Tag: journal

The Hyperlinked Society [Full Review]

A while ago I posted a partial review of The Hyperlinked Society: Questioning Connections in the Digital Age. That review has since been accepted and will appear in a forthcoming volume of the academic journal e-Learning and Digital Media.

I realised this week that I never posted the completed review. So here it is, for what it’s worth, in full! 😀

The Hyperlinked Society: Questioning Connections in the Digital Age

Joseph Turow and Lokman Tsui, Editors (2008)

Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press

ISBN 0-472-05043-5 (pbk)

319 Pages.

Reviewer: Doug Belshaw, Durham University

In the introduction to The Hyperlinked Society, editor Joseph Turow explains how the book became a follow-up to a 2006 conference that ‘came together to address the social implications of instant digital linking’. ‘We did not intend to solve any particular problem at the meeting,’ he writes. ‘Instead, the goal was to shed light on a remarkable social phenomenon that people in business and the academy usually take for granted.’ The stated aim of the resulting book? ‘[N]ot to drill deeply into particular research projects [but], rather, to write expansively, provocatively – even controversially – about the extent to which and ways in which hyperlinks are changing our worlds and why.’ The book, therefore, is published explicitly as a platform upon which others ‘will launch their own research projects and policy analyses.’ (p.5)

Given this stated aim, it is easier to forgive The Hyperlinked Society‘s unconventional structure and somewhat eclectic nature. There are three main sections to the book. The first, ‘Hyperlinks and the Organization of Attention’ is almost entirely descriptive, ostensibly to set the scene for the rest of the book. The second ‘Hyperlinks and the Business of Media’ appears incongruous in an academic book; the essays and articles it contains feature few references and assertions abound. The final section is the most rewarding for researchers and academics in the field of new literacies and internet culture. It features an abundance of analysis – everything from the moral nature of hyperlinks to what constitutes the ‘online public sphere’. This final section is worth the price of admission alone.

Puzzlingly, given the editor’s proud statement in the introduction that over 200 countries were represented at the conference that led to the book’s existence, the examples given are almost entirely taken from the USA. Moreover, the American political situation and how it reflects, and is reflected by, internet culture is a dominant theme. Indeed there is more than one reference to ‘our country’ and what ‘we’ need to do. This does not sit comfortably at times, making this (English) reviewer feel like an outsider.

But there is much to like and admire in The Hyperlinked Society even if, at times, the authors try and relate anything and everything to the concept of the hyperlink. The editors have discovered and successfully begun to fill a niche: that space between popular internet culture books such as Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody and more traditional academic articles. The Hyperlinked Society successfully combines elements of both, especially in the third section and in particular Adamic’s The Social Hyperlink. This essay continues the collection’s dominant theme of political blogging, showing empirically that the ‘blogosphere’ is divided with hyperlinks mirroring political affiliations. Coupled with this, however, is a corrective to the possible conclusion that hyperlinks cause this ‘echo-chamber’ effect. An analysis of online communities in the USA, Kuwait and the UAE demonstrate the powerfully complex cultural and contextual factors at work. The reader is left fascinated, interested, and wanting more – especially given the ‘Do bloggers kill kittens?’ story with which Adamic ends the article. This, of course, fits hand-in-glove with the editor’s desire for others to use the collection as a starting point for their own research.

A second dominant theme in The Hyperlinked Society is whether hyperlinks constitute an inherently a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ thing for society. Most deal with this in a cursory way, but Weinberger’s The Morality of Links confronts the issue head-on. In perhaps the most valuable and reflective essay in the collection, Weinberger analyses his personal belief that ‘Links are good’. His wide-ranging and knowledgeable philosophical treatment of the problem takes fully three pages of background, covering everything from a critique of Essentialism to the value of a funnel. Weinberger concludes that there are two reasons why ‘Links are good’. First, the Web is a huge potentiality – but not in the same way ‘a stick could potentially be used to prop up a car hood’ (p.189). Instead, ‘the potential is the sum of the relationships embodied in links’ which makes the Web ‘a potential that we’re actively creating and expanding’ (p.189). The second reason we’re better off with links, states Weinberger, is because ‘every time we click on a link, we take a step away from the selfish solipsism that characterizes our age – or, to be more exact, that characterizes how we talk about our age’ (p.189-90). The world, says Weinberger (quoting Ted Nelson) has never been so ‘intertwingled’.

