Monthly Archives: January 2008

my February 5 voting ballot: Barack Obama and CA Propositions

It’s election time. For the first time in my life, I’m excited about a primary. Why? My vote actually counts for once!! It’s kinda a weird feeling and it makes me realize how much different it would be to vote if it were all about choosing delegates rather than a winner-takes-all scenario. I ended up taking the primary pretty seriously, researching the candidates and thinking long and hard about what my choice should be.

At first, I defaulted to identity politics. I mean, I’ve been dreaming of a woman president all my life. But then a friend of mine asked me if I’d vote for Condi just to have a women president and I was like omg no. So I decided that this was irresponsible and that I should sit and think about the issues more deeply.

Problem is that the issues aren’t the issue – by and large, Barack and Hillary are on the exact same plan. Then they came to Los Angeles and one glaring difference became visible: Hillary is all about old media and Barack is all about new media. Hillary is totally in bed with big corporations (and Hollywood) and Barack embraced a lot of the innovative ideas put forward by independent startups and tech culture. This started to make me very nervous about Hillary. For me, net neutrality is a *HUGE* issue and I would hate to see the next president play nice with old media just to get some bribes.

This all started making me think about media and its relationship to the presidency. For better or worse, media plays a HUGE role in making a president and helping the president communicate to (or outright manipulate) the masses. I realized that Barack had an asset that few really thought through: Oprah Winfrey. I don’t think that Oprah can necessarily get him elected, but if he were president, what I do think that she can do is help the masses understand the decisions at play. She’s her own woman and I don’t think that the White House could ever buy her off, but if she’s invested, I strongly believe that she can help people understand sticky complex issues in an elegant way. This is going to be extremely important as we face the crisis in Iraq. Iraq is not a matter of pulling out/staying in. Both really really suck as solutions. Problem is that the mainstream discourse is binary and that’s going to make things a mess for the next president. The economy and its implications are another piece of chaos. The environment is another issue. We need a president who can communicate to the masses and get support to make difficult changes in this country. I don’t believe someone in Washington can do this alone and, damn, Oprah is about the best asset in the world for helping out.

Then I started thinking about the general election. Hillary is soooo divisive. I actually feel badly for her on this front, but I can’t ignore that reality. People love her or hate her. She has enemies everywhere. She’s going to have a hard time getting things done because of those enemies. She doesn’t motivate young people to be engaged in politics like Barack does. And, frankly, I don’t think that she can beat McCain. And that worries me. Cuz even if McCain isn’t that bad, the idea of another term of Republican machinery SCARES THE LIVING SHIT OUT OF ME.

Finally, when I was in Davos, I expected everyone to be pro-Hillary and anti-Barack because of the whole “experience” thing. I was shocked to find that this was not the case at all. Most foreign diplomats and companies thought that Barack would be much better at negotiating with foreign powers than Hillary. They all knew that the candidates would have huge advisory teams that would help them understand what was going on. Even though Hillary knew more people already, they felt as though Barack would be more effective. (And most were extremely worried about how Bill would overshadow anything with Hillary… another sad reality.)

So, I made my decision and I’m going to vote with a level of enthusiasm unprecedented in my lifetime. I donated to his campaign and I’m going to vote for Barack Obama.

California Propositions

Before leaving for Davos, I threw a proposition party so that my friends could come together and collectively decide how to vote for California Propositions. Here’s my slate for anyone who is interested (or any lazy person who wants someone to tell them how to vote). More notes over at Mindtangle.

CA Prop 91: NO (Not even the proponents are for it any longer.)

CA Prop 92: YES (This formula should’ve been redone long ago; community college is extremely important and, arguably, more important than HS ed.)

CA Prop 93: NO (I don’t like fishy changes in term limits that suit the proponents and have unclear long-term effects.)

CA Prop 94-97: NO (Gaming contracts the benefit the top tribes at the cost of the smaller ones are extremely problematic and without clear audits, it’s not clear that it will be the economic benefit that people believe.)

LA Prop S: YES (Yes, the 10% tax was illegal and so yes, this is an increase not a decrease in taxes. But the damage done by propositions in the past makes funding some of these necessary services really challenging and I strongly believe that we should modernize the phone tax and, more importantly, that companies using digital systems should pay per user not per company. This prop isn’t ideal but it’s necessary.)

the absurdities of Davos

When I went to Cannes last year, I thought nothing could be more absurd. I was wrong; Davos is much much much more absurd.

