Keeping it real about virtual living

Published Date
21 - Feb - 2007
| Last Updated
21 - Feb - 2007
Keeping it real about virtual living
Newsmaker 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.

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.

Team DigitTeam Digit

All of us are better than one of us.