Boris Mann

Open Source. Community. Decentralized Web. Building dev tools at Fission. Cooks & eats.


Northern Voice 2012 - Web Literacy

  • Created: July 02, 2012
  • Event

I attended day 1 of Northern Voice 2012, including Moose Camp, which is a block of time that is run unconference style.

I hosted a discussion on the concept of web literacy. I went into the discussion thinking along the lines of being a web maker - being able to understand HTML and code. But as we tossed concepts back and forth, it’s clear that web literacy is a very broad term, and that there are different levels of literacy.

I’ve added a link to this blog post on the Northern Voice wiki – please add your own notes and links relevant to web literacy.

What does web literacy even mean?

I came into the discussion thinking about web literacy from a very how-does-the-Internet-work perspective. I envisioned people caring about the difference between a domain registrar, a DNS host, and web hosting1.

The group quickly disabused me of that notion. Owning your own domain name and what the consequences of that are is several levels away from the basics.

The prevailing opinion was that web literacy begins with something more akin to media literacy: understanding where the information that you’re looking at comes from, knowing how to search, being able to differentiate between sponsored links and search results, and so on. Critical thinking about the source & context of the web page you are looking at, whether or not to trust that information, and perhaps some understanding of the bias of different kinds of web content – is this a news source, is this trying to sell me something, do I have some indication of what person or organization this page is being hosted by.

I think that’s an excellent starting point for anyone using the Internet.

Creating Content

Blaine shared a story of how a friend of his was approached to help put a web page up. His friend turned to the person who asked this and said “You’re illiterate”.

Having moved off of my techie, protocol centric view, I feel good about saying that one definition of Level 1 of web literacy is understanding how to put your own content online. But this doesn’t mean hand coding an HTML page and FTP’ing it to a server somewhere.

I don’t think posting photos to Facebook or using an app to post to Twitter qualifies as putting your own content online. Creating a, Tumblr, or Blogger account and making your first post certainly does.

(Internet) Avengers, Assemble!

Brian Lamb described feeling himself getting shrill whenever he tried to explain why people should care about owning their own domain and hosting their own content. It simply doesn’t matter to the vast majority that their TwitPic photos have ads being sold next to them or that they don’t have their own domain name mapped to Tumblr.

I jotted down a few of the phrases that people said as we talked.

“A lot of people who could care, do care” – the fact that we had a group of people having this discussion at Northern Voice was heartening. To me, this says, hang out with your tribe who cares, but also look for opportunities to recruit people who want to care.

“There is a stigma against people who can’t read. Digital il-literacy doesn’t have a stigma” – almost the reverse is true, with people waving off the fact that they can’t do that “web stuff” or “don’t understand the Internet”. We should celebrate knowing more about the Internet and understanding web stuff.

While I have increasingly felt farther away from Northern Voice’s focus on the personal use of social media and blogging, this discussion really made me savour this end user-centric view.

Quantifying Levels of Web Literacy

Putting aside whether people should care about their level of web literacy – and about wanting to achieve a higher level of such literacy – I think some discussion about the different levels is useful.

Level 1: Web Media Literacy

This could just be media literacy with a focus on web media, plus search & browser best practices. This also means knowing what a browser and a search engine are, so I could be convinced to set my bar lower and make this Level 1 rather than the Level 0 that I want to assign it.

Level 2: Web Creator

An understanding of web pages and domains (typing in web addresses instead of just searching for everything). Knowledge of various blogging tools and platforms as a user, and being able to create new posts.

Level 3: Web & Internet Foundations

A basic understanding of HTML & CSS. Can edit HTML in the “view source” mode of rich text editors. IP addresses and domain names. Understands how to register a domain and then link that domain to a hosting account or hosted service.

Level 4: Self Hosting

Knows about web hosting, databases, and FTP. Can install and do basic setup of WordPress and other tools using a web hosting admin panel. Has access to a basic HTML editor and can create individual web pages from scratch.

Are these the right levels? This whole area seems like such a patchwork of systems, where you have to understand the whole stack and how it interoperates.

I’ve focused on web & Internet concepts, but completely skipped anything to do with images, video, or audio. Also skipped are anything related to web etiquette / legal topics, such as links as attribution, basics of quoting, fair use, copyright, etc.

Saving the Internet

I’m quite passionate about the Internet, mostly because of all the great people I’ve met that live there. Open source, open data, and just the basic human nature of communication, sharing, and connecting online are great things, and we should try and get better at it. Ironically, I’ve spent a lot of time taking online connections and trying to move them to offline in-person events.

I’m going to try and “level up” a few people, perhaps by running a Mozilla “Kitchen Table” event in the next couple of months.

I’d also like to continue the discussion about what web literacy means. How and where should we be teaching it? Libraries and universities both some like institutions that should be taking part in this. Are these types of levels useful? I’ve enjoyed Peter Rawsthorne’s explorations into Mozilla’s Open Badges – could we define and create badges for web literacy?

Echoing both Reilly’s Friday morning talk and Blaine’s Saturday keynote, the Internet does need our help. At the center, it needs civility, discourse, and education. At its edges, it needs wildness and experimentation.


1Registrars, DNS, and Web Hosting: I keep meaning to write up a simple explanation of this, but it seems like a mini tutorial on its own when you consider diving down into things like IP addresses and sideways to concepts like domainers, typo squatters, and more. I just tell people to not use GoDaddy and use NameCheap instead and consider it a win for now.