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Building civil spaces online: Howard Rheingold

By May 4, 2012No Comments

Howard Rheingold by Joi on Flickr - reproduced on a Creative Commons licence. Click the picture to see Joi's photostream

Last week I listened to a webinar interview with Howard Rheingold by the Pillar Summit’s Richard Millington.

If I was working for a newspaper I’d probably call Howard a web guru – or an elder statesman of the Internet, or hang my reverence on some other cliché. But, after listening to him speak for an hour about online communities and communication, it might be simpler and more revealing to say that he’s someone who understands life online, because he’s been living it for longer.

At a time when the world remained largely unaware of the Internet, Howard was already an avid user of the WELL – and in 1985 he wrote Virtual Communities, the book he’s perhaps best known for. He’s now promoting a new publication, Net Smart, that’s the continuation of a near-30-year exploration of how we live online.

Online living
Perhaps, then, it isn’t surprising that the first portion of the interview dealt with the value of online relationships, which have been under attack recently, in part thanks to Sherry Turkle’s opinion piece in the New York Times. The MIT-based psychologist fears that we’re overlooking ‘messy’ offline relationships in preference for an always-connected virtual world where we can pick and choose our encounters. This, Turkle believes, is to our detriment…

“Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference,” she says.

Rheingold, in contrast, is more worried that the media dwell on the negative aspects of technology, obscuring the overwhelmingly positive impact it has had on our lives. He stresses that he’s not a web evangelist, so much as someone who accepts the good and bad in online behaviour; technology, he says, doesn’t change behaviour, it facilitates it.

Where he is bullish, however, is in asserting that online relationships needn’t be of less value than those established ‘offline’. “If you think that using digital media are making you shallow why not learn to swim in the deep end of the pool?” he asks, pointing out that what might be missing in our understanding of these relationships is a recognition of the learning we need to do to operate effectively within them.

One example, he says, is in online behaviour: “We need to teach the importance of being civil online,” he argues. Where face-to-face communication is as much about the nuance of gestures and expressions as it is about the words that are used, most online communication is reliant on what is written down. Without making a more concerted effort to understand online communication – and allow for this – we will fail to make best use of these spaces in the future.

So how can we build civil online spaces? He says this is about signposting the kinds of behaviour that will be acceptable within an online space in order to attract users who will subscribe to these values. “You should have a few simple rules,” which might include: “Respect intellectual property” and “attack ideas, do not attack people”.

“Build it and they won’t come”
But Howard thinks getting people to play by the rules is less of a challenge than attracting them in the first place. He says that while it’s now easy to find people who share your interests online – they don’t necessarily need your community. You need to be original and have a clear idea of the people who are going to join and participate. And you can’t sit back and expect a community to flourish: “If you want to build a critical mass of participation you have to pay a lot of attention,” he says. “You have to participate.”

For Howard, attracting users is a numbers game – in which you can expect only a fraction of those to whom you promote your community to join. And getting them there is only half the battle. “It’s simply a ratio of 80-20,” he says. Most people (80%) will not take part, while the 20% who do will (or should) talk a lot. “You need to have people who are willing to engage. No conversation, no community,” he says.

The pay-off
And, of course, community is what it is all about. Returning to the subject of the benefits of life online, Howard talks about the ‘norms of reciprocity’, the expectation that people will respond in kind to offers of help or, indeed, harm.

He says: “If you put in effort – to put in something – you are going to get 10 things back [online]”. And has been astonished how this “pay it forward” philosophy has worked online – with people prepared to help folk that they have never met.

Howard says…
These are some of the other points that Howard made during the interview…

  • Most online communities fail: You need to identify what it is that people can get from each other that they are not going to get from their own blogs – ther is no guarantee that that is going to exist, he says.
  • With two billion people online, remember that one in a million is 2,000 people. In other words, with such large numbers of people online, even small niche communities can thrive.
  • Spending time online does not lead to social isolation. People who spend more time talking online to each also tend to spend more time talking to people face to face, Howard said.
  • Dunbar’s number doesn’t mean that online relationships have to be shallow: Howard talked about how social networking gives people the opportunity to develop ‘weak ties’ – and therefore suggested Dunbar’s number is therefore not hard and fast. Furthermore, he challenged the notion that this 150 limit applies naturally online.

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