Half a metaphor

I’m writing a piece (in the form of a debate with Jason Potts) on the Internet and non-market innovation (open source, blogs, wikis and Web 2.0 more generally) and the editors asked us to say something about digital literacy. I’ve never paid much attention to this metaphor, maybe because of excessive exposure to its predecessor, computer literacy.

It strikes me though, that discussion of digital literacy focuses almost entirely on reading (how to navigate the Web, find reliable information and so on). The things I’m talking about are forms of writing.

Thinking about the rise of text literacy, the distinction tends to be blurred a bit, because most (not all) people who learn to read also learn to write. Still, there’s plenty of discussion of the importance of writing to groups (women, working people) traditionally excluded from written culture.

So, I’m surprised at the neglect of this point in relation to digital literacy, especially because the Internet has done so much to break down the asymmetry between a small group of writers and a large group of readers that characterises most communications media. Having said this, I’m sure this point has been made many times before, and I invite readers to write in with good references.

As an aside, “computer literacy” programs in the late 70s and early 80s had, if anything, the opposite problem. Lots of emphasis on how to code in BASIC and very little appreciation of the potential for computers as tools for general use.

17 thoughts on “Half a metaphor

  1. As Minister for Science, Barry Jones would often expound about the future being divided between the ‘information rich’ and the ‘information poor’, and by extension the use, not only writing, to which that information would be economically valuable. This was long before the rise of the web, obviously, but there was a fair bit of material produced both by him and his department which looked at participation in the ‘information age’ and what it might mean. I don’t have the references, but I suspect most of them are hard copy :). The quoted terms might make good search keys.

  2. Hi John,

    It’s probably less that the information providers believe that people can write, and more that the people themselves believe that they can write, and hence there’s no demand. Perhaps until the advent of Web 2.0, the divide between web readers and writers was much more asymmetrical as well?

    In any of these forums there is almost immediate feedback, which allows a fair facsimile of the usual normative processes to occur. Each forum tends towards an etiquette which determines both the standard of writing (within reason) and permissible content. Obviously it’s a flawed process (as the disinhibition effect and tendency to misread statements as attacks attest.)

    This paper by John Suler of Rider University covers most of the issues well.

    Perhaps it’s because the definitions of good online writing have been changing quickly. Of the writing guides that do exist, many seem to have dated. For instance, a recent edition of Hot Text, by Jonathan and Lisa Price, promoted the idea that people are unwilling to scroll, so it is better to break up information over several pages. (This might have been corrected in the latest edition!) I’m pretty sure people have a handle on scrolling these days and find tracing their way through screen after screen incredibly irritating. I know I do.

    Oh well. More opinion, not many references, sorry. Is this the sort of thing you are after, or was all that completely banal?

  3. Steve and Cathy, these are both handy references. I think they confirm my view that discussions about writing (and more generally producing content of any kind) for the Internet does not use the language of “digital literacy”, which is implicitly confined to reading. The “info rich” idea is a bit more ambiguous – not sure if it embodied production as well as consumption.

  4. couldn’t “digital literacy” also include:

    – the ability to read/understand digital imagery, for example to be aware of the possibility of Photoshopped images

    – understanding how information/views become clustered by search engines, cross linking and the like so that it’s easy to find yourself in a reality bubble, perhaps without being aware that it doesn’t reflect the wider world

  5. You all could go read recent award winning Rainbow’s End by Vernor Vinge.

    Further, if you cannot write hyperlinks you are not web literate (as opposed to digital literacy or information age savy). Literacy must include some web ‘basic’ writing/code skills, not just some search and analysis skills.

    That way you can then understand google page rank, which means you’ll have some insight into web 2.0 potentials, which supposedly socially organise ‘data’ ‘information’ ‘texts’ though much of it seems lost in meta-dataic hoopla (eg facebook apps).

  6. Nicki, that certainly comes under the definition of digital literacy, but isn’t specific to writers.

    Meika, which does WordPress recognise: PHPBB or HTLM tags? Personally, I can’t be bothered mucking about to find out 🙂 Isn’t the whole point of Web 2.0 that people can contribute content without needing specialised knowledge?

  7. Can I suggest that literacy comes in degrees. While most people who can read can also write, most people who can write aren’t very good at writing for public consumption (as opposed to personal record).

    And there is a difference between good report writing (or academic writing), good journalism (event recounting) and story telling (or literature). All use the same symbols but other knowledge and skills are required. Knowing how to print it isn’t necessary, but a journalist writes to match a narrow column and a novellist pays attention to chapter length.

    Digital literacy comes in similar degrees. But you don’t have to be able to write HTML code – just know how its existence can help you. If the software does all the work of putting in the actual tags that is just akin to using a typewriter instead of a pencil.

  8. To be web-wise involves a whole bag of skills and knowledge which students experience everyday in classes across Australia.
    Because of the audio-visual nature of digital communications, they compose both lyrics and music and then record them digitally. They produce high quality videos and multimedia presentations in a wide range of contexts. Reading, writing, talking and listening happen in a range of languages and styles. And that is just the classrooms in my last school in Maningrida, Arnhem Land.
    The references suggested in the comments are certainly worth looking at, but they barely touch the changing reality. Spending a short time on Facebook tells us that the most important literacy skill is to be discriminating. The academic research and jargon will never be able to keep up with this communication explosion.

  9. look, knowing how to click on a link is one thing, it’s like being able to read a roadsign, and I am not saying one needs to know all of HTML (let alone CSS stylesheets or how dynamic pages are generated using mySQL, PHP on an Apache server) but understanding how google.com leveraged its position by weighting results according to how many links a site lets you begin to be able to understand how an atlas might be drawn up. Being able to code/write a link (in whatever code you prefer) is a basic step. It means others can follow your roadsigns, in your footsteps. (This is the key phase change moment.)

    And the aggregation of these fooosteps can be used to deliver results, e.g. google.com (as an example, it is probably still the most powerful one).

  10. John, where is your piece on the Internet and non-market innovation to be published? (Sorry if I’ve missed anything in comments – just dropped in quickly.)

  11. David, I agree. There are degrees of ‘digital literacy’, but it’s important to realise that it’s not a monotonic function: there are different qualities of literacy. Those who excel at coding might find the social mores of online discussion difficult, and thus get themselves into trouble. They might not be able to write in a way that people will persevere with reading.

    Meika, true, but I still can’t be bothered coding a link when a simple cut-and-paste will do. Call it digital illiteracy if you like; <I prefer to call it laziness. 🙂

  12. I’m reminded of a past (maybe not?) trend for people to claim to be ‘fluent’ at computer use.

    Now we talk of ‘literacy’.

    Maybe an interesting aspect is an understanding of command line syntax and grammar as most variants share linguistic similarities.

    I know I certainly used to joke that I had learned to ‘speak Microsoft’ after sitting my share of MCP exams. And I’d claim that such knowledge helps me understand any piece of hardware or software I encounter, enabling me to use it easily.

    Perception of hardware utility too. Usage dictated by design + size of hardware, level of miniaturisation and integration. Something in the Age in the last few days about the decline of the PC in Japan seemed relevant. Can’t find it sorry.

    An understanding of Boolean logic greatly assisted search engine result success in the pre-google days.

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