The third and final dominant vein running through The Hyperlinked Society is the emancipatory nature of hyperlinks. Whilst several authors raise privacy concerns and implications , the general consensus is that through ‘mashups’, ‘countermapping’ and other online grassroots activities, traditional power structures are beginning to be challenged. Halavais, for instance, in The Hyperlink as Organizing Principle explains how the changing way hyperlinks are used represents ‘a kind of collective unconscious’ that represents ‘deep social and cultural structures’ (p.39). Halavais also points out, with some apparent glee, that researchers can passively track social relationships and connections through the aggregation of links – thus alleviating the ‘Hawthorne effect’ and bias inherent in self-reporting.

Finkelstein, in Google, Links and Popularity versus Authority highlights two important instances where technical issues relating to hyperlinks threatened to undermine their potential for emancipation and democracy. The first is what he deems ‘the commodificiation of social relations’. This is a result of ‘blurring the lines between business and friendship’ (p.115) that occurs online. A second, related, problem is that of search engine algorithms being based on inbound links. Google’s PageRank algorithm, for example, works a ‘weighted combination’ of factors centering around how popular the website is with other websites. Herein, of course, lies a problem. If you want to talk about the dangers of a racist hate site, making parents and teachers aware of the URL , linking to the site would be counter-productive. It would constitute an inbound link – and therefore improve the racist hate website’s Google PageRank. As a result, the ‘nofollow’ tag was invented to allow links in such cases without the attendant positive conferral of status (or ‘Google juice’ as it is commonly termed). This is an example of what The Hyperlinked Society does well as a collection, dealing with both the social and technical aspects of problems caused by Web-mediated communication.

The Hyperlinked Society is not an overly-edited collection. There are places where the same stories are told, the same studies cited, and similar ground covered. But given the and/and/and nature of hyperlinks and the Web, this is highly appropriate. Instead of fitting rigorously into a pre-determined order, the authors are free to explore their own interests in a way that suits them. Such a structure and approach works well, and serves to reinforce the themes outlined above: the case of political blogging, the nature of hyperlinks, and their emancipatory potential.

However, as a researcher into new literacies and 21st-century education practices, it was disappointing to see terms such as ‘link-literacy’, ‘savvy’ and ‘competence’ used uncritically. There is a wealth of research in this area towards which the individual authors or, at the very least, the editor could have directed the reader. Although Lankshear and Knobel’s Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices was published in the same year as The Hyperlinked Society, their earlier volume New Literacies: Everyday Practices and Classroom Learning (2006) was available as a guide to the field.

Overall, The Hyperlinked Society is satisfying and informative when read in its totality, but also serves as an excellent reference point, with useful overviews to each section provided by the editors. It would be of most use to those running postgraduate courses exploring Web-related issues as it covers such a wide range of issues. The final section in particular is an object lesson on how to explore the wider implications of a very particular technology.


  • Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2006) New Literacies: Everyday Practices and Classroom Learning. Open University Press
  • Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2008) Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices. Peter Lang Publishing
  • Shirky, C. (2008) Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. New York: Penguin Press

What’s the most common type of ambiguity in definitions of ‘digital literacy’?

Every literacy is alike; each digital literacy is ambiguous in its own way.

I’m currently putting together a journal article applying Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity to the concept of ‘digital literacy’.* As I match those definitions of digital literacy I find ambiguous to one of Empson’s seven types, it’s becoming clear that the most common type of ambiguity is Empson’s third conception:

An ambiguity of the third type, considered as a verbal matter, occurs when two ideas, which are connected only by being both relevant in the context, can be given in one word simultaneously.

That is to say, the definition of digital literacy is ambiguous because it holds in tension two ideas that are linked by the context. The term ‘digital literacy’ serves as a kind of shorthand with the wider picture somewhat fuzzy in scope (and hence ambiguous).

Take, for example, the following:

Having digital literacy requires more than just the ability to use software or to operate a digital device; it includes a large variety of complex skills such as cognitive, motoric, sociological, and emotional that users need to have in order to use digital environments effectively.

