Last night, we talked about encouraging participation on the internet — bringing internet to the people and bringing people to the internet. This comes down to three things:
- the ability to represent your ideas electronically
One’s first internet experience is often a hairy one. There is nothing explaining what you are doing, what you can do, and why you want to be there. Its like being thrown on to a busy city street without a map or any sense of directions or why you might want to be in the city. This puts many people off, particularly those that are already intimidated by the degree of vastness of the technology. One thing that could make this a better experience is having a portal to the internet:
Welcome to the internet!
- what is this all about?
- how the internet works
- places to go, things you can do
- build your own website in five minutes
All of this is easily doable and except for the website builder is mainly about documenting the web in a way that is nurturing to new members.
People really want to be involved and the web gives the a way of doing so that is more democratizing than traditional media. I can be myself. I can express my views in a way where I am judged more by the content of what I have to say than by my social standing, geographic location, or other prejudicing factors. The internet gives the opportunity for anyone that can send and receive packets to participate. Encouragement from peers online not only gives meaning to participation there, it also encourages one to expands one off-the-web activities that are reinforced by online communities.
There are factors that discourage participation, however. The commercialization of the web has given rise to an unfriendly experience. myspace fell apart because it went commercial, prostituting itself to the likes of Rupert Murdoch. Facebook is getting there as the struggle to turn a successful and well-thought out webspace into a money-making device. Part of the problem is funding. If I have an awesome idea for a website, as a technologist it is fairly easy to write it and put it on the web from my home. If all of the sudden I have many users and want to make my home-brew application world-class, it is doubtful many people will give me money just because it is cool. While the internet is largely public property, it is heavily dependent on private funders, most of which want to make a buck at the end of the day.
Another barrier to web participation is the intimidation of technology. Computers and the internet are complicated. Few understand the whole process from the fabrication of chips to how data is transmitted via TCP and picked up by one’s browser and turned into pretty web pages. But this is a psychological barrier, as this understanding isn’t necessary. Few understand magnetrons, but people use microwaves without thinking about them. Because the computer world was the exclusive domain of nerds and geeks (myself included) for so long, there is this intimidation of being web-savvy enough. Many people would rather not try instead of facing the fear that one isn’t as web-savvy as one’s neighbor. But look at books. There are utter book snobs, but this doesn’t stop millions of people from reading for pleasure. The same should be true of the internet. As a technologist serving the public, it is my responsibility to give people the tools they need to interact in a meaningful way. When you ask people “do you have a website?”, many of them look at you like “wow, I can’t build a website”. But they can. And its easy. And people should know this.
Computers have become this phenomenon where polish is more important than content. I blame microsoft for this, like so many things. Make things glitzy and people won’t notice or mind that the underlying implementation is buggy or that the underlying idea is simple. But people do notice. And care. Maybe they can’t put their fingers on why. Glitzy-net is bad for bandwidth and makes the web exclusive to broadband consumers. There should be options for people of lower bandwidth. With mobile devices, the revolution has begun.
The education system has also worked against teaching technological literacy. When I was in school, I was not allowed to turn in typed papers. Using computers was cheating. Only recently did it become respectable to reference URLs in papers. Traditional media was key…better, even, than electronic media. CNN still says so with the presidential debates so it must be true. This idea needs to be broken down, just like it was with film, radio, and whenever a new form of communication has risen to popularity. Media should be integrated. You read Huck Finn and then go online to find out about what was going on on the contemporary Mississippi. There is also the fear that exposing children to the internet is dangerous. I’ll be the first to admit that searching for about anything can turn up porn. But this just means children should be cared for when on the internet, and it also means that we as a society need to reassess what is okay for children to be exposed to. In my experience, trying to shelter children too much just leads to zealous overexposure when they go off into the real world. There are things on this planet both wonderous and terrible and children should be prepared for them.
None of this is say that everyone should (or could) participate on the internet in the same way. On person might have a great idea for a website and want to make it happen. Other people might just want to consume web. They should feel empowered to build websites if they should want or need to do so. What I’m advocating here is web literacy.
People may also want or need their information in a particular way. I might want to (or need to, for bandwidth constraints) participate in a community via email. Another person might want to go to a site with a bunch of AJAX and fancy graphics but participate in the same forum. In many developing countries, cell phones are the only internet access available, and participation through these should be encouraged by distilling the information down to what is need and can be meaningfully interacted with via a mobile device, and not just by citizens of their countries but the world at large. Information is information. Interacting with it should be flexible.
Participation comes from the meaningful meshing of infrastructure and social structure.