Much to my shock, I was invited to speak at the World Economic Forum this year, all because of a talk that I gave at AAAS. Even though I was on travel ban, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go. Given how many folks have asked me about it, I also figured I should do a trip report. This is that. In very brief high-level form.


Getting to Zurich was surprisingly easy, thanks to a direct flight from LAX. From Zurich, I hopped a bus with a bunch of other attendees. Imagine SF-Tahoe, complete with the traffic jams and snow piles everywhere as you go up into the mountains… only the bus is full of brilliant people that you admire deeply.

When I got to my hotel, I was a bit surprised to find that my $350+/night hotel room was crappier than the $39.99 ones that I mastered in rural America. There wasn’t even working internet and the lobby smelled foul. Le sigh. That’s what I get for going for the “cheap” option. The funny thing that I learned as the week went by is that many of the hotels are shite. There was something utterly absurd about realizing that the world’s leaders pay obscene prices to stay in crappy hotels (except for those lucky enough to have connections to get an apartment in town or those unfortunate enough to have to get a place outside of town and commute in because the crappy hotels are filled).

Security is omg overwhelming and everpresent. There are police officers at every door, street corner, and lining every hotel. Probably 1 police to every 2 people. Metal detectors and bag scanners are everywhere (along with coat checks and badge scanners). Not all of the events take place in the same building so every 2-3 hours, you end up going through a new set of security/coat check, making regular trips to the airport seem like cake. Oddly, by the second day, it just seems normal.


There are different kinds of sessions: big lecture sessions, workshops, breakfast/lunch/dinner discussions, and private events. Most sessions have a cap so you have to wake up at 7.30AM to sign up for sessions for the next day using kiosks that are everywhere (in hotels, in the lobby). You can print out your schedule on the kiosks too.

The big lectures are rather boring, but this is where many of the big politicians speak. I only went to a few of these after I realized that they were boring and that politicians couldn’t afford to say anything that they wouldn’t say on TV. Seeing Condoleezza Rice speak was dreadfully painful – I hadn’t think it was possible for my opinion of her to sink any lower. She spent the entire lecture telling Davos about why America was stable and on the right path. I walked out. The best lecture that I attended was a discussion between Al Gore and Bono about their respective activist projects – finding commonalities and connections between global warming and poverty. Twas neat. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was also pretty rad. There was also a panel featuring six youth from around the world which was super great to see, especially since these kids are at the absolute opposite end of the spectrum to the teens I normally interact with. These young folks were full-blown activists, entrepreneurs, and philosophers. Intense!

Workshops are the bomb. They are topically oriented and everyone works in small groups solve a problem. I attended two of these – one on technology and development and one on status. At the tech & development one, we were to imagine how to address the problems of a fictional village (called Tupointo… 2.0). We were split into groups – villagers, government, NGOs, funders, and tech companies. Not surprisingly, I was assigned to be a villager. After working out our needs as villagers, we all compared our goals and then had to split up with reps from other groups to negotiate. Our villager group rocked, but when we had to compromise, I nearly killed one of the guys from the tech sector for not understanding villagers. Turns out he’s a pretty powerful tech guy in RL… oops.

The second workshop on status was structured as a game where we were given gems that we had to trade to work our way up the status latter. It quickly became clear that some were born wealthier than others. I was a member of the poverty class. Realizing we would never win by getting money and realizing that whenever a member of our group did well, they were shipped off to another group, our group decided to aim for bottom, maximize happiness and conversation, and laugh at the other groups going crazy. The wealthier classes were much more invested in succeeding and one of the members from the upper-middle class nearly went ballistic over how the game was rigged and she wasn’t able to win. Gotta love a room full of Type A personalities. Anyhow, this provoked a fun conversation and my table got to talking about the status structures of badges (not unlike those at tech companies where there are permanents and contractors and temps and whatnot).

I attended two dinners and one lunch (in addition to the dinner that I helped moderate). These sessions are structured around tables where a moderator leads a discussion and then, at dessert time, everything switches to more lecture-style. Both these and the workshops are really great to get to know folks who are also interested in the topic, even if that’s not what they actually do. At the one on technology and education, I sat at Negroponte’s table. At one on spreadable chronic diseases, I sat with a guy from Kaiser Permanente. At the cultural leaders dinner, I sat with Yo-Yo Ma and Homi Bhabha. Each sessions proved to be utterly fascinating and a great opportunity to get to see issues from a different perspective. I was completely blown away by some of the amazing people at these sessions, both at my table and those moderating other tables. At the cultural leaders dinner, Emma Thompson showed a new short movie on sex trafficking which really blew me away. (Her PSA called I Am Elana is also mind-opening.)

