Monthly Archives: May 2006

anti-social networks legislation

Earlier, i spoke about how the MySpace panic was likely to cause legislation proposals. Today, Congressperson Fitzpatrick proposed legislation to amend the Communications Act of 1934 “to require recipients of universal service support for schools and libraries to protect minors from commercial social networking websites and chat rooms.” This legislation broadly defines social network sites as anything that includes a Profile plus an ability to communicate with strangers. It covers social networking sites, chatrooms, bulletin boards. Obviously, the target is MySpace but most of our industry would be affected. Blogger, Flickr, Odeo, LiveJournal, Xanga, Neopets, MySpace, Facebook, AIM, Yahoo! Groups, MSN Spaces, YouTube, eBaumsworld, Slashdot. It would affect Wikipedia if there wasn’t a special clause for non-commercial sites. Because many news sites (NYTimes, CNN, the Post) allow people to login and create profiles and comment, it might affect them too.

Because it affects both libraries and schools, it will dramatically increase the digital divide. Poor youth only gain access to these sites through libraries and schools(1). With this ban, poor youth will have no access to the cultural artifacts of their day. Furthermore, because libraries won’t be able to maintain separate 18+ and minor computers, this legislation will affect everyone who uses libraries, including adults (2).

This legislation is horrifying and culturally damaging. Please, all of you invested in social technologies, do something to make this stop.

Update: (1) – in looking into what American youth were not using MySpace, i found that it was not nearly as popular in rural communities as in suburban and urban environments. In discussion with other researchers, i found that a lot of poor kids only have access to the Internet through school and public settings (libraries, Internet cafes in cities). While urban libraries have not been blocking MySpace, many rural libraries (and schools) have been blocking the site. Even though the teens have heard that it’s really cool, they haven’t been able to join because of the filters.

(2) Few libraries have enough computers to make 18+ rooms which means that it has to happen on a per-access level. The way that libraries currently ban sites is through filters that work across the entire library. It is possible that there could be logins for all library users, but this would eliminate anonymous/private web access and most librarians seem to oppose this approach. Implementations that would block minors but not adults are much more onerous on libraries, although theoretically not impossible, just unlikely.

Final note: This legislation will not protect minors, but it will continue to erode their (and our) freedoms. There are so many amazing things that teens do with social technologies. To lose all of this because of the culture of fear is terrifying to me. I found out about my alma mater talking to strangers online in the 90s. I learned about what it means to be queer, how to have confidence in myself and had so many engaging conversations. Sure, i found some sketchy people too, but i learned to ignore them just as i learned to ignore the guys who whistled and honked from their cars when i walked to the movie theater with my best friend. We need to give youth the knowledge to know the risks of their actions, the structures to be able to come to us when something goes wrong and the opportunity to grow up and connect to their peers. Eliminating cultural artifacts because we don’t understand them does not make our lives any safer, but it does obliterate so many positive interactions.

AIM pages

Has anyone been able to use AIM Pages? It doesn’t work on Safari and it keeps crashing Firefox with all sorts of bizerko errors. I can’t figure out how to add a photo on it and i keep crashing it. I’d love to hear someone else’s feedback who has been able to make it work. Is it fun to play with? What all can you put up there? Does it look cool? (And what’s up with the 16+ thing? That should be very interesting… i wonder how many teens will lie…)

purity ball, abstinence and changing society

This morning, i read a brief article in the NYTimes called Contr-Contraception. In short, there’s proposed legislation requiring insurance companies to cover contraception, conservative folks argue that this will create a new wave of sexual promiscuity. The second half of the article focuses on abstinence education and “purity balls” where young girls (and yes, only young GIRLS) promise to keep their purity until marriage. The whole article makes me want to scream (which is why you should read it), but i want to address one component of it….

Abstinence education rhetoric speaks of a return to a more pure society, back when people didn’t have sex until marriage, when women stayed at home with the kids and were forced to swallow their pride every time their husband cheated on them (cuz we all know that cheating is not a 21st century phenomenon). What isn’t remembered is that people got married at 16, not 32. Bad marriages were formed out of horniness. At the same time, young men could assume to have a meaningful career path by the time they were 22/23. Today, many 22/23-year olds are still working in Starbucks because the Baby Boomers aren’t willing to retire and give up the privileged positions within society. We also like to pretend like people didn’t have sex outside of the sanctity of marriage. Bullshit. People just didn’t *talk* about it. People relied on the pull-out method, got married quickly before she would show, had babies that weren’t their husbands, etc. Abortions happened with hangers – they didn’t simply not exist.