(Yoram Eshet Alkali & Yair Amichai-Hamburger. CyberPsychology & Behavior August 1, 2004, 7(4): 421-429)

In this example, which is not uncommon, digital literacy is merely a convenient shorthand to some kind of ‘requisite skills to function effectively in a digital context’. However, the scope of the digital context, the level of skills required, and what would constitute effective functioning is not clear.

Similarly, but less scholarly, is the definition included with Microsoft’s Digital Literacy Curriculum:

The goal of Digital Literacy is to teach and assess basic computer concepts and skills so that people can use computer technology in everyday life to develop new social and economic opportunities for themselves, their families, and their communities.

The definition conflates teaching, learning, assessment, concepts and skills and then mentions that this applies to society, the economy, families and communities. Clearly, two words – ‘digital’ and ‘literacy’ – can not do enough explanatory work to make this anything other than ambiguous with a veneer of contextual respectability.

Finally, although there are many more examples, comes the following from a seminal work in the field in 2008:

Digital literacy presupposes an understanding of technical tools, but concerns primarily the capacity to employ those tools effectively. Hence, digital literacy begins with the ability to retrieve, manage, share and create information and knowledge, but is consummated through the acquisition of enhanced skills in problem solving, critical thinking, communication and collaboration. (SNAB, 2001, p.3)

Martin, A., ‘Digital Literacy and the “Digital Society”‘ (in Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices, 2008) p.165

The scope is so wide in this definition of digital literacy that it is difficult to see what isn’t included within it. Without clear boundaries it is difficult to apply and build upon such definitions.

* You may want to read my recent post Why the European view of ‘digital literacy’ is ambiguous for some background. The quotations in this post (and lots more besides) can be found on my wiki at dougbelshaw.com/wiki 🙂

Meeting with Ed.D. thesis supervisor: my first journal article.

On Monday evening I met for the first time in a while with my Ed.D. thesis supervisor, Steve Higgins. Even though I’m much closer to Durham University these days we find it more productive to talk via Skype. 🙂

The focus of our discussion was my forthcoming submission of an article to an academic journal. Whilst my recent book review will be published in E-Learning and Digital Media 7:3 later this year this will (hopefully!) be the first time anything original of mine will be published in a peer-reviewed journal. I’m quite excited. 🙂

Regular readers know how open and candid I am about almost every area of my life via this blog and Twitter. I’m sure you’ll forgive me this once when I don’t go into too much detail about my proposed article; it would be easy to get scooped! Suffice to say I’m looking to apply a framework that should help understand just how exactly ‘literacies of the digital’ are ambiguous.

We also discussed the concept of Flow, popularised by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I was a big fan of this theory when I first came across it, but now I realise it’s as empty a concept as ‘digital literacy’. Still, I do believe that such terms have some kind of Pragmatic utility – they are ‘good in the way of belief’. I’ve got a Venn diagram in mind to explain this in the article I’m writing.

Steve said something quite powerful in our conversation about ‘compressing depth of thought’. If you use too much terminology, compress ideas into too small a space and be overly concise then readers have to ‘read out’ rather than ‘read in’ to your work. If they’re not ‘reading in’ then they’re not applying. That, he says, is why ‘lighter, fluffier’ stuff gets more readily applied, whilst more ‘serious, focused’ stuff is sometimes ignored. I’ve certainly found that even with some of my blog posts.

Finally, I mentioned that if I heard someone uncritically use the term ‘digital native’ in my presence (or without tongue-firmly-in-cheek), I was likely to lay the smackdown on them. In fact, Prensky has since (in a 2009 article) moved onto talking about ‘digital wisdom’. He’s basically saying “I was wrong” without using so many words. Trouble is, he’s wrong about the digital wisdom too… :-p

Image CC BY-NC Jeremy Brooks

A partial review of ‘The Hyperlinked Society’

Every academic area of research and study has its leaders in the field. In the case of digital literacy and, more particularly, new literacies, it’s Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel. They have a joint blog at everydayliteracies.blogspot.com and a couple of months ago wrote a post requesting volunteers to review books they’d been sent for the academic journal e-Learning and Digital Media, of which Michele is the editor.

