Book review – Net Smart – by Howard Rheingold

This is a long overdue review of Net Smart – by Howard Rheingold

It took me a long time to review it because I read this book a few times over as a reference book.

Net Smart is an ambitious attempt – even by Howard’s standards ..

A while ago, I had a conversation with a friend who jokingly asked: “Who backs up the Web?” Treating the Web as an ‘IT system’, this led to a discussion about “Should there a manual / handbook for the Web?”

Of course, it is a flawed analogy to compare IT systems to the Web – but I have since been intrigued by the question:  If anyone were to ever write a ‘handbook/manual’ for the Web, what would it look like?

I think – Net Smart would come closest to such a handbook – if we were to ever have one.

Not from a technical sense but from a sociological sense – from the standpoint of using the Social Web and teaching our kids about the fundamental skill of engaging with cyberspace and ‘how to thrive online’

The book is about – How to use social media intelligently, humanely and mindfully.

It is an optimistic book and it makes a welcome change from the scaremongering of Nicolas Carr and Susan Greenfield.

Howard sees the ability to engage with cyberculture as a core skill – much like driving a car for the current generation and he proposes that it is not an automatic skill

While we all engage with social media in one way or the other, it is a skill that can be improved.

Further, he sees a time lag between the technology and the social revolution (ex: there was a time lag between print and the social impact due to widespread availability of books).

In that sense, we are living ‘in the time lag’ and the changes that are happening around us will be apparent only in retrospect.

Howard believes that the skill of digital literacy can make a difference between being empowered or manipulated – being serene or being frantic. Furthermore, he sees competency in engaging with cyberspace as a two-fold skill – i.e. the technical competency of using the tools and also the social interaction of engaging with others.

Howard classifies these skills into five competencies: Attention, Participation, Collaboration, Critical consumption of information (crap detection) and network smarts. Attention is a core skill on the web and critical evaluation of information is the key to the future of the Web itself as an information source.

The ability to engage with social media is a key skill for the evolution of humanity itself

How crucial is this skill to humanity?

There is a very insightful statement from Howard early on in the book which says that if he were to reduce the essence of homo-sapiens in one sentence it would be “People create new ways to communicate, then use their new media to complicated things together”

Thus this book looks at both the past and the future – based on Howard’s history of understanding social media and virtual communities – long before these terms were understood.

Anything I could suggest to improve the book?

Regular readers of Howard’s books – of which I am one – would find this book written in a different style. It’s much more longer – probably because of it’s sheer scope and ambition. But there are many excellent reviews of this book and also interviews on the Web ex – this interview of Howard Rheingold by Prof Henry Jenkins about Net Smart which help to navigate the detail.

From an OpenGardens perspective, I found the comparison with videotext very insightful. In the early days, the old media companies invested heavily in the videotext systems but as the book says “Billions of dollars were spent on videotext experiments but none of them included ways for the medium’s users to communicate with – much less create content – for each other”

This is an optimistic book and very much resonates with my views

Like many people who use the Web extensively, I am always looking to optimise my time on the Web – and the book thus has a direct payoff.

All in all, a must read book – with an ambitious goal. The book page is Net Smart – by Howard Rheingold The amazon link is  Net Smart: How to Thrive Online By Howard Rheingold

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