Critical Cyberliteracies:

What Young People can Teach us About Reading and Writing the World


Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear

Keynote paper presented at the National Council of English Teachers' Assembly for Research Mid-Winter Conference. New York, February 22-24, 2002.


Almost all educators in the U.S. and elsewhere seem to agree that the advent of personal computing, the internet, digital cell phones and other person-to-person and group-to-group communication media have changed what it means to learn, know and do things. Governments around the world, for example, are committing vast amounts of money to developing "learning societies" (cf., Blair 1999) and "information economies" (e.g., NOIE 2001), and are committed to bringing about "digital inclusion" for all citizens (Rhode and Shapiro 2000).

Not surprisingly, young people in developed countries, born in the Atari and Space Invader years and later, have grown up with a host of new technologies that appear as "natural" to them as cars and televisions appear to us (Bennahum 1998, Rushkoff 1996, Tapscott 1998). Demographers predict that by 2005, there will be roughly 77 million internet users under 18 years of age (Burke 1999). At present:

Interestingly, and despite rapid advancements in speech-based digital technologies--particularly where instant messaging services are concerned--much of the cyberspace life of young people is text-based: email messages, discussion board postings, instant messages, chat space, virtual world conversations, and so on are still mostly written. The proliferation of new paralinguistic symbols such as emoticons--key strokes such as colons, semi-colons and parentheses to depict emotions; the compression of idioms in the form of acronyms, such as LOL for "laughing out loud", IMHO for "In my humble opinion", or numbers and letters as in "C U l8ter" in place of "see you later", and "R U OK?" in place of "Are you all right?"; semiotic languages, such as that used in some internet-based episodic games, and the like, make writing online a complex social practice.

Of course, when literacy is conceptualized as both a situated action and a socially recognised practice concerning "ways with words" (Gee 2001), reading and writing mediated by new digital technologies become even more complex because the sites for situated action are dispersed across time and space (e.g., via asynchronous email) and the "rules" or "language games" associated with different online practices develop, shift and metamorphose into other new literacy practices. An example of this comes from one of the three cases we discuss later in this paper: Plastic. Plastic--whose tagline reads, "Recycling the Web in real time"--is an online forum devoted to posting the "best content all over the Web for discussion" (Plastic 2002: 1). One of the most striking things about Plastic is the way users employ seemingly conventional practices--such as subject lines in postings--to create new ways of conveying information. For example, many people who post a comment in response to a showcased story begin their message in the subject line and continue it in the body of the message, instead of following other (older) people's guidelines for writing succinct and informative headings, subject lines, and other "microcontent" (e.g., Neilsen 1998). A subject line in a Plastic comment might read: "one of the biggest problems I see", with the body of the message beginning, "with multi-polar world orders is that, historically, they donít work very well to maintain the peace" (port1080, 3 February 2002). This approach to information delivery sometimes calls for new ways of reading posted comments--in this case, for example, instead of skimming the subject line, more attention needs to be paid to what it is actually being said.

Then there's Banja (, an episodic online game that makes language barriers in physical space redundant via a semiotic language that the characters "speak" to each other. For example, dialogue between characters may have them arranging to meet later that night--with the text comprising a watch face and moon, an animated arrow pointing to an icon of a hand-in-hand male and female, and another animated arrow pointing from the male and female icon to an icon of the local poolside bar.

These new ways of reading and writing come with new ways of looking at and understanding the world--although critical literacy pedagogy has long been interested in the relationships between language, power, social practice and access to social goods and services, very little attention has been paid to developing critical pedagogies that take into account the new literacies being enacted by young people in cyberspace each day. Much attention from government and others has been paid to the need to "police and protect" young peopleís uses of the internet (cf., critiques in Goodson et al. 2002) and to saving young people from themselves; however, very little research attention has been given over to examining the critical literacies young people are already using in cyberspace by dint of their detailed "insider" knowledge of how the social spaces of the internet work to exclude some people and not others, or how the internet can be put to use in presenting their informed critiques of political and social events and practices.

In the remainder of this paper, we focus on critical literacy as a practice of production, rather than of consumption. We use three case studies of young people using the web as "insiders" to practice critical literacy in organic and informed ways, and suggest ways in which cases like these could be used to develop research programs that focus on critical literacy, as well as pedagogies that approach critical literacy and cyberspace from an "insider"--rather than an "outsider" perspective.

critical literacy: beyond the missionary position

One of the key tenets underpinning critical literacy is that it is something that can be "taught" and "learned". Evolving from the intersection of critical theory and pedagogy with literacy studies, critical literacy is concerned with critiquing the relationship between language, social practice and power. In this way it differs somewhat in focus from critical pedagogy--the latter is interested in developing and practicing ways of teaching critically;

A critical pedagogy examines what is taken for granted (e.g., having principals for schools or selling medicine for profit) and what is accepted as business-as-usual (e.g., letting a test score keep people out of a job, or women letting men think the idea was theirs). Further, a critical pedagogy works at figuring out where the taken-for-granted, business-as-usual came from, what itís connected to, and whose interests it serves (Edelsky 1999: 15).

Critical literacy, on the other hand, foregrounds the role of language in establishing and maintaining taken-for-granted, business-as-usual. It closely examines the ways in which language practices carve up the world according to certain socially-valued criteria (and not other sets of criteria); draws attention to inequities; and calls for a rethinking of theories considered "natural" or unassailable. Thus, critical literacy can be conceptualized as:

[a]nalytic habits of thinking, reading, writing, speaking, or discussing which go beneath surface impressions, traditional myths, mere opinions, and routine cliches: understanding the social contexts and consequences of any subject matter; discovering the deep meaning of any event, text, technique, process, object, statement, image, or situation; applying that meaning to your own context (Shor 1999: 20).

