of overemphasizing the online community at the expense of the “real world” community reminds me of this commercial.
One final point about online interaction – one that I write because I’ve seen more and more articles about the blurred lines between virtual and real friends – people pointing out that the relationships are similarly strong, that they trust their online friends in the same way – even going to their homes, weddings and funerals.
Here’s part of an article published in the Atlantic last week.
I point this out because I have trouble seeing online interaction as being the same as or similar to one-on-one interaction. To me, there is something purely unique about being in another person’s presence, speaking while looking into their eyes, the touch of another person. Facebook to me is a great way to keep in touch and see how people are doing, but I think the jury is still out on how close we get to “real relationships.”
In stressing online communities and collaboration, the Atlantic article (and Rheingold to an extent) suggest that if you don’t believe this, you will see online interactions as less meaningful and will, in essence, miss out. I guess I’m trying to figure out what exactly I’m missing out on. I appreciate the virtual world and I am in awe of what it can represent and how it is changing our society and our relationships. I just fear that what we lose (at least in terms of those relationships) may be more than what we gain.