Monthly Archives: January 2007

SXSW, ICWSM, and Etech

March is rearing up to be insane and i want to invite you to come along for the ride. At SXSW-Interactive, i will be on a panel about youth on Saturday and doing an on-stage interview with my dear friend and mentor Henry Jenkins on Monday. I am an invited speaker at the International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media and i will be presenting there before rushing off to Etech where i will be doing a keynote on Wednesday currently called “Incantations for Muggles.” These are some pretty huge talks and i’m both terrified and ecstatic. They’re going to force me to sit down and write some new material. Tehehe.

Note: registration deadlines are quickly upon us. Feb 9 is the final discount deadline for SXSW and early registration for Etech ends Feb 5. These events are most fun when friends are present so come join me! (Oh, and for those who wish to howl, Jane will be running werewolf at Etech.)

an interview with me

I did an interview with WireTap a while back about MySpace and youth. Today, it was reposted on Alternet. It’s an OK interview – not very in-depth, but it’s hard to be in-depth in that format. Still, the comments on Alternet make me sad. I’m called “barely articulate” and a “typical talking head” (and my age is brought into the discussion as a way to dismiss me). It’s always peculiar to see my speaking style in written form; i feel far more coherent when i control the written form. That said, those labels sting.

I’m also accused of being too blase about the safety issues. As with all interviews, i gloss over a lot of details to get general ideas across but it is driving me nuts that everyone assumes that because i think we’ve gone too far in the direction of moral panics and culture of fear that i don’t care about safety or teenagers or rape. I find myself wanting to scream. I spent five years working on the issues of rape, domestic violence, and other violence against women; safety is a very real concern of mine, but reality is far more nuanced than the sky is falling perspective seems to convey. When an extremist position is taking up the airwaves, it’s super hard to correct course and it seems as though it’s easy to be painted a radical in the opposite direction even if those are not my views ::sigh:: How have other folks combatted extreme media positions before? Any advice for being more effective?


I just wanted to apologize for being absent for the past few weeks and apologize that i will continue to be absent for a bit. I’m in the height of intense data collection and my brain hurts.

a practice broken, another silo solidified

I know i have some quirky habits but i really really really hate when web companies break them with their latest updates. One of my weird ones concerns getting directions to a place (which i do 2-3 times a day). For years now, i’ve thrown the address of the destination into google toolbar. Up would come the address (recognized by Google as an address) with three links: Google Maps, Yahoo Maps, Mapquest. I would always click Yahoo Maps. From there, i’d click on the “To Here” link and then choose “home” and click. I’d then copy/paste the directions into an email that i’d send to my Sidekick and then use that to navigate while in the car.

A while back, Yahoo Maps broke this path by going all web2.0-y. While it sure is pretty, it makes getting directions more difficult and you can’t copy/paste the directions. So i saved the “classic” style in the preference and didn’t sweat it any longer.

Today, Google broke the process completely. At first, when i searched for an address, it wasn’t found. Apparently, the Google search engine got a bit more picky and required me to know if it was Street or Road and required a comma between the city and the state and couldn’t cope with a 9-digit zipcode. This was never an issue before (and part of why i loved it – it let me be lazy). But even worse, they’ve gotten rid of the three choices and now only have their map with a box for me to put in the “start address” to get directions. This infuriates me because there’s a reason that i don’t use Google Maps. Their directions are *atrocious* AND you can’t copy/paste the directions once you have them. And it completely pisses me off that the “email” button tries to email me a link not the content of the page. (This is even worse on Yahoo where it has the nerve to send a text message with a link when you send to phone.)

I’m grouchy. I realize that this is a subtle thing but it really makes me quite unhappy. Plus, i’d always touted Google’s willingness to link to both Yahoo Maps and Mapquest as a sign that not every search company has to focus on being a silo. Google broke that today, signaling that it does indeed prefer to be a silo than to offer choice that the consumer might want. I know that i can work around this but it requires more clicks for a practice that i do so often it hurts (yes, i’m always lost). Le sigh.

a few more thoughts on child abuse, sexual predators, and the moral panic

Every day, i read more articles about child abuse and online sexual predators. They make me sad but they also make me very frustrated because the more we talk about these cases of strangers abusing children, the less we talk about the real perpetrators of child abuse: adults who know children intimately. Today, i ran across a phenomenal article by Peter Reilly entitled The Facts About Online Sex Abuse and Schools. In it, he shares a lot of data about perpetrators, the state of child abuse in general, and the importance of not buying into the fear. Two of the images that he shares capture my unbearable frustration with our obsession with online sexual predators:

Of course, while the hype and paranoia continues, researchers are showing that teens are safer than adults think. Even The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is saying that things are getting better: new data in their longitudinal study of online victimization shows that only 4% of youth were asked for a naked or sexually explicit photo (down from 5 years ago).

