Monthly Archives: January 2009

my first week

What a crazy week it’s been. I came back from vacation and landed in Boston just seven days ago (during a winter snow storm, of course). On Monday, I started at Microsoft Research New England and have been working my toosh off to get settled (battling network connections, apartment searching, etc.). I have to admit that I’m totally overwhelmed. I’ve interacted with more humans this week than I have in the last year. And I’m surrounded by brilliant people who do research that I don’t understand at all. So I’m on a crash course, trying to grok what my colleagues do and figure out how I fit in and how I can collaborate with them. But I’m totally up for the challenge, in part because I really really really like the people I work with and our conversations are totally inspiring. Even if they think that I’m an odd duck.

More writing coming soon. But first, settling in and finding my feet. Have I told you lately how awesome it is to not be working on my dissertation? OMG. So much relief.

I hope all of you are well!

using Facebook while ill

Yesterday, I received an email about one person’s Facebook usage that I felt the urge to share:

A little over 6 months ago, my stepmom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She is doing alright now, but during her chemotherapy she was isolated from friends and family due to a compromised immune system. She could still see people, but had to keep human interactions to a minimum. During that time, Facebook became this way for her to communicate and interact with the world. Being able to see pictures of friends and family and receiving comments would brighten her day. It was really amazing how she was able to adopt this technology temporarily and how valuable it became to her. As her life has returned to normal, she has had less time for Facebook. Originally, one of her friends had helped her create the profile, but it wasn’t part of her normal life. So now that things are more “normal”, she has talked about how it is hard to maintain her Facebook relationships.

In following up with the son, he shared an additional element with me that is also important: “Even though she is older, she has friends that are college age that she knew through her religious activities. So most of the people she was talking to were of college age. But as the technology becomes more pervasive among older generations, I could totally see being able to communicate with a broader range of friends.”

What I find so compelling about this account is that it is a reminder that in-person encounters are not always possible or ideal. Geography isn’t the only limiting factor. I’m always intrigued to hear stories of people with disabilities using the Internet to build connections that were otherwise impossible for them. Likewise, it’s astonishing the role that the Internet plays in helping people who are ill.

I’m also reminded of all of the awkwardness that occurs when illness gets in the way of friendship and the role that technology can play. In this case, the woman is unable to see her friends frequently. But there’s another layer here. When someone’s sick, the topic is always hanging in the air. In some cases, it’s always the topic of conversation. In others, it’s a difficult subject to broach. Back when I was studying blogging, I spoke with an HIV+ man who told me that he started blogging so he could let his friends know about his health. He had found that there was no comfortable way for them to ask in social settings. “Can you pass the ketchup? Oh, and how are your T cells?” didn’t quite work. Likewise, there was no good way for him to bring it up without creating awkward moments. So he decided to anonymously blog about his illness. His friends could get a sense of how he was doing and he could share it and everyone could look when it was most appropriate for them and their in-person interactions could have a more sane cadence. One huge challenge in being sick is figuring out how to participate “normally” in social settings. Mediated interactions can often be quite valuable in this regard.

There are many other important nuggets in this account. Technology’s value is often dependent on where one’s at in their life. Inter-generational relationships can be enhanced through these tools. Social awareness can be tremendously fulfilling (and should not be seen as purely vacuous). I don’t want to go into a proper analysis here, but hopefully this story makes you think.

Anyhow, I like being reminded of how these tools fit into people’s lives in different ways and I thought maybe you would too. Oh, and if you have a story of your own to share, I’m all ears.

Internet Safety Technical Task Force Report

A year ago, I teamed up with John Palfrey and Dena Sacco to co-direct the Internet Safety Technical Task Force. I came to this project with the strong conviction that policy concerning children’s safety should be grounded in data. In other words, rather than focus on what might be, it would behoove us to take a look at what is and propose solutions to address known problems in ways that align with the logic and social conditions in which kids live. For years, I had been watching policy unfold that would do nothing to help the hurting kids that I met. I was frustrated and wanted to make a difference.

Going into this Task Force, I was extremely naive. I genuinely believed that people were making bad policy, bad technology, and bad decisions because they lacked the data or knowledge to interpret the data. I was upset that so much research was behind the pearly gates of locked-down journal publishers and that, even when accessed, many people didn’t know how to read that material. I believed that I had a responsibility to make research accessible so that it could be usable. I thought that presenting data would motivate people to innovate and devise solutions to help kids. I was wrong.

I’m not good at politics. I don’t understand the logic that operates behind politics and I cannot lie to myself or others to get my way. I am a scholar. I believe in the pursuit of knowledge, the dissemination of ideas, and the education of all. I entered this project to help people understand what we scholars have been following for a long time, but I got way in over my head.

For the our Task Force Report, I helped create a Research Advisory Board Literature Review where, along with the tremendous help of Andrew Schrock, we aggregated research to highlight the known issues around online safety. The patterns are brutally clear. The same issues continue to emerge with each new technology. The kids who are in trouble offline are more likely to be in trouble online and offline psychosocial factors contribute to online risks. Many more youth experience bullying than sexual contact and the realities of “predation” look very different than most people imagine and, thus, require vastly different solutions than most people propose.

The report was released while I was away and I came home to a storm. I’m used to folks dismissing qualitative work because they don’t understand it, but I’ve never before witnessed so many people reject solid quantitative studies done by reputable organizations that are replicated with different sampling techniques across different studies. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect someone to say to me, “Go find other data.” More frequently, as if in a refrain, folks are trying to reject the studies in this report as “old” and “outdated” even though the report makes it clear that the findings paint a consistent portrait and unreleased data show similar patterns. It’s as if nothing would satiate critics who can’t imagine that the real dangers are different than have been portrayed over the years.

I can think of many reasons for why people refuse to listen to data that conflicts with their perception. But what breaks my heart about this is that folks are doing it in a way that dismisses the thousands of youth who are truly in trouble. This shouldn’t be about whether or not the Internet is “safe” or “not safe” but whether or not the kids are ok. And many of them are NOT ok.

After staring at the data, I strongly believe that we need to stop talking about the Internet as the cause and start talking about it as the megaphone. The Internet makes visible how many kids are not ok. We desperately need an integrated set of compassionate solutions. Digital social workers are needed to reach out to troubled kids and guide them through the rough spots. Law enforcement is vital for tracking down dangerous individuals, but we need to fund them to investigate and prosecute. Parents and educators are desperately needed to be engaged and informed. Technical solutions are needed to support these different actors. But there is no magic silver bullet. The problems that exist cannot be solved by preventing adults from communicating with minors (and there are huge unintended consequences to that… including limiting social workers from helping kids) and they cannot be solved by filtering the content. It’s also critical that we engage youth in the process because many of them are engaging in risky behaviors that put them in the line of danger because of external factors that desperately need to be addressed.

If you’re a parent, a teacher, a law enforcer, or simply a concerned citizen, I beg you to read at least the Executive Summary (if not the whole report). The kids need our support, our attention, and our love. They need us to move away from our fears and address the very real dangers and issues that they face. This isn’t a black and white story. This is a very complex set of issues that require people to get informed.

Taken Out of Context — my PhD dissertation

Without further ado… my PhD dissertation:

Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics

Abstract: As social network sites like MySpace and Facebook emerged, American teenagers began adopting them as spaces to mark identity and socialize with peers. Teens leveraged these sites for a wide array of everyday social practices – gossiping, flirting, joking around, sharing information, and simply hanging out. While social network sites were predominantly used by teens as a peer-based social outlet, the unchartered nature of these sites generated fear among adults. This dissertation documents my 2.5-year ethnographic study of American teens’ engagement with social network sites and the ways in which their participation supported and complicated three practices – self-presentation, peer sociality, and negotiating adult society.

My analysis centers on how social network sites can be understood as networked publics which are simultaneously (1) the space constructed through networked technologies and (2) the imagined community that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology, and practice. Networked publics support many of the same practices as unmediated publics, but their structural differences often inflect practices in unique ways. Four properties – persistence, searchability, replicability, and scalability – and three dynamics – invisible audiences, collapsed contexts, and the blurring of public and private – are examined and woven throughout the discussion.

While teenagers primarily leverage social network sites to engage in common practices, the properties of these sites configured their practices and teens were forced to contend with the resultant dynamics. Often, in doing so, they reworked the technology for their purposes. As teenagers learned to navigate social network sites, they developed potent strategies for managing the complexities of and social awkwardness incurred by these sites. Their strategies reveal how new forms of social media are incorporated into everyday life, complicating some practices and reinforcing others. New technologies reshape public life, but teens’ engagement also reconfigures the technology itself.

Knowing that I would share my dissertation publicly, I desperately wanted to create a perfect dissertation. Anyone who has been through this process knows how impossible that is. Everyone kept trying to reassure me by promising that no one ever reads a dissertation. (Often this was followed with a snarky remark of “not even your committee.”) Unfortunately, those folks haven’t met the blogosphere. (Or my committee.)

There was a huge part of me that wanted to hole up and not share this document with you, for fear of your criticism. This is not a perfect document. Not even close. There are holes in my argument structure, problems with my description, and loads of places where I can’t help but smack my forehead at my simplicity and lack of depth. With all of its imperfections, there is