Teach To The Future, Part 1: How To Write For The Internet

(The first in a series of posts about things children should learn, but often don’t.)

For all the hand-wringing over technology’s effect on our culture, I am certain that even the most reticent teenager in 2014 has written far more in [their] life than I or any of my classmates had back in the early ‘90s. Back then, if you needed to talk to someone you used the phone. I wrote a few stiff thank-you notes and maybe one letter a year. The typical high-school student today must surpass that in a morning.

–Christian Rudder, “Dataclysm”

Wikipedia Needs More Kids

What do Wikipedia, Reddit, Wikihow, Quora, and Yahoo Answers have in common?

They all rely on user-generated content. Real people take time out of their days to help out complete strangers. Some of them have edited tens of thousands of pages; some have tens of thousands of readers. And some have even become legends worthy of serious journalism.

Someday, the authors of our present-day content will grow old. New writers will rise in their stead. Where will they come from?

Obviously, whatever factors drive people to write for the public today will not disappear. Some may weaken, however; Wikipedia’s editor population has been declining for years. And even if we trust today’s generous writers to stick around, the nature of user-generated content is such that having more authors around will improve the quality of the very best material.

Why, then, are we not teaching children how to write for the internet?

There are exceptions, of course. Many teachers assign students to edit or translate Wikipedia pages – hopefully instilling a sense of cheerful volunteerism in the process. But Wikipedia writing happens in a particular style that may not be suited to other media. For while we spend a lot of time teaching students to write descriptive text, we spend very little teaching them to write advice, even though advice is one of the most common forms of adult writing.

This lack of experience, plus a set of psychological biases that make it hard for us to understand one another (from the empathy gap to the curse of knowledge), leads to a lot of unfortunate situations. We misinterpret things we hear other people say, treat our arguments like soldiers to be defended at all costs (even truth), and write very long articles that are ruined because they consist of a single gigantic unreadable paragraph. We bully people who don’t share our views, post directions to the houses of our enemies, and… heck, you use the Internet, you know what I’m talking about.

I think we could attack these problems – even though we can’t solve them entirely – by spending a few months to a year teaching a different kind of English class. After all, as Christian Rudder notes, many kids are already typing furiously for much of the day. Why not take that energy and steer it in a productive direction?

The class I’d like to design would run on two parallel tracks: Effective content (choosing which information to include), and norms of communication (acting helpfully towards other writers).

Effective Content

Students spend a lot of time writing in school, but less time understanding how others read their writing. But every sentence is a two-way street, and the old problem of only having access to a single reader (the teacher) doesn’t have to keep us from approaching writing from both sides. Students in this class will learn to write content – especially advice – that others can read, understand, and act upon.

Sample assignments might include:

  • Find a long article, blog post, or forum post. Write a “TL;DR” summary of the content that other users (whether your teacher, your classmates, or the faceless masses) find useful.
  • Write an essay explaining how to do something. Give it to a classmate who knows nothing about your topic. See if they are successful in following your instructions, and then edit the work where it falls short. (Maybe you neglected to explain the importance of curved fingers for proper piano-playing, or forgot to mention how to counter a Rain Dance team with your favorite competitive Pokémon squad.)
  • Write an essay advising students in the grade below you that will help them succeed in the next year. After you deliver the essay, sit down with the student who receives it and find out what they found helpful or interesting (or neither).
  • Take one of your old articles (or a boring article you found online) and select appropriate (non-copyright) photos and captions to make it livelier. A/B test the old and new versions with different students and see if you’ve succeeded in improving the reader’s experience.
  • Open an account on Quora or Yahoo! Answers. Write one answer per week to a user’s question. Grades will be determined not just by the teacher’s opinion, but by the opinions of other users.

Norms of Communication

This final assignment (Quora) may be the most important of all, because it also helps with norms of communication. Students will find that some of their advice may be overbearing, or irrelevant, or offensive in some unpredictable way. (For parts of the class, teachers and other students might act as mock trolls, calling attention to places where the writing falls short.) Over the course of a year, with the help of constant feedback from the outside world, they’ll begin to fix these problems.

