Network Literacy: The New Path to Knowledge

Original Citation:
Miles, Adrian. “Network Literacy: The New Path to Knowledge.” Screen Education Autumn.45 (2007): 24-30.
Network Literacy: The New Path to Knowledge

NETWORK LITERACIES

Think of a student who enters the school library seeking a book. They first consult the catalogue, searching by author name and title, but have no luck. Next they ask help from the librarian, who confirms that the book isn’t there, but can help the student find other, related material using a subject search. As a result our student is now armed with a Call number and while locating the book on the shelf finds two other useful titles nearby. She takes all three books to the counter, “borrows” them and that evening at home opens the first. She notes the title of the book, publication details, and the editors name. Perusing the table of contents she finds the two chapters she believes relevant and marks their pages in the book with some paper bookmarks. Later, after she’s done some reading she’ll copy direct quotes into her workbook, being careful to note what page each quote comes from.

The above example describes print literacy. Not the print literacy that is ordinarily described as literacy in general (reading and writing) but a literacy that expresses a much deeper understanding of the implications of what it means to be a participant, even a peer, within a print defined and governed information economy. If we pause and consider the literacies that our student has in the above example we can begin to see what these look like, allow, and how deeply ingrained they are. We can then use a similar approach to think about just what a ‘network’ literacy (or literacies) might be, require, and allow.

BOOK KNOWLEDGE

The most obvious, and important, point to make is that our student (we’d better give her a name — “Penny” ) knew that she’d need some books to do her work. She knew that a book was a particular sort of object, and that in her case she needed a non fiction title. Penny also knew that there was a special room (or building) in her school where these books were collected, arranged and maintained, and that she had quite specific privileges and rights in relation to these books. These rights included being able to ‘borrow’ them (an increasingly quaint notion in an age of infinite and near zero cost digital reproduction), not writing on them, and also returning them within a specific and institutionally defined period of time. Furthermore, Penny knew that to find any particular book in such a place you would need to use a catalogue which provides an index to every object in the library (we won’t worry whether Penny’s ever had to deal with a card catalogue and just assume its always been electronic) and allows subject searching, Boolean searches (this “and” this but “not” that), and whether the book is available or not.

Not having any success, Penny also knows that there are people in the library, known as librarians, who can not only help her find a book, but also have expertise in how to find related information from a variety of locations. She knows she can ask for this help, and that they can show her how to find these things, and how to even get them from other libraries. After locating a likely candidate, she also more or less understands that they are serially organised on shelves according to Call numbers (the mysteries of which she probably leaves to the librarians, but being bright Penny does realise that books about similar topics tend to live together, unlike her Dad’s music collection which is organised alphabetically by performer, or her own CD collection which is organised by colour), and that is how you locate the specific title.

Once home with her books the technology of the book (as thus far all that we’ve described are the technologies that support the housing of books) is transparent to her. For example, that they have authors, or in this particular case an editor, and therefore contains sections written by individual authors. She will assume (largely unconsciously) that the text will be arranged from left to right, top to bottom, because it uses a Latinate language, and that the pages will be serially numbered, chapters will have headings, that the small writing at the top and/or bottom of each page (the header and footer) do not need to be read, but are sometimes useful — particularly the page numbers. Since it is a non fiction title, the book will probably have three major ways of ‘navigation’; sequential page numbers, a table of contents, and in some cases an index which provides the nearest thing to random access that print can provide. She also quite reasonably expects the material to be linear, sequential and complete. It will have a beginning, middle and an end.

Finally, she knows that she can quote from this text, simply by repeating the words in identical order (though intriguingly line breaks, leading, font and colour are regarded as irrelevant except in unusual cases) and that there are formal ways to declare this in her own writing and to document what other books have been used in the production of her own work.

