Howard Rheingold
Howard Rheingold is a critic, writer, and teacher; his specialties are on the cultural, social and political implications of modern communication media such as the Internet, mobile telephony and virtual communities (a term he is credited with inventing). He is the author of The Virtual Community and Smart Mobs. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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People act and learn together for a rich mixture of reasons. The current story that most of us tell ourselves about how humans get things done is focused on the well-known flavors of self-interest, which make for great drama−survival, power, wealth, sex, glory. People also do things together for fun, for the love of a challenge, and because we sometimes enjoy working together to make something beneficial to everybody. If I had to reduce the essence of Homo sapiens to five words, “people do complicated things together” would do. Online social networks can be powerful amplifiers of collective action precisely because they augment and extend the power of ever-complexifying human sociality. To be sure, gossip, conflict, slander, fraud, greed and bigotry are part of human sociality, and those parts of human behavior can be amplified, too. But altruism, fun, community and curiosity are also parts of human sociality−and I propose that the Web is an existence proof that these capabilities can be amplified, as well. Indeed, our species’ social inventiveness is central to what it is to be human. The parts of the human brain that evolved most recently, and which are connected to what we consider to be our “higher” faculties of reason and forethought, are also essential to social life. The neural information-processing required for recognizing people, remembering their reputations, learning the rituals that remove boundaries of mistrust and bind groups together, from bands to communities to civilizations, may have been enabled by (and may have driven the rapid evolution of) that uniquely human brain structure, the neocortex. [1]

But I didn’t start out by thinking about the evolutionary dynamics of sociality and the amplification of collective action. Like all of the others in this book, I started out by experiencing the new ways of being that Internet social media have made possible. And like the other Freesouls, Joi Ito has played a catalytic, communitarian, Mephistophelian, Pied-Piper-esque, authority-challenging, fun-loving role in my experiences of the possibilities of life online.

Friends and Enthusiasts

To me, direct experience of what I later came to call virtual communities[2] preceded theories about the ways people do things together online. I met Joi Ito in the 1980s as part of what we called “the Electronic Networking Association,” a small group of enthusiasts who thought that sending black and white text to BBSs with 1200 baud modems was fun. Joi, like Stewart Brand, was and is what Fred Turner[3] calls a network entrepreneur, who occupies what Ronald Burt[4] would call key structural roles−what Malcolm Gladwell[5] called a connector. Joi was also a believer in going out and doing things and not just talking about it.

Joi was one of the founders of a multicultural BBS in Tokyo, and in the early 1990s I had begun to branch out from BBSs and the WELL[6] to make connections in many different parts of the world. The fun of talking, planning, debating and helping each other online came before the notion that our tiny subculture might grow into a worldwide, many-to-many, multimedia network of a billion people. We started to dream about future cybersocial possibilities only after personally experiencing something new, moving and authentic in our webs of budding friendship and collaboration. In recent years, cyberculture studies has grown into a discipline−more properly, an interdiscipline involving sociologists, anthropologists, historians, psychologists, economists, programmers and political scientists. Back when people online argued in 1200 baud text about whether one could properly call what we were doing a form of community, there was no body of empirical evidence to serve as a foundation for scientific argument−all theory was anecdotal. By now, however, there is plenty of data.

One particularly useful affordance of online sociality is that a great deal of public behavior is recorded and structured in a way that makes it suitable for systematic study. One effect of the digital Panopticon is the loss of privacy and the threat of tyrannical social control; another effect is a rich body of data about online behavior. Every one of Wikipedia’s millions of edits, and all the discussion and talk pages associated with those edits, is available for inspection−along with billions of Usenet messages. Patterns are beginning to emerge. We’re beginning to know something about what works and what doesn’t work with people online, and why.

Does knowing something about the way technical architecture influences behavior mean that we can put that knowledge to use? Now that we are beginning to learn a little about the specific sociotechnical affordances of online social networks, is it possible to derive a normative design? How should designers think about the principles of beneficial social software? Can inhumane or dehumanizing effects of digital socializing be mitigated or eliminated by better media design? In what ways does the design of social media enable or prevent heartfelt communitas, organized collective action, social capital, cultural and economic production? I’ve continued to make a direct experience of my life online−from lifelong friends like Joi Ito to the other people around the world I’ve come to know, because online media made it possible to connect with people who shared my interests, even if I had never heard of them before, even if they lived on the other side of the world. But in parallel with my direct experience of the blogosphere, vlogosphere, twitterverse and other realms of digital discourse, I’ve continued to track new research and theory about what cyberculture might mean and the ways in which online communication media influence and are shaped by social forces.