Of course, i’m painfully aware that facts are worthless in a fight against paranoia and panic and this makes me tear my hair out. I wish i had the first clue how to stop a moral panic from doing the cultural damage that this panic has inflicted on teens. I talk to teenagers who are afraid of the Internet because they think it’s dangerous. I talk to teenagers whose parents believe everything they hear on Fox and have barred them from the Internet. How can we educate our youth about how to be responsible users of the Internet when we’re flipping out? ::sigh::

I think that Pete Reilly put it well in his article:

When we slice the “less than five percent pie” into these smaller pieces, the risk gets much, much smaller. Of course, statistics aren’t going to matter much if you are the parent of a child who has had an online incident, or the leader of school that has experienced one.

The question is, “Are we going to take a ‘zero risk’ approach to using technology and the tools of the Web?”

We don’t take a “zero risk” approach with our sports programs where the chance of injury, paralysis, and, in rare cases, death, is always present. We don’t take that approach with field trips where students travel to museums and historical sites in locations where they might be touched by crime. We don’t take that approach with recess on our playgrounds, or transporting our kids to and from school.

We can never eliminate all risk; but there are ways to maximize our students’ safety while using these incredibly powerful tools. Each tool needs to be analyzed individually to ascertain its benefits and the specific risks it might present. From there, thoughtful people can find solutions to the student safety issues that may arise.

(tx mrc)

the cost of lying

This afternoon, i did an interview with MTV. Although the clip will be only 3 minutes in length, they interviewed Zadi Diaz and i for almost two hours. The core of our conversation concerned the story of a teenage boy who wrote a suicidal message on his MySpace. Zadi saw it and contacted the boy; he wrote back indicating that he was in the middle of taking a lot of pills. Zadi wrote to her friends, begging for help. One of her friends found the boy’s school on his profile and contacted the principal who, in turn, contacted the family and got an ambulance to the boy in time.

I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if this boy had followed the “safety measures” that most parents groups advocate. The data that made him traceable – his school, his real name – helped a kind stranger save his life. I wonder how many people’s lives are saved (or enhanced) by the presence of authentic data online.

Many years ago, a young Ani DiFranco fan contacted me. She wrote to me regularly about how her mother abused her, how she wanted to commit suicide. I pleaded with her to get help. I offered to help her find someone to talk with. But she would never give me identifying information. I knew she lived in Ohio, but that was it. Her email address was a Hotmail account (and there’s no way Microsoft was going to help). She was terrified of her mom finding out that she was telling on her. Her messages got more and more desperate and i begged for a way to contact her. And then she disappeared. I still live with the fear of what that girl might have done and am constantly asking myself what i could’ve done that would’ve helped more.

It’s a double-edged sword, isn’t it? The things that make us safest from others make us least from ourselves.

I also can’t help but wonder if there are other costs to all of this deception that we’re promoting as a safety mechanism. What does it mean to tell an entire generation that the way to be safe is to lie? Lie about your age, your name, your hometown, etc. All for good reason. Are we creating a generation of liars? Sure, it’s a “white” lie, but that’s a slippery slope, no?

Lying about one’s age is at the core of socialization into the Internet. Did Congress really believe that all 13-year-olds suddenly disappeared from the social sites regulated by COPPA? Ha! 8-year-olds are telling me that the way to get into this that or the other site is to say you were born in 1993. The technological affordances have forced them to lie to get what they want. Next, their parents will tell them to lie to be safe. What’s next? Lie to get into college? It sure is a funny moral, no?

The lying is certainly working. In my last round of talking with teens, not a single one of them put a real age on their MySpace profiles. They were no longer saying that they were 69 or 104 (typically identifiers for teens). Instead, they were choosing arbitrary ages ranging from 16-24. Think about that. If this is as common as i’m seeing, none of the data is remotely real when it comes to age. How far does this go? Does it extend offline? Many teens are well-versed at pretending to be 21 in this country… fake IDs have gotten more sophisticated but they haven’t gone away. But what happens when a 21-year-old starts talking to someone that he thinks is also 21 on MySpace?

I can’t help but think that all of this lying has a cost…

PEW data on social network site use

PEW has just released the overview of their latest study on teens’ usage of social network sites. Most of the data is not surprising, but it sure is interesting. Here are some of the key findings:

  • 55% of online teens (ages 12-17) have created a personal profile online, and 55% have used social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook.
  • 66% of teens who have created a profile say that their profile is not visible to all internet users. They limit access to their profiles.
  • 48% of teens visit social networking websites daily or more often; 26% visit once a day, 22% visit several times a day.
  • Older girls ages 15-17 are more likely to have used social networking sites and created online profiles; 70% of older girls have used an online social network compared with 54% of older boys, and 70% of older girls have created an online profile, while only 57% of older boys have done so.

