This is the fourth in a short series of posts on a great new book by Howard Rheingold: “Net Smart”. I recommended you find time to read this fascinating volume yourself (see link below) but if you can’t find the time, these posts summarise the main themes: this week: Participation Power.



Online participation can translate into real power

Rheingold acknowledges that much of the content published online, and on social media in particular, is banal, trivial and full of self-promotion.

The purpose of “NetSmart” is to teach us how to detect and ignore the crap and find the good stuff.

One of the ways in which the advent of the Internet has been so revolutionary is that it changed us many of us from an audience which mainly consumed media to a group of people actively contributing and participating.

It has become so easy and cheap to contribute to online content that hundreds of millions of us do just that.

Rheingold acknowledges that we do this for a whole range of motives, many of them selfish or trivial, but that all these contributions make a very useful whole.

People participate by writing or editing Wikipedia pages, blogging, rating movies, books & YouTube videos, tweeting links and much more.

He discusses how online “interest-driven communities” (be they payment by results, probation, ice hockey, origami or keeping seahorses) tended to be formed of people who did not previously know each but who use digital media to find each other, hang out and share the products of their mutual interest.

Ladder of participation

Rheingold discusses a wide range of participation, neatly summarised by the graphic below:

The chapter is full of fascinating insights and discussion and deserves a careful read. But I want to whet your appetite by briefly summarising three common ways in which many of us participate online: Blogging, Curating and Tweeting.


For Rheingold, blogging is a way to find your voice and public, connect with like-minded communities, improve your digital profile, influence others and contribute to the commonwealth of online material.

He characterises four key easy-to-understand blogging genres: the blogger as:

  1. Filter
  2. Connector
  3. Critic
  4. Advocate

I like Rheingold’s view that while some people blog better (and more popularly) than others, it shouldn’t stop anyone from communicating with an authentic voice to the public.

We can’t all ride a bike like Chris Hoy or Victoria Pendleton, but we can all enjoy cycling.

Curation is short for “We’re all each other’s filter”

Rheingold, like me, does a lot of curation online, from the dedicated selection and organisation of material around a theme (see my on Police and Crime Commissioners below) through re-tweeting an interesting link, to Liking a Facebook page or +1-ing a post on Google+.

Like me, he is more than happy to invest considerable free time in curating for others, in the sure knowledge that we get to enjoy the fruits of the labours of many more curators across our work, social and domestic interests. I would never review a washing machine, but when I have to buy a new one, I’m glad that people do.


Rheingold gives us an authoritative history of Twitter and emphasises that it has been third parties who have contributed the biggest advances: developing the #hashtag and search facilities.

He recounts its importance in the Arab Spring – real-time organising of protests which also prevented many deaths so that protesters could out-manoeuvre the army as well as calling world-wide attention to the battle for democracy.

Twitter is a great source of immediate, information which enables us to meet new people and find answers almost instantly (I’ve recently found it’s the best way to establish which Magistrates’ Courts were closed and where hearings now take place) as well as organising collective action.

There is something liberating about Twitter’s asymmetry – there is no requirement to follow people back meaning that everyone has a unique list of followers and friends.

Rheingold knows that many people just don’t get Twitter and explains the processes of tuning (the network of people you follow) and feeding (the network of people who follow you).

Most of the people who contribute to my Why I Tweet series understand this well, although they all go about it in different ways.

And finally

In some ways, participation online is simple:


If you don’t put out, you don’t get back.

Next weeks’s post explores the Social-Digital Know-How.

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