Of the private events I went to, the best was a small discussion with Yo-Yo Ma where he talked about how successful people have fears and how challenging it is to be so successful so young. This was for the Young Global Leaders and so it turned into a fantastic discussion about issues related to being young and successful. I’ve decided that Yo-Yo Ma is a god – he is extremely playful and equally present and engaged. I found talking to him to be soul-enhancing.

On top of these structured events, there were also all sorts of different kinds of schmooze receptions and parties. I found that I was dreadful at these. I’m not so good about wandering around schmoozing people, although it was astonishing to watch some people who were tremendously good at it. I did OK at the parties where I knew folks (and there were a decent number of tech folks there), but otherwise… eventually I decided that I would be better off focusing on the small things involving intimate interactions with new people or friends of friends. I got to attend two non-structured dinners which were really great for getting to know new people and diving deep. Because Davos is cold and slippery, there are all of these shuttle buses that go everywhere. I found that I had many fun conversations sitting in those shuttle buses. This was much more up my style than the schmooze affairs so I decided to do some extra rounds on the buses a couple of nights.

At Davos, I was not a VIP by any stretch of one’s imagination. In fact, I was pretty close to the bottom of the attendee pecking order. It was pretty entertaining to see how people’s eyes would gaze over when they looked at my tag – politicians and heads of very important companies are significant; researchers.. not so much. Those who did want to engage me on my work usually wanted to get advice about their kids; I did a lot of parent therapy at Davos which was fine by me. But it really was weird to watch the hierarchies operate there. All the same, folks were relatively down-to-earth.

Another thing about Davos was that it became painfully clear that most business people are unaware of their role in the system. The conversations of the conference were heavily focused on environmentalism, inequality, terrorism, and doing good to solve the world’s problems. What I found was that many powerful people desperately want to help solve these problems but they seem unaware of their role in perpetuating some of the ills. It was weird… I couldn’t tell if such folks were clueless or delusional. I still need to chew on this a bit more. But it was fascinating to see that most businesspeople at Davos genuinely believed that they could help the world.

Many people at Davos wanted to know who I was going to vote for – our election is extremely interesting to non-US folks and I was completely shocked to find that most non-US business people that I met at Davos strongly preferred Barack to Hillary. I wasn’t expecting that. As for the U.S. Republicans… they too preferred Barack if they had to choose a Dem. Even though we weren’t in the U.S., the U.S. was overly present there. Our economy, our elections, our politics… all of these were front and central from the global audience. Very strange.

All and all, I got little sleep but had a fantastic time meeting interesting people and talking about ideas and watching how some of the most powerful people in the world network. It really was just downright absurd and I still can’t get it through my head that they allowed me in. ::laugh:: Now I must process what to do with what I learned there.

darn thee european internet

I’m in Switzerland. The internet is atrocious and hella expensive so I won’t be online (or handling much email) this week. Bear with me.

Update: Conference center has reasonable WiFi but no power… Figures.

let’s define our terms: what is a “social networking technology”?

In writing Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship, Nicole Ellison and I wrote many iterations of the definition of the term “social network sites” and why we chose to use this instead of “social networking sites.” For a good 20 versions, we had included this statement:

“Because the term ‘networking’ emphasizes relationship initiation, often with strangers, it can and has been expanded to refer to any site that allows people to communicate with people that they do not know, including dating sites, chatrooms, community sites, and bulletin boards.

This statement got edited out during the review phase because we were told that no one actually believed that “social networking sites” included all of these other things. The current debate surrounding the Economist’s debate on “social networking technologies” and education (my discussion of it is here) has shown otherwise. If you read the comments on my post and follow the blogs of others discussing the debate, you will find that there is unbelievable confusion about what constitutes “social networking.” [e.g., 1, 2, 3]

For their part, neither The Economist nor the respondents did little to define their terms. The Economist’s question concerns “social networking technologies” and their explanation opens up with “Given that MySpace and Facebook are ubiquitous…” and then goes on. From my POV, they implicitly equate “social networking technologies” with “MySpace and Facebook.” Yet, clearly, there’s all sorts of fuzziness about whether we’re talking about social network sites, social software, social media, collaborative software, or anything that enables any interaction with another human being.

Unfortunately, it makes the “debate” really confusing. When I posted my response, I focused on “social network sites” since that is what I took The Economist to mean by their equation. Not surprisingly given the confusion, I’ve been critiqued as being too narrow and not including wikis, blogs, social bookmarking, Google documents, Blackboard, etc.

I want to make something clear: I think that a lot of social technology is extremely valuable in the classroom, but that is not the question that I thought that The Economist was asking. Furthermore, I think that our failure to define our terms makes it damn near impossible to have a functional conversation about the actual issues. This is extremely frustrating. This is also why Nicole and I put so much effort into creating a workable definition of “social network sites.” We know that there’s confusion and we strongly believe that without a definition, we cannot actually have a meaningful conversation about actual substance. The ongoing use of “social networking” has been damaging to any productive conversation, both in the academy and in startup circles (who all want to be the next “social networking” app, even if there are no “Friends” involved).

So, here’s my question for all of you who use the term “social networking technologies” — what do you mean by that?

mobile phone credits as currency in Kenya

As everyone knows, Kenya has been in a state of unrest since the corrupt elections in December. Interestingly, a surge of homebrewed cyberactivism has emerged to aid in information flow and resource sharing (as well as political organizing). As an example, take a look at Afromusing’s Twitter stream which contains regular updates from Kenya.

Much of what is going on in Kenya centers around the mobile phone. In Kenya, the mobile is used for everything from communication to financial transactions. More and more of Kenyan society has relied on the phone as a critical part of everyday life. Unfortunately, this has all been disrupted since the election.

Kenyan phone users do not have monthly phone plans; they pay for prepaid credits (like most of the world). Prior to the election, getting credits was easy – they were available in kiosks, stores, bars, anywhere you could imagine. Yet, these venues all closed shop after the election because of the violence and looting. Credits have become a rare commodity and the price has skyrocketed. Credits have also turned into a currency and people are trading credits for food and medicine. Credits are worth more than the government’s currency. Because of difficulties in getting credits to citizens, a service called Pyramid of Peace has popped up to help people send credits to Kenyans.

Part of why people are so shocked about what is going on in Kenya right now is because Kenya was so stable. (I can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if Gore supporters would’ve taken to the streets after my country’s corrupt election rather than be so complacent.) When people think about what is necessary when everything goes haywire, they normally talk about food, water, shelter, medicine. What does it mean that telephony has become a central player in people’s lives? What does it mean that access to communication technology is necessary for access to food, water, medicine?

Perhaps it would do all of us some good to consider what it would mean if mobile telephony suddenly became a rare commodity.

The Economist Debate on Social “Networking”

The Economist is doing an “Oxford-style debate” on the following proposition:

“Social networking technologies will bring large [positive] changes to
educational methods, in and out of the classroom”

Given that MySpace and Facebook are ubiquitous, can social networking be defined as the “collective power of community to help inform perspectives that would not be unilaterally formed” or is it simply a distraction for students? Can these tools could be used in the classroom?

While I think that the Economist’s question is quite intriguing (albeit a bit problematically defined), I was sorely disappointed with the two responses.

On the Pro side is Ewan McIntosh. He argues that SNSs are about “helping learners become more world-aware, more communicative, learning from each other, understanding first hand what makes the world go around.” He talks about the use of mini-social networks for media sharing, but his description sounds more like blogs than SNSs to me. He (rightly) critiques the archaic educational styles, talking vaguely about web and SNSs without really explaining how the latter can help reform the former.

On the Con side is Michael Bugeja. He talks about interfaces, how students might misuse technology, and about how Facebook and MySpace are all simply about revenue generation for their respective companies. He then makes an odd techno-determinist claim and then talks about how pedagogy changes to fit interfaces. He then asks a bunch of (problematic) questions.

Sadly, I think that both completely missed the point. I’m frustrated with Ewan for collapsing all social technologies into “social networking” and I’m frustrated with Michael for being so afraid of technology that he lets technology dictate his reality. Given my irritation with both of them, I figured I should try to make a stab at what my response to this question would be.

danah’s response to said proposition

In their current incarnation, social network sites (SNSs) like Facebook and MySpace should not be integrated directly into the classroom. That said, they provide youth with a valuable networked public space to gather with their peers. Depending on the role of school in their lives, youth leverage these structures for educational purposes – asking questions about homework, sharing links and resources, and even in some cases asking their teachers for information outside of the classroom. SNSs do not make youth engage educationally; they allow educationally-motivated youth with a structure to engage educationally.

Social network sites do not help most youth see beyond their social walls. Because most youth do not engage in “networking,” they do not meet new people or see the world from a different perspective. Social network sites reinforce everyday networks, providing a gathering space when none previously existed.

Educational pedagogy has swung over the years between focusing on individual-centered learning, group learning, and peer-to-peer learning. If you take a peer-to-peer learning approach, you are inherently valuing the social networks that youth have and maintain, or else you are encouraging them to build one. These networks are mediated and reinforced through SNSs. If there is pedagogical value to encouraging peers to have strong social networks, then there is pedagogical value in supporting their sociable practices on SNSs.

When it comes to socializing with friends, youth prefer in-person (unregulated) encounters. They turn to SNSs when they can’t get together with their friends en masse or when they can’t get together without surveilling adults. By and large, there are few free spaces where youth can gather with their friends en masse and, even then, inevitably a chunk of parents refuse to let them, thereby destroying cluster effects. So, of course, they turn to SNSs. School is one of the few times when they can get together with their friends and they use every unscheduled moment to socialize – passing time, when the teacher’s back is turned, lunch, bathroom breaks, etc. They are desperately craving an opportunity to connect with their friends; not surprisingly, their use of anything that enables socialization while at school is deeply desired. This is why they text during classes. They go onto SNSs during the day to write to friends who have different schedules or to write to the whole group if a portion of them are on a different lunch. Given how regulated youth are, any open space where socializing is possible will be taken up by socializing; it’s often the only place they can see their friends. This isn’t something that the schools can fix, but they also shouldn’t be surprised when group time turns into gossip time.

I have yet to hear a compelling argument for why social network sites (or networking ones) should be used in the classroom. Those tools are primarily about socializing, with media and information sharing there to prop up the socialization process (much status is gained from knowing about the cool new thing). I haven’t even heard of a good reason why social network site features should be used in the classroom. What is the value of knowing who is friends with who or creating a profile when you already know all of your classmates?

This not to say that technology doesn’t belong in the classroom. Information access tools like Wikipedia and Google are tremendously valuable for getting access to content and should be strongly encouraged and taught through the lens of media literacy. Email, IM, or other communication tools can be super useful for distributing content to the group or between individuals or even providing a channel for group discussion (in-class or out). Blogging tools and group sharing tools are also quite valuable. Having to produce for the group instead of the teacher can work as a powerful incentive; most youth don’t want to be embarrassed in front of their peers and pressure to perform can be leveraged to the teacher’s advantage. But why social network sites? To the degree that they support blogging and group sharing, sure… but that’s not the key point of them at all. They key features that make them unique are: profiles plus visible, articulated and surfable friends’ lists. I simply don’t get why these are of value in the classroom.

I’m not saying that social network sites have no value. Quite the contrary. But their value is about the kinds of informal social learning that is required for maturation – understanding your community, learning the communicate with others, working through status games, building and maintaining friendships, working through personal values, etc. All too often we underestimate these processes because, traditionally, they have happened so naturally. Yet, what’s odd about today’s youth culture is that we’ve systematically taken away the opportunities for socialization. And yet we wonder why our kids are so immature compared to kids from other cultures. Social network sites are popular because youth are trying to take back the right to be social, even if it has to happen in interstitial ways. We need to recognize that not all learning is about book learning – brains mature through experience, including social experiences.

Yes, there are problems with technology and with technology in the classroom. Anyone critical of capitalism has a right to be critical of commercial social network sites and the economic processes that got us here. But don’t blame the SNSs – they didn’t create the obscenities of the market, but they are bound by them. Also, don’t forget that the current educational system was structured to meet the needs of the market, to create good consumers and good laborers. It ain’t pretty, and the privatization of education and educational testing is downright scary, but it’s a systems problem, not a technology problems.

There are innumerable inequalities in terms of educational technology access, just as there are huge inequalities in nearly every aspect of education. How many schools lack pencils, textbooks, teachers? Again, it’s terrible, but it’s not the technology’s fault. We all have a responsibility to rethink education and figure out how to equip all classrooms with the tools needed for giving students the best education possible, including teachers and technology. Don’t devalue technology simply because there are currently inequalities; no one would go around devaluing teachers using the same logic.

Finally, please adult world, I beg you… stop fearing and/or fetishizing technology. Neither approach does us any good. Technology is not the devil, nor is it the panacea you’ve been waiting for. It’s a tool. Just like a pencil. Figure out what it’s good for and leverage that to your advantage. Realize that there are interface problems and figure out how to work around them to meet your goals. Tools do not define pedagogy, but pedagogy can leverage tools. The first step is understanding what the technology is about, when and where it is useful, and how it can and will be manipulated by users for their own desires.

Update: I added a related post that is relevant to this discussion: let’s define our terms: what is a “social networking technology”?

Technology and the World of Consumption

I had just finished giving a talk about youth culture to a room full of professionals who worked in the retail industry when a woman raised her hand to tell me a story. It was homecoming season and her daughter Mary was going to go to homecoming for the first time. What fascinated this mother was that her daughter’s approach to shopping was completely different than her own.

Using Google and a variety of online shopping sites, Mary researched dresses online, getting a sense for what styles she liked and reading information about what was considered stylish that year. Next, Mary and her friends went to the local department store as a small group, toting along their digital cameras (even though they’re banned). They tried on the dresses, taking pictures of each other in the ones that fit. Upon returning home, Mary uploaded the photos to her Facebook and asked her broader group of friends to comment on which they liked the best. Based on this feedback, she decided which dress to purchase, but didn’t tell anyone because she wanted her choice to be a surprise. Rather than returning to the store, Mary purchased the same dress online at a cheaper price based on the information on the tag that she had written down when she initially saw the dress. She went for the cheaper option because her mother had given her a set budget for homecoming shopping; this allowed her to spend the rest on accessories.

Mary’s mother was completely flabbergasted by the way in which her daughter moved seamlessly between the digital and physical worlds to consume clothing. More confusing to this mother, a professional in retail, was the way in which her daughter viewed her steps as completely natural.

In the 1980s, Alan Kay declared that, “technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born.” In other words, what is perceived as technology to adults is often ubiquitous if not invisible to youth. In telling this story, Mary’s mother was perplexed by the technology choices made by her daughter. Yet, most likely, Mary saw her steps in a practical way: research, test out, get feedback, purchase. Her choices were to maximize her options, make a choice that would be socially accepted, and purchase the dress at the cheapest price. Her steps were not about maximizing technology, but about using it to optimize what she did care about.

Examining e-commerce, many businesses have found that people use online sources to research what it is that they want to buy. Few people purchase cars online, but many more research their options there. Online shopping sites are assumed to support offline purchasing. Yet, for Mary and other teens that I’ve met, the opposite is also true: they are visiting stores to research what they want so that they can purchase it online at a cheaper venue. The stores allow them to touch, feel, and try on material goods, while the digital world helps them find the cheapest option without running from store to store.

Teens’ interest in shopping is not simply about consuming material goods. For many, sites of consumerism are the only venues available for hanging out with friends. Malls, outlets, and box stores regularly emerged as places where teens could meet each other to hang out. Because security often shoos teens who are loitering away, they get into the habit of window shopping, fondling items for sale as though they may purchase them, and trying on clothes just so that they can appear to be at the shop for a reason. When they have money, they often do buy something, but most teens who hang out in shopping venues have nothing to spend – they simply want a place to hang out with their friends.

Teens who spend a lot of time hanging out around shopping spaces begin to know what each store is selling and have a sense of how often they update their inventory. As Nick (16) explained, “we’ll go in the hat store and look at different kind of hats they got. It’s a lot to do, but sometimes it gets boring ’cause if you go there enough, you start, ‘Oh, I saw that last week. They got the same stuff.’ Sometimes it’s really boring to go in there and you see the same stuff over, and over, and over again.” New inventory makes the “task” of window shopping much more interesting.

While shopping to hang out is a popular American teen past time, it also has a reputation amongst some parents for being a venue for troubled kids to gather. In talking with parents, I often heard references to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, gangs, and “the wrong crowd” as reasons for why they did not allow their children to hang out at the local mall. After intense amounts of pressure from her daughter, one mother did begin allowing her 14-year old to go with her friends to an outdoor mall under one condition: she would sit in Starbucks and her daughter would have to check in every 20 minutes. Not surprisingly, the daughter was not thrilled, but consented because it was her only option. Still, many parents refuse to let their kids go to the mall to hang out.

Teens do lie to their parents to get around this restriction. One girl told me that she and her friends had their parents drop them off at the movie theater adjacent to the mall. She would research the movie ahead of time so that she could report back afterwards. She would walk into the theater with her friends and wait until her parents left before going to the mall to meet up with others who had less restrictive parents. She would make sure to be back at the theater before the movie finished. This practice is not new to this generation, but it still highlights how critical shopping venues are for social gatherings.

Online shops do not have the same hangout appeal and the majority of teens that I’ve met who visit them do so with a purpose. They go to buy something specific and usually with their parents consent because of the credit card requirements. Online shopping is primarily task-centric, while offline shopping is primarily social-centric.

All the same, some teens still value consumption as an end in itself. As Shean (17) explained, “I want to get my own job and start my own stuff and make my own money, a lot of it, so that I can buy whatever I want. I want to be one of those people that can just walk in and say I want that and that and that.” To Shean, all that matters is having the stuff because that’s what it means to “live luxurious.”

When it comes to teen culture, consumerism is still rampant, although shopping is primarily about socialization. Aside from how the mobile phone allows groups to coordinate, technology is not really altering the tradition of hanging out in consumer places. What it is altering is the ways in which teens research and purchase things that they know they want.

Blog entry is a Fieldnote for the Digital Youth Project

Suzanne Briet: madame documentation and librarian extraordinaire

This entry goes out to all of the librarians and information school students who read this blog.

One of the best parts of being in an information school is that you get to learn all sorts of things about people who loved information long before there was an economy for it. One of the professors in my school – Michael Buckland – always astonishes me with stories about great information gods and goddesses, many of whom never got credit for their work. His latest book Emanuel Goldberg and His Knowledge Machine tracks the story of a Jewish inventor who escaped Germany only to have many of his inventions stolen by Americans. Think Vannevar Bush invented the Memex? Think again.

Buckland piqued my interest with another story of brilliant librarian who ignored and forgotten: Suzanne Briet. A feminist, rabble rouser, and historian, Briet was one of the first behind the documentalist movement during the interim period.

“Briet argued that documentalists should be embedded in the cultural contexts of the users that they serve. From this vantage point documentalists can not only retrieve documents, but prospect for information not yet asked for, translate information from other languages, abstract and index documents, and in general, proactively work within the dynamics of the advancement of knowledge in a field.(Day)

Sounds like Google, no?

“Briet’s writings stressed the importance of cultural forms and social situations and networks in creating and responding to information needs, rather than seeing information needs as inner psychological events.” (Day)

Her writings continue on to anticipate actor-network theory (an approach popular in information schools). She challenged positivist and quantitative notions of “information”, attributing a cultural origin and function to documentation and documentary signs (“What is Documentation?”).

Brilliant as she was, she was ignored and forgotten. Only one librarian attended her funeral. Most of her writings were ignored and never translated. Even today, few information scholars know about her and fewer teach her contributions. She doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry!

In an attempt to make her work more accessible, Ronald Day, Laurent Martinet, and Hermina Anghelescu have translated her work “What is Documentation?” into English and PDFified it for free download. Together with Buckland, they have also put together a website dedicated to her. Their hope is that more information scholars will learn of her and understand the historical context of documentation culture. Personally, I’m intrigued to learn that a brilliant feminist scholar was so visionary yet so forgotten.

Dearest librarians and fellow information students, Michael Buckland, the rescuer of forgotten librarians, is curious what it will take to truly resuscitate her memory? We live in a world of records and information, yet we often forget the explorers and founders (especially if they were women, people of color, gay, or non-Christian). How do we revive the stories of those whose contributions were ignored?

what are marketing and advertising’s social responsibilities wrt youth?

A new report by the UK National Union of Teachers – Growing up in a material world – shows that contemporary marketing and commercialization practices have devastating consequences on youth:

Of increasing concern to teachers is the increasing commercialisation of childhood and the lifestyle pressures exerted on children by the advertising and marketing industries. Using ever more sophisticated methods, these industries encourage children to buy particular brands of clothing and food and conform to specific images. Parents, too, experience this, as children’s ‘pester-power’ is exploited by the advertising industry. Those on a low income can feel particularly affected.

The pressure to consume and conform can lead to excessive levels of materialism and competition among children leading to bullying. There are dangerous consequences for the physical and mental health of young people.

The rise in childhood obesity and illnesses such as the early onset of type 2 diabetes, for example, highlight the dangers of advertising unhealthy food to children.

The report continues on to discuss how commercialization leads to the “creation and reinforcement of a culture of ‘cool'” amongst youth. The most terrifying finding in their report has to do with the link between bullying and consumerism: “Over 55% of those responding had either been bullied or knew someone who had been bullied because they did not have the latest products.” To fit in, youth have to consume. Marketing creates this cycle and bullies do the dirty work of making sure everyone conforms or suffers the consequences.

Body image and sexuality are at the crux of this. Girls are sold the “right” body image through dolls and clothing and their sexuality is structured around sexually provocative clothes, makeup and other product. Fitting in requires being “sexy” even at a young age. Not surprisingly, sexism and gender stereotyping are reinforced (if not constructed) by marketers seeking to capitalize on vulnerabilities.

“Companies routinely hire child and consumer psychologists to conduct research to help them target children effectively. Children’s vulnerabilities are played on as advertisers sell images of perfection and increase the pressure to have the latest ‘in vogue’ fashion and gadgets.”

In my own fieldwork, I regularly witnessed the consequences of mass commercialism. Teens had to buy to fit in and if they couldn’t buy, they were pressured to steal. Identity is constructed and status is marked by consumption. The goal of so many teens when they grow up is to make money so that they can buy the right things.

It’s easy to demonize marketers – they make for good punching bags – but many of us live off of the cud of advertising and marketing. Most of the tech industry is indebted to advertising and much of what we use for “free” is because we are eyeballs that can be manipulated. The entire structure of contemporary capitalism rests on companies ability to compete for consumers and, when they’ve saturated the market, create reasons for consumers to keep coming back for more more more. Not surprisingly, one of the reasons that companies have tapped into children is because they are the only true “new” market. More problematically, healthy economies are based on growth and growth doesn’t happen when people just consume what they need. Manipulation is central to a healthy economy – you have to convince people that they want your product so that you can report good news to your stockholders.

This presents a huge moral dilemma:

  • How can companies be both ethical and financially successful?
  • What are the moral responsibilities of a company when it comes to children’s consumption?

These are hard questions, but questions that I think that we need to start asking ourselves if for no other reason than because “teachers and parents now look to the advertising and marketing industries to become more socially responsible over their targeting of children and young people and for the Government to step in should they not live up to their responsibilities.”

(Thanks to Anastasia. News coverage of this report can be found at The Telegraph.)

This is a Shift 6 post. For more discussion, check out the comments there.

remix culture and fair use: a new study

Folks over at the Center for Social Media have just released a new study on copyright and creativity. They identify nine common types of re-appropriation practices that use copyrighted material:

  • Parody and satire: Copyrighted material used in spoofing of popular mass media, celebrities or politicians (Baby Got Book)
  • Negative or critical commentary: Copyrighted material used to communicate a negative message (Metallica Sucks)
  • Positive commentary: Copyrighted material used to communicate a positive message (Steve Irwin Fan Tribute)
  • Quoting to trigger discussion: Copyrighted material used to highlight an issue and prompt public awareness, discourse (Abstinence PSA on
  • Illustration or example: Copyrighted material used to support a new idea with pictures and sound (Evolution of Dance)
  • Incidental use: Copyrighted material captured as part of capturing something else (Prisoners Dance to Thriller)
  • Personal reportage/diaries: Copyrighted material incorporated into the chronicling of a personal experience (Me on stage with U2… AGAIN!!!)
  • Archiving of vulnerable or revealing materials: Copyrighted material that might have a short life on mainstream media due to controversy (Stephen Colbert’s Speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner)
  • Pastiche or collage: Several copyrighted materials incorporated together into a new creation, or in other cases, an imitation of sorts of copyrighted work (Apple Commercial)

This study interrogates these practices in the context of copyright law, namely “fair use.” They try to assess which way the courts might fall depending on practice. They also offer potential defenses that creators can make if they were sued in an attempt to build best-practices principles. They also categorize exemplar videos that fall into each category.

For those who aren’t familiar with U.S. law, fair use is quite tricky because courts address it on a case by case basis after someone is sued. There is no list of what constitutes fair use. Thus, remixers engaging in practices that would collectively be viewed as fair use never have certainty that what they’re doing is legal. Because court cases are extremely costly (especially for the lone defendant in the face of Big Mega Corp), corporations can wield a lot of power through the egregious use of “Cease and Desist” letters. Most creators bow down in the face of them even if what they’re doing is totally legit because they are terrified of being sued. In legal terms, a “chilling effect” is when practices are squelched by fear of persecution. Right now, when it comes to remix, we’re in the middle of an ice age. The Chilling Effects Clearinghouse website attempts to counteract some of this effect by collecting and publishing Cease and Desists and other nefarious attempts by corporations to silence fans and critics.

It’s a really really really screwy system that pits little people against big corporations, stifling innovation and creativity. Yet, in order to change it, people have to understand what is taking place, what is at stake, and how to rethink the situation. This is the goal of this study.