This is the culture of print, and is what constitutes print literacy. All of this implicit knowledge is deeply embedded through many years of teaching and learning, and grounds the ideology of what it means to be print literate. These skills, which extend way beyond simply being able to read and write, have provided the basis of education for several centuries, and have been instrumental in the rise of the essay, journal, and book as the major forms for the expression of knowledge in the humanities. (The case is, interestingly, slightly different in the sciences and the design disciplines, in each of these there is a substantive experimental practice which is often considered primary — an applied and explicit heuristic of doing and making that is then reflected upon in writing so that writing is regarded as primarily documentation.) Forms such as the book and the essay are the activities that for many of us translate information into knowledge, and have been maintained as the key ‘forms’ or ‘containers’ for knowledge and its expression. However, with the rise of the Internet, and more recently the establishment of a robust framework for the exchange of information between online services, it is now clear that knowledge is being expressed and distributed in new forms, and the participation within these new economies is the realm of network literacy.

NETWORK LITERACY

To be network literate is not the same as, or at least not equal to, being computer literate — in the same way that we can see that being print literate implies considerably more than just being able to read and write. Network literacy is, in a nutshell, being able to participate as a peer within the emerging knowledge networks that are now the product of the Internet, and to have as ‘deep’ an understanding of the logics or protocols of these networks as we do of print. This does not mean that you need to understand the intricacies of programming and other computer miscellanea (that would be like needing to know the intimate language and history of typography in order to read and write) but that an understanding of some general principals about the properties and qualities of these networks will allow you to successfully use them (for example knowing that there are typefaces and fonts).

The most basic quality of network literacy is recognising that content and its containers, whether web pages, blog posts, photos, video or any other media type, are distributed across the network, and that we weave these together very easily using simple protocols that were developed to allow ‘inter’ and ‘intra’ communication between different sorts of internet services. The paradigmatic shift that this represents in relation to what I have described as book knowledge is twofold. The first is that the parts remain as parts at all times, so it is not simply the ‘cut and paste’ operation that is the basis of earlier digital practices. The second is that in contributing my content to these services others have access to my material (if I desire), in the same way that I have access to theirs. Through such sharing the distinction between consuming and creating content dissolves so unlike books in network literacy we become peers in the system, and indeed to be ‘good’ at network literacies is to contribute as much as it is to consume.

In practice, this means that I might read something online that is relevant to my teaching. I will write about this in my blog, providing a link to this content. I will also bookmark this site via my del.icio.us account so that I can find it again and so that others may also find it. Meanwhile, I’ve also added some academic references to CiteULike, and I know my students and others can get this information because each service provides custom RSS feeds that can be subscribed to. Next, I move two photographs from my mobile phone to Flickr, one of which I’ll be publishing into my blog and the other will be shared with some colleagues for a paper we’re writing together. The video of my baby will also move from my phone to be published via YouTube into my blog. I’ll then update all the RSS feeds I subscribe to, paying particular attention to any new references from CiteULike and adding any relevant essays found to my library from relevant journal archives. I skim all of my student’s blogs and reblog relevant research posts so that all of these are collected into one location for these students (and others) to use in their research projects.

This is not an imaginary description of what my academic work day might look like in a few years, it is my usual working day now. While it is easy to read the above description as little more than an odd geek patois (which it can so easily and often become), it is useful to keep in mind that what I described above is no more complex than what “Penny” did in using the library and its books, and is clearly a key mode of intellectual activity online. This is the nitty gritty of being a creative knowledge worker, a member of what Mackenzie Wark describes as the new ‘hacker class’, and forms network literacy.

SHARING AND NAMING: RSS AND TAGS

However, let us step away a little from this detail to gain some perspective. The key qualities that we need to keep in mind around network literacy is that different services or web sites (for example a blog, flickr and CiteULike) are all able to communicate with each other. This is managed (and the development of this is perhaps the most underrated achievement of the recent Internet) through a virtual Esperanto which usually goes by the names of XML and RSS. Google these if you’d like to find out more, but essentially XML is a way to standardise the publication of information so that it can be shared, while RSS is a simple syndication system based on XML that allows for the exchange of this information between different services. Hence, Internet services and their content now chat amongst themselves, and this lets us, the users, easily place content in disparate locations and just as easily weave them together as new ‘publications’ in other locations.

