Howard Rheingold: On line social networks

Howard Rheingold (U.S.A – 1947) is one of the most important writers and critics focused on the economics and sociocultural aspects of the internet. Rheingold, which is the creator of the “virtual community” term, started publishing his books in 1982. Smart Mobs, his greatest hit, has always been the reference title for any talk about Internet born social movements since it was released on 2003.

Notes on Howard Rheingold’s roundtable at the Open University of Catalonia. Organized by UOC UNESCO Chair in E-Learning.

Howard Rheingold
Online Social Networks — a more comprehensive term than virtual communities — enable people to co-operate. Social networks have always existed, but now they’re empowered, enhanced by ICTs, so communities of practice can form.

Online communities: promote social capital, support lifelong teaching and learning, connect people and build relationships, grow a searchable communitye memory (knowledge sharing).

Participatory media (e.g. blogs, wikis, mobile phones with cameras) have totally changed the landscape, enabling broad participation by making it easy to share any kind of media (image, video, text, software…). Media allow learning, sharing, debate…

New media require media literacy: understand the media, know how to send and receive, then be able to produce.

Social Cyberspaces Connect People

People join through affinities and shared interests, that can be social, practical, interest-based, technical…

So, you have to start with a plan, a plan that includes social, marketing and technical infrastructure. You have to think on how to attract people towards the network, but then think alson on how to make them come back.

Marketing is essential: build it and they won’t come if it does not fill an important need (they’re too busy); start with enthusiasts (if there’s any, just don’t start); build a critical mass with enthusiasts first, then let the others join; start small, learn, redesign, grow organically: follow an iterative redesigning.

Civility is essential; online facilitation is a skill and a body of knowledge; weed, feed, transplant: gardening, not architecture; encourage emergent leadership, regardless on who you said that was in charge.


César Córcoles: how institutions can face the changes that social networks bring (e.g. teachers).
Howard Rheingold (HR): the actual teaching model (Paulo Freire’s “banking model”) is inadequate for online social networks. The responsibility of the reputation of the “text” (the basis of actual teaching models) has shifted from the editor, or the teacher, towards the consumer: it’s now up to you to determine the reputation of what you’re reading, as the offer is huge. Participatory media, nevertheless, is absolutely compatible with students being more active in teaching, as some pedagogical theories have been stating in the last years.

Oriol Miralbell: how do we manage leadership in big online social networks? Can it be both distributed and centralized?
HR: It’s not either or. Indeed, power and authority are quite different things. Communities, individuals, are normally reluctant to take authority when a reputed person is participating in the community: authority comes naturally, and is provided by the rest of the participants.

Oriol Miralbell: experts or teaching experts?
HR: Teaching skills are the key. If there is a trade-off between being an expert in a field and a good teacher, you might prefer the good teacher, as they will be leading the group towards debate and knowledge sharing in better ways.

Francisco Lupiáñez: how do deal with complex processes (bureaucracy?) when there’s an urgent need for flexibility?
HR: Online, ironically, allows more direct communication with the student, which is really time consuming. So, planning and, more important, seeing how what you are going to build scales is crucial. To be able to scale up, bringing the students agency, and let themselves discover than you discovering for them is one of the most important changes of mindset required to build a successful social community.

César Córcoles: isn’t this kind of working putting more stress on students (switch from passive to active attitudes)?
HR: Is it a problem of stress management… or attention management? Focuss on questions, issues that matter.

Joe Hopkins: how does the work with the wiki works?
HR: I don’t expect them to delete. Context is a must for anything added to the wiki. And if given the opportunity, students will end up finding out things that the teacher did not know… in any kind of media support: text, video, etc. Have to give the students ownership of their participation.

Ismael Peña-López: what are the minimum skills required to engage someone on an online social network?
HR: Collaborative working is new to the students right now, it’s a new way of thinking. The students already live on Facebook, they manage their digital identities, but they might not really be aware on how this impacts their lives. And we have to teach them too these issues: to distinguish between the “know hows” and the “know ho nots”.

Ismael Peña-López: is there a minimum threshold of digital awareness to be achieved before being able to positively contribute into an online social network?
HR: Yes, of course, there are. There’s a set of rhetorics to be learnt to be able to engage in a virtual community. And blogs are a perfect gateway towards this understanding on how things work in the digital world. The ability to link.

Oriol Miralbell: IT tinkering a need? or digital natives already know everything?
HR: digital natives master some tools, but they do not know at all about the whole rest (i.e. 99% might use Wikipedia, 1% might know they can edit it). And this might change… but it might not if we don’t address it within the education system, integrating the training of this skills in the syllabus.

Rosa Borge: virtual communities a need? or can smart mobs be a better option?
HR: We don’t really know yet. Smart mobs are ephemeral and happen after a particular event. Do they stay? Do they turn into a crystallized movement? Doesn’t look like it. This does not mean that smart mobs do not achieve results, but they are on the shortest run… and when there’s more impact than that, it’s because there was an actual movement behind.

Max Senges: quality, control and scalability is a Bermuda Triangle that is difficult to manage. How to mitigate or give away control while keeping the institution happy? How to scale up? HR: Giving up control is not bringing anarchy in, is just defining the boundaries of the project, which is quite different. Peer evaluation is also a way of not exactly giving control away, but distributing it. Meritocracy might be a good option to both keep some kind of rules (not real control, but keeping rules) and also being able to scale the model bit by bit, by shifting some responsibility (and authority) to the “best” students. e-Porfolios, self-reflection, self-evaluation is a very powerful tool too, as it raises motivation, self-management, ownership of your own contributions, self- and third party assessment.

Oriol Miralbell: How to learn to be an online mentor? Should we first learn some particular dynamics before online teaching? How to keep authority?
HR: Tell the students: you’re going to be able to teach this course. This triggers leaders and really engages them, and makes leadership emerge, as the possibility/chance to be the teachers is real.

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