When i talk to my friends working in sex ed, i get so upset. All of this abstinence bullshit has resulted in an increase in STDs, a dramatic lack of knowledge about sexual health and pregnancy, and a silencing of problems. Based on what i’ve heard, my guess is also that fewer girls are reporting rapes.

Why? Why? Why?

When it comes to sex legislation, folks either take the moral highground or a practical approach. The former argues that the latter is promoting immoral activities while the latter argues that the former is cruel and dangerous. I’m definitely in the latter camp because all of my own research has shown that desire trumps risks for most people. This means that a lot of good people will get themselves into bad situations that could’ve been prevented if folks weren’t so insane about upholding a moral highground that they could never actually live by either. For me, the key is setting the practical as the baseline and then trying to instill moral values on top of that… but not at risk of really harming people in the process.

::sigh:: Conservative politics make me feel so powerless.

innovating mobile social technologies (damn you helio)

The next step in social technologies is mobile. Duh. Yet, a set of factors have made innovation in this space near impossible. First, carriers want to control everything. They control what goes on a handset, how much you pay for it and who else you can communicate with. Next, you have hella diverse handsets. Even if you can put an application on a phone, there’s no standard. Developers have to make a bazillion different versions of an app. To make matters worse, installing on a phone sucks and most users don’t want to do it. Plus, to make their lives easier, developers often go for Java apps and web apps which are atrociously slow and painful. All around, it’s a terrible experience for innovators, designers and users.

This headaches have a detrimental effect on the development of mobile social software. Successful social technologies requires cluster effects. Cluster effects require everyone within a particular social cluster to be able to play. If 20% of your friends can’t play because their phone/carrier won’t let them, the end result is often that NO ONE plays. Of course, there’s a tipping point where people buy a new phone or switch carriers, but that tipping point is hefty and right now, it’s for things like SMS not neuvo apps. Switching carriers is even uglier – it requires a huge drop in price.

Being able to get to basic cluster effects is the *baseline* for a mobile social app to succeed. This alone won’t make it work, but you need that to even begin. There are lots of other limitations, especially when the MoSoApp depends on geography. Take a look at something like Dodgeball. It was utterly brilliant at SXSW because 1) everyone was able to use it; 2) huge clusters were on it; 3) everyone was geographically proximate. There was a curve of use so that a fraction checked in all of the time, most checked in occasionally and a fraction never checked in. But that’s the ideal distribution for cluster effects. Still, because everyone *could* use it, it was used.

Over and over, i hear about cool technologies that involve multimedia sharing, GPS applications, graphical interfaces, etc. In theory, as research, these are great. Unfortunately, without clusters, you cannot even test the idea to see if it would make sense to a given population. 🙁

There are only three phones out there with cluster effects right now: Crackberry, Treo and Sidekick. Even still, the killer app for each of these (email or AIM) connects them not to each other but to a broader network because of non-mobile technology. Plus, each of these clusters has issues when it comes to developing for them. Crackberry appeals to the business world who is on leash to their boss. Productivity-centric apps could be helpful to this crowd, but it will not be *fun* and most of these ideas involve privacy destruction. The Treo is central around the business tech world but most of this population socializes with people who are trying out every new phone on the planet; this group is too finicky and besides, they want everything OPEN. Then there’s the Sidekick – it has penetrated the hearts and minds of urban street youth. Sadly, few designers are really interested in thinking about black urban culture. ::grumble::grumble::

When i heard that the Helio was going to launch with MySpace on board, i got super super excited. Like IM and email, MySpace is a perfect application to bridge web and mobile interactions. Sure, it only would include the communications messages and not really take advantage of the mobile issues with social networks, but it would be a good step, no? The target would inevitably be 16-30, an ideal target for dealing with mobile sociability. I was anxiously awaiting the launch, figuring that if anything could push youth to center around a technology, it would involve MySpace. From MySpace, you could actually start innovating with youth networks, location-based activities, image sharing, etc. Opportunity!

And then they launched. What marketing asshole chose the prices? $85 a month minimum on top of a $275 phone??? Has anyone not noticed that the target youth market is using the free generic phone and a $40 a month plan? You need to lure them away from their T-mobile/Sprint/Verizon plan and entice to come over. You need to do this en masse, with enthusiasm. You cannot do this for $85 a month on top of a $275 phone. ::sigh:: Opportunity lost.

