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by John S Veitch

Newbies Rule the Internet - Skills Levels are Poor


When people are first connected to the internet they are frightened to use it.  My research with the Local LinkBryndwr group suggests that rather than taking up the challenge and putting in the hard work needed to become a competent user quickly, most people are content to be casual users.  Months or years of being internet connected don't tell you much about how much value people are getting from it.

Rather we need to know how many lists, or groups, or communities of practice, someone is connected to, how much group mail they read, and how many people are in the person's extended network.

Until people join several online groups that are actively sharing ideas and opinions, their network of associates will remain small and they remain unknowing, no matter how competent they may feel.  If one's experience is only two hours a week for three years, you might have 300 hours of experience but if your habits have not changed, then your learning is likely to be minimal, you remain a newbie.  Many people effectively remain newbies for years.

All learning is social.  We learn best from the people we know and respect.  We need to be "members" of social groups that become important to us.  We need to participate so that we can build our status as members.  Online and offline, the same rules apply.  Joining doesn't make you a member, participation does.  Members thrive: non-members wither and die.

www linkMaslow's Hierachy of needs suggests that people need first the basic things to sustain the body, food shelter and clothing.  The second tier "need" is to be connected to human groups, family, tribe, profession, and society. The third need is to seek status and position in the social groups you are part of.  If people are largely successful in doing that, they develop a growing sense of self esteem which is the fourth level of need.

Massive Fall Out in Online Groups

It's been often noted that many people join www linkYahoo Groups, or listservers and social networks but the number of people who participate is small.  This is described a longtailed distribution, and it's been noted before in many contexts.  However it's a concept that's not well understood.

The original expression of this idea was probably an economist named Pareto, who studied the income distribution of an Italian community and found that 20% of the population had 80% of the wealth.  That is the source of the commonly misused 20/80 rule.

Joseph Duran, was responsible for making the 20/80 rule a feature of business management.  Once again his use of the idea was specific.  That 80% of the problems preventing an improvement in quality were likely to be caused by 20% of the causes.

We should also note that W Edwards Deming, was sure that the key to quality in production was to reduce variation.  He agreed with Duran that a small number of causes create most of the variation we seek to eliminate.  (He's talking about production systems.)

In complete contrast is Zipf's Power Law which says that if you measure the achievement of a large group of people doing any chosen activity a tiny number will succeed and there will be a very long tail.

So which of these ideas should we apply to online social networks.  (Or general use of the internet) I think all of them.  In this way.

Pareto: We might expect that 20% of the people in a social network accumulate 80% of the attention.

Duran: 20% of the causes of variation we can identify, will cause 80% of the variation.

Deming: Improving the system is working to continually reduce variation of outcome.

Zipf: If we accept all long-tailed distributions as "normal" then we never need to improve anything. 

Taking Ryze as an example Pareto's 20% of the people get 85% of the attention (Page visits) .  Zipf's Power Law is demonstrated just 5% of the members get 56% of the attention.  So the sample more weighted towards a small number of "successful people" than Pareto would expect.  Deming would argue that the variation is excessive.  Duran would tell us that a relatively small number of changes would correct most of the problem.

Why does this big difference in outcomes exist? First of all it's got nothing to do with the relative skills and abilities of the people involved.  People learn when they DO things.  People in these groups or networks are successful when they do things.  Most people do nothing because they don't understand the value of "doing".  Their understanding of how these networks might be used to create value is poor.

Key Benefits from Internet Use.

Awareness of many other countries and cultures and viewpoints.
Access to data from original or primary sources is possible.
Access to publicly available information, particularly in English, on most topics.

The ability to scan and read text is an essential skill that quickly develops.

Improvement in the literacy and numeracy of users.
Easy communication with family members and friends across the world.
World wide peer to peer groups may be easily formed.
Peer to peer groups may become communities of professional practice.
Person to person instant mail and online discussion is possible. 
The creation of geographically local groups is possible but difficult.
Personal continuous learning and self development is enabled. 
Formal attempts to educate online have not been highly successful, but informal education is thriving everywhere.
Business transactions online are possible, particularly banking transactions. 
Businesses can supply product information world-wide at low cost. 
Governments can produce "official information" online. 
Business can process orders online, and track goods in transit. 

