"Information Access in a Networked World"
Presented to Pearson Publishing
2 November 2007
[This is a rough unedited crib of the actual talk]
Citation: boyd, danah. 2007. "Information Access in a Networked World." Talk presented to Pearson Publishing, Palo Alto, California, November 2.
Youth are growing up in a society shaped strongly by networks. Networks of information, networks of people, networks of objects. Networks themselves are not new, but the role that they play is more significant now than in the past. Much of this has to do with technology because technology has made networks essential.
To understand youth's interactions with information today, you need to understand the networks in which youth inhabit. You also need to situate their information activities within those very networks.
At the most simplistic level, information is acquired in three ways: push, pull, and osmosis.
Let's begin with osmosis. My mother used to tell me that you couldn't learn by osmosis. When it comes to book learning, she was probably right. (Of course, that didn't stop me from sleeping with my books.) Yet, because today's youth live in a very media-saturated culture, this ancient wisdom might be officially outdated.
Last spring, when I asked teens who was running for President, they were all able to rattle off at least Hillary and Barack. (We will ignore the fact that they often said "that woman" and "that black guy.") How they knew this is a bit of a puzzle. They didn't read the newspaper, they didn't watch TV news, they didn't listen to news on radio, and they didn't go to news websites. What's left? Osmosis!
Teens weren't directly reading the news, but they'd pass by the living room where their parents were watching the news or they'd hear a discussion on a talk radio program their parents listened to while they were stuck in the car on the way to school. They weren't talking about the candidates, but they heard other people talk about them. They picked this information up out of the air because, in a media-saturated world, getting information doesn't require paying attention.
Today's youth live in a networked world where they pass by information on a regular basis. In physical spaces, billboards paint the landscape. TVs are everywhere, from doctor's offices to the checkout lines of grocery stores. When they're online, they're constantly passing by information. For example, many teens go to yahoo.com to get to their email. In doing so, they quickly pass by yahoo.com and view in passing a bunch of images and headlines. After seeing this a few times, things begin to stick.
Not surprisingly, the first two presidential candidates that they all listed were the media celebrities, regardless of their personal political ideology. They have learned the information that has surfaced to the top in their social environment. Their home culture very much shapes what they pick up through osmosis. If their parents are talking about politics, they know a lot more about politics. If their parents are talking about sports, they know a lot about sports. Unfortunately, much to my chagrin, politics and the state of the world are rarely discussed in the home with youth present, even if the adults are consuming it. While motivated teens can certainly seek out information through all sorts of media channels, much of what they know is through osmosis. And what they gain through osmosis depends heavily on the contexts in which they pass by media.
Media-driven osmosis is not new, but the level of saturation is definitely greater than before. This introduces more opportunities to get "drive by" information. It's hard not to know certain things, but it's easy to know little in depth. News and information that is more than a soundbyte is not really part of the culture of osmosis.
Getting information through push processes is slightly more active than osmosis, although who is doing the pushing very much shapes how the information is being received.
School is fundamentally a push technology. Youth are required by law to show up and teachers are employed to push information at students in the hopes that they soak some of it up. Parents, teachers, and other well-intentioned adults regularly push information at youth as they have for decades. Youth's willingness to consume this content is heavily influenced by issues of trust and respect for the pusher. The less respect, the more likely the information is to go in one ear and out the other.
Early technological developments were all about creating other channels of push media. TV and radio are both push technologies. You may have choice in which channel you allow stuff to be pushed from, but it's still streaming content at you.
Today, youth are also information pushers and they have more ways in which they can push what matters to them. Through technology, youth are their own channels and they consume the channels of their friends. Many youth are active creators, producers, and distributors. As Mimi will more adequately address, today's youth traffic in content.
What this means is that youth's access to certain types of information is increasingly framed by their networks. When I ask teens how they found out about a particular video or website or many other things, the answer is pretty universal: "my friends."
As a result of this networked ecology, information is a form of currency. Status is attained through the trafficking of content. The cooler the content, the more status is to be attained by being the one to show it off to your friends. What constitutes "cool" says a lot about our cultural priorities. For example, there's always room for childish humor: body parts and bodily fluid jokes, embarrassing moments, bloopers, and anything with an entertainment value. It's quite rare for something quote unquote "educational" to be worthy.
