Howard Rheingold's Crap Detection 101 (Review)

By Rich Rosen
January 20, 2011

O'Reilly is offering a series of videos from internet pioneer Howard Rheingold on how people can determine for themselves whether the information they come across on the web is useful, valid, legitimate, or... just plain crap. Because there's a lot of crap out there.

Howard Rheingold has a reputation in the online world for spreading dis-misinformation. Not misinformation, not disinformation, but dis-misinformation. By which I mean he strives to provide reliable sources of knowledge about how things work out in the tubes of the Interweb, correcting misguided impressions people may have about online sources of information ("my aunt got an email from Bill Gates so I know this must be real!") and not only pointing people to the reliable sources of information online, but also demonstrating how one can figure out which are the reliable and not-so-reliable sources of information. He is the sworn enemy of online bullsh*t artists: the scammers, the spammers, the phishers, the deliberate obfucsators of truth. You might say his motto is "Do an online search for someone to get them the information they want, and you've helped them for a day. Show them how to find what they're looking for themselves, and determine for themselves whether or not the results are valid, and you've helped them for a lifetime."

Rheingold has been doing this for a number of years now. An article he wrote back in the late 1980s, A Slice of Life in My Virtual Community, made its way into a number of texts, including The Big Dummy's Guide to the Internet, in its day one of the best sources for learning how the Internet worked. (He also mentioned me by name in this article, citing "Rich Rosen" as a name one might include in a kill file... but let's not go there right now. :-) ) Since then, he has specialized in documenting what life online is like, in particular focusing on how one can separate the wheat from the chaff. This work is summarized in a great set of videos entitled Crap Detection 101: How to Distinguish Good and Bad Information Online.

I say "summarized" but that's almost an inappropriate word. Rheingold covers the gamut of things one needs to know to navigate the online world safely and sanely, knowing what's crap and what's not. He lucidly explains how one can and should be an online detective, examining who the originating sources of online material might be before accepting them as "true". He educates viewers about how they can determine through investigation whether something they read online is true, an urban legend, a hoax, or an outright scam. He advocates for aggregation of information, suggesting that alternative sources of news are useful in combination with traditional media to get a genuinely accurate picture of events in the overall. He covers the limits associated with commonly referenced online sources like Wikipedia and Snopes. Most of all, he promotes the idea that we need to learn the craft of critical thinking to better distinguish what is true from what is merely "truthy."

Rheingold explains how both younger people and older people are especially vulnerable to online efforts to deceive and mislead. But he acknowledges that we all need this sort of education in order to survive in the world of the Internet - not just kids, and not just seniors, but the rest of us too. The only problem I have with this set of videos is... there is just so much information to assimilate. It would almost take my starting out as a teenager and ending up as a senior citizen to get through everything he has to say here! But believe me, everything he says is worth assimilating.

One could see the utility in a twitter feed that posts a single suggestion from Rheingold's repertoire each day... just a thought... :-)

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