Better internet literacy: an experiment

April 14, 2011 § 14 Comments

I believe we have an internet literacy problem.
Well over a billion people know how to get online. But a much smaller number understand basic concepts like how to read a URL or how to make a good password. Without these conceptual building blocks, it’s hard to get around, be safe or shape your little corner of the net. Or, as Mitchell might say, it’s hard to have control over your online life.

How the internet works cartoon

It’s on us to fix this. Or at least to help. Mozilla’s products take us part way: they give people powerful tools to interact with the web. I think we also need to offer conceptual tools that help people gain even more control of their lives online. With this in mind, I’m proposing an experiment: a distributed, open sourced social marketing campaign to help people become more internet literate.

Marketing the open internet

What do I mean by social marketing? If you are old like me (42), just think about Schoolhouse Rock: ubiquitous Saturday morning cartoons that used catchy jingles to help kids get abstract concepts like grammar and civics. Or, if you are Canadian, think back to the Participaction ad campaigns used to promote exercise from the 1970s to the 1990s. These are classic social marketing: using simple messages and popular media to drive mass understanding of important and socially beneficial concepts.

Schoolhouse Rock Logo

I’ve been asking myself recently: what does effective social marketing look like in the internet era? How could it improve internet literacy?

The core of social marketing is extremely simple messaging that makes people care about seemingly hard to grok concepts. It’s difficult to imagine millions of people getting excited about ‘how to read a URL’ — but this is what social marketing is about. Simple messages on tough concepts is something that should work as just as well on the web as it did on television.

The other key element is popular media. Of course, popular media has changed dramatically — what worked on tv 30 years ago won’t work on the web today. However, one can easily imagine hundreds of thousands of people reinterpreting, retweeting and remixing a few simple messages. This could knock internet literacy out of the park, giving a whole generation a meme or two to remember.

A 5 step experiment

Which brings me to the experiment: a social marketing mashup of traditional simple messaging and web era distributed pop culture. Imagine 5 steps:

  1. Ask, what are the 10 things we wish everyone on the internet knew.
  2. Come up with extremely simple messaging on each of these topics, messaging that a very broad audience could relate to.
  3. Build an open source communications toolkit around these messages: write out key messages, give people remixable bits of media, etc.
  4. Get everyone with a stake in internet literacy spreading these messages in their own way. Recruit some movie stars if you can.
  5. Watch what happens. Improve the campaign toolkit, rinse and repeat.

Like Google’s 20 Things book, this experiment focus on explaining core internet concepts in accessible terms. But in Mozilla style, we’ll create a collaborative, open sourced, open ended messaging toolkit that’s modular and remixable. And we’ll borrow the best social marketing wisdom to spread those ideas as far as possible.

Using the principle of start small, about a dozen people will gather in Toronto in early May to start the experiment. It’ll be a mix of Mozillians, educators, privacy experts, net neutrality advocates and web companies — all people who both want and need internet literacy to improve.

Our goal will be to prototype the messaging toolkit I describe above. We’ll we’ll write together on just a few topics: producing a raw messaging and reusable assets on each topic. We’ll share what we create, and discover which kinds of content and which kinds of messages help ignite the kind of remixable, distributed campaigns we need. And if those campaigns need more fuel for the fire, we’ll organize a bigger sprint to build out more topics and materials that people can use to market the web.

I don’t know exactly how this experiment will unfold, but as I was reminded recently, there is power in uncertainty. It’s the same power that drives the web: the power of staying open to contribution, to re-invention, to inspiration. I hope you will join in this experiment once it gets going, and help us fill in the blanks.

PS. Thanks to Rob Cottingham for the awesome cartoon above.

§ 14 Responses to Better internet literacy: an experiment

  • Dethe Elza says:

    I love this idea. As I read this I kept thinking of Gene Ziegler’s “A Grandchild’s Guide to Using Grandpa’s Computer”, often misattributed to Dr. Seuss:

    Best wishes with the project.

  • smo says:

    Would this not bew something worth a booki sprint? We have TB manual out of such a sprint, a FR translation of it … check

  • I’m glad that Mozilla is there to lead this type of education. Please do more of it.

    On a side note. I have always felt that individuals could use their own Terms of Service if online organizations want me to use their products. I think Mozilla maybe the only organization that could create a clean, usable, personalized individual TOS API system. “Hey new social service! You want me to sign up and use your service, I need you to agree to my terms. Here is the URL.”

  • Lizz Noonan says:

    This is amazing! Digital and Internet literacy is so important, I’m glad to see someone doing something proactive to improve it in our ever more technology-dependent society! Keep up the good fight and update so we can contribute!

  • Matej says:

    I think this is awesome. I’ve often wondered how to better explain these types of concepts to my mother, for example — who doesn’t really get the difference between the Internet, her browser and email, even though she uses all three quite well.

    Social marketing in the narrowest sense of the term might not be able to reach someone of her generation, but as you describe it above, I think it could speak to a lot of different people and really have an impact. Excited to see how this develops.

  • Couldn’t agree more. This idea of a better internet literacy – one that incorporates knowledge around the tools themselves – is something I’ve been hearing and reading a lot lately, from Rushkoff, to danah boyd, to Cory Doctorow. (We’ve written about it here and here.) Looking forward to hearing more as the experiment unfolds. And we can get involved in any way, please let us know!

  • Its a great initiative Mark, and I hope more individuals and organizations will participate in developing public education campaigns aimed at people who may not be on the cutting edge of technology. At, we are trying to move people up the ladder of digital self sufficiency, starting with the basics of computer access, and helping them progress along a continuum from limited participant to valuable contributor in the digital economy.

  • […] think this post on better Internet literacy is just right on. Especially the question about ‘what are the 10 things we wish everyone on […]

  • Allen Gunn says:

    Great stuff. Reading this makes me wonder if there is another component to the larger vision, a set of checklists like “things to ask before installing a plugin” or “things to ask before opening a hosted account”.

    Would it be too recursive to have an internet literacy plugin to ask you questions before you install plugins? :^P

  • I think that it could work like a “show” and “tell”. I’ve found that if you serve up example plus solution in the same bucket that people feel less “told” and more engaged.

    My favourite Sesame Street video is still the guy in the canoe in Lake Ontario. He tries to drink the water and gets a cup of sludge. It is indeliable messaging.

    I’m with Matej: my sister is your new audience. She wants to raise three Internet savvy kids, but is overwhelmed by the borg-ness of the net and its risks. It has to be packet-like to reach her and fit into her busy life.

  • Paul Booker says:

    Cool idea, will there be an etherpad document or something similar so that folks can participate over the web in real time?

    // Paul Booker

  • […] explicitly. Before one can learn to code, one must understand much more basic principals of the Web.Mark wrote about this as well: Better internet literacy: an experimentI’d be interested to hear what Mozilla plans for better internet literacy. What happened to […]

  • […] points to an earlier post from Mark talking about ‘Internet Literacy‘ and like her I wonder where this experiment got to as I think this is exactly where I think […]

What’s this?

You are currently reading Better internet literacy: an experiment at commonspace.


%d bloggers like this: