The Internet Generation Prefers the Real World

August 10, 2010

How novel to imagine that youngsters aren’t novel.

The title of this entry is an English translation of the name of a German article appearing on August 6 in Spiegel Online. I don’t read Der Spiegel, the largest German newsweekly, in German or in English. Fortunately my friend Bob McArthur does, and brought this to my attention.

The article could be read quickly as merely another superficial piece on young people and the Internet. But this one is decidedly different. Rather than treating youth as a mysterious cult, the digital natives that we explorers can’t quite grok, the article focuses on establishing a simple singular point. “New research shows that the majority of children and teenagers are not the Web-savvy digital natives of legend,” states the lede. Instead they are “more interested in their real-world friends than Facebook.”

Could this be possible? You mean they don’t have secret decoder rings? The article is based mainly on some new research out of the Hans Bredow Institute entitled Growing Up With the Social Web. The presentation is available online, but only in German. Spiegel offers a single chart in English.

Source: Spiegel Online

I do recommend reading the original, but the key point appears best in these two paragraphs:

A small group of writers, consultants and therapists thrives on repeating the same old mantra, namely that our youth is shaped through and through by the online medium in which it grew up. They claim that our schools must, therefore, offer young people completely new avenues — surely traditional education cannot reach this generation any longer, they argue.

There is little evidence to back such theories up, however. Rather than conducting surveys, these would-be visionaries base their arguments on impressive individual cases of young Internet virtuosos. As other, more serious researchers have since discovered, such exceptions say very little about the generation as a whole, and they are now avidly trying to correct the mistakes of the past.

My restatement of the piece would be “Digital non-natives make the same error made by explorers throughout history: both ennobling the savage and at the same time demonizing him.” Turns out the native is human, just like you and me. And s/he doesn’t think that foraging, hunting and “native” dances are remarkable.

Of course consultants like Don Tapscott and Marc Prensky feed us the charismatic guru’s diet of what we want to believe: that digital natives(quite a good term: the secret to success for gurus is coining terms like this and making them sticky) are a superspecies, i.e. able to find technology to be somehow commonplace in a world full of frightening marvels.

They (and we) did not consider that for the natives the marvels are completely taken for granted, thereby losing all mystical powers. What remains are the day-to-day social concerns of all teens, made somewhat simpler to navigate with texting, Facebook, etc. And as always, there is the challenge of learning to use educational tools — whether textbooks or computers & wikis — as effectively as possible. Just because kids grew up with technology doesn’t mean they know how to use it well. And their elders were previously in no position to offer credible advice.

A breakthrough!

I’ll be interested to see how long it takes for this notion to penetrate the U.S. media. I think that the big media that dominate the dialog and the vendors they serve have a vested interest in clinging to Tapscott & Prensky’s anthropological myth-making. People and companies spend big bucks on the extraordinary. Everyday utensils don’t command a price premium.

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The Future of Publishing and the Accuracy of Information

August 4, 2009

One of the continuing controversies we all face as the Web becomes our primary tool for news, knowledge, reference…indeed for all forms of information, is determining the quality of the information published on the Web. The topic arises frequently in articles and blog entries. Much of the controversy has been associated with Wikipedia. Wikipedia has certainly suffered a number of embarrassing gaffes, but a study released by the journal Nature in late 2005 claimed that Wikipedia is essentially as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica. In reviewing 42 articles on the same topics from each source it found an average 2.92 mistakes per article for Britannica and 3.86 for Wikipedia. (The original article in Nature is available only to subscribers or for a $32 purchase, however the link to Nature provided here does offer some free material on the subsequent controversy). The respected technology writer Nicholas Carr later criticized the study, concluding his detailed analysis with:

If you were to state the conclusion of the Nature survey accurately, then, the most you could say is something like this: “If you only look at scientific topics, if you ignore the structure and clarity of the writing, and if you treat all inaccuracies as equivalent, then you would still find that Wikipedia has about 32% more errors and omissions than Encyclopedia Britannica.” That’s hardly a ringing endorsement….The open source model is not a democratic model. It is the combination of community and hierarchy that makes it work. Community without hierarchy means mediocrity.

It’s worth noting here that Wikipedia continues to take new steps and implement new procedures to improve the accuracy of its content. This blog entry is not intended to suggest the Wikipedia is fatally flawed: I think it’s a great resource and a publishing miracle. I raised the Wikipedia versus Britannica story because it well-illustrates the main point of this entry.

