Immigrants, natives, orienteers

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.

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12 thoughts on “Immigrants, natives, orienteers

  1. Being able to evaluate the quality of the information you find is a core digital literacy competency. And the immigrant/native metaphor is apt in painting a potential for differences across that generation gap–although natives may be more fluent in their home culture, they may also be less critical of that culture.

    The other point you make that I think is crucial is not only evaluating the information you do find, but what you don’t… there’s a real (human) tendency to stop searching once you’ve found a minimally satisfactory answer (as you say, the first page of search results, or Wikipedia). Seems to me this has a potential to normalize our collective thought towards a common denominator–not necessarily the LCD, but certainly reinforcing the majority view over the minority.

    We have an unprecedented variety of information and opinion available in the cloud… can we design search tools that help us to maximize the value of that collective resource? And/or, how can we teach those kinds of critical thinking skills?

  2. I’m surprised you completely missed one huge source of such training: libraries. Librarians are experts in critically evaluating source relevancy, have been teaching others to do this since long before the web existed, and most have adapted the techniques they teach as information sources have changed. There’s even a librarian game about finding useful sources to answer questions.

  3. “although natives may be more fluent in their home culture, they may also be less critical of that culture.”

    Exactly. This is a key point rarely discussed.

  4. When you talk about the strategy of ‘orienteering’ I am just not sure it is an apt term in every case. While I think the ‘teleport’ metaphor is correct for that scenario, the orienteering metaphor just seems to be inappropriate for some search scenarios.

    In the case of the example Anne Zelenka quoted – refinding the article you knew existed, when you started you already had a destination in mind and thus orienteering would be the correct metaphor.

    However, in many cases, users won’t actually know the exact destination when they start looking, hence, I believe, even using the term orienteering is misleading.

    For situations such as these, a term closer to mountaineering might possibly be more appropriate.

    Within a specific search space, there may be a number of solutions with differing degrees of “rightness”. And, for a complete solution, a user may even need something from each.

    If we imagine the sources of ‘rightness’ to be peaks above the plain of clutter or noise then a good ‘mountaineer’ will be able to get off the plain quickly. They understand the paths and signposts that will take them to other potentially higher (or better) solutions and are equipped with the language needed to get there faster.

    To continue the metaphor, someone who is good at this type of search is able to get off the plain of millions of potential answers and quickly climb to the apex of a potential solution. From the “top”, they will recognise other potential solutions on the horizon and be able to evaluate them and judge if they are “higher” – i.e. more correct. Additionally they are often able to climb “slopes” in different parts of the “map” and use these differing viewpoints to effectively weight the strength of the final solution.

    In this world, Natives, especially lazy ones, may only know their own neighbourhoods and may only be happy in their known world and thus would be poor ‘mountaineers’. They may jump on the logo emblazoned cable car every time.
    Immigrants, on the other hand, may have all the skills needed to quickly become very good at ‘orienteering’ or ‘mountaineering’ and may just need to learn the language or how to read the map.

  5. “even using the term orienteering is misleading”

    It’s admittedly a bit of a stretch. I would say though that even when on familiar ground, natives often encounter unfamiliar circumstances. In navigating through them, they rely on a multiplicity of (often tacit) strategies.

  6. I was introduced to the idea of orienteering by Jaime Teevan, who’s now with Microsoft Research. She’s doing tons of interesting stuff with search and with personal information management — maybe she’d make a good podcast interview subject for you sometime, Jon.

    Not sure “mountaineering” is better than orienteering since few mountaineers head out without knowing which exact peak they want to climb. But I like that it incorporates the idea of finding local maximums, if that’s implied by it, and the idea of getting off the plains quickly.

    At any rate, I think the important point of calling it orienteering or mountaineering is to get away from the idea that a one-step leap is always desirable in searching online and to better understand how users actually search rather than how search engines might suggest we should search.

  7. I like that most banks now have a “we will never email you asking for you to login” plastered all over their websites.

  8. You may as well teach the reading of email headers now. You’re assuming the current clumsy attempts will continue to be the norm. I predict future phishing emails will become more sophisticated so that the obvious wrongness is no longer a good measure of authenticity.

  9. A nice older woman walks into the public library where I work, sits down at a computer at tells me, “I’d like to go to the web site to get 6 free toothpastes.”

    “Sounds like a scam to me,” I tell her with a kind smile.

    “I’d like to sign up for the free toothpaste anyway,” she says.

    “Okay,” says I.

    About 8 minutes later she says in an exasperated voice.

    “This is a scam. This is a complete scam!”

    I pause. And then say, “Uhm, did I tell you that about 8 minutes ago?”

    She looks a little embarassed — and then says, “Well, yes.”

    The moral of the story? Sometimes you need to let folks come to their own conclusions. Give them some guidance, but let them proceed along the path more warily.

    And in the end, they may end up trusting you more.

    Phil Shapiro, Public Geek
    Takoma Park Maryland Library

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