“Online Communities Are Darwinistic”

Mr. Rheingold, are you an Internet junkie?

Rheingold: I hang out online, a lot. One thing that most people don’t notice is that nine months of the year, when I am hanging out online, I am also barefoot in my garden. About 20 years ago, I wrote “A slice of life in my virtual community,” and I have been working on updating that. So I am climbing the learning curve and putting together a video. I e-mail, IM, the usual. I also have about 100 feeds in my RSS reader. I maintain three blogs, a couple wikis, and I stash URLs in Delicious. I still hang out in virtual communities, and after teaching myself video, the next on my list is learning my way around “Second Life” online community.

What are you teaching at Berkeley and Stanford universities?

Rheingold: Participatory Media/Collective Action at the UC School of Information – Smart Mobs. And Digital Journalism at Stanford. It’s an expensive hobby – professors don’t get paid too well – but it’s really a thrill, and scary. It’s easy to give one of three talks to different audiences around the world. It’s another thing to walk into a room full of students weekly who have paid good money and expect me to teach them something. And with Wi-Fi in the classroom, I have to be more interesting than “Second Life” or other web-based programs at all times. But we use wikis and blogs a lot in class, and I try to make it as participatory as possible.

What is interesting you the most when you’re online?

Rheingold: I guess I’m an information junkie, so of course I have to feed on RSS for an hour every morning. And I wander wherever the links lead, stashing useful stuff in wikis and Delicious along the way. It’s all pretty unstructured. Right now, the most exciting and frustrating part is video. My instincts tell me that it’s the new vernacular and I better figure out how to get in on it. Like most everybody, I probably get three video links in the mail every morning, and that just leads to more browsing. So I figured that if I want to update my article, I should show and not just tell, so I want to combine video of me in my office and garden with screenshots that show exactly what I do every day.

There seem to be much less residents registered than the makers of “Second Life” pretend. How large does an online community need to be to matter?

Rheingold: Maybe journalists are barking up the wrong tree with the numbers game. And ten years ago, I had an online community ‘dotcom’ so I know the numbers game is kind of bogus. I like the Darwinian nature of the blogosphere – there’s always someone who can keep you honest. Second Life is a playground for early adopters. As far as I am concerned, tens of thousands of people who are actively creating new stuff is more interesting than millions of more passive participants.

You noted on your blog recently the emergence of “sock mobs.” What’s your take on this extrapolation of your positive term “smart mobs” – derivated from the word “mobile”?

Rheingold: “Mob” is a loaded term – and that was deliberate. I’m very interested in collective action, but I’ve been accused of being too utopian. Some collective action is nasty, like sock mobs, and I don’t want to leave that possibility out.

How have online communities changed over the years?

Rheingold: Some things about online social behaviour seem to be eternal and universal… Trolls and griefers, eternal meta-debate about what to do about them, for example. There’s a widespread amnesia, as if these kinds of cybersocializing were new… not many people online have much sense of history. That’s probably true of just about everything.

But the tools for creating and participating in online communities have become more accessible. What I really like is that it’s so easy to roll your own these days. It used to be a big deal to set up your own chat or BBS or listserv. Now it’s part of the toolset for millions of people, and it’s mostly free. My main concern has always been about the quality of online discourse — are we improving or degrading the public sphere?

Is the signal-to-noise ratio of modern mob communications degrading netiquette and quality of content in the public sphere?

Rheingold: I really think an educational effort is called for – in the broadest sense. In the olden days, Usenet veterans would teach netiquette to newcomers. Every September, millions of new college students would come online and people would take time to educate them – not always gently. But then AOL dumped tree million people on the Net without instruction and it became the September that never ended. I personally think that the importance of online discourse ought to be taught in high school, but public education changes slowly. My latest effort is at https://www.socialtext.net/medialiteracy. I’m trying to find some funding to set up after school and summer programs to teach participatory media as an avenue to civic engagement about issues that young people care about.

What did you think of Time magazine’s naming “You” as person of the year?

Rheingold: Time usually names a phenomenon when it mainstreams. Although it’s typical that they used “you” – as opposed to “us,” the editors – instead of “us.” But it mainstreams commons-based peer production, which is way too stuffy a term for most people. The idea that people only act for profit is pernicious and outmoded. Sometimes, self-interest adds up to more for everyone. And sometimes, if it’s easy enough, most people will do things for altruistic purposes. The research on open-source production seems to indicate that a mixture of motives is necessary for creating public goods like open-source software, Wikipedia, etc. Reputation, profit, learning, fun, altruism. Profit is in there, for sure. It’s just not the only motivation.

Should digital technologies such as nano become a part of the real day-to-day world?

Rheingold: I’m concerned about autonomous technology, so I’m sympathetic to Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy’s concerns about the dangers of unchallenged technical innovations which he discussed with high-tech inventor Ray Kurzweil. Engineers often have a somewhat limited vision about consequences. Let’s put it this way. There is a lot of money available to flog the benefits of untested technologies, but the only people besides Bill Joy who worry about the consequences seem to be either obscure academics, or skeptics like computer specialist Cliff Stoll who have their own set of blinders. Langdon Winner is a brilliant technology critic, but who here has heard of him? Deep and broad and thoughtful technology criticism isn’t that popular.