The broader controversy over information quality on the Web has myriad ramifications. Without exploring them all in this entry, I stand by the statement that the value of the proliferation of new and original voices on the Web is seriously marred if the accuracy of what is represented as fact remains suspect and undependable.

This leads me to recommend a very fine site I discovered the other day while researching this issue. The Virtual Chase: Teaching Legal Professionals How To Do Research, has an excellent section called “Evaluating the Quality of Information on the Internet.” Chapters include “Why Information Quality Matters,” “How to Evaluate Information,” and my favorite feature, a checklist for evaluating the quality of information found on the Web.

While the site is targeted at the legal profession, and therefore not relevant in all of its aspects to each of us, what better profession to turn to than one where a false fact can mean in some circumstances the death of a client or in others the loss of a $5 million lawsuit!

I’ll be continuing to cover this topic. I hope this entry provides a suitable introduction.

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Encyclopaedia Britannica Goes All Wiki

April 9, 2009

Received this email April 4th:

Britannica Online Subscription

Dear Thad McIlroy,

Encyclopaedia Britannica Online has just introduced a new program that makes it possible for you as a reader and subscriber to contribute edits, revisions, and suggestions to the encyclopedia.

It also gives you credit, by name, for any contribution you submit that’s accepted by our editors for publication. Does this mean you can now become a named contributor to the Encyclopaedia Britannica?


Suggest Edit

To see how it works just go to any Britannica article at For illustration purposes we have a close-up of the navigation bar atop our entry on nanotechnology. Notice that above the title of the article is a button reading “Suggest Edit”.

Click there and you’ll get a version of the article in which you can edit the text as you see fit. You’ll see a toolbar at the top of the article that allows you to copy, paste, or undo what you have done, and format your edits in a variety of ways, much as you would with conventional word processing software. You can also preview the changes you’ve made before submitting them to our editors.


Also on the navigation bar above the article title is a button marked Comment. This enables you to send an e-mail to our editors with your thoughts and comments on the article. Use this if you have general suggestions and don’t wish to make specific text edits. You may also use this feature in conjunction with the Suggest Edit feature, say, to explain the reason for the edits you’ve made, to recommend other sources for the article, and so on.

In either case, as soon as you submit your suggestions they will go right to a Britannica editor who will review them promptly. If your suggestions are accepted and published, your name will be added to that article’s Topic History, which you can also access with a button above the article title.

These features are new, and they’re labeled “beta,” but they’re working well, and as a member of our WebShare program we would like to invite you to be among the first to use them.

By the way, as you may have seen, these new features are part of a larger plan Britannica has to make our site a virtual community with a host of benefits both for our expert contributors and readers. Among other things, you’ll be able to set up your own profile at our site, publish your own work and become a “friend” of Britannica articles in which you have an interest. Discussions of this are here and here. Please stay tuned.

I invite you to try our editing system on any Britannica article you think can be improved or is in need of correction. We’d welcome any questions or comments you have. Please send them to


J.C. Miller

Too little, too late?

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Wikipedia and the Meaning of Truth

October 24, 2008

In the November/December issue of the marvelous MIT Technology Review is a very fine article by the respected author and professor of computer science, Simson Garfinkel on the ever-controversial subject of what can we expect and trust from Wikipedia.

The topic has been a challenge for some time, mainly pitting the Encyclopedia Britannica, that most respected source, authored by experts in their respective fields, against Wikipedia, the most anarchic of resources, but which with some 7 million contributors manages as Mr. Garfinkel points out to be “remarkably accurate.”

What makes this article a special pleasure is that Garfinkel acknowledges Wikipedia’s success, but delves below the surface and notes that “with little notice from the outside world, the community-written encyclopedia Wikipedia has redefined the commonly accepted use of the word ‘truth’.” The topic is an important one.

The article is fascinating for many other reasons, but here’s a tidbit:

“Wikipedia considers the ‘most reliable sources’ to be ‘peer-reviewed journals and books published in university presses,’ followed by ‘university-level textbooks,’ then magazines, journals, ‘books published by respected publishing houses,’ and finally ‘mainstream newspapers’ (but not the opinion pages of newspapers).”

Do you think these are the best sources to verify information? They certainly conform to standard publishing beliefs, but do they conform to this new medium?

The article is worth careful reading.

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