Now, why would you store things in different places? One answer is because we use a range of services and each of these is, usually, an independent Web site. Each service generally specialises in one thing (for example flickr manages photographs) and to ‘write’ with these you generally register an account on each service (one aspect of being network literate is learning to have a username for yourself that is only yours so that you only need to remember one for all the different services you may end up registering for!) and this lets you contribute your material. For example, I have an account on CiteULike so that I can add entries to my online academic library. I, and any one else, can view these entries and if they find a reference I have added then they can also include this into their own library. Of course, as an active member of CiteULike I can also view others references and similarly include these as part of my own library. In the case of CiteULike I can then very easily build a collection of resources, all appropriately cited. I can then use such a site for research to find references I don’t know about, or to easily compile an ongoing bibliography that my peers and students can access and use. Now each of the services I mentioned above work the same way, hence I have a flickr account (for photo sharing) and a del.icio.us account (for sharing web bookmarks), and each allows me to contribute my own content, while also viewing others and being able to add other’s content to my own collections. Such services are generically described as social software, and they earn this title because they are designed to facilitate the collecting and sharing of information between otherwise disparate individuals or groups.

Now such a sea of information begs the question of how I might find anything of value, particularly given the enormous amounts of material being added daily. This is where tags have become very useful. A tag is a keyword that I can apply to anything in any of these social software systems. Unlike the taxonomic classification used in libraries, museums or even in biological speciation (where the keywords applied are usually limited to an already known and agreed upon set), tags are defined by end users. Hence, in CiteULike a user may have added a book that I want to add to my library, but they have tagged it as “computer-science”, however in my universe that book is actually of interest to me as “hypertext-theory” and so when I add it to my library I can then add my individual tag to it. This makes it easy for me to catalogue or categorise my own content (remember all of these systems provide these tagging abilities) but also to search others’ content on the basis of their tags. This use of tags by individuals is described as a folksonomy, and the categories they form, and their relations, are described as tag clouds. Of course, because we all tag things differently there is a lack of consistency, but on the other hand there are a sufficient number of users in these systems that their scale tends to make this a moot point, and in many ways this informal tagging adds value to the knowledge ‘networks’ that such tags form.

WEAVING IT TOGETHER

Each of these web services provide the ability to subscribe to content via RSS, which is commonly known as a RSS feed. This is syndicated, time sensitive, information that can be automatically published to you — if you have chosen to subscribe to it. Now, the elegant part of this is that in all environments that utilise tagging you can subscribe to an individual’s account (for example my CiteULike account) or to individual tags. If you subscribed to the RSS feed from my account in CiteULike then any time I add a new reference to CiteULike it will appear in your subscription via the RSS feed. If you subscribe to a RSS feed for a specific tag (think of it as a user defined topic), then whenever anybody added a reference with that tag to CiteULike it would appear in your feed. To stick with our CiteULike example, if I subscribe to the tag “hypertext-theory” I would get new references whenever any other user on CiteULike adds a new reference and chooses to apply that tag. Similarly, if my students subscribe to my course specific tag in CiteULike then each new reference I add that includes that tag will also be automatically delivered to them via their individual RSS subscriptions.

Now there are lots of ways to subscribe to and read RSS and it is much like reading email. There are web based services that do it, and there are programs (called RSS clients) that you can run on your own computer. Some are free and others are commercial software. The advantage of using RSS is that you can subscribe to a range of sites and information resources and this information, collected or made by other people, is then bought to you, allowing you to skim, bookmark (perhaps via your own del.icio.us account) and note what is of value.

This largely describes the current architecture that is driving knowledge production and distribution online. It relies on what are describe as ‘trust networks’, since you subscribe to sources that you regard as valid or legitimate. Content is distributed as the parts are scattered through the network, and since it is made up of small parts you can then easily rearrange and rebuild with them (it is a sort of Lego type of architecture). This is, currently, often the role of a blog, which is not only where you make personal and reflective observations but usually actively incorporate what you find out there on the net. This is also why a blog remains one of the single best mechanisms by which to teach network literacies. For example, from my blog there are links to my del.icio.us, CiteULike and flickr accounts, and I easily include parts of each of these services into my blog, depending on what I wish to do. For example, from within flickr I can choose to post an individual photo into my blog so that it will appear in my blog as a post, with accompanying text. Or, I might like to include my most recent flickr contributions as a sidebar within my blog where it automatically includes my most recent photos — again easily managed. Similarly, I can include other RSS feeds in my blog, whether as posts, an individual category, or as a collection that can be accessed via a mouse click.