Marketers are effectively leveraging networks of information flow to traffic goods while educators are primarily lambasting the networked technologies that mediate information flow. In other words, YouTube and MySpace are seen as the devil's tools rather than a platform that should be understood let alone leveraged. Youth are moving into a push-driven network culture and adults are not following.
On the flipside, there is pull media. This is content that individuals actively seek. Again, networked culture has drastically altered this process. Let's just focus on the Internet for a moment.
From the earliest days of the Internet, services like Usenet allowed people to come to a shared place and pool knowledge. This was by no means mainstream, but there were plenty of teens lurking in BBSs and Usenet by the mid-90s. AOL took it mainstream.
Then, with the launch of Mosaic and HTML, information became commonly networked. It may not have been Vannevar Bush's dream implementation, but hypertext was more accessible in this form than ever before. All of a sudden, hours could be wasted following link to link to link to link. Sure, networks of information existed before but they weren't so easy to access. For example, academics traced through bibliographic references to track down books related to the book they were reading. That's not nearly as enticing as one-click information access.
Search upped the ante. Now, people can ask the Internet for something and voila, a bunch of potentially relevant links will appear. Of course, teens took to search quite differently than adults. Rather than waiting until they had a meaningful query, they'd go and type in random stuff. And off they'd go into a world of link link link. Search is an amazing entry point for information perusal.
Now, situate Wikipedia in this networked context. For the curious and and the bored, Wikipedia can provide hours of endless entertainment. Start with "Death Cab for Cutie" and three clicks in, you're learning about the history of punk, British nationalism, and the politics of Queen Elizabeth II. Click click click.
Today's youth have information at their fingertips, but they are constantly being told that this information is inherently flawed and that they should not use it.
Wikipedia certainly has its flaws, but it's not evil. In fact, it's an ideal site for learning how to interpret information. Consider California History Standard 11.1.2 where students are supposed to learn about the cultural dynamics behind the American Revolution. The view from the American and British history textbooks is quite different, yet, the English Wikipedia entry has to resolve these two perspectives. Right now, teachers say that what's in the textbook is right and what's in Wikipedia is wrong. Imagine, instead, if teachers helped students understand why these two differed. Imagine a culture where information is collectively valued, but youth are taught the skills for interpreting it and evaluating it rather than simply being told that everything in the information ecology that they inhabit is "bad" simply because it's not in traditionally vetted sources.
This is a personal pet peeve of mine because if educators would shift their thinking about Wikipedia, so much critical thinking could take place. The key value of Wikipedia is its transparency. You can understand how a page is constructed, who is invested, what their other investments are. You can see when people disagree about content and how, in the discussion, the disagreement was resolved. None of our traditional print media makes such information available. Understanding Wikipedia means knowing how to:
1) Understand the assembly of data and information into publications
2) Interpret knowledge
3) Question purported truths and vet sources
4) Analyze apparent contradictions in facts
5) Productively contribute to the large body of collective knowledge
We all care about education and helping youth learn, but why do we only value push mechanisms? As media opens up a culture of osmosis and makes pulling information fun, youth are increasingly disconnected from the world of push. More problematically, because parents and teachers are invested in vetting information and discouraging all other information access, we are failing to teach our youth how to evaluate, interpret, and assess the information that they pull or that which falls out of the sky. In other words, they are completely media illiterate. Unless you're a marketer seeking to capitalize on youth's naiveté, this should worry you.
What you're seeing at all levels is a complete disconnect between youth's everyday practices and what they are expected to do in formal learning environments. Just as they are being socialized into a culture where production is the central activity for status, they are being evaluated through little bubbles with zero room for creative thinking. While they are exploring an information culture where information is constantly linked and networked, they are being told that the "valuable" information comes in unsearchable, unnetworked paper formats only. Nowhere along the line are they supported in their creativity or educated about how to think critically about the information that they encounter.
The information culture today is about producing, finding, and sharing... not just consuming. Rather than demonizing new technologies as non-education, imagine what would happen if we helped youth learn in this new networked information environment. We are lucky to be living in an information-rich society. It's high time that we let go of our nostalgia and embrace this.