I wanted to comment on their findings because, frankly, i’m terrified of how this is going to be taken up by the press.

Only 55%?: Participants and Non-Participants

Given last year’s hype, it may seem low that only 55% of teens have created a profile. It probably is, but not by a lot. That said, it’s important to know something about PEW’s methods. PEW calls families; they first speak with the parent and then talk to the teen. It is likely that the parents are nearby when their child is answering PEW’s questions. Parents influence teens answers (as i’ve seen continuously) and in the case of MySpace, teens are more likely to say ‘no’ when the truth is yes than to say ‘yes’ when the truth is no. I’ve also been regularly surprised at how many teens tell me that they don’t use these sites and then, when i poke at them, i find out that they do indeed have profiles (often created by friends) and that they login semi-regularly. Still, i suspect that PEW’s numbers are low by 10% at most.

Qualitatively, I have found that there are two types of non-participants: disenfranchised teens and conscientious objectors. The former consists of those without Internet access, those whose parents succeed in banning them from participation, and online teens who primarily access the Internet through school and other public venues where social network sites are banned. Conscientious objectors include politically minded teens who wish to protest against Murdoch´┐Żs News Corp. (the corporate owner of MySpace), obedient teens who have respected or agree with their parents’ moral or safety concerns, marginalized teens who feel that social network sites are for the cool kids, and other teens who feel as though they are too cool for these sites. The latter two explanations can be boiled down to one explanation that I heard frequently: “because it’s stupid.” While the various conscientious objectors may deny participating, I have found that many of them actually do have profiles to which they log in occasionally. I have also found numerous cases where the friends of non-participants create profiles for them. Furthermore, amongst those conscientious objectors who are genuinely non-participants, I have yet to find one who does not have something to say about the sites, albeit typically something negative. In essence, MySpace is the civil society of teenage culture: whether one is for it or against it, everyone knows the site and has an opinion about it.

Gender differences

I am interested in the fact that in the 12-14 group, there’s little difference in usage across the sexes (46% of boys vs. 44% of girls). Things change in the 15-17 group with 57% of boys and 70% of girls participating. That’s significant. What happens? Most likely, this has to do with the fact that these sites are used to maintain current (and past) friends and girls are more engaged in this than boys. But either way, there’s a shift in participation that appears to hapen along gender lines as teens get older.

Not surprisingly, boys are more than twice as likely to use these sites to flirt than girls (29% vs. 13%). Boys are also more likely to use these sites to make new friends than girls (60% vs. 46%). I have to say that this makes me really sad. This is probably not about boys being more interested in meeting people than girls, but about girls being the subject of most of our fear around strangers. I remember watching 1950s movies about fathers not letting their daughters out while their sons could do whatever. I suspect that we have similar gendered limitations on our children’s internet usage. We allow our sons to talk with whoever, but tell our daughters that everyone they meet online is bound to be a perfecrt. Perhaps it’s rational, perhaps girls are more at risk, but perhaps it is our fear of them that puts them more at risk.

Privacy and Public Expressions

I’m surprised that so many (66%) of teens have limit the visibility of their profile (translation: friends-only). I would not have expected it to be that high, but i think that’s great. I know folks are going to say “that’s low” because they think everyone should be hyperprivate, but that’s not my view. I think that there’s a reason to be out in public if you’re careful about how you do it. I’m public, i’ve been public since i was a teenager and i don’t regret it one bit.

There’s a not-so-highlighted number in this report that i find very interesting though. 84% of teens have posted messages to a friend’s profile or page. This practice, while not particularly surprising to people, may signal something very interesting. Teens are primarily writing “private” (realistically directed is a better word) messages to each other through this feature. In other words, “you, wazzup, we gonna go out tonite?” The response will also take place in the comments section and a conversation will happen back and forth across profiles. These are semi-private conversations written in public to be witnessed by all friends.

On one hand, you could say that this is ridiculous – why not keep private bits private? On the other hand, i think it’s an interesting strategy in an environment where there’s so much “she said / he said.” By speaking in the witness of others, it’s a lot harder to spread hearsay (or fabricated IM messages).

