Keeping it real about virtual living

Online veteran Howard Rheingold scopes out Second Life and "the Darwinian nature of the Internet."

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read
Among those who study and write about online communities, few people are as well-regarded as Howard Rheingold.

The author of 2002's Smart Mobs, which opened up a global conversation about how technology can augment or foster collective action or intelligence, Rheingold has become a frequent speaker at tech conferences such as ETech and NetSquared and consults with organizations like The Institute for the Future.

Rheingold was the founding executive editor of HotWired, an editor of the Whole Earth Review and now writes, lectures and teaches at universities in the United States and England.

He frequently speaks on the subject of online communities and the ways that people can benefit, both financially and culturally, by building such communities.

Recently, Rheingold stopped by CNET's Second Life bureau for a conversation in the crowded theater there. He talked about his current work, his teaching, his thoughts on the future of online communities and much more.

Q: To start, how do spend your time these days?
Howard Rheingold: I hang out online, a lot. One thing that most people don't notice is that nine months of the year, when I am hanging out online, I am also barefoot in my garden. About 20 years ago, I wrote "A slice of life in my virtual community," and I have been working on updating that. So I am climbing the learning curve and putting together a video. I e-mail, IM, the usual. I also have about 100 feeds in my RSS reader. I maintain three blogs, a couple wikis, and I stash URLs in Delicious. I still hang out in virtual communities, and after teaching myself video, the next on my list is learning my way around Second Life. And now I teach one day a week. Fall at UC Berkeley, winter at Stanford. I do a week as a visiting lecturer in the UK in the fall. And I pay my rent mostly through speaking gigs.
As far as I am concerned, tens of thousands of people who are actively creating new stuff are more interesting than millions of more passive participants.

What are you teaching?
Rheingold: Participatory Media/Collective Action at the UC School of Information -- Smart Mobs 101. And Digital Journalism at Stanford. It's an expensive hobby--professors don't get paid too well--but it's really a thrill, and scary. It's easy to give one of three talks to different audiences around the world. It's another thing to walk into a room full of students weekly who have paid good money and expect me to teach them something. And with Wi-Fi in the classroom, I have to be more interesting than Facebook, Second Life, World of Warcraft and IM at all times. But we use wikis and blogs a lot in class, and I try to make it as participatory as possible.

You mentioned that you're spending a lot of time online. What is interesting you the most?
Rheingold: I guess I'm an information junkie, so of course I have to feed on RSS for an hour every morning. And I wander wherever the links lead, stashing useful stuff in wikis and Delicious along the way. It's all pretty unstructured. Right now, the most exciting and frustrating part is video. My instincts tell me that it's the new vernacular and I better figure out how to get in on it. Like most everybody, I probably get three video links in the mail every morning, and that just leads to more browsing. So I figured that if I want to update my article, I should show and not just tell, so I want to combine video of me in my office and garden with screenshots that show exactly what I do every day.

Have you followed the controversy over the size of the Second Life population? Does it matter? How large does an online community need to be to matter?
Rheingold: I did follow that, and I've commented on (writer and New York University professor) Clay (Shirky's) blog. I like the Darwinian nature of the blogosphere. There's always someone who can keep you honest. And 10 years ago, I had an online community dot-com, so I know the numbers game is kind of bogus. I read something yesterday that noted that journalists are barking up the wrong tree with the numbers game. Second Life is a playground for early adopters. As far as I am concerned, tens of thousands of people who are actively creating new stuff are more interesting than millions of more passive participants.

You noted on your blog recently the emergence of "sock mobs." There's also, obviously "flash mobs," and I'm sure other forms of "mobs." What's your take on this extrapolation of your terminology?
Rheingold: Yeah, "mob" is a loaded term--and that was deliberate. I'm very interested in collective action, but I've been accused of being too utopian. Some collective action is nasty, and I don't want to leave that possibility out--like sock mobs, individuals who create crowds of (virtual) sock puppets to bully people online. My success at naming virtual communities and smart mobs is somewhat constraining to me.

