One major goal for teachers and librarians today is to foster “information literacy,” a set of skills that allows us to efficiently communicate what information we need, understand where and how to search, think critically about information and use it strategically to achieve our goals.
Information literacy instruction typically involves activities like a discussion of what makes a source credible and a comparison of various search systems such as Google and paid research databases.
But information literacy is not just knowing how to find documents like articles and webpages; a major part of it is having an awareness of where the best conversations are happening today.
And with new social platforms launching daily and others fading into obscurity, this isn’t always an easy task. The process of finding these conversations also varies greatly depending on the subject area.
“Conversation” here should be thought of in a broad sense, ranging from the scholarly conversations that occur in journals, monographs and conference proceedings to the more informal conversations that span every corner of the web.
We have all heard the popular viewpoint that internet conversation is little more than a string of hateful insults from people hiding behind an anonymous identity. But in reality, intelligent debate exist in just about any subject. We just might not know where to look. (Hint: it’s usually not Youtube.)
Where Can I Find the Best Online Conversations In My Area of Interest?
It can be a useful endeavor to list some of the platforms that might contain valuable conversation, as well as categorize the model of author and audience. Here is a small selection of networks.
Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups = Can be public or by invitation, and often have highly knowledgeable people sharing their expertise, answering questions and commenting on relevant news and other links.
Twitter = a bit different due to the 140-character limit, but unmatched in its potential for quick discovery of both content and people.
Quora = Question and answer site where responses to user questions can be extremely detailed. Its voting system is designed so that the best ideally rise to the top. In some cases famous people show up and answer questions about them, as in this example with Ashton Kutcher, and this one from Mark Cuban.
Reddit = A hugely popular social news site, which can feature questions, links to articles posted on the web or self-posted observations and opinions. Different subreddits vary from silly memes to flame wars to insightful discussions. It’s up to you to seek out the type of conversation you prefer.
Blogs = We are often told not to trust blogs. After all, aren’t they just rants and opinions masquerading as objective truth? Isn’t there no editing or fact checking? While this certainly can be the case, it’s important to recognize that a blog is merely a platform for content publication and delivery, not a genre of writing, and it’s up to us to evaluate each individual blog and choose whether or not to believe it.
Each subject area has its own eccentricities, of course. Here are a couple of examples each with some specific useful sources.
Sample Topic: Academia/Higher Education
Email listservs = This may seem like quite an antiquated technology today, especially the arcane subscriber commands you must use, but listservs are still widely used in certain settings and often feature great discussion. Listservs are run by professional organizations, individual universities, and other groups, and usually allow anyone to subscribe or view the archives on the web.
Blog comments = In the world of higher ed there are several news sources that also host blog networks, including The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed. Often the comment sections are just as valuable, if not more so, than the article itself. Trolls do appear, of course, but are usually buried by more helpful commenters. And if the main piece is a glorified piece of PR or makes unjustified conclusions, there are usually people around to call it out.
Sample Topic: Blogging/Social Media
Google+ = Many people have dismissed Google+ as a failed social network, or at least don’t find much need to use it in addition to Facebook or Twitter. But for some topics, in particular technology-related ones like blogging and social media, it can be an amazing community.
Twitter chats = Beyond just following other accounts and tweeting our own updates, in certain fields Twitter chats are an excellent way to participate in a fast-paced conversation on a particular topic. A Twitter chat occurs at a predetermined time and all participants tag their tweets with a particular hashtag, and it often features a series of questions and a moderator. In the field of blogging, one such conversation is #blogchat.
Of course, most these platforms also contain a good deal of trolling. Is there a particular formula for an online space that can help predict the likelihood of civil discourse? This is a much deeper question that we’ve been exploring and plan to cover more fully in a future post.
How Do I Find These Conversations? The Need to Go Beyond Google
For many of us Google is the be-all-end-all of search: it’s where we start and often finish our information seeking. But it’s crucial to understand that many of these conversations are not findable through a Google search.
Facebook and Linkedin groups, for example, lie behind a login screen, out of the reach of web crawlers such as Google. Sites like Quora are sometimes indexed, but sometimes not. (They also now hide most of the answers unless you are logged in.)
Blog and newspaper site comment sections are usually not indexed well either. You could copy and paste a direct quote from a comment you know is live on the web and Google won’t return a result. The same is often the case with forums.
If you Google a particular question you’ve been wondering, the top results are often low-quality sites like Yahoo Answers and Answers.com. But that very same question may just have been answered in ten times more detail from a reputable source in a LinkedIn group or other online community.
In order to find these conversations the best strategy sometimes is word-of-mouth. Seek out people in the field and ask them where they debate ideas and ask questions online.
For your area of interest, where do the best online conversations occur?