There are two ways to get mobile social applications going:
1) A population needs to have access to a universal interaction platform which (except for SMS and dialing) means being on the same technology;
2) Carriers/handsets need to standardize and open up to development by outsiders.

The latter is the startup fantasy and i don’t see it happening any time soon (stupid carriers). The former is really hard because it means enticing people over away from their contracts. Plus, it means moving against gadget individuality, which is something that people have really bought into. The only way to do that is for it to be super accessible and super cool. This is unfortunately an oxymoron because cool in gadgets equals expensive which means inaccessible. While the trendsetters will all opt-in, you need the followers to come along too for cluster effects to work.

There is a third option: destroy the carriers. The possibility of WiFi phones (following blanketed WiFi) means that you just have to deal with multiple handset makers but, right now at least, they are better about openness. At least then, you’d just have one development roadblock. Unfortunately, this is probably a long way off because the telcos are in bed with legislators who are being extremely slow about universal WiFi and are all about protecting dying industries.

I hate when innovation is jammed up by bad politics and stupid forms of competition. One of the hugest challenges of convergence culture is that traditional competition doesn’t work. We’re not competing for who can create the coolest toothbrush design anymore. We’re now competing for who can build the biggest roadblocks in convergence. Today, innovation means figuring out how to best undermine the roadblocks without getting into legal trouble. Talk about a buzz kill.

So what should be done? Oh carriers, handset makers, innovators, venture capitalists, legal people… Is the goal to innovate or to control? What should be done to push past these roadblocks? (And for all of you in favor of control, remember that there are other markets besides the US/UK/Japan where innovation will occur and laws will not protect.)

Update: I want to clarify some things around youth purchasing. The youth market is 14-28. The 14-21s get their phones from their parents and are on their plans. The 21-28s get their own plans. The 14-21s are stuck with whatever free phone they get unless they can beg and plead for a cooler phone for their birthday. They also get shit plans, although many have been able to convince their parents to support SMS these days. This segment of the youth population is *key* because they are hyper active and this is when they are setting their norms for phone use these days. The way to get to them is to either make a phone that is so cool that they beg and beg for their birthday (and it fits into their parents’ plan) or to make a package so cheap that they can convince their parents to get them a separate plan because it’s economically viable. The 21-28s have more flexibility but they are still strapped for cash and are quite cautious with their plans, but if they’ve gotten used to SMS they don’t give it up. They are also more likely to take the free phone unless they are the trendsetters (because they now have to pay and begging doesn’t work). The exception to this is actually working class teens who tend to buy their own phone starting at 15/16 – they buy cooler phones but still have shit mobile plans. This is why the Sidekick worked so well in this demographic. (Note: these observations and this post are based on what i’ve seen hanging out in youth culture, not any interactions i’ve had with mobile or tech companies or any formal data i’ve collected for my dissertation. In other words, i may be very wrong.)

Digital Kids Postdoc (Application due May 5)

Attention newly minted and about to be minted PhDs: my research group is seeking post-docs to work on the digital kids project. Application deadline: MAY 5 (yes, *this* Friday). This is a great opportunity for people working in interdisciplinary spaces, interested in different aspects of digital youth. Your degree can be in anything from STS and HCI to soc and anthro to history and education, etc. You could be interested in studying online communities, gaming practices, mobile culture, youth and new media, etc. I should note that the grant comes from the American studies division of Macarthur so you should be interested in American practices. For more information, click here. Please pass this on to other academics who you think might be interested

NPR’s “On Point”

I was on NPR this morning with Doug Rushkoff, an Illinois detective, Saul Hansell (NYTimes) and a drummer from a band that has a profile. Needless to say, the topic was MySpace, but it was a much more balanced conversation than the typical coverage thus far. We talked about teens, bands, Murdoch, etc. I even got my own profile exposed on the air. For those who want to listen, there’s a stream and podcast online.

One of the things that made me smile is that P!nk’s “Stupid Girls” is one of the transition songs. Yesterday, in prep for the piece, they asked me about music consumption on MySpace. I talked about bands getting their word out and about how people were putting up videos. I mentioned P!nk’s latest video and how it made me happy to see that message spread. So, it made me quite joyous to see that come across on air as well.

