October 1996


A Meditation on Web Literacy

by John December

I've been thinking lately about the next step I need to take in helping people find and create meaning on the World Wide Web. I return to a definition of the Web to try to gain a foundation: Technically, the Web is a system for exchanging data over computer networks. Socially and culturally, the Web gives people a chance to create and share information--to publish, broadcast, and accumulate it collaboratively.

If this is the medium, then what does it mean to have literacy in it?

In terms of print, we can define literacy as the ability to read and write. We could generalize this definition to other media by characterizing literacy as the ability to apprehend and shape messages in a particular medium. Following this line of reasoning, we arrive at a characterization of literacy for the Web: the ability to retrieve information as well as send it, including skills in apprehending and forming messages using hypertext and multimedia. These skills include the ability to use software and making sense of interactive applications such as Java applets and a variety of multimedia formats.

But there is something in this characterization above that doesn't sit quite right with me. It's too mechanical.

Characterizing Web literacy only in terms of software components and technical tasks reduces literacy to the ability to recognize symbols and perform tasks with them. Elephants can be taught to recognize patterns on playing cards--is this literacy? Moreover, a focus on the mechanics of Web-based expression gives rise to poorly-constructed courses that teach students an encoding activity (writing HTML) while disregarding the reasons and processes of forming the messages in the first place. As I wrote last month, we want to train students as writers, not typists.

The added dimension that is missing from a message-centered definition of Web literacy is the social or imaginative activities surrounding all communication. We take it for granted that writing involves processes of invention and composition. Using these processes, a writer shapes a message for a social purpose. Implicit in this characterization is a social context for those messages.

How do we learn literacy in a social context?

By doing. By example. By experience. By imagination. People have cobbled together their own literacies on the Web for more than a half-decade with a varying degrees of success. Many struggle with the syntax of HTML or the intricacies of obtaining, installing, and using software; others create expressions on the Web with value for others. The sometimes arcane syntax of HTML and configurations of software can make it difficult to "play the notes" of the Web, let alone play a pleasant tune, or breathe soul into a composition.

So gaining Web literacy is like contemplating some Zen koan? To learn the Web, one must be the Web?

Hardly. I don't think gaining Web literacy need be mysterious, but we've only scratched the surface in knowing the social contexts and the kinds of expression that are on the Web. I know some rules and guidelines, even some fairly complex strategies, but there's something about the Web that is fundamentally different. Perhaps literacy isn't even the right framework for what we want people to do on the Web. I think it is more like Dasein, being-in-the-world. [TOC]

John December's most recent book is HTML 3.2 & CGI Unleashed, Professional Reference Edition (Indianapolis: Publishing, 1996).

Copyright © 1996 by John December. All Rights Reserved.

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