In Net We Trust: Adoption of and Resistance to Credibility Networks in Higher Education

Version 1.2

Jon Ippolito

Associate Curator of Media Arts, Guggenheim Museum; Assistant Professor of New Media, Co-director, Still Water for network art and culture, The University of Maine


Students with Internet access are caught between two conflicting paradigms for measuring credibility: the centralized structures of authority promoted by their teachers, and the ad hoc personal and electronic networks of their peers. This tension plays out in academic environments, producing sites of resistance and adoption to new paradigms in both students and their professors.

The crisis in student credibility

Thanks to the Internet, the credibility of teenagers, especially the technically inclined, is suffering a severe schism. On the one hand, fears of academic cheating run rampant; the RIAA has sued 16,000 undergraduates for trading copyrighted mp3s, while universities are investing thousands of dollars in anti-plagiarism software to combat what many professors see as a new form of academic dishonesty turbocharged by Web sites like At the same time, however, undergraduates are building digital networks that redefine community activism and engagement. Sean Fanning was 19 when he let Napster loose on the world; Eli Parisier at 20 when he merged his email list with MoveOn's, tripling MoveOn's membership and catapulting it into one of America's most successful political networks.

Cheating, the Phantom Menace

Popular accounts of this discrepancy, such as David Callahan's The Cheating Culture,[1] have stressed the conflict between trusted knowledge that is arrived at by individual effort and stolen knowledge had on the cheap. According to this argument, Internet technologies pressure college students to choose between the diametric poles of academic honesty and dishonesty. A deeper look reveals that the battle lines for this conflict are insincerely drawn. Rather, this supposed moral dichotomy obscures a schizophrenic attitude on the part of professors that reflects a schism between open and closed networks in the larger culture. For, like most centralized structures of authority, the apparent hierarchies of academia in fact depend on a hidden network for their information and cultural capital.

We call sharing information "cheating" when it happens among people who aren't powerful, yet it is the dominant mechanism for people in power to stay that way, from academics to stockbrokers to museum curators. Ironically, Internet culture succeeded in such an explosive way because it was a system designed to supercharge the practice that in other fields is currently called cheating. As natives to digital media, students naturally share information among themselves, using tools expressly designed--by the greatest technical geniuses of our age--for that purpose. The Web, cell phones, instant messaging, email, and peer-to-peer networks are all technologies for supercharging the circulation of ideas and culture. And the irony is that the same academic researchers who publicly bemoan Internet plagiarism privately employ with insouciance work-study students who write software with code borrowed from other Web sites or make videos using pirated copies of Final Cut. The dichotomy around which the issue really revolves is not whether academics and other custodians of culture trust in networked credibility, but whether their credibility networks are public or private, open or closed.

Credibility in networks

Of course, some networks inspire more credibility than others. Academics are famous for building trust metrics into their recognition networks, from venerable measures such as letters of reference and peer-review committees to more recent innovations such as journal impact factors. Yet teenagers have not been far behind, to judge from the explosive growth in the popularity of friend-of-a-friend networks such as Friendster and Facebook and music recommendation sites such as MySpace and PureVolume.

At first glance such youth-oriented networks may seem inherently less reliable than their academic equivalents, and this is certainly true for many of them. Yet, as Joline Blais and I have argued[2], trust metrics come in many flavors, whether controlled by gatekeeper, interface, or agenda. Perhaps the most sophisticated recognition network, the self-policing community, can find equal rigor in the hands of teenage experts as in the hands of their grey-bearded academic equivalents. Posting a comment on the geek messageboard Slashdot[3], for example, can result in an "open peer review" process that is just as exacting--and far more punctual--than the closed peer review process common to academic journals. Unlike most journal publication policies, Slashdot reviews use an elaborate combination of weighted voting and variable credibility to elevate the best of the community's contributions to prominence--without censoring the worst of them.

Such open recognition networks can elicit reactions of adoption or resistance from both students and professors, suggesting that the divide between advocates of open and closed systems is less a matter of generation than generosity.

Adapting to openness: the student perspective

If the lesson students learn from RIAA lawsuits and university anti-plagiarism licenses is that sharing information is bad, The Pool[4] offers a very different message. This online environment developed at the University of Maine is an experiment in sharing art, text, and code--not just sharing digital files themselves, but sharing the process of making them. The Pool stimulates and documents collaboration in a variety of forms, including multi-author, asynchronous, and cross-medium projects.

The Pool has garnered publicity for the students who develop and use it, notably in a headline story in Wired News[5]. Students and faculty alike contribute and rate each other's projects. As a self-policing community, The Pool is one of the few pedagogical structures in academia where the voices of faculty have no more inherent power than those of the students; each contribution sinks or swims on its own merit. Despite The Pool's egalitarian approach, Margaretha Haughwout found patterns of resistance among a sample of Pool users who were required to use this recognition network in their classes. Her study "A Reflecting and/or Refracting Pool"[6] documents cases in which certain students deliberately added poorly conceived ideas to The Pool.