On a different note, one listener wrote me and encouraged me to get public speaking training. ::sigh:: I’m still sad that i could never get into Barbara Tannenbaum’s speech training class back at Brown. I *know* that i sound ridiculous when i speak, but i’ve never known how to solve this problem. I just avoid listening to myself. So, does anyone have a suggestion for getting speech training?

two gifts for your children: roots and wings

A few weeks ago, a father told me that when he became a parent, his father reminded him that parents must give their children two things: roots and wings. Give them roots to keep them grounded through tough times. Give them wings to soar above everything, explore new worlds and fly farther than we ever did.

I think that this is important for most parents to remember….

On Being a Press Expert

When my quotes first appeared in press in 2003, i was an ecstatic bunny bouncing up and down. Since then, appearing in the press has lost its mystique (except of course when the irony is bleeding). Back then, i knew nothing of what it meant for someone to be a press expert. In the last few years, i’ve become one. Now, some folks tell me that i’ve become famous as a press expert. I.Want.To.Scream. Instead, i decided to address some of how i’ve seen this process work for those who don’t get to deal with press so often, those who will and all of you who read the press and wonder how it all works. These notes are a little scattered, but i think they’re still interesting. For those who can’t stand my long articles, here are some of my key points:

  • Dealing with the press takes a LOT of time and is completely exhausting and often doesn’t help you get your point across.
  • There are many “experts” who have a lot to gain from being in the press all the time.
  • American press competition does not produce better articles, but instead encourages scary articles that will entice readers to read more.
  • “Fair and balanced” promotes experts who can keep scary or emotional stories flowing.

Reporters seek experts on “both sides” of a news story in order to give balance. If you happen to be publicly arguing something in opposition to something that everyone else is arguing loudly, you’re likely to end up as a target for press. The more credentials you have, the better you are for their story. Normally, academic experts are professors because that looks much better than being a lowly PhD student. This is how i become things like “cultural anthropologist” — it’s a way of giving me a title that is not “student.” You also end up as a target if you know a lot about a particular topic and can verbally provide them with all of the background material they need so that they don’t have to research it themselves.

I first became an expert on Friendster. Press would call me up to find out what it was. This made me feel so special and i’d spend hours talking to reporters about the details of how the site worked, walking them through everything. I was rarely quoted in those articles. I was doing their work for them. This was exhausting.

At this point, i get very irritated when reporters ask me to explain MySpace and i often make an excuse to get off of those calls fast. It’s a waste of my time if they don’t know about the site – none of my arguments about what’s going on will stick if they’re learning about it for the first time.

Talking to reporters takes a LOT of time. If you see a single quote by me in the paper press, you can guess that it came from an hour long interview. Only about 70% of my interviews result in a quote. Articles that feature me in any way take even longer. The New York Times article back in 2003 that featured me involved over 40 hours of interviewing. Photos are another layer. If you see a photo of me in a newspaper, it probably took 1-2 hours of photographing to get there. If you see a simple one in a magazine, it probably took 2-3 hours. One national magazine (not yet published) is supposedly featuring me; that photograph involved four hours of hair, makeup, clothing and cameras. Five people came to my house and ran around primping me.

Radio and TV are even more time-intensive. With paper/magazine press, you can call them at a time when you’re both awake. Radio and TV news both require you to be available during the scheduled time of recording. You don’t get any flexibility on that. Often, you have to appear at a location as well, requiring travel time. The 3-minute appearance on Bill O’Reilly took 3.5 hours of travel, makeup, sitting around waiting, camera checks, interview. And this was recorded in-time (no second takes). I got 3 hours of warning for that piece – i had to appear at TV’s beck and call.

Radio and TV features both record ahead of time which means that you have a little more flexibility regarding timing (at least you get some warning). These also take much much longer because they can afford to do re-recordings. I recently did a recording for a TV feature. I will probably appear for 2 minutes or so. It was 4 hours of _taping_ let alone the pre-interview, travel, getting ready, etc.

Talking to press can be a full-time job. This is why those who make PR their living or those who seek to gain from the attention are more likely to appear in the press all of the time. For example, the people who from organizations that run around talking about how scary the Internet is…. they appear *everywhere* because they will appear at the beck and call of all press. When reading the news, you should think about what the person has to gain from speaking to the press. If a person’s job security is wrapped up in being in the press, worry. This is why academics are such good experts – we have little to gain from talking the press except for the excitement of seeing our name in print and feeling like someone listens to us (cuz goddess knows our students don’t). But, personally, i’d rather the MySpace fear shit go away so i can get back to my research. Most of the people speaking for the fear rely on that fear to keep their jobs. It is unbearably frustrating to have to face off in the press with people who have more time, can jump higher and at all hours, and have a lot to gain from keeping the topic going.