The Values of Volunteers

One of the first questions that arose from my earliest experiences online was the question of why people in online communities should spend so much time answering each other’s questions, solving each other’s problems, without financial compensation. I first encountered Yochai Benkler in pursuit of my curiosity about the reason people would work together with strangers, without pay, to create something nobody owns−free and open source software. First in Coase’s Penguin,[7] and then in The Wealth of Networks,[8] Benkler contributed to important theoretical foundations for a new way of thinking about online activity−”commons based peer production,” technically made possible by a billion PCs and Internet connections−as a new form of organizing economic production, together with the market and the firm. If Benkler is right, the new story about how humans get things done includes an important corollary−if tools like the PC and the Internet make it easy enough, people are willing to work together for non-market incentives to create software, encyclopedias and archives of public domain literature. While the old story[9] is that people are highly unlikely to cooperate with strangers to voluntarily create public goods, the new story seems to be that people will indeed create significant common value voluntarily, if it is easy enough for anybody to add what they want, whenever they want to add it (“self election”). There is plenty of evidence to support the hypothesis that what used to be considered altruism is now a byproduct of daily life online. So much of what we take for granted as part of daily life online, from the BIND software that makes domain names work, to the Apache webserver that powers a sizable chunk of the world’s websites, to the cheap Linux servers that Google stacks into its global datacloud, was created by volunteers who gave their creations away to make possible something larger−the Web as we know it.

To some degree, the explosion of creativity that followed the debut of the Web in 1993 was made possible by deliberate design decisions on the part of the Internet’s architects−the end-to-end principle, built into the TCP/IP protocols that make the Internet possible, which deliberately decentralizes the power to innovate, to build something new and even more powerful on what already exists. Is it possible to understand exactly what it is about the web that makes Wikipedia, Linux, FightAIDS@Home, the Gutenberg Project and Creative Commons possible? And if so, can this theoretical knowledge be put to practical use? I am struck by a phrase of Benkler’s from his essay in this book: “We must now turn our attention to building systems that support human sociality.” That sounds right. But how would it be done? It’s easy to say and not as easy to see the ways in which social codes and power structures mold the design of communication media. We must develop a participative pedagogy, assisted by digital media and networked publics, that focuses on catalyzing, inspiring, nourishing, facilitating, and guiding literacies essential to individual and collective life.

A Participative Pedagogy

To accomplish this attention-turning, we must develop a participative pedagogy, assisted by digital media and networked publics, that focuses on catalyzing, inspiring, nourishing, facilitating, and guiding literacies essential to individual and collective life in the 21st century. Literacies are where the human brain, human sociality and communication technologies meet. We’re accustomed to thinking about the tangible parts of communication media−the devices and networks−but the less visible social practices and social affordances, from the alphabet to TCP/IP, are where human social genius can meet the augmenting power of technological networks. Literacy is the most important method Homo sapiens has used to introduce systems and tools to other humans, to train each other to partake of and contribute to culture, and to humanize the use of instruments that might otherwise enable commodification, mechanization and dehumanization. By literacy, I mean, following on Neil Postman and others, the set of skills that enable individuals to encode and decode knowledge and power via speech, writing, printing and collective action, and which, when learned, introduce the individual to a community. Literacy links technology and sociality. The alphabet did not cause the Roman Empire, but made it possible. Printing did not cause democracy or science, but literate populations, enabled by the printing press, devised systems for citizen governance and collective knowledge creation. The Internet did not cause open source production, Wikipedia or emergent collective responses to natural disasters, but it made it possible for people to act together in new ways, with people they weren’t able to organize action with before, in places and at paces for which collective action had never been possible. Literacies are the prerequisite for the human agency that used alphabets, presses and digital networks to create wealth, alleviate suffering and invent new institutions. If the humans currently alive are to take advantage of digital technologies to address the most severe problems that face our species and the biosphere, computers, telephones and digital networks are not enough. We need new literacies around participatory media, the dynamics of cooperation and collective action, the effective deployment of attention and the relatively rational and critical discourse necessary for a healthy public sphere.

