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