It is clear from the above list that the key benefits of the Internet are personal and social.  Most of the activities above depend on e-mail primarily and only use the world wide web in a secondary role.  The new social networks enable one to build an enlarged sense of who you are and what your place in the world might be.

This is the key value of the Interent to any one of us.

I can enlarge my circle of useful contacts.
I can find people who are "like me" and who are willing to work with me.
People I trust can challenge my ideas and force me to think in new ways.

Personal Knowledge

The internet gives you access to more data.  What difference does that make? Lots of people laugh at the quality of some of the data available online, but if you read widely you'll find that where a group of people are engaged in a discussion the data they are using is generally reliable. More importantly the Internet gives you access to other people. That's the key value. but one most people don't yet understand.

Official "news" which not many years ago was the only news we ever got, is now often exposed as dressing up the facts to make some authority figure look good.  The news media tend to distribute "news" that isn't really news at all, just the press releases of officials and institutions for public distribution.  At best these press releases are informative.

Sometimes the intention of these press releases is to misdirect our attention.  To make us fear something, that may or may not be real. They try to entice me to act in a certain way, and not necessarily in my own best interests.  When other people are trying to manipulate me, what am I to think? With only bad data, is it possible to think clearly at all?

When our world is filled with propaganda, when the news media I read feed me on nonsense and call it truth, when "freedom of speech" is used as an excuse to distort facts and to mock history, when people who seek my support are dishonest with me, they take away my ability to make sense of anything. I found on the internet a defense against that. The wisdom of other people is available.

Too often those we look to as leaders, are compromised by the need to protect traditions, or institutions or financial assets, or the reputations of "friends" and they don't necessarily tell us what we need to know.  How well the future turns out depends entirely on both the values of our leaders and the values of the community members, and on how data is shared. R A Heinlien said, "The right to figure things out for yourself is the only true freedom that every person shares."

I can only speak for myself.  In the beginning all the "new voices" on the internet were exciting, but confusing. Over a period of a few years I found places where good data is shared and where bad data is exposed.  Those with the clearest vision are usually not people high status and great authority.  They tend to be people who's only claim to credibility is a command the facts and the ability speak with a clear voice.

New data becomes valuable as information when it informs you about your own life or activities and or completes your own understanding on a topic of vital interest to you.  People learn best from other people they trust.  That should be encouraged. In social networks like www linkRyze and
www linkEcademy, or at www linkYahoo Groups, you can find good friends, mentors and teachers.

Who Am I?

People need the confidence to be able to define themselves easily and simply in a public way.  Such confidence does not come without effort.  It's in becoming members on list servers and in using chat rooms that people will become more confident about who they are and about what they know.  Direct person to person contact is a powerful motivator, creating the ability to ask better questions and to learn new things. 

Confidence comes from the collection of private data, and the sharing of that data with others in long conversations where ideas are discussed.  This develops first a new personal awareness and later a new public awareness.  Being invited to peer to peer discussions increases one's self esteem.

When we communicate with other people and they respond to us, they hold up a mirror to our ideas and give us direct feedback.  This allows us to become more involved in our own knowledge development.

Using Information Practices. 

The power to communicate, to share ideas, to learn about the world, to build your own understanding is a very special gift.  Wise use of that gift will make it possible for you to be aware of trends and ideas you can use in your life. Wise use of that gift will make effective citizenship possible across the world.

Like any cup, you can only get out of it what someone puts into it.  People who seek quality information, who use research tools and engage in information practices will put valuable things in their own cups.  The vast majority of people have high ideals and valid purposes in using the internet.  If they are allowed to thrive, the Internet will reflect their values and their hope for the future.

Membership of the information society will be claimed by those who not only can access data from a wide variety of sources, but who also collect their own data.  They will be people who can think about or process data and ideas to produce information.  We learn this skill best from other people. That is why the new social/business networks on the internet have importance far beyond their current low visibility. 

The power of the internet is in the peer to peer conversation that links people across the world.  People hope to improve their knowledge, their understanding and their future opportunities by communication with like minded people elsewhere.  But it also requires the confidence and willingness to form communities of practice so that ideas and attitudes can be tested and moderated by community awareness. 

