Net Smart: How to Thrive Online

Electronic pioneer's cyber literacy guide is lost in translation, argues Harold Thimbleby

June 21, 2012

Howard Rheingold is a household name for anyone old enough to have been online in the 1980s. He was big on the WELL, or the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, an influential early online community, and he has been at the forefront of digital criticism ever since.

But in the age of Twitter's 140-character conversations, it seems ironic that Rheingold's ideas on mindful digital literacy come packed in a conventional book of almost 300 paper pages. A more pointed irony is that the people who might benefit most from reading it are the ones who won't bother to engage with it. The neat ideas are too hard to find if you don't like reading pages and pages of text; the book's look and feel is more like that of a novel - a few headings, but mostly runs of seamless paragraphs of text, broken with a few cartoon concept maps.

If you teach digital media, this seems to be a book in the grand style of 19th-century scholarship. It is a research monograph, with citations rather than explanations. So the advice to parents worried about their children online? Read another book! To benefit from Net Smart will take work tracking down references: exactly the sort of work that web-based hyperlinks would have made trivial.

There are six chapters that cover learning to control your attention, "crap detection", participation, collective intelligence, social-network analysis and, finally, the way that using the web can make you smarter (which I read several times). The participation section has some good ideas about making contributions and curating information, but most of it is Rheingold quoting his friends; he seems to ignore his own advice. The ideas he quotes, while fascinating, aren't organised as ideas. If Net Smart is, as it claims to be, a how-to book, where are the insights and higher-level perspectives? Where are the summaries?

Perhaps I'm being unfair, because there is a summary towards the end of the book of "five literacies in a nutshell". But it has 69 bullet points! To avoid overload, the summary needs triage, IMHO. Despite the author's experience of lecturing at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, and running his own Rheingold University, Net Smart has no progressive structure, nor does it cover enough topics to make it broad enough to be used as a textbook (unless your topic is Rheingold himself).

If you are a 21st-century multitasker, your attention span won't last long enough to find the nuggets buried within. Here are some:

• Breathe: Do you hold your breath when doing email? It doesn't help.

• Focus: Most multitasking causes you to lose effectiveness. Decide what you need to do. Spend 25 minutes doing it, then spend five minutes doing what you like. Repeat.

• Triangulate: Try to find three sources to verify information. Think like a detective. Seek out authors of information, and then find opinions about them.

• Assume goodwill: When you think someone is making a personal attack against you online, it's likely to be a misunderstanding.

• Find your public voice: Think about who will read your contributions and why.

• Pay it forward: Doing favours is a strong predictor of getting favours from others.

I looked at the book's online resources at and, read the blog (and an anonymous positive review from Nature), skimmed the wiki, watched Rheingold on YouTube and bought the Kindle version to see how it works as a piece of digital media. It doesn't. It's just an e-book, with all the usual problems: fine if you want to read it as a linear narrative, but too tedious to read non-linearly or for reference (which is what this book is crying out for). And its awful typography confuses, among other things, whether the writing is Rheingold's own words or one of his many quotes.

The Kindle edition (which is confusingly different from my hardback copy) has no features to make it easier to read or more useful. Even to use the badly formatted index, you have to turn pages sequentially to find what you want (it has no A-Z index), then read it and remember the page number for what you want, then type it into a dialogue box, then hope it lands you on the right page (it might be nearby, but you won't know in which direction).

Many words and phrases used in the book (such as "PLN" and "radar", to which Rheingold gives a special meaning) aren't in the index. My guess is that it was made by someone using a traditional 3 x 5 card-index file with no ability to link anything up. The idea of digital literacy has been lost in translation.

Net Smart could have been a great book if it had first sorted out its own information overload. The irony is that the problems are clear to its readers but seemingly not to its author: Rheingold didn't follow his own advice on "infotention" (turn information overload into knowledge navigation), for he multitasks as he writes, switching between remarks, quotes and conversations, and when and where he met people. This social context is justified, we are told, as part of his strategy to help readers check his credibility by providing redundant information to help triangulate, which he says we should do with any information we find on the net. (But he's exhaustively done it for us.) The result is a book just a few photographs short of Hello! - lots of people will no doubt enjoy that, but it isn't what it claims to be. It really doesn't help readers become net smart, especially when they have to plough through it on paper.

Net Smart: How to Thrive Online

By Howard Rheingold

MIT Press

2pp, £17.95 and £12.80 (Kindle)

ISBN 9780262017459

Published 30 April 2012

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