Critical literacy makes a large investment in critiquing the ideological nature of language and language use--or discourses--in people's everyday lives.

Critical literacy is concerned with knowing something through and through--in order to get at the kinds of "deep meanings" referred to by Shor, students need to be well-informed about an issue and from a number of different perspectives. "Deep meaning" here does not refer to some essential, albeit craftily "hidden", message buried within texts that requires careful eyes and a quick mind to extract. Rather, deep meaning refers to the results of a careful process of comparing and contrasting a range of accounts concerning an event, moment in time, action, circumstance, and the like and evaluating the results in relation to who has access to what kinds of social goods and services (i.e., power), by what means, and in relation to what or whom. For example, without knowing something of the history of Western science and its long-term close ties with Christianity that viewed science as a sure way of knowing more about the miracle of creation and thus was a strategy for becoming closer to God, it is difficult to understand current assumptions made by many scientists concerning their unquestionable right to push the envelope where physics and genetics are concerned (cf., Noble 1999, Wertheim 1996).

Paulo Freire defines power as tied intimately to practices of "naming the world" (cf., Friere 1972). Those with power are able to affix names to physical objects as well as to people, practices and things. Thus, an enormous, well-populated southern continent is named Terra Nullis--empty land--by a small group of wandering White explorers from the north; the teeming and powerful Tenochtitlan is renamed Ciudad de Mexico by a small group of Spanish mercenaries; non-English speaking people are still regularly given English names by the English-speaking or choose to adopt one; and so on. "Naming the world" extends to processes of making "natural seeming" certain circumstances (and not others), outcomes, historical and contemporary inequities, and the like, as well. Naming the world, as we have written elsewhere (Lankshear and Knobel 1998: 1), thus refers to "moments" in the intricate practices and processes whereby "what counts as being/doing/saying/believing/etc. X is established and reinforced (is transmitted, enculturated, learned), and where norms and criteria shaping access and allocation are played out and/or resisted".

Returning to Western science for an example, Margaret Wertheim (1996: 148) illustrates how a critical literacy perspective can throw into high relief moments in history when so-called "truths" are shored up by means of ideology and interest-serving interpretations--despite conflicting or even erroneous empirical evidenceóand explain how thoroughly ideological and interest-serving the practice of Western science has always been.

Soon science itself was enlisted to the complementarian cause [a movement in the 1700s claiming men and women were different, but complementary] as practitioners in the emerging field of anatomy searched for scientific evidence of women's intellectual inferiority. After careful measurement, anatomists "discovered" that women's skulls were smaller in proportion to their bodies than men's. Thus, they said, the facts demonstrated that, as thinking beings, women were inferior to men. The problem with this deduction was that women's heads are actually larger in proportion to their bodies than menís. When anatomists were forced to concede this point in the nineteenth century, they did not thereby conclude that women had better brains; instead they interpreted the relatively larger head as a sign of incomplete growth. Cranial size was seen to indicate that women were closer in essence to children, whose heads are also proportionately larger. Thus, again, women were construed as mentally inferior to men (original emphasis).

Others committed to reading and writing the world critically have critiqued how ideological constructions of differences can become naturalized and accepted as "the way things are", including empirically refuting scientific claims made on behalf of causal relations between intelligence and race (e.g., Gould 1996, Kincheloe, Steinberg and Gresson 1996), wealth and hard work (Fischer et al. 1996), gender and technology (e.g., Haraway 1991, Stone 1996), boys and literacy failure (Rowan et al. 2001), and so on.

The practice of critical literacy in schools tends in the main to be text-based (cf., Kamler 2001, Knobel and Healy 1998). Ideally, texts, whether they be written, spoken, visual, multimodal, etc., are invitations to explore, compare and critique issues, topics, events, representations, and the like, and to engage in cultural action to "rewrite" these texts differently: to show them for what they are and to challenge and contest them. Critical readings of texts aim at identifying the representational and other material effects of texts, and critical rewritings of texts are "moves" to redress these effects by encoding alternative possibilities. Critical action is a commitment to bringing about social change or transformation for the good of as many people as possible. In other words,

The critical dimension of literacy is the basis for ensuring participants can not merely participate in a practice and make meanings within it, but can in various ways transform and actively produce it (Lankshear and Knobel 1998: 1).

Over the past decade, critical literacy education has moved from the left-most margins of education into left-of-center-stage and in so doing has spawned a wave of journal articles, books and conferences. However, in the main, the focus has been on text analysis processes, whether as taught in a class, or applied to some text (e.g., newspapers, textbooks, interview of conversation transcripts, books and brochures). Paradoxically, and despite the largely textual and graphical mode of the internet, very few critical literacy practitioners have engaged publicly with analysis and critiques of textual and other social practices in or connected with cyberspace outside of gender analyses of video/computer games, online multi-user chat and gaming spaces, and technology-related subjects in school and college and the like (cf., AAUW 2000).

Indeed, much of what we see in terms of critical analyses of internet-related practices are nothing more than the direct transfer of existing text analysis procedures from book space to cyber space. However, this approach fails to take into proper account the huge shift entailed in being a meat space text user and a cyber space text producer and what this signifies for critical literacy practices. This absence of engagement is odd, especially when seen in the light of government ministers', educators' and parents' "police and protect" activity where young people and computers are concerned. Website and email filers, "walled gardens" that separate out carefully-screened "safe" internet spaces from non-safe spaces, and tracking software are common approaches employed in saving children and young people from predators, obscene images, and distraction from the school task at hand (cf., Lankshear and Knobel 2002).

In what follows, however, we argue that in order to better understand how to approach a critical literacy education for current times, we need to examine in detail the critical literacy practices that are already being enacted by young--including the disenfranchised and the socially well-endowed--people on the internet and what these can tell us.

Critical literacy and new technologies

The extent of the challenge facing critical engagement with literacy in the new technology contexts is evident in a recent observation by Manual Castells (1996: 328). Castells speaks of the current technological revolution having created a "Super Text and a Meta-Language" that integrates "the written, oral and audio-visual modalities of human communication" into a single system for the first time in human history. According to Castells, the increasing integration

of text, images, and sounds in the same system, interacting from multiple points, in chosen time (real or delayed) along a global network, in conditions of open and affordable access, does fundamentally change the character of communication. And communication decisively shapes culture, because as Postman writes, "we do not see reality as 'it' is, but as our languages are. And our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture." Because culture is mediated and enacted through communication, cultures themselves, that is our historically produced systems of beliefs and codes, become fundamentally transformed, and will be more so over time, by the new technological system (Castells 1996: 328. The reference is to Postman 1985: 15)

In short, reading and writing as meaningful practice is always inherently bound up with some way or ways of being in the world. The tools or technologies of literacy (from print to computers) are always situated and employed within contexts of practice which permit certain productions of meaning and constrain others (Gee, Hull and Lankshear 1996).

Castells' Super-Text--the coalition of language, communications and media, multimodal text production--upsets conventional critical literacy approaches to text analysis that at best engage with text and images, but that generally set aside sounds and actions and their intertextuality, and at worst, treat multimodal productions as a meat-space printed text (cf., Kress et al. 2001). Similarly, his identification of a Meta-Language as a mode for talking about Super-Texts, insists on conceiving the converging modalities of online spaces as involved in iterative processes of communication, production, and representation.

One of the most pervasive myths or metaphors concerning cyberspace--and which emanated originally from meatspace--has to do with claims that the non face-to-face nature of cyberspace will have/does have an equalising effect on users--breaking down, among other things, barriers of race, class, and differently abled-ness. This was succinctly captured in a now-famous cartoon by Peter Steiner for the New Yorker (Steiner 1993: 61), whose punchline reads, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" (see Figure 1).  

Figure 1. Steiner, P. (1993). The New Yorker. July 5. 69(20): 61.

The point of the cartoon is that it doesn't matter what you look like--you don't even have to be human--because when you're "on" the internet no-one can see and judge you according to your appearance and physical abilities. However, this is actually far from the case. Long-term computer and internet users, or long term participants in a particular social space on the internet, can spot newcomers in a nanosecond based on their online practices, the words they choose, and other status markers that donít often carry much eight in meat space, but that have become amplified in cyber spaces.

eBay, the hugely popular and ground-breaking person-to-person online auction website ( and the eBay discussion lists are quickly spotted and identified by oldtimers or insiders by the questions newcomers ask, or the practices they engage in on eBay itself. For example, from the discussion list concerning the feedback and ratings system used on eBay by sellers and buyers to evaluate goods and payments transactions, one disgruntled oldtimer spells out for newbies the "right" way to act:


Attention Newbies...Way too quick on the Negs....

<<ebay ID>> (10) (view author's auctions)

3:54pm February 8, 2002

I have noticed a disturbing pattern. A lot, Iím not saying all, of new people with (0) feedback are WAY too impatient. They wait 3 days and donít hear from their buyer and/or seller, then leave negative feedback.

Something needs to be done about this...these people need to be educated. If you are new to ebay, DONíT do this. There are honest people out there, who, for some reason or another, donít have access to their email or internet 24/7 like you seem to think.

Also, ebay clearly states that before leaving negative feedback you should try to contact the seller via other means first. Remember that people look at your feedback as well. Just because you have a (0) doesnít mean that people donít look at the feedback that you have LEFT.

Leaving negative feedback for someone who doesnít deserve it is almost worse than being a deadbeat bidder.

Please show courtesy and patience and make the bidding experience more fun for all. This is supposed to be fun, not a drag.

The poster of this message identifies key characteristics that are--at least in the eyes of this seller--signal flares for "newbie" status: having no feedback themselves, being impatient, judging harshly, needing to be educated, and seeming to think sellers have round the clock access to email.

Likewise on Plastic, "outsider" status is signaled unequivocably by non-registered members being forced to use a default alias--"Anonymous Idiot"--when posting comments to a discussion. In addition, the practice of flaming--sending scorching messages in response to a posting considered ignorant or extreme--and the presence of regular message posters combined with less regular participants clearly mark off the boundaries between different groups of Plasticians.

These meta-language signals--meaningful combinations of words, representations and actions--show that far from being the kind of democratic community envisaged by cyberspace pioneers (e.g., Rheingold 2000), the internet requires users to not only keep their wits about them, but also to juggle complex Super-Texts (combining graphics, rating scales, comments or evaluation statements, reading previous postings before hitting "send" on one one's own keyed-in message, knowing stuff or knowing how to get knowledge about stuff, etc.), to watch, listen, read, reflect and commit to full membership before others will take the newcomer seriously.


This characteristic of the social spaces of the internet resonates with John Perry Barlow's conception of new technology take-up. Barlow, occasional lyrics writer for the Grateful Dead and co-founder of the libertarian Electronic Frontier Foundation, has suggested three related distinctions which have to do with modes of controlling activity in social spaces (e.g., controlling values, morals, knowledge, competence, etc.). These distinctions can be used to distinguish between a mindset that sees the contemporary world as being essentially the same as before, just more technologized, and a mindset that approaches the world as having changed fundamentally in important respects under the impact of the information revolution.

Barlow's first distinction is between paradigms of value operating in "physical" space and information/cyber space respectively. In physical space, says Barlow, controlled economics increases value by regulating scarcity. To take the case of diamonds, the value of diamonds is not a function of their degree of rarity or actual scarceness but, rather, of the fact that a single corporation owns most of them--and can regulate or control scarcity. Within this paradigm, scarcity has value. We might note here how schools have traditionally operated to regulate scarcity of credentialled achievement--including literacy "success". This has maintained scarce "supply" and, to that extent, high value for those achievements that are suitably credentialed. In the economy of cyberspace, however, the opposite holds. Barlow argues that with information it is familiarity, not scarcity, that has value. With information,

it's dispersion that has the value, and itís not a commodity, itís a relationship and as in any relationship, the more thatís going back and forth the higher the value of the relationship.

Barlow claims that people don't get this if they are coming from the industrial-era model (Barlow in Tunbridge l995).

Barlow's second distinction is between different ways of looking at well-known issues and concerns associated with cyberspace. He uses the examples of pornography on the Net and Bill Gates' apparent manoeuvre to gain control of the internet by bundling Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser software with Windows 95/98. There are very different ways of looking at these concerns depending on whether one comes from the physical space/industrial mindset or from the alternative mindset associated with understanding cyberspace. For example, with respect to pornography on the Net, Barlow rejects the imposition of gross filters. To begin with, they cannot work, because Net-space simply cannot be controlled in that way. The more elaborate the filter, the more elaborate the schemes to find ways around it, and the more powerful these resistances become. Barlow advocates more local, individualized filters that work on the principle of people taking responsibility for their choices and deciding what "noise" they want to filter out.

If you have concerns about your children looking at pornography the answer is not to eliminate pornography from the world, which will never happen; the answer is to raise them to find it as distasteful as you do (Barlow in Tunbridge, 1995: 4).

Similarly, in response to public fears of Microsoft controlling netspace, the point is that the internet "is too complex for any one person or organization to create the software for it" (ibid.). Software development will continue to be organic, to be shared and dispersed; the development of the open-source Linux operating system is case in point. Short-term domains of control and influence will undoubtedly exist, but they cannot become total or monopolistic because of the very nature of the space.

Barlow's third distinction is between people who have been born into and have grown up in the context of cyberspace, on the one hand, and those who come to this new world from the standpoint of a life-long socialization within physical space, on the other. We will refer here to the former as "insiders" and the latter as "outsider-newcomers". This distinction marks off those who "understand the Internet, virtual concepts and the IT world generally" from those who do not; that is, it distinguishes between two very mindsets in relation to new technology use. Newcomers to cyberspace don't have the experiences, history and resources available to draw on that insiders have; nor do they have the "deep understandings" of how different online communities operate, which actions are socially sanctioned in general, and which are specific to a particular site or service. And so, to that extent, they cannot understand the space as insiders do. Barlow believes this distinction falls very much along age lines. He claims that, generally speaking, people currently over the age of 30 are outsider-newcomers, whereas those people currently under the age of 30 are more likely to be insiders in terms of understanding what the Internet, virtual concepts and the IT world generally is, and having a real "basic sense" of how it operates (Barlow in Tunbridge 1995: 3).

Barlow's distinction between insiders and newcomers is particularly important where cyberspaces and critical literacy are concerned. Too often, critical literacy teachers forget or overlook the critical literacies many students bring with them to class and go about "teaching" critical literacy as though it is something new for all students. Youth-generated content on the internet, however, shows us that this is not the case, and that the internet provides the perfect venue for posting written and visual critiques of inequitable or disenfranchising social practices that occur in meatspaces as well as in cyberspaces. Indeed, not all young people need to be "saved" from themselves through careful and costly filtering and surveillance systems, and nor do they need to be taught how to use email or construct websites effectively. Indeed, so-called "minority" students usually have no need to be taught about a "mainstream" which is most times clearly visible to them (cf., Prakash and Esteva 1999). Of course, many children do need to be made more responsible for their own actions on the internet--and aware of the potential consequences of these actions--but for now, we argue that there is much to be learned about critical literacy practices from young cyberspace "insiders" that at present is not taken into serious account by most adult "newcomers" to these same spaces.

In what follows, we describe three very different insider examples of critical literacy practice. We use these examples to identify key moves in constructing a critical literacy that is grounded in a thorough and close knowledge of social practices within different cyberspaces.

chris raettig and the very important company

The difference between insider and newcomer practices in cyberspace was thrown recently into high relief by an exchange between a powerful multinational company and a young man (22 years old)--Chris Raettig--who grew up in a small working class village in Yorkshire, and now runs a personal website out of a tiny studio apartment in a suburb of London. Early in 2001, Raettig put together a webpage of corporate anthems (in the form of hyperlinked MP3 files). "Corporate anthems", according to Raettig, are "rousing songs created and recorded by large businesses (for reasons best known to themselves)" that are "so bad, they [are] good" (Raettig 2001: 1). The webpage was an instant and widespread success, with people sending in even more anthem files and other websites linking directly to Raettig's page. This interest in turn attracted a hubbub of commercial media interest locally, nationally and internationally. After only a few weeks, Raettig was forced to take down the hyperlinked music files--leaving only the webpage online--because he simply did not have enough bandwidth to support the size to which the webpage had grown (40 megabytes worth of sound files) or the number of hourly visitors the website was attracting (ibid.). At about the same time, Raettig received an email from Frank Dunne--"senior manager of global brand and regulatory compliance" at KPMG, a financial advice company--whose corporate anthem had featured on Raettig's website (ibid.). This email read:



A recent audit of Web sites, to which KPMG is hyperlinked, has revealed that contains a link to KPMG's Web site, Please be aware such links require that a formal Agreement exist between our two parties, as mandated by our organization's Web Link Policy.

We have been unable to locate records that correspond with an Agreement that permits the linking of our two Web sites. A relationship may already have been established with one of our KPMG professionals, in which case we would ask that their name be provided. If a Web Link Agreement has not yet been arranged, please feel free to pursue this course of action. However, we would ask that you please remove the KPMG reference and corresponding link from in the meantime.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.


Frank Dunne

Sr. Mgr., Global Brand & Regulatory Compliance

(201) 505-3611

IB&RC Guidelines link: (Raettig 2001b: 1)

The genre, tenor, phrasing and business discourse of Frank Dunne's letter to Raettig may prove powerful in the meatspace world of old literacies; however, Dunne seriously underestimated the insider status of Raettig where cyberspace practices are concerned. Raettig replied,


i'm not quite sure how a policy on your part translates into action being required on mine. my own organisation's web link policy requires no such formal agreement. the free associative nature of hyperlinking has always been and remains the central characteristic of the world wide web. one which i would hope kpmg would be able to embrace - given their decision to make use of the medium - even if it fails to increase shareholder value, or, indeed, your vision of global strategy.

if every hyperlink used on the web required parties at both sides of the link to enter into a formal agreement, i sincerely doubt that the web would be in existence today.

however feel free to forward a copy of your web link guidelines for my review. i shall be taking no further action at this time.

best regards,

chrisr. (Raettig 2001b: 1)

Raettig posted the email exchange to his website and, if anything, the media attention was even more frenzied than it had been prior to the email from KPMG, with the webpage where he had posted the email exchange between him and Frank Dunne receiving in excess of 120,000 visitors, or "hits", in the first 36 hours (ibid.), wide international media coverage (cf., Manjoo 2001), and spawned countless comments on discussion boards (e.g., Metafilter 2001).

Many of these discussions mercilessly picked apart at the seams the business discourse used by Frank Dunne in his email to Raettig, and drew on additional research of the KPMG website and the like. For example, one poster did a hyperlink search and found a long list of other websites that linked to the KPMG site--leaving it to readers to surmise whether or not they, too, had received "first notice" warnings from Frank Dunne. Another critiqued what he called the "cheesy intro" on the KPMG website (posted on Metafilter 2001: 1). Yet another poster tested the browser compatability of the KPMG website after finding a claim on the KPMG website that the company was interested in demonstrating a close familiarity with new media and internet technologies. She found that the site didn not work at all in one browser, would not load in another after cookies (ISP tracking tracking numbers) were declined, and that the website did not have any contact telephone numbers listed for the company's Interactive Division (posted on Metafilter 2001: 1). The "First Notice" heading on Dunne's email also proved a popular target, with one poster exclaiming: "FIRST NOTICE blah! What's their SECOND NOTICE? 'Okay, we warned ya. Now we're gonna send a big burly guy named Lefty to your house so he can break both yer legs!' ... if they don't like [the way] the Web works, get off the Web" (ibid.).

Some of the critical literacy practices demonstrated by Raettig in his reply to Dunne included checking "the full set of mail headers, and at least [satisfying] myself as to its authenticity as a message from the domain" (Raettig 2001a: 1). Subsequent media research and reporting also showed that a Frank Dunne did indeed exist as an employee of KPMG. Other critical literacy practices included having insider knowledge of how the internet functions ("hyperlinking is a central characteristic of the of the world wide web"), understanding that there is no such thing as a legally enforceable "web link policy", knowing how to go about countering an attempt by outsiders to control internet space (formally regulating hyperlinks would bring about the demise of the internet), that websites--and the hyperlinks among them--are not always motivated by profit and gain.

In short, Raettig demonstrated in his reply to Dunne that he is clearly able to read and write the world of online spaces and practices as an insider, and in ways an outsider like Dunne cannot. Indeed, Raettig himself incisively sums up the "outsider/newcomer" status of KPMG: "it's quite amusing to me that an organization like kpmg is prepared to demonstrate its lack of judgement not once (re: that godawful heartfelt anthem) but twice (displaying a staggering lack of understanding of the web)" (Raettig 2001a: 1). The irony here, of course, is that Raettig does not regard himself as particularly "politicized", but he does recognize when a large company is trying to "put one over" him, and, in this case was able to draw on his understandings of how the world works in countering these companies' strategies. Not only that, but the medium of the internet provided Raettig with a resource for alerting regular readers of his web-based journal--or weblog--of KPMG's "outsider" moves and mediated a range of fora where others could report and discuss the event.

Teaching critical literacy in classrooms requires teachers to know a lot about the world and how it operates (cf., Edelsky 1999, Lankshear 1997, Shor 1999). Cases like this remind us of just how much teachers need to know in order to engage effectively with cyberspaces and critical literacy. Simply knowing how to critique the representations of gender in a magazine advertisement or how to analyse the discourses at work in a newspaper article are no longer enough. Taking on critical literacy practices in cyberspace within the classroom will require many teachers to work hard at obtaining insider--or, at the very least, insider-like--understandings of a wide range of internet practices.

Worse Than Queer

Mimi Nguyen, 26 years old, is an Asian-American feminist anarchist, self-described "disaffected grrrl punk rocker" and the creator of a range of zines including the hardcopy Slander and the online Worse Than Queer (Nguyen 2002a: 1). Zines grew out of the 1970s punk rock scene as fans put together "fanzines" about their favourite band--biographical details, appearance dates and venues, album reviews, and the like. These small-run magazines, or just "zines" for short, were originally typed texts that were cut and pasted by hand into booklet form and then mimeographed (Knobel and Lankshear 2002). These zines were distributed during concerts or via networks of friends and fans. Gradually, these zines evolved into more personalised locations of expression--and their topics and themes ranged far beyond the punk rock scene. These days zines come in all shapes and sizes, forms and media:

Some are just a page or two, others much longer. They can be photocopied or finely printed, done on the backs of discarded office papers or on pricey card stock, handwritten with collages or designed on a computer using different fonts. They can be purchased for anywhere from ten cents to ten dollars; some are free, or just the cost of a stamp (Block and Carlip 1998: 4)

And, increasingly, zines are being published on the internet. Nguyen can be readily considered a pioneer in the cyberzine world--her zine has now been online for over 5 years (a long time in the zine world, and even longer where cyberspace is concerned). Nguyen's cyberzine--and hardcopy--zine grew out of her desire to network with people of color in the punk music scene who--like her--were struggling with identity issues. She uses her cyberzine to deconstruct "Asian-ness" as an anarchist, feminism as a bi-queer, and race in general as a young graduate student at Berkeley University. Her goal is to reinscribe long-standing assumptions about Asian women by refusing to submit to the "Oriental sex secrets" and "Suzy Wong" Asian personae people foisted upon her (cf. Nguyen in conversation with Vale 1997: 54): Nguyen includes drawings of herself on her website depicting herself as a punk rocker complete with piercings, as shaven-headed and toting a gun, and in martial arts poses that are definitely "in your face".

Nguyen's writing and artwork are loud voices of protest, as are her other projects such as exoticize this! (see Figure 2), a virtual Asian-American feminist community she founded in the late 1990s, and a 1997 compilation zine titled, Evolution of a Race Riot. This zine was and is "for and about people of color in various stages of p[unk]-rock writing about race, 'identity', and community" (Nguyen 2002a: 1).


just try it. go ahead.

exoticize my fist.


Figure 2: Front page image from exoticize this! (

Mimi's zine work includes a focus on finding ways to draw attention to assumptions and stereotypes of Asian and Asian/American women at work in popular media. This includes critiquing texts in 'underground' magazines that profess to be anti-establishment and pro-young people (e.g., Maximumrocknroll 1998, issue 198), but that often simply perpetuate images of Asian women as sex toys or as exotica. She also carries her message in strong, line-drawn images she creates herself for her online and offline zines. By these means, Nguyen is creating a space for herself that grows directly out of the her everyday life as a punk, bi-queer, Asian/American woman who grew up speaking Vietnamese in Minnesota and who in the past few years has given over her shaved head and combat fatigues for red lip gloss and spiky heels. Mimi does not claim that she is speaking for, or even to, everyone and refuses to make concessions to non-Asian readers of her zine.

[Mimi] wrote about how someone didn't enjoy her zine because they claimed they "couldn't relate" (being some hip white riot grrl type), but Mimi says "duh, of course you can't relate" (Squeaky n.d.).

Nyugen publicly acknowledges that she maintains her online weblog-cum-journal, Worse Than Queer, to "keep [her] critical tongue sharp and to get the Web's immediate feedback" (Hua 2000: n.p.). Excerpts from her weblog reveal a deep-seated ability to reflect on her experiences in theorized ways, which in turn point to the need for an iterative critical literacy that does not exclude critical theory, colonial theory, minority theory and the like from critique.

I prepared for the "third wave feminism" panel at Practicing Transgression. I wore my mother's brown leather knee-high boots from the late 70s, black stockings, the tan shirt dress referencing Girl Scout or office drone, and a black sweater. I forced a linear narrative out of my life to make it easy, to organize my thoughts in an arbitrary and yet deliberate manner. I wrote this story down (call the tabloids: "I was a punk rocker and feminist theory saved my life") and read it out loud to a crowded, wood-paneled room. I felt too warm and out of place. I don't think I perform "woman of color" very well (Nguyen 2002b: 1).

Nguyen's critical literacy practices are semiotic as well as more conventionally textual--and the medium of the internet enables her to reach a wide and diverse audience that might not otherwise read her commentaries or see her images. Mimi does not shy away from the deep meanings of texts that try to neatly categorise her as "Asian-American", "feminsist", "punk rocker" and reminds us that all inscriptions are "up for grabs" and critique. Nguyen also locates herself within a community of online ziners and webloggers--popularly known as "bloggers" (Barrett 1999)--by including hyperlinks within her text to friends' websites, commenting on recent events in their lives (e.g., being arrested for using the "wrong gender" toilet, breaking up with a boyfriend), and helping to create an interconnected web of solidarity and identity-freedom often missing from the meatspace lives of the people she hyperlinks to. The internet, it seems, is providing a much-needed non-institutional medium for a range of people to combine text, images, and social critique with a sense of connectedness to others. recycling the internet

Despite a long-running moral panic that video games and computers will generate generations of people unable to read and write or function socially (e.g., Vincent 2002), a range of online community-based services are proving just the opposite. One of these sites that specifically targets an 18-30 year old crowd--part of Barlow's new technology "insider" group--is Plastic. Plastic ( began in January, 2001, with the aim of being a "new model" of news delivery, and promising "the best content from all over the Web for discussion" (Schroedinger's Cat 2002: 1). In short, this new model of news delivery puts "the audience in charge of the news cycle as much as possible without devolving into the kind of ear-splitting echo chamber that's turned 'community' into such a dirty word" (Joey 2001: 1).

Estimates place the number of regular Plastic users at around 15,000 (McKinnon 2001: 1). The Plastic community comprises anyone and everyone, but judging by participants' usernames, the comments posted and the historical and cultural reference points used, the majority of participants appear to be male (although more and more woman are beginning to participate regularly), American, and mostly 20-and 30-somethings. Although the gender imbalance--and the ways in which women are "represented" in different discussions--are fascinating in and of themselves and worthy of extended analysis and critique, we have chosen instead to focus on the critical literacy potential afforded by community-generated discussion sites like Plastic. In general, participants--or, as they like to call themselves, "Plasticians"--tend to be self-styled members of an erudite, ironic, and "plugged in" crowd, interested in quirky takes on anything newsworthy, as well as in serious and informed discussion of current events.

One of the most striking things about Plastic is its rating and filtering system which participants can use to screen out comments with low ratings, and read only those rated highly, thereby saving themselves time in sifting through postings that are worth reading and those that are not. Although Plastic emulates a long-existing technology news and discussion website service devoted to a technogeek is "new" in the sense that it turns "push media" like email-posted newspaper headlines and news websites on their heads by having members propose--and publicly comment on--content: "Plastic's original contribution is a forum to discuss the diverse news pieces it promotes. At Plastic, readers' comments are what it's all about" (Barrett 2001: 1).

Items are written up by users and can be submitted for consideration to one of 8 topic categories: Etcetera, Film&TV, Games, Media, Music, Politics, Tech and Work. Those people whose news items are accepted for posting and/or who post comments on the website are awarded ratings on two dimensions. One of these is "karma", which is used to rate a participant as an active member of the community relative to the number of newsworthy or interesting postings--both in terms of submitting stories and posting comments on stories--she or he has made to the site overall. A karma rating of 50 or over generally elevates the poster to the prestigious role of (volunteer) submissions editor status.

The other rating system used on Plastic--and which is linked directly to karma--is peer moderation that operates on a scale of -1 to +5 maximum for a posting overall. Non-registered posters are allocated an initial rating of "0" when they first post a comment, while the rating baseline for registered users is +1. Moderation points are awarded by Plastic's editors and by a changing group of registered Plastic members who have been randomly assigned the role of moderators by Plastic's editors. Each moderator is allocated 10 moderating points to award to posted comments on a Plastic news item, and the possible ratings each moderator can award are: 

Whatever 0

Irreleveant -1

Incoherent -1

Obnoxious -1


Clever +1

Informative +1

Funny +1

Genius +1

Over-rated +1

Under-rated +1

The moderation points awarded to each post are tallied and the final score is automatically updated and posted in the subject line of the message for readers to see. In other words, "if four or five moderators think a comment is brilliant, it may end up with a +5; useless comments are moderated down to a -1" (Plastic 2002b: 2).

This ranking practice is based on formal recognition by the site that users cannot read everything that is posted on a topic. With a peer ranking system in place, users can set filters to screen out postings that fall outside a ranking range of their choice. For example, setting the filter threshold at +3 means only those comments that have been moderated and score at or above +3 will be displayed. Conversely, setting the filter threshold at -1 means every comment posted will be displayed. Plastic offers this ranking and filtering function as a means for helping users practise selective reading and to help enhance the quality of postings to the site.

The rating and filtering system on Plastic directly mediates responsible and informed intellectual exchange--users are quick to pick up on gaps in the logic of others' arguments, flaws in the accuracy of cited information, and grammatical and punctuation errors, and to call for evidence in support of posters' claims, and so on. For example, mischief (2002: 1) comments in response to a story in the politics section of Plastic about George W. Bush's plan to expand citizen service programs: 

What kind of program will this be? Mandatory or volunteer? If people wanted to volunteer, they would just do it already. That is the meaning of "volunteer", but Balzar shoots himself in the foot with his statement, "Teaching good deeds is not the point. Expecting them is." What does he mean by "expecting"?

Later in this same discussion, ddp42 (2002: 1) points out some anomalies in relation to this proposal and others made by George W. Bush:

This administration seems to have a split personality.

Be alert for terrorists - but get back to normal.

Buy, Buy, Buy to help the economy (presumably this requires some considerable amount of work time for those fortunate enough to have jobs) - but spend your time in community service.

--What about protesting against a war, a nuclear power plant, some environmental degradation? Surely these are often actions of citizens concerned about the nation's health, safety, quality of life. Do they count as "community service?"

And Phaedrus responds to another poster in the same discussion (quotes from this poster are in italics in Phaedrus' post and the convention is maintained here as well):

Is encouraging volunteerism a good thing? If it is, what do you care is GWB's motivations? If said motivations are bad, must I give up volunteering? Think about it.

I have thought about it. Let me give you an example of why oversimplification of the sort you've indulged in here can be a bad idea. Good idea: everyone should have car insurance. 15 years ago, this was promoted by the insurance industry in California, and was generally accepted as a good idea. Subsequently, a law was passed making it mandatory to have auto insurance, with a fine if you didn't. The result was that insurance rates skyrocketed, and the very people who were promoting the idea got rich. Sometimes, ideas that look good on the surface have complex underpinnings that you only understand if you stop and consider the motives of the people promoting said ideas. Sorry if I destroyed your idea of the world as a simple, black-and-white kind of place.

As for Bush's motivations in joining politics, believe me there are far easier ways to "look out for your own interests" than setting yourself up to be pissed on by all and sundry. Who needs the aggravation?

Not if you want to affect policy in such a way that you and your rich friends can manipulate the system so you can benefit at the expense of other people. Bush has always been rich; he just wants to make sure that he stays that way.

Discussions on Plastic rarely reach a consensus opinion on a news item--and discussions can be a polyphony of voices sharing equal line and byte space and equally contributing to broadening readers' perspectives on an issue. On the flipside, Plastic is just as easily a tit-for-tat exchange of snide, personal attacks. And of course, the moderation and karma system on Plastic does not necessarily ensure a harmonious community of users. "Meta-discussions" involving litanies of complaints about being moderated down a point, or "modded down" unfairly--or being a victim of "downmod" attacks, where a moderator flushes out all your postings and moderates them down regardless of content--are common. And, despite some posters loudly and repeatedly protesting that they do not care about their overall karma, karma ratings--and the moderation system overall--are indeed "a new arithmetic of self-esteem" on Plastic (Shroedinger's Cat 2002: 1). At stake is public recognition of a poster's incisive mind, keen-edged humour, "innate hipness", and of being "plugged in" (Plastic 2002a: 1).

Nevertheless, despite the darker side of the Plastic community, most users would rather have the rating system than not. As MayorBob, a well respected member of the Plastic community, explains: "The nice thing about the karma [rating system] is that, when you're not getting downmod assaulted, you do get a little feedback on whether you are making sense or getting your point across" (MayorBob 2001: 1). This is an important insight for educators interested in promoting critical literacy in classrooms. In the rush to ensure that all students have a "voice" in class, we cannot overlook our responsibility to ensure that what students are saying makes good logical sense, is well-informed from a range of perspectives and verified information sources, and is well worth listening to. Otherwise, teachers risk having students being silenced outside classroom contexts by those who expect real critique and discussion rather than uninformed commentary.

Giving a real voice to students--one that will make others sit up and pay attention--requires teachers to equip them not only with a range of critical literacy tactics (e.g., Knobel and Healy 1998); but also with a range of meta-level understandings of how to:

It also includes creating a supportive and respectful environment where students are not afraid to critique what peers say, or to have the arguments they put forward critiqued in informed ways. In addition, any critical literacy teaching that engages with online spaces needs to also equip students with the wherewithal for quickly summing up the nature of socially valued practices and ways of speaking/doing within an online community in order to be able to participate seamlessly as an "insider", rather than having to suffer criticisms for not acting or speaking/writing in a "proper" manner. The kinds of ethnographic methods for tapping into local cultural knowledge developed in the work of Shirley Brice Heath (e.g., 1983) and Luis Moll (e.g., 1992) remain directly relevant to critical literacy pedagogy.

It goes without saying that dynamic relationships exist between technologies and the practices in which they are employed. On one hand, the development of new technologies creates conditions in which people can change existing social practices and develop new ones, as well as change and develop new literacies that are integral parts of these new or changing practices. On the other hand, these practices simultaneously "constitute" the technologies involved as cultural tools, and shape what they mean and, indeed, what they are within the various contexts in which people use them.

Literacy and technology are never "singular", never the "same thing". "They" are always "so many things" when in so many hands. The same alphabetic code can be used for writing notes to one's children or for publishing sophisticated experimental findings in learned journals. It can be used for writing good wishes to friends and for writing extortion notes to intended victims. The same kind of ambiguity and range is open to practically any tool or body of knowledge and information we care to name. The same is true of more specific literacies, including different forms of peer feedback and rating systems and the effects they have on texts and spaces. We need only to think of the uses to which various kinds of referees' reports can be put for the point to be perfectly clear. The particular "silicon literacy" of producing (or withholding) content, ratings and feedback shares the formal character of all literacies (different people put it to different uses, understand it differently, etc.). It is susceptible, then, to the same "play" of moral, civic, and emotional forces--the way that people are and how they live out their (in)securities, pleasures and pains, values and aspirations, and so on.


Educators cannot hope to engage in critically literate ways with the new social spaces of the internet without working at knowing "how to make the next move" in the language game of cyberspace. A key element associated with insider practice of critical literacy activity in cyberspace is tied directly to the Wittgensteinian notion of "knowing how to go on" in the absence of rules and prior experience (Wittgenstein 1953: 105). "Knowing how to go on" conceives knowing as making, doing and acting in the process of becoming fluent in, or having mastery of, something (Lankshear, Peters and Knobel 2001). Chris Raetting is exemplary in demonstrating what it means to know "how to go on" in the absence of precedents or already-established social mechanisms (and, flipside, KPMG provides us with the perfect example of mistakenly thinking "how to go on" is the same in cyberspace as it is in meatspace).

What the three cases we have presented in this paper suggest is that the internet affords viable spaces and for a for producing or enacting critical literacy. Too often in classrooms critical literacy becomes an exercise in critical literacy consumption on the part of students, with little room for students to suggest their own approaches to critiquing power, language use and social practices. These three cases are not unique on the internet, but they do signal at least some of the things teachers are likely to need to know--about the internet, how it is or can be used, how to conduct oneself while in it as a newcomer and as an insider, etc.--if their classroom critical literacies are to have any purchase in the lives of students.


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