I, of course, jumped at the chance and offered to review two of the books. One had already been claimed, so Michele very kindly sent through The Hyperlinked Society: Questioning Connections in the Digital Age. I thought it would fit hand-in-glove with my Ed.D. thesis. I’ve promised to get the review to her by the end of this month, so this post is a way to keep me on track towards that target! 🙂

The Hyperlinked Society (hereafter THS) has three sections:

  1. Hyperlinks and the Organization of Attention
  2. Hyperlinks and the Business of Media
  3. Hyperlinks, the Individual and the Social

The book is a follow-up project to a conference in 2006 that featured around 200 people from countries around the world. They ‘came together to address the social implications of instant digital linking’ (Turow, p.5):

We did not intend to solve any particular problem at the meeting. Instead, the goal was to shed light on a remarkable social phenomenon that people in business and the academy usually take for granted… The aim [of the book] was not to drill deeply into particular research projects. It was, rather, to write expansively, provocatively – even controversially – about the extent to which and ways in which hyperlinks are changing our worlds and why. In short, we hope that this book will function as a platform from which others… will launch their own research projects and policy analyses. (p.5-6)

Given this stated aim it is easier to forgive the eclectic nature of the collected essays and the curious organization of the book as a whole. The final section, easily the strongest, which touches on the philosophical background and implications of the hyperlink, would seem naturally to come first. The middle section is the least academic of the three, with few references and bald assertions mainly about the future of advertising. The first section, whilst very interesting, is unfortunately almost entirely descriptive.

And therein lies one of two problems for a book about hyperlinks that is ostensibly a conversation-starter. First, the criticism can be levelled that why, if the book is about hyperlinks, does it need to be in book form at all? The second is the scatter-gun approach in terms of the target audience for the book. Whilst it sounds grand to state that ‘professors, graduate students, lawmakers [and] corporate executives’ (p.6) will find it useful, widening the book’s scope could lead to accusations that it lacks depth.

One of, if not the best, essay in THS is David Weinberger’s The Morality of Links. This is due to Weinberger’s willingness to not only going beyond description but to stick his neck out in defending his belief that ‘links are good’ and that ‘Morality and the Web have the same basic architecture’. Links are good because of two main reasons, he believes:

  • The Web is a real potential that ‘we’re actively creating and expanding’, and
  • Every time we create a link we ‘take a step away from the selfish solipsism that characterizes our age’ (p.189-190)

It is in this meta-level analysis of the importance of hyperlinks that the book has value. Given that most of the target audience would be aware of the history of the internet and would have probably only a passing interest in advertising, the third and final section of the book adds most to human knowledge in this area.

Overall, the book is valuable in providing material for undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Whilst it would be difficult to envision an occasion in which it could be used in its entirity, it is useful as a resource for a course organizer to dip into. The first and third sections are the most valuable: the first because it describes well the current situation and how we got here; the third due to its analysis and where we’re headed.

Using Joe’s Goals to track and then improve your productive outputs.

In keeping with yesterday’s post about actually using tools before recommending them, I’d like to introduce you to Joe’s Goals. As with all the best productivity tools, it’s really very simple and straightforward. It looks like this:

Joe's Goals

As you can see, I’ve specified my ‘goals’ down the left-hand side and the days of the week appear along the top (along with the date). If you complete your goal on a particular day, clicking on the relevant box fills it with a green ‘tick’ icon. There’s also the option to have a ‘journal’ entry box which you can see at the bottom of the above screenshot.

I’ve been using Joe’s Goals for a few months now and have found it very useful. The satisfaction and motivation element of being able to ‘tick off’ that I’ve completed a target I’ve set myself is very worthwhile. There’s three main benefits as far as I see it for using Joe’s Goals are that you can:

  1. Track what you’ve been up to in order to see what you did when.
  2. Monitor trends (e.g. I’m statistically more likely to write a blog post if I’ve been for a run that morning)
  3. Motivate yourself to do something you haven’t done for a while (in my case, work on my Ed.D.!)

Have YOU tried out Joe’s Goals? What did you think? What are the alternatives? 😀

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