Social Networks vs. Social Networking

I would like to highlight the fact that 91% of teens are using social network sites to stay in touch with friends they see in person while only 49% are using them to meet people (ever). I hope that this makes people realize that, for teenagers, these sites are *not* about networking. They are about modeling one’s social network.

some thoughts on 2007 (advertising, bullying, and mobile)

I love the idea of “social network fatigue.” I can see the Prozac ad now:

Are you tired of your friends? Does reciprocity get you down? Do you dream of blockmodels? Are you afraid of the big bad structural holes? Don’t worry… we can help!

OK… i admit, that was far more for my own entertainment than for yours. But seriously, the concept of “social network fatigue” boggles my mind. I realize that the prediction is really “Users will tire of large-scale, portal-style social network sites like MySpace and Facebook in 2007” but the framing of it as “social network fatigue” reveals the inherent problem in this prediction. Users aren’t going to tire of their friends but they will tire of problematic social spaces that make hanging out with friends difficult.

Now, i’m not one to enjoy spouting predictions (notice discomfort in recent press interview) but i have to say that i agree with 80% of Fred Stutzman’s predictions. Social network sites as we know it are not the end-all-be-all. They will fade and other services will recognize the value in adding social features to their site. Social network structures will become as ubiquitous as search or profiles. They will be a given, either explicitly (“are you my friend?”) or implicitly (your phone contact list). That said, i think there are going to be some blood baths next year and i’m not looking forward to them.

For me, the question is: “are teenagers tiring of the highly-visible social network sites?” and the answer is both yes and no. The level of emotional enthusiasm i hear has dramatically faded over the last six months. It’s taken for granted that it’s the way to reach people, but folks have seen the pros and cons and are no longer slurping it up without thinking. The perceived presence of people who hold power over teens (parents, teachers, etc.) and those who want to prey on them (marketers, pedophiles, etc.) has done unbelievable damage in general teen perception. I’m astounded by how many teens i’m running into who are “scared” to go on MySpace because they’ve been told horror stories by everyone. It doesn’t matter that the stories they repeat back to me are inaccurate – it’s clear that mainstream news coverage had a huge role in shaping social network sites in 2006. I want to scream every time a teen tells me the story of the two alexes or about how Dateline “proved” that predators are going to stalk them. (Instead, i listen patiently and politely.)

More significantly, MySpace has turned into a massive zit full of marketing puss. Most teens don’t mind advertising but when things look more like spam than advertising, you’re in deep shit. Every PR organization and marketing arm is leeching onto MySpace like a blood thirsty vampire. Problem is that vampires kill their prey. Teens who wanna hang with friends are mostly protecting themselves by privatizing their profile (more cuz of the marketing predators than the sexual ones) but this quickly loses the luster, particularly when it’s fundamentally hard to do what you want to communicate with your friends. (Simple things like friend management and better messaging tools would go a long way.) I’m very worried about how, unregulated, spamming and over-advertising will kill even the coolest social hangouts. I keep wondering what the regulation solution will have to be. (Is it law or code cuz it ain’t gonna be market or social norms?)

I believe that teenagers are the reason that mobile will happen sooner than we think. I don’t believe that the first explosion will be US-based. I am very hopeful about Blyk because i think that they stand a very decent chance of getting cluster effects working. (Note: the anti-corporate voice in me screams in horror at the idea of a free mobile service built on ads but there’s no one i trust more in mobile than Marko Ahtisaari. I have much respect for the whole team and i think that a free phone will be extremely popular so long as they get a few things right.) I think that mobile social network-driven systems will look very different than web-based ones but the fundamentals of “friends” and “messages” and some form of presence-conveying “profile” will be core to the system.

What worries me most is that my gut says that 2007 will involve far too many hyper-visible examples of bad-teen-behavior. You think Nicole and Paris’ fight is public? Wait until every teen in America videotapes their cat-scratching, hair-pulling, nut-kicking, all-out brawls and uploads them to YouTube. Those who hold power over teens are primed to obsessively stalk their behaviors and i don’t think it’s gonna be pretty. Forget dirty laundry, we’re talking a full inversion of the house. (Personally, i can’t wait until kids start videotaping their parents’ fights or otherwise disrupting the power dynamics – that’s going to make things super messy. ::shudder::)

I think 2007 is going to be spent working through issues of public life and privacy mixed together complicated power dynamics between generations and between producers and consumers. We’re going to see legal battles, big corporate power plays (a.k.a. “bullying”), and media panic coverage meant to distract us from Iraq. We’re going to see a disgusting increase in consumer advertising that will aim to saturate everything possible. (This is what you get for getting “old media” and “old business” online finally.) Personally, when i turn up the futurism dial, i wanna hide under a rock in 2007. Of course, it shall be interesting and i won’t be able to resist peeking.

prisoner 24601: teenage sex offenders

If you believe in the sex offender registery (and even if you don’t), i’d really like you to read this article in the Atlantic Monthly: Why Is Genarlow Wilson in Prison?