And there’s the rub. Network literacy is not merely knowing about this, it is doing it. It is in this doing that we can understand that literacy is an applied knowing, or if you prefer a knowing through doing. And this literacy does include knowing a little bit of web code so that you know where to put the snippet of code that flickr automatically writes for you into your blog. It is knowing enough HTML to be able to easily write a link to somewhere else, for without links none of this is at all possible. It is being comfortable with change and flow as the day to day conditions of knowledge production and dissemination, and recognising that all of this may change, and appear differently in six months. What underlies such change, however, are the principles of distributed content production and sharing, folksonomies, trust networks and having access to skills that let you collate and build with these varieties of content and knowledge. While Flickr or any other service may be eclipsed by something else (just as text books change over time) these principles survive. Such skills require a simple understanding of the basics of HTML, and more than a passing understanding of the distributed, emergent and personally defined content driven infrastructure that has always underwritten the Internet. Network literacy means recognising that there are no longer canonical sources and having the skills to find what it is you think you want, of being able to judge it, and then of being able to incorporate this, in turn, into your knowledge flows. Finally, networked literacies are marked by your participation as a peer in these flows and networks — you contribute to them and in turn can share what others provide.

What is important to remember in this is that what is being described applies across a very wide range of services and is not specific to only those I have named. These are general features of Internet based services today, and all offer RSS and forms of sharing and collaborating. Having an understanding of the basics of these protocols then allows you to participate within contemporary networks as a contributor and a consumer — what Axel Bruns has described as a produser. This is half of what it means to be network literate, for all that I have written about is intended to help map the underlying material forms that network literacy are grounded within. To return to our earlier examples of ‘book knowledge’ this preliminary half of network literacy is analogous to understanding the relationship of pen to paper as an enabling technology that supports particular sorts of media and genres. What we then do with these things is deeply enabled by these material possibilities — they make some things easier than others, suggest some possibilities rather than others — and by ‘naturalising’ or ‘internalising’ these properties literacy becomes embedded in day to day practice. Jill Walker has defined network literacy as:

Network literacy means linking to what other people have written and inviting comments from others, it means understanding a kind of writing that is a social, collaborative process rather than an act of an individual in solitary. It means learning how to write with an awareness that anyone may read it: your mother, a future employer or the person whose work you’re writing about. Yes, it’s difficult.

And this forms the subject of part two of this essay, where we provide a teachers guide to integrating network literacies into teaching, considering what it might mean to represent yourself in this network as a participant and a contributor.

Bruns, Axel. “Produsers and Produsage.” Snurblog. 25th March, 2006. http://snurb.info/produsage (accessed December 4, 2006).

Walker, Jill. “Weblogs: Learning in Public.” On the Horizon 13.2 (2005): 112-18.

Wark, McKenzie. A Hacker Manifesto. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2004.

GLOSSARY

CiteULike. http://www.citeulike.org
This is a free web based service that allows users to compile, maintain and publish academic bibliographies. You apply tags to each item to catalogue them.
Flickr. http://www.flickr.com
This is a free and commercial web based service that allows users to upload their own photos. You can form collections (‘sets’) of your own photos, and generate web based slide shows. Tags allow you to catalogue your photos.
Delicious. http://del.icio.us
A free bookmarking web site. Here you can maintain your collection of bookmarks, applying tags to each bookmark to help you categorise (and retrieve) them.
RSS.
Really Simply Syndication. A way for different web services (eg flickr) to send information to people or other web services. Generally individuals subscribe to a specific RSS ‘feed’ and this collates for them the information that is published from a web service. For example a blog may have a RSS feed which automatically syndicates recent entries. By using RSS a user can easily collate a wide range or material (for example from many blogs) without having to visit each blog on the chance that it may have published new material. For web services that use tags, there is usually an individual RSS feed for each user, and each tag.

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video blogging, et al.