"On Crap Detection" By Howard Rheingold (O'Reilly Media)

I found a video series titled "Crap Detection 101: How to Distinguish Good and Bad Information Online" by Howard Rheingold (available from Oreilly Media), and was instantly intrigued.  When the opportunity came up to see it free as part of the Blogger Review Program, I felt that it would be a good choice.

The short version:

If you are a cynic and/or have been on the net for any significant amount of time, this series probably isn't for you.  If you have children, it's a good idea to watch this so you can frame how you want to talk to them.  If you know older (non-web-savvy) people getting on the net, perhaps for the first time, buy this for them.

The main points that I boiled this down to are:

  • Be aware of Bias
  • Look into the source
  • Wikipedia is a place to begin research, not end it.  (See previous)
Accounting for my personal biases, and assuming the intended audience, I give it a 4/5.

The Long Version:

This video series by Howard Rheingold (UC Berkeley and Stanford University lecturer) addresses the basics of protecting yourself from misinformation and fraud while going about your daily online life.  Broken up into 11 videos (including a short intro and conclusion video), this series is probably short enough for someone new to the material to take in all in one shot.  Personally, being a cynic and long-time internet user, I found it to be slow and fairly basic.  However, I am not his target audience.

Mr. Rheingold addresses his target audience as pretty much everyone who is encountering the internet for the first time.  That is tricky, however, because even my four-year-old son has used the internet.  A few years ago, my In-laws decided to get off of WebTV, and I was to be the instrument of their transition.  (No, I didn't have a choice.)  Had this video existed at the time, I would have purchased it for them without hesitation.  I had given them a brief list of warnings ("No Nigerian prince is going to ask you for help with a financial transaction" and "Don't click on links in emails that claim to be from your bank, even if it looks real"), but I think that the presentation of this material was better.

Being a parent of youngin's, I think that they're going to grow up with a strong sense of cynicism.  This video series may help inform you about topics to bring up, but anyone younger than middle-aged will not be able to sit through the video.  The tone is conversational, and the pacing is fine, but Mr. Rheingold is just not a good fit for a younger audience.

The production and presentation of the video gives me mixed feelings.  The video looks great.  But it looks to be done in Mr. Rheingold's home office, which I find I have mixed feelings about.  It's certainly better than the blank light-beige conference-room wall common to most informational videos, but the posters and monitors in the background are distracting.  Rheingold is joined by Mark Brokering of Safari Books Online, who asks leading questions on each topic.  Rheingold's sound level is fine, but Brokering's is often a little too low.  My final criticism on the presentation is that Rheingold references his laptop, especially when demonstrating a site.  When he does this, it seems to distract him, and he forgets what he was saying.

I think that this series covers very well the idea of "Being aware of Bias".  In fact, I think that it is mentioned in every section.  There is an excellent example early-on regarding Martin Luther King, and he covers ways to begin looking into the people presenting information to you.

Later on, he touches on some sources to leverage to investigate urban legends, hoaxes, etc, which I think is especially helpful to the target audience.

I especially appreciate that he addresses Moral Panics ("Protect the Children!"), and by pointing out that censorship is against the founding ideas behind the internet, and that censorship would destroy it.

I think that two topics that really deserved treatment were neglected (or under-served).  The first is Privacy Settings.  I think that making people aware that there are different levels of visibility to the internet (especially when using social media sites/apps), is of crucial difference.  To this day, I see faux-pas on Facebook where an uncomfortable topic is posted on someone's Facebook Wall instead of in a private message or chat.  (Personally, I don't like Facebook having that information at all, but sometimes it can't be avoided.)

The other topic, somewhat related, is Over-Sharing.  My sister is 10 years younger than I, and when she first set up her Facebook account, her information was widely-viewable, and she'd posted her phone number, mailing address, and talked freely about her comings-and-goings.  It took yelling at her a few times before she finally fixed some of the issues, but at least some of those were taken down.

In Conclusion:

All in all, this series is a great resource for older Net-Newbies, and a decent starting-place for parents.  But if you've been on the net for some time, it's probably not for you.  All in all, I give it a 4/5 stars (attempting to account for my biases.)


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