It is the story of a 17 year old “good” kid who will spend 10 years in prison for child molestation and be forever on the sex offender registery for having consentual oral sex with a 15 year old. One of the interesting twists in this case is that this would not have been his fate had he had vaginal sex with her (oral is a felony; vaginal is a misdemeanor). This kid had no prior runins with the law; he was a football and track star, homecoming king, honor roll student. He was your picture-perfect kid who fought the law and the law won. Imagine if he was your kid.

Now, think for a moment about what it means that this sex offender list is being put to other purposes. Does this kid deserve to be banned from MySpace (or the numerous other spaces that are seeking to build restrictions based on this flawed list)? Does he deserve to be limited from living close to a school or park? Does he deserve to have to wear a tracker for life, to be permanently branded? This list is not being scrutinized; it is inherently flawed. We are punishing people over and over again. Double jeopardy was set up in the constitution so that we would not repeatedly try someone for a crime but this list is double punishment all the same. What happened to the belief that people can change that is at the root of our modern prison system? What happened to the Judeo-Christian value of forgiveness for ones sins?

The law has ruined this kid’s lives. They have made him a criminal. It is one thing to believe in justice; it is another to turn people into slaves of the law.

Now every door is closed to me
Another jail. Another key. Another chain
For when I come to any town
They check my papers
And they find the mark of Cain
In their eyes I see their fear
`We do not want you here.’

Look down, look down… you’ll always be a slave.

ephemeral profiles (cuz losing passwords is common amongst teens)

Sara created a MySpace using an email address that she made specifically for that purpose. After vacation, she couldn’t remember her MySpace password (or her email password). She created a new MySpace page using a new throwaway email address. When i asked her if she was irritated that she had to do this after investing time in the previous profile, she said, “nah.. I had too many Friends that I didn’t know anyways.”

This snippet from my fieldnotes depicts an attitude that i keep hearing from teens that completely contradicts adult norms. Many teens are content (if not happy) to start over with most of their accounts in most places. Forgot your IM password? Sign up again. Forgot your email address? Create a new one. Forgot your login? Time for a change.

While adult bloggers talk about building an identity through extended blogging, i keep finding teens who got locked out of Xanga and responded by making another Xanga (or a Blogger or a LiveJournal). They have expressions scattered across numerous services with numerous handles. Some teens chew through IM handles like candy; their nicks are things like “o-so-funny” rather than the first name, last name standard that seems to pervade professional worlds. It’s not seen as something to build an extensive identity around, but something to use to talk to friends in the moment.

Teens are not dreaming of portability (like so many adults i meet). They are happy to make new accounts on new sites; they enjoy building out profiles. (Part of this could be that they have a lot more time on their hands.) The idea of taking MySpace material to Facebook when they transition is completely foreign. They’re going to a new site, they want to start over.

While this feeling of ephemerality is not universal amongst teens, it’s far more prevalent than you’d ever see in adult culture and it has some significant implications for design:

  • Focusing on “lock-in” will fail with these teens – they don’t care if they lose track of something they put hours into building.
  • Teens are not looking for universal anything; that’s far too much of a burden if losing track of things is the norm.
  • Paying for an account can help truly engaged teens remember their accounts (i haven’t found any teen who permanently lost their MMO login) but it can also be a strong deterrent for those accustomed to starting over.
  • The numbers that people cite concerning accounts created are astoundingly inaccurate and are worthless for talking about usage or unique participants. (added tx to a comment by Rich)

I should note that i don’t think that the answer is “help teens remember passwords.” I actually think that this tendency to shed is advantageous in the way that we shed clothes every year because the “old me” is no longer relevant. Technology is a bit too obsessed with remembering; there’s a lot of value in forgetting.

Of course, i do expect everything to change with the mobile. While i don’t expect teens to care about number portability (like their parents), losing a phone is a far more expensive proposition than losing a login (although it seems to be just as common amongst teens). I expect there to be a lot less turnover when accounts are tied to a phone. It’ll be interesting to see if strong identity is loved or hated.

Clarification: This post is not intended to negate or devalue my previous work on how people use different nicks to represent different facets of their identity. This latter practice is common to people of all ages and has great value for impression management. How you represent yourself on LinkedIn is very different from how you represent yourself on Friendster and you don’t want these collapsed. This post is meant simply to highlight another aspect of shifting handles amongst teens that is not common amongst adults; it is not intended to say that this is the only reason for new handles. (While losing passwords is common amongst adults as well, starting over happily isn’t.)