Blog Post

Digital Literacies: The Trough of Noobery

(I wrote this for a law school class I taught two years ago, and just dusted off for my current students. It might be helpful for folks getting pushback about teaching social media/software skills)

Dear Student:

No, you’re not any one of my students in particular: this song isn’t about you. But you are a composite. You’ve asked me a set of questions about virtual worlds, ones that I haven’t been able to answer satisfactorily for either of us. I’m going to try again here, and see if a day’s reflection and consultation can make a difference.

You’ve made some observations and asked some questions that I think sum up as, you’re not readily connecting with the space and don’t see why you should learn it. I think what underlies your (very legitimate) questions is, you’re in the Trough of Noobery, and it sucks to be there.

I said in the first class that there are three reasons for studying governance of virtual worlds: as a model, a small-scale online reproduction of larger and more complex offline phenomena; as a convenient nexus of offline political, economic, legal and cultural forces, all interesting in their own right; and as a potential source for innovations that might transform offline institutions.

Let’s talk about the model. What I’m having you do is model an experience many of you will have in your professional lives, not least of all those of you who want to practice law: entering into a new field, leaning what it’s about and what’s important, earning respect among the people in that field, and being able to make meaning within it.

We all do this throughout our lives, from starting at a new school or job, moving to a new town, picking up a craft or hobby. Those things are either inevitable or freely chosen: your parents got relocated, and you were dragged along, or you decided you really want to spend your evenings learning luge, or Thai cooking. In both cases, theory and methodology really don’t help: you’re either fine, or stuck, without them. Desperation or desire will propel you out of the Trough of Noobery sooner or later.

But the professional case, the one we’re modeling in this class, is an intermediate: somewhere between compulsion and desire, tools come in handy for navigating your way down the the road to Leetville.

So far, you’ve read insiders’ views and outsiders’ views, academic articles, works of in-depth journalism, newspaper articles and blogs. You’ve gotten a bit of political science, anthropology, economics and law.  These intellectual tools, we think, are good and useful, but mostly for people who’re already out of the Trough of Noobery and rolling down the road to Leetville. You’re not there yet, and telling the political scientists and economists to get out and push isn’t getting you the momentum to get out of the Trough.

You have to do that.

You have to be a noob, and you have to keep going through that till you reach comfort and fluency on the road to Leetville.

We haven’t stressed this enough in class, in part because we’re really not sure how to approach it (and pretty sure, from keeping up with the field, that nobody’s really sure), but what we want you to be able to do by the end of the semester is to be able to make meaning convincingly and coherently, at a graduate-appropriate level, in a game world and a social world.

That’s why we’re suggesting alternatives to the traditional seminar paper: we’re confident you know how to make meaning in school. You’ve had a lot of practice at that. What we want you to do is enter into a new field, figure it out, and “read” (understand what people are saying, and what they mean by it) and “write” (create something that people in the space consider meaningful and useful) in it.

Much of legal practice is built around this skill set. A client comes to you with a problem. You need to understand what it is they do well enough to understand the problem in their terms. Then you have to sort through your knowledge of the law, figure out what applies and what doesn’t, and then (ideally) translate that in terms that the client can understand, so they know what the law expects of them. Then, you have to explain the situation, to a judge (who doesn’t know anything about the client’s business or situation), a jury (who doesn’t know anything about either the law or the client’s situation), or a potential investor (who understands finance, but not the law or the client).

That’s some very sophisticated “reading” and “writing” across a range of very different, mutually ignorant, communities.

That’s the skill set we’re hoping to train you in, in this class. We’re not here to get you to develop a hobby, or to share our hobbies. We don’t much care if you like either world we’re using, or if you like virtual worlds at all, at this point. We do care that we do a good job teaching you, and you do a good job learning, how to enter into a technologically-bounded space and become literate within it.

So what can you do to get past noob-hood and come out literate?

My PhD program faces the same sets of issues: how to take a bunch of lazy noobs and get them making meaning in their academic field. One of the things they’ve done is to create a mandatory 1-credit course, in which we have to attend an on-campus academic talk every week, like it or not.  It sucks, and I whine, but it works.

We’re not going to mandate time inworld, or that you attend one event a week. We didn’t establish those ground rules, and we’re not going to change the rules in mid-game. But if you want to do well, if you want to achieve literacy, try this:

This week:

  • Go to one of the freebie stores on the notecard we gave you. Get some clothes and change into them.
  • Go to one of the events on the weekly recommendations. No, go to two, one academic/professional and one social, like a live music event.
  • Talk to strangers until you’ve found someone you’d like to add to your friends list.

That’s the advice for SL. The advice for WoW is much the same: level to 15 or so, and join a pickup group to fight (not get run though, fight), Ragefire Chasm. Or click the PvP button and join a battleground. Or join a pickup group to quest for a couple hours. Buy and sell a green item in the Auction House. Raise your professions and at least one of cooking, fishing or first aid to equal your defense level.

Do that, and you’ll be out of the Trough of Noobery and well on your way to Leetville – and to success in the class.


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