Media Literacies

In Using Participatory Media and Public Voice to Encourage Civic Engagement, I wrote:

If print culture shaped the environment in which the Enlightenment blossomed and set the scene for the Industrial Revolution, participatory media might similarly shape the cognitive and social environments in which twenty first century life will take place (a shift in the way our culture operates). For this reason, participatory media literacy is not another subject to be shoehorned into the curriculum as job training for knowledge workers.

Participatory media include (but aren’t limited to) blogs, wikis, RSS, tagging and social bookmarking, music-photo-video sharing, mashups, podcasts, digital storytelling, virtual communities, social network services, virtual environments, and videoblogs. These distinctly different media share three common, interrelated characteristics:

  • Many-to-many media now make it possible for every person connected to the network to broadcast as well as receive text, images, audio, video, software, data, discussions, transactions, computations, tags, or links to and from every other person. The asymmetry between broadcaster and audience that was dictated by the structure of pre-digital technologies has changed radically. This is a technical- structural characteristic.
  • Participatory media are social media whose value and power derives from the active participation of many people. Value derives not just from the size of the audience, but from their power to link to each other, to form a public as well as a market. This is a psychological and social characteristic.
  • Social networks, when amplified by information and communication networks, enable broader, faster, and lower cost coordination of activities. This is an economic and political characteristic.

Like the early days of print, radio, and television, the present structure of the participatory media regime−the political, economic, social and cultural institutions that constrain and empower the way the new medium can be used, and which impose structures on flows of information and capital−is still unsettled. As legislative and regulatory battles, business competition, and social institutions vie to control the new regime, a potentially decisive and presently unknown variable is the degree and kind of public participation. Because the unique power of the new media regime is precisely its participatory potential, the number of people who participate in using it during its formative years, and the skill with which they attempt to take advantage of this potential, is particularly salient.


Like Yochai Benkler and Henry Jenkins,[11] I believe that a participatory culture in which most of the population see themselves as creators as well as consumers of culture is far more likely to generate freedom and wealth for more people than one in which a small portion of the population produces culture that the majority passively consume. The technological infrastructure for participatory media has grown rapidly, piggybacking on Moore’s Law, globalization, the telecom bubble and the innovations of Swiss physicists and computer science students. Increasingly, access to that infrastructure−the ability to upload a Macaca video or uncover a threat to democracy−has become economically accessible. Literacy−access to the codes and communities of vernacular video, microblogging, social bookmarking, wiki collaboration−is what is required to use that infrastructure to create a participatory culture. A population with broadband infrastructure and ubiquitous computing could be a captive audience for a cultural monopoly, given enough bad laws and judicial rulings. A population that knows what to do with the tools at hand stands a better chance of resisting enclosure. The more people who know how to use participatory media to learn, inform, persuade, investigate, reveal, advocate and organize, the more likely the future infosphere will allow, enable and encourage liberty and participation. Such literacy can only make action possible, however−it is not in the technology, or even in the knowledge of how to use it, but in the ways people use knowledge and technology to create wealth, secure freedom, resist tyranny.

  1. Dunbar, R. I. M. (1993) “Coevolution of neocortical size, group size and language in humans.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 16 (4): 681-735.
  2. Rheingold, Howard. (2000) The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier; cf.
  3. Turner, Fred. (2005) “Where the counterculture met the new economy: the WELL and the origins of virtual community.” Technology and Culture, 46 (3): 485-512.
  4. Burt, Ronald S. (2004) “Structural holes and good ideas.” American Journal of Sociology, 110 ( 2): 349-399.
  5. Gladwell, Malcolm. (2003) The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.
  6. The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (Ed.)
  7. Benkler, Yochai. (2002) “Coase’s Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm.” Yale Law Journal, 112 (3): 369-446.
  8. Benkler, Yochai. (2006) The Wealth of Networks.
  9. cf. Olson, Mancur. (1971) The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups.
  10. Rheingold, Howard. (2007) “Using participatory media and public voice to encourage civic engagement.” The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning: 97-118.
  11. Jenkins, H., Clinton, K., Purushotma, R., Robinson, A. J., & Weigel, M. (2006) Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century.
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