How so?
Rheingold: I can't invent these things. I can only perceive them. So I have to wait for something big on the horizon to write another book.

How do you feel that the nature of online communities has changed in the last couple of years?
Rheingold: Some things about online social behavior seems to be eternal and universal--trolls and griefers and the eternal meta-debate about what to do about them, for example. There's a widespread amnesia, as if these kinds of cybersocializing were new. Not many people online have much sense of history. That's probably true of just about everything. What I really like is that it's so easy to roll your own these days. It used to be a big deal to set up your own chat or BBS or listserv. Now it's part of the tool set for millions of people, and it's mostly free. My main concern has always been about the quality of online discourse--are we improving or degrading the public sphere?

What did you think of Time magazine's naming "You" as person of the year?
Rheingold: Time usually names a phenomenon when it mainstreams. Although it's typical that they used "you"--as opposed to "us," the editors--instead of "us." But it mainstreams commons-based peer production, which is way too stuffy a term for most people. The idea that people only act for profit is pernicious and outmoded. Sometimes, self-interest adds up to more for everyone. And sometimes, if it's easy enough, most people will do things for altruistic purposes. The research on open-source production seems to indicate that a mixture of motives is necessary for creating public goods like open-source software, Wikipedia, etc. Reputation, profit, learning, fun, altruism. Profit is in there, for sure. It's just not the only motivation.

I see a real continuity in the Dionysian dimension--rock and roll, acid tests, raves and Burning Man are an evolutionary continuum.

You are a Burning Man veteran. What kind of parallels do you see between Burning Man and virtual worlds and online communities?
Rheingold: Without e-mail, Burning Man never would have gotten off the ground, and of course there are countless mail lists and wikis used by the various camps to organize their act. And Burning Man is a great example of commons-based peer production and that mixture of motives--except there isn't much profit in spending all year and thousands of dollars planning, hauling, constructing and burning Big Art. I see a real continuity in the Dionysian dimension--rock and roll, acid tests, raves and Burning Man are an evolutionary continuum. I'd say that Dionysians are getting better at it.

Nite Zelmanov (from the audience) asks: Are we improving or degrading the public sphere? Is the signal-to-noise ratio of modern mob communications too low to really enrich us, or is this unprecedented collaboration actually leading to a better informed, better educated and more empowered public?
Rheingold: I really think an educational effort is called for--in the broadest sense. In the olden days, Usenet veterans would teach Netiquette to newcomers. Every September, jillions of new college students would come online and people would take time to educate them--not always gently. But then AOL dumped 3 million people on the Net without instruction and it became the September that never ended. I personally think that the importance of online discourse ought to be taught in high school, but public education changes slowly. My latest effort is at https://www.socialtext.net/medialiteracy. I'm trying to find some funding to set up after school and summer programs to teach participatory media as an avenue to civic engagement about issues that young people care about.

Polysilox Apogee (from the audience) asks: Are you familiar with the (Sun Microsystems co-founder) Bill Joy and (high-tech inventor) Ray Kurzweil debate? And what are your thoughts about where digital becomes a part of the real day-to-day world, like foglets and nano and all that stuff?
Rheingold: I'm concerned about autonomous technology, so I'm sympathetic to Bill Joy's concerns. One always has to take Kurzweil seriously because he has solved some hard problems, but I am reminded of (inventors) Bucky Fuller and Doug Engelbart. Engineers often have a somewhat limited vision about consequences. Let's put it this way. There is a lot of money available to flog the benefits of untested technologies, but the only people besides Bill Joy who worry about the consequences seem to be either obscure academics, or skeptics like (computer specialist) Cliff Stoll who have their own set of blinders. Langdon Winner is a brilliant technology critic, but who here has heard of him? Deep and broad and thoughtful technology criticism isn't that popular.