[Repost] Transliteracy: techniques for navigating and understanding user-generated content

The growth and diversity of media and those using them to disseminate their point of view has, in that process, required the development of new literacies for information consumption, gathering and production. Some of the resulting practices have been instrumentally driven, i.e. they have been led by particular tools (such as RSS and Bloglines/Google Reader). However, and perhaps more interestingly, with the growth in the production and availability of ‘content’ the spectre of ‘information overload’, or as Richard Saul Wurman calls it ‘information anxiety‘, new strategies for engaging meaningfully with the glut have been developed. At a level slighlty abstract from such strategies we might identify new forms of literacy. The transliteracy research group have usefully described this as:

‘the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks.’

On a practical front, Howard Rheingold (author and veteran exlporer of our evolving engagement with digital media) has recently outlined some of the key skills that might make up such a ‘transliteracy’. ‘Skills’, Howard suggests, are not enough – they are the basis of a form of literacy that requires community. Just as the philosopher Bernard Steigler suggests that culture required the technical understanding of creating material traces, such as cuniform marks in clay tablets or heiroglyphs carved in stone and indeed unicode characters stored in magnetic storage media, material memory is constructed between people, it is a form of being in common. Literacy is therefore crucial to navigating new forms of cultural production, new forms of enscribing memory. There are, for Howard, five key literacies identified by Howard that aglomerate into the above notion of transliteracy, these are: attention, participation, cooperation, network awareness and critical consumption (or ‘crap detection’ as I explore it below). The fluency required isn’t one particular literacy but in the ability to put these together, to be ‘transliterate’. Central to this, given a global internet, is the need for an ability to determine the credibility of information derived from an increasing variety of ambiguous sources online. This is exemplified by one of Howard’s favourite quotes, from Ernest Hemingway: “Every man [sic.] should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him.” Howard goes on to expertly describe what is at stake:

Materializing answers from the air turns out to be the easy part – the part a machine can do. The real difficulty kicks in when you click down into your search results. At that point, it’s up to you to sort the accurate bits from the misinfo, disinfo, spam, scams, urban legends, and hoaxes. “Crap detection,” as Hemingway called it half a century ago, is more important than ever before, now that the automation of crapcasting has generated its own word: “spamming.” [Howard Rheingold, ‘Crap detection 101‘]

The strategy Howard espouses boils down to what I recall Prof. Malcolm Miles once described in a lecture as the three part rule of academic scrutiny, which equally applies to other forms of enquiry – ask yourself:

  • Who says?
  • How do they know?
  • So what? / Why should we trust them?

Howard describes this, following Hemmingway, as ‘crap detection’, the internal filters we (should) apply to all sources of information that we use. The example of the varying degrees of quality in information around child safety and the internet or video games that have been diseminated and perpetuated through electronic media demonstrate the need not only for scholars to operate a crap detection filter but also carers, parents, journalists, educators – everyone. A good five minute example of ‘crap detecting’ can be found in one of Howard Rheingold’s recent videos: 5 minute example of crap detection online.

Yet the volume of the data remains an issue and that ‘materialisation of answers out of thin air’ Howard describes requires an increasing amount of resources to manage and mitigate. Again, Rheingold provides some useful resources. In a series of three fantastically straighforward videos [see below] he takes us through an assemblage of tools that can facilitate our means of identifying, filtering and ordering the deluge of data into a more manageable information stream. Following the example of some people in the know over at super-blog ReadWriteWeb, Howard describes a suite of ‘dashboards’, ‘radars’, and ‘filters’, which are, in turn, websites and we services that allow the aggregation of information streams (for example RSS feeds), individual feeds and streams from different sources, and web services that allow you to filter those streams for specific content.

Under the moniker ‘infotention’, as in the attention to information, Howard Rheingold’s three recent videos outlining how to construct your own dashboards, radars and filters prove to be essential information on developing the tools and techniques relevant to furthering personal transliteracy. A core technology/technique to this literacy is RSS (or Really Simple Syndication), a markup language for describing information feeds to which users can subscribe, as well as aggregate and filter those feeds for their own purposes. Using systems such as Netvibes (or Bloglines), to aggregate and organise information streams can be supplemented and further filtered through web services such as Yahoo Pipes and PostRank.

The videos can speak for themselves and I encourage you to watch them, see below, but I’d like to end this blog entry with a quote from Howard’s first video to highlight the importance of understanding these literacies and as an opening ambit in suggesting the importance of studying participatory media and user-generated content (one of DCRC’s key themes):

“Dealing with information overload requires more than one literacy. We must all balance the need to shut ourselves off from the overwhelming influx of media with the need to stay alert to information that is specifically and immediately useful to us. Its not just a mtter of knowing how to block out information, the important parts is learning what information to let in, how to find it, how to arrange for it to come to you when it is updated, and how to filter it. Each of these ‘how-tos’ involve both mental skills and technical know-how [technicity]. increasingly, as we turn to social media to augment our individual ability to filter and find knowledge, the finding and filtering includes a social component, in addition to personal thinking skills such as knowing how to ask the right questions and digital media know-how, such as the first steps of advanced search techniques or RSS feeds for persistent searches. In this way, the literacy of finding information is most closely connected to the literacy of crap detection, but also to participation, collaboration, attention and network savvy.” Howard Rheingold – Infotention Part One

Howard Rheingold – Infotention Part One: Dasboards, Radars, Filters

Howard Rheingold – Infotention Part Two: Buidling Information Dashboards

Howard Rheingold – Infotention Part Three: Building Information Dashboards, Radars and Filters

This article was originally posted on the Digital Cultures Research Centre blog on 20/04/10.

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