Scott Hanselman asks a critical question:

I know you’re the IT Department for your family, Dear Reader. This is our charge and ours to bear happily, but are you also the Web Bullsh*t detector?

How do you protect your friends and family from these things? How do you teach Web Savvy?

The example that Scott cites is instructive. His mom asked about the recirculating rumor that cell phone numbers are being released to telemarketers. In finding and evaluating the FTC website that refutes the claim, Scott reflexively uses a strategy that Anne Zelenka calls orienteering which entails the use — and critical assessment — of a plurality of information sources and tools.

Although it won’t help Scott’s mom or mine, I think we need to teach the principles of orienteering early, starting in grade school. One of my pet peeves in the whole discussion about “digital immigrants” versus “digital natives” is the presumption that the natives — i.e., younger folk who grew up with the web — are innately savvy. I don’t buy that. My sense is that for a whole lot of natives, critical inquiry ends at the first page of search results, or the Wikipedia entry.

Meanwhile, we need to realize that immigrants — like Scott’s mom, and mine, and a lot of older educators — do in many cases possess the necessary critical skills. They’re just disoriented by the infosphere, and unsure how to apply those skills in online contexts. That’s why I like Anne’s word ‘orienteering’ so much. Life is a game of orienteering that immigrants can often play more effectively than natives. If we could find the right way to have the conversation, learning could flow in both directions across this generation gap.

Update: Just now my wife showed me a phishing attempt that gave her a moment’s pause. She’s very savvy when it comes to search and critical assessment, and normally would have blown this off, but in this case — for the first time in her experience — the attempt purportedly came from a bank she actually does business with.

Now here’s the funny thing. In spite of what I just said above, my first response was to show her the email headers and point out the obvious mismatch between the purported and actual sender. Wrong, wrong, wrong! She doesn’t need to do that. She only needs to trust her own instincts. In this case the email said:

You are requested to follow the provided steps and update your Online Banking details, for the safety of your accounts by clicking Account Update. However, failure to do so may result to temporary account suspension.

Her comment was: “I can’t read those email headers. All I know is that my bank wouldn’t threaten me that way.” Setting aside the grammatical weirdness, it’s the coercion that tipped her. You don’t need to know how to read email headers. You just need to trust your coercion detector, and know that nothing that happens online invalidates it.