This is why reporting is often so problematic. It’s not about truth, it’s about what all of the relevant players have to gain/lose and who can out-do each other. Scary stories work much much better for press than statistics. Fear sells better, it makes better stories, and more experts have something to gain from it.

I talk to press every time i’m in my car, in the airport and walking around. I spend a good 15 hours a week addressing press right now. It’s exhausting. I can only get back to a fraction of those who contact me and i’ve missed most TV and radio opportunities because i can’t just jump when people ask me to jump.

At first, i felt really badly for those who were coming from non-national press. Most experts only want to talk with national press because you have more of an impact. Unfortunately, i’ve learned that there are other reasons. National press understand that your time is precious and rarely keep you for more than an hour. They get to the point ASAP – they are looking for a handful of quotes. They know their material better, having done the research (or used some poor sucker who was stoked to even get to talk to a press person). Talking with smaller papers can be very frustrating at times because they are not that savvy at dealing with experts, they are often looking to repeat a story that national news has already done, and when it comes to stuff like MySpace, they simply don’t understand it. I feel guilty that i too have gotten in habit of being more responsive to national press than to local press, but considering that i can only respond to about 40% of the current contacts, i’d rather deal with people who know their stuff and will engage me in a new and interesting conversation. Of course, not all national press do this, but your chances are better.

With most print reporting, they are just looking for a single quote. People more savvy then me tell me to make my quote and go on auto-repeat with slight variations so that the press won’t be able to get you to say something else. I’m not good at this. I’m trying.

When reading the press, you often see that XYZ refused to comment on the story. This is usually someone the story is focused on and usually someone who is going to be getting a call from every press on the planet. There are a couple of reasons. First, many public figures know that they cannot change the story the press is writing. (Many of us stupid experts still think that we can and we try really hard, often meeting failure regularly.) The public figures often have nothing to gain and a lot to lose. They also simply cannot deal with the influx so it’s better to just say no universally, missing both good and bad opportunities. For example, if Tom Anderson would respond to every press call about MySpace, he’d spend over 500 hours a week talking to press. There AREN’T 500 hours in a week. Considering he already works 80+ hours a week doing his job, adding press to this doesn’t sound so great. Of course, MySpace should have PR faces but they’re definitely still acting like a startup on that one. (When you hear Company XYZ says “blah blah” this means that the reporter talked to the PR person not anyone who works on the product.)

Reporters get to key figures either because they have press junkets or by promising the person something special. Front page photo. A certain angle. Something that makes it enticing. Of course, if the reporter fails to deliver, they can end up on a blacklist. Likewise, many experts keep a blacklist of reporters who misquote or otherwise are not worth your time. We also share these lists and check in on reporters. As someone reading the news, you’re better off following reporters who cover an area repeatedly in detail. They cannot afford to piss off all of the experts in the area and so they are better by them. There are exceptions, especially insidious reporters and talk show hosts that have impressive coverage and attention.

The competition component of the press is quite problematic. Most American reporters are freelancers – they need to sell new, unique stories to the outlets. Outlets buy stories that will sell more papers/ads. They want juicy stories. Fear, crime and personal struggle stories sell well. Fact of the matter stories do not – this is a huge problem for getting “truth” out there. Foreign press are a lot more sane. First, most of their reporters are employees who are not terrified about losing their job if they don’t find a hyper juicy story. Second, most of the top press outlets are government funded which means that they’re not psycho-obsessed with selling papers/ads at the detriment of getting news out there. Americans think that government funded news would be deceptive. Ha! Try corporate/ad/paper sales funded news. It’s all about addicting you (the public) into buying more more more regardless of truth. Of course, some competition is good because it makes people look more closely… but often, with 24-hour news, it means making news outta nothing and maintaining stories that keep people’s pulses high so they come back for more.

Anyhow, these are just a few notes from what i’ve learned talking to reporters. Hopefully they provide folks with a new eye for thinking about what you read. (And a new appreciation for why i’m so goddamned exhausted and frustrated – truth can’t prevail in this system and that’s just painful to experience.)