The Howard Rheingold Episode

Howard RheingoldI’m a big believer in knowing where you come from. Online community is not new. Our profession has existed since the 1980s. People came before us, and I believe that it’s important to understand, acknowledge and appreciate that. We should value and respect those who did the work before we did.

Any conversation about online community pioneers must involve today’s guest. Howard Rheingold was an early, active member of The WELL, the highly influential online community, founded in 1985. He is credited with coining the term, “virtual community,” and Mr. Rheingold’s experiences with online communities led him to author the book, The Virtual Community, published in 1993. His work has influenced generations of community builders. We discuss:

  • The essential digital literacy all web users must have
  • What still excites him about online community in 2016
  • Why it took 5 years to find a publisher for The Virtual Community

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Big Quotes

“[When we were trying to find a publisher for The Virtual Community,] what my agent told me was that only electrical engineers would want to use computers to communicate. That was what the publishing world thought.” -@hrheingold

“One September, America Online put 3 million people online without any kind of instruction about what the norms were, and that was called ‘the September that never ended’ because it was no longer possible for the people who had been online to educate the newcomers about norms. So therefore, people then reinvent the wheel, they go through the same old conflicts over and over again because they’re not aware of that. Maybe that will be different 10 or 20 or 30 years from now, when the norms have solidified. But again, things are moving so much faster. The technology enables people to communicate in ways that we really don’t have norms for yet.” -@hrheingold

“I’m as excited about [online community and social media] as I ever was. I think we have to face that now that majority of the human race is connected, people online act like the majority of the human race, which means that there are a lot of bad actors as well as people of good will. We have to deal with the way that some of the nastier sides of human nature can be amplified online. But despite that, it’s fantastic.” -@hrheingold

“Feeling that you are communicating in a safe way, I think, is essential if you really want to grow a community rather than a network of people who communicate with each other but don’t necessarily trust each other. That doesn’t just happen, you need to nurture that.” -@hrheingold

“When people egregiously break the rules of a particular space and are sanctioned for it or expelled, they often raise the free speech defense that, ‘What about the First Amendment?’ Well, the First Amendment says Congress will make no law. It doesn’t mean that Joe can’t throw you out of his bar for being rowdy or that Mary can’t throw you out of her online community for being nasty. I think it’s important for community organizers to realize that, yes, you need to have a light hand, you need to do a lot behind the scenes, you need to encourage the community to police itself. But also, there’s nothing wrong with drawing a line and saying, ‘If you go behind this line, then you really don’t belong here.'” -@hrheingold

“I think those of us who were real believers in the future of social media knew that we would have multimedia one day, that it wouldn’t just be texts on screen. I don’t think anybody dreamed that every day more people would upload their own videos to YouTube than the entire history of broadcast television made available. We just didn’t dream of that. The web and the social web is developed in directions that people didn’t even dream of. I think we suspected that there would be problems, and the problems are on the same scale that the opportunities are, which is large.” -@hrheingold

“Crap detection, the ability to determine which information is good information and which is bad information, is now an essential literacy because there is no authority to published information anymore. It used to be you got a book out of the library and you trusted the authority of the text. Now, you can put a question into a search engine and get a million answers and it’s up to you, the questioner, to figure out which ones are true or not.” -@hrheingold

“Unfortunately, I think that Facebook has somewhat degraded people’s ideas of what a forum should be. Facebook Groups really don’t do forums very well. In fact, I was invited to talk to about 100 people, the social science researchers at Facebook, a while back, and I pounded on them about it. They’re smart people. I can’t believe that this is done because they’re not aware of how forums operate. There must be a business reason for why they want the forums to be badly organized.” -@hrheingold

About Howard Rheingold

Howard Rheingold became involved in The WELL, a “computer conferencing” system, in 1985. He started writing about life in his virtual community and ended up with a book about the cultural and political implications of a new communications medium, The Virtual Community (1993). Mr. Rheingold is credited with inventing the term “virtual community.”

In 1994, he was one of the principal architects and the first executive editor of HotWired, an early commercial web magazine. He quit after launch, wanting to do something more like a jam session than a magazine. In 1996, Mr. Rheingold founded and, with the help of a crew of 15, launched Electric Minds, an online community that was named one of the ten best websites of 1996 by TIME. Since the late 1990s, he has cat-herded a consultancy for virtual community building.

Mr. Rheingold’s 2002 book, Smart Mobs, was acclaimed as a prescient forecast of the always-on era. He has taught at UC Berkeley’s School of Information and Stanford University, where he currently teaches virtual community and social media. He also provides instruction online through Rheingold U. Mr. Rheingold’s TED Talk, The New Power of Collaboration, has been viewed more than 800,000 times. His latest book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, was published in 2012. He can be found on Twitter, YouTube and his website,

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