Tellingly, Haughwout found a correlation between such efforts to ignore or sabotage an open network and vocational or business-oriented attitudes toward college, particular in the regional and class demographic of rural Maine. It is as though these students have already adopted the expectations of adulthood in a consumerist society--expectations that discount group activity in favor of individual achievement, and eschew sharing knowledge in favor of accumulating property, whether physical or intellectual.

On the other hand, Haughwout found evidence that students who used The Pool for a significant amount of time[7] gradually relaxed their controls over a given work as it progressed. For example, the longer students had used The Pool to develop a project, the more likely they were to allow others to use that project in new ways--say, by borrowing JavaScript from one Web site to make another, or by adapting an mp3 to serve as the soundtrack for another artist's video. This finding suggests that experience with open networks makes their users more open; since youth today use them more than adults, it's not surprising that they would be more open to distributed rather than centralized credibility--but it has less to do with age than with experience.

Adapting to openness: the academic perspective

On the other side of the generational divide are credibility networks built with the academic researcher in mind rather than the creative student. Two such networks are Interarchive and Re:Poste. Interarchive[8] aims to change the paradigm of online scholarship by distributing the way research is published and cited across the entire Web. Interarchive proposes rigorous but open protocols that individual Web authors can use to discover and appraise credibilities without relying on a centralized database or journal repository. Re:Poste,[9] meanwhile, is a distributed service intended to bring academic-level standards of criticism and intellectual integrity to web-based mass media reporting. It accomplishes this by creating a trusted network of academics, experts, and professionals who review stories in the media; Re:Poste enables browsers to display these reviews directly on the original sites like and OpenTheory[10] and the Distributed Learning Project[11] promise even more open paradigms for scholarly review.

While Interarchive and Re:Poste are at too early a stage of development to study the reaction of academics to these nascent innovations, there's good reason to respect resistance thanks to their break with both the form and content of conventional recognition criteria.

On the level of form, both projects must be accessed via networked technologies, yet tenure committees choke on network media. Many students and younger professors assume that the day will come when virtually all research and scholarship will take place online. But a big proportion of the faculty overseeing tenure applications think email is for trading snapshots of grandchildren and Firefox was a bad Clint Eastwood movie. They have neither the experience nor often the equipment to review networked media.

There are also significant differences on the level of content. Interarchive and Re:Poste can be used to evaluate theory or practice. This is for good reason: while art professors typically divide clearly into critical (Art History) and creative (Studio Art) faculties, the brief history of networked media often requires its practitioners to develop a critical context for their own creative work.[12] Networked media also frequently fall between or outside of disciplinary boundaries,[13] and frequently target a nonacademic audience. While Re:Poste targets an academic audience of reviewers, in its present form Interarchive does nothing to stop teenage experts from vying with tenured faculty for network credibility--a prospect that may be less than welcome among professors who claim expertise in contemporary culture.

And yet in some ways it is the youngest professors who often prove most resistant to open protocols, because they operate outside the traditional "Tenure Economy." The democratizing aspects of networked media threaten the exclusive dynamic of academic publishing, which locks up intellectual and creative work in pricey journals that only the wealthiest universities can afford. The Open Access movement has made valiant efforts to overcome the exclusivity of print journals by encouraging free repositories for scholarship online, and studies that favorably compare the open encyclopedia Wikipedia with Encyclopedia Britannica bolster the case for even more open varieties of peer review. Unfortunately, even if known quantities like Elsevier journals carry no more rigor, they still carry more prestige--and that leads faculty up for tenure to pitch to conservative publications to be on the safe side.

Regardless of whether open or closed systems prevail in the end, a deeper look at today's credibility crisis reveals not a simplistic clash between irresponsible teenagers and their authoritative professors, but signs of a more profound cross-generational rift between the centralized and distributed recognition mechanisms of the Internet age.

[1] David Callahan, The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead (New York: Harvest Books, 2004).

[2] Joline Blais and Jon Ippolito, At the Edge of Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2006).

[3], accessed April 27, 2006.

[4], accessed April 27, 2006.

[5] Michelle Delio, "Copyright Doesn't Cover This Site," Wired News (San Francisco), posted December 16, 2003 at,1377,61585,00.html.

[6] Margaretha Haughwout, "A Reflecting and/or Refracting Pool: When a Community Becomes Autonomous Online," First Monday 11, no. 4 (April 2006), at, accessed April 27, 2006.

[7] The Pool tracks projects in three stages: intents (the idea in a paragraph), approaches (a mockup or blueprint of the project), and releases (actual builds of the project). The relaxation of controls occurred in the transition from approaches to releases.

[8], accessed April 27, 2006.

[9], accessed April 27, 2006.

[10], accessed April 27, 2006.

[11], accessed April 27, 2006.

[12] UMaine tenure rationale, private document.

[13] Ibid.