In today’s mobile media environment, an incredible amount of information is available to every one of us, every minute of every day.
With our cell phones close by, we can easily search for answers to trivia questions, word definitions or find the perfect recipe for the confetti eggplant bought at the farmers’ market. When traveling, we have instant access to the conversion rate between the euro and the dollar and can map directions to any location. And then there is all the personalized information posted by our Facebook friends.
So, how do we keep up with and understand the wide array of information? How do we integrate this into our lives as we participate in a connected world? And how do we make meaningful additions to these spaces as originators of information in the online venues that matter to us?
As researchers of library and information science, we use the term metaliteracy as a way to look at literacy in the social media age. Previously, the usage of the term metaliteracy was mostly in connection with literacy studies.
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We expand the idea further in our book: Metaliteracy: Reinventing Information Literacy to Empower Learners. We use it as a way to recast information literacy for reflective learning with social media and emerging technologies.
So, what exactly is metaliteracy, as we define it?
To understand it, let’s consider some common web-based situations that we encounter daily.
When browsing the web or scrolling Facebook, you may have noticed the ads that appear often align very closely to searches you’ve performed previously.
For instance, after searching for consumer products such as a new sofa, you probably encountered the same exact products and stores you originally sought out. At times, this might be just what you want. But after a while, it might start to feel a bit intrusive.
Yes, you can adjust your ad settings to increase the chances that relevant advertisements appear only when you are on Google sites such as YouTube. But did you also know that you can opt out of this feature?
Here is where metaliteracy comes into play.
A metaliterate learner would always dig deeper into the search process, ask good questions about sources of information, consider privacy and ethical issues, and reflect on the overall experience, while adapting to new technologies and platforms.
Filtering in a connected world
There is more going on here than we might think we know.
For instance, did you know that often the information we see online is being filtered for us, by someone else?
Google has been personalizing your search results since 2005 if you were signed in and had your web history enabled. If you were being cautious and didn’t sign in, starting in 2009 they began using 180 days of your previous search activity to accomplish the same thing.
Google might call it personalizing, but others see it as constricting.
Filtering results in isolated information ecosystems of our own making.
What about other search engines?
If we are willing to break away from the convenience of Google, we could use other search services. DuckDuckGo and Startpage are just two of several search engines that provide more privacy than some of the big names.
For, instance, DuckDuckGo does not engage in “search leakage,” as that firm calls it. It notes that other search engines save not only individual searches, but also your search history:
Also, note that with this information your searches can be tied together. This means someone can see everything you’ve been searching, not just one isolated search. You can usually find out a lot about a person from their search history.
But worse, search engines may release searches without adequately anonymizing the information, or that information may be hacked.
Startpage allows you to funnel your search in a way that obtains Google results without your personally identifiable information traveling along with the query.
But, how many of us opt to use a search engine other than Google? Google is still the dominant search engine worldwide.
So, then, are we weaving our own webs without carefully thinking about the many implications of doing so?
Look at how we selectively create and share our experiences on the fly, editing and filtering digital information along the way, and making choices about permissions to view and to share. For instance, imagine the millions of selfies that reflect our individual personas while being shared within a larger social mosaic of interconnected audiences.
Sometimes we may not even be aware of who can access our content or how it is distributed beyond our immediate circle of friends. Consider our focused concentration on texting while being in large crowds and ignoring the chance encounters with others or missing the random scenery of everyday experience.
Information-filtering is ongoing in all these contexts and is both internally and externally constructed.
What does metaliteracy do?
Metaliteracy prepares us to ask critical questions about our searches and the technologies we use to seek answers and to communicate with others.
We do not just accept the authority of information because it comes from an established news organization, a celebrity, a friend, or a friend of a friend. Metaliteracy encourages reflection on the circumstances of the information produced.
It prepares us to ask whether or not the materials came from an individual or an organization and to determine the reason for posting or publishing it. As part of this process, the metaliterate learner will seek to verify the source and ask questions about how the information is presented and in what format.
Metaliterate individuals gain insights about open environments and how to share their knowledge in these spaces. For instance, they are well aware of the importance of Creative Commons licenses for determining what information can be reused freely, and for making such content openly available for others’ purposes, or for producing their own content.
They also understand the importance of peer review and peer communities for generating and editing content for such sites as Wikipedia, or open textbooks, and other forms of Open Educational Resources (OERs).
The truth is that we can all be metaliterate learners – meditative and empowered, asking perceptive questions, thinking about what and how we learn, while sharing our content and insights as we make contributions to society.
Trudi Jacobson is Distinguished Librarian at University at Albany, State University of New York.
Thomas P Mackey is Vice Provost for Academic Programs at SUNY Empire State College.