Along with the forum-joining assignment, other norms-based assignments might include:

  • Find an article, post, or comment which includes untrue information (in a factual sense). Correct the author as politely and helpfully as you can. Analyze their response (if any).
  • Find an article on a news site or blog that you disagree with in some way. Write a comment explaining your disagreement without making the author angry or ignoring any of their points. Grades will be determined by your teacher and your fellow users.
  • Classmates and teachers are assigned to attack your Quora answers, Tumblr posts, and so on. Some of these attacks could lead to productive conversations; others clearly won’t. Learn to recognize the difference, and to defuse or peacefully exit conversations that grow unexpectedly vicious. (If taught correctly, this should also be quite applicable offline.)
  • (Rated M for Mature) Analyze a YouTube comment thread for a popular video. Analyze an angry conversation from said comment thread. Explain, as best you can, why the authors involved became so angry, and how the discussion could have continued more productively.

It may seem silly, or overly formal, but understanding where conversations go wrong is an important life skill. Many schools already teach “emotional intelligence” courses which do something similar for verbal communication – this just moves the same skills to the asynchronous, and often anonymous, world where modern students may spend most of their lives.

I spent three years writing hundreds of posts on a political debate forum without ever understanding what led to so many heated, irreconcilable disagreements. If I could return to my thirteen-year-old self and explain a few simple principles – even something as basic as “don’t feed the trolls” – I think he’d benefit.

Further Discussion

A potential problem with this strategy*: If many schools adopt it, Reddit and Quora may be submerged by a flood of students** who (at least early on) won’t be very productive commentators, and won’t always be used to interacting with adults.

There are ways to overcome this: Perhaps Quora could collaborate with school systems to create a “students-only” version of the site, where students can ask their peers about kid-relevant matters, and where certain questions from the main site could be given a separate, student-only comment thread. Reddit could create a host of relevant subreddits (topic-based forums) to accommodate students. Disqus, the comment engine that powers many important sites, could create a “student account” option and give users the ability to view threads with or without comments from those accounts.

Or one of the commentators on this post could come up with something even better! (The power of public advice.)

I’m not sure anyone will ever bother to implement this kind of proposal. But I do think that students who engage in this sort of course stand a chance of emerging with a better understanding of other people, and a little more common sense, than they had before. And the internet will become, A+ by A+, a kinder and more helpful place for users of all ages.

*Not counting the part where we have children use Reddit for homework and they encounter, if they hadn’t already, an exciting new set of slurs and expletives.

**There are 3.2 million Reddit users and roughly 16 million American high school students.

Aaron Gertler (Yale University)

Aaron GertlerAaron is a member of the class of 2015 at Yale University. After he graduates, he hopes to live his life in a way that makes the lives of other people significantly better, unless he gets distracted by his dream of becoming a famous DJ/novelist/crime-fighter. His interests include electronic music, applied psychology, instrumental rationality, and effective altruism. If his beliefs are inaccurate, you should tell him so as directly as possible. You can follow him on Twitter @aarongertler, and he also writes for his own blog.

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  2. Pingback: School of the Future, Pt 2: Seeing Through Other Eyes | Applied Sentience·

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  4. I think the Quora suggestion could definitely work. Quora has already skillfully dealt with a large influx of people who might not be seen as making high-quality contributions at first (people from a particular country), but for the large part, I don’t see them as significantly degrading the quality of most of the questions on the site (at least some of them post high-quality content). Quora has sophisticated ML algorithms that seem to do a good job of surfacing the good content at the top.

    One suggestion: use Quora as a platform for book discussions (ask *lots* of questions that center around a particular book or topic of discussion – e.g. a school subject). It could be easier to do this for questions that don’t have much activity, but for now this is true for most books. I know a few people who have used Quora for their classes – Joe Blitzstein at Harvard is one really good example.

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