Training in "information practices"

Access to the Internet is a necessary but not sufficient factor in helping people become information aware.  Training is essential if people are to quickly gain the skills they need to find and use information. People need to learn how to connect with other people who can be the keys to further knowledge.  This training may formal or informal, but it will result in the learning of these "information practices" .

Information practices include these things together:

Everyone has a right to learn and to use these information practices.  The result is a process of www linkcontinuous personal learning.  As you learn, some previously held ideas and previous ways of behaving need to change. Changing your ideas is evidence of learning, it is not evidence of a person's unreliability and bad character.  The crux of being a
www linkmodern person is the ability to use information to learn and to change yourself.

Empower Your Future Learning

Journalist www linkJohn Pilger put is this way: "The struggle against oppression is the struggle of memory against forgetting. It's our task to inform ourselves about the things we would otherwise forget." To do that we keep records, what I call www link"our own data".  For myself over many years that record was a journal, although today much of that record is recorded in many electronic databases, some here, some on Ryze, some at Geo-Cities, and much on my own hard-drive.

The internet can help to empower people by giving them the missing pieces to life puzzles they are struggling to resolve.  If you have such a question and you value the solution because it's critical to the future, you can't proceed "knowing the answer".  Not knowing the answer gives the question value, and you need to pursue the solution wherever it takes you.  Many people are seeking truth and meaning so they can make sense of their lives.

We learn by www linkasking better questions.  We learn when we suspend judgment and taking the time to find better evidence.  We learn by taking down the structures in our minds that are faulty and by rebuilding more robust structures.  We learn by finding ways to explain what we are discovering to ourselves.  We learn when we share these new ideas with other people.  We learn if at first they don't really understand us.  We learn when our ideas are challenged by our peers.

This process of is not efficient.  Sometimes understanding comes quickly, but learning new things in a changing world can be difficult. Sometimes the best mentors and teachers are also seeking solutions to the questions we have. Sometimes to begin well, you have to identify faulty beliefs and to unlearn favourite rules of thumb. Too often, trapped by some old idea, we forbid ourselves knowledge of obvious data. Learning can be a long difficult business. You need to actively engage in it.

"It's said that it took www linkNicholaus Copernicus 36 years to learn that the earth orbits around the sun.  I can't be sure about that, but I can confirm that it's taken me most of a lifetime to learn that you can't teach people things.  Education is something learners do, and if they don't "do" then they don't learn.  All the important lessons of life are driven by the demand of the learner for understanding."

Red Hot Data -

Secondary Experiences and Primary Experiences

A useful way to think about data and information is to compare it to the effect of heat on matter.  If you cool something down the nuclei slow their motion and the atom becomes more ordered.  If you add heat the nuclei increase in excitement and at some stage the stability of the material will change, solids turning to liquids and to gases for instance. 

A person living a normal life might be thought of as cold or cool. If you read, study, collect you own data, or take notes about your observations you get warmer.  Getting connected to the internet will certainly have the effect of raising the temperature, but not instantly.  You need to work at taking someone else's data and making it your own.  That's why this sort of learning is said to use secondary experiences.  It takes time to find your way into someone else's data.

Your most important task is to find peers with whom you can exchange ideas.  You need to listen to what they are saying, and they will help you to read and to think.  This has the effect of further raising the "temperature".  The constant addition of new data raises your "information pressure" and increases the chance that some sort of real learning process will take place.  The discussions you are having are a primary experience, and are likely to add substantially to your knowledge. 

When a community has a critical mass of people with information awareness I predict that innovative and time critical changes will be possible.  People will be more adaptable, more able to contribute to each other's thinking and more likely to have innovative ideas of their own. 

Blogging - The Return of the Journal.

The process of blogging is making a personal record and it's also a process of reaching out to others.  Thankfully as opposed to some online journal writing, the tradition in a blog is to write from a personal point of view, but not necessarily about yourself.  This sort of writing lends itself to co-operation and leads to significant learning.  In our blogs we discover our own tools for changing who we are.  We learn that it is possible at a personal level to have choices that are real.

I advise newbies to work in private until they develop confidence. It's much safer to write to Yahoo Groups or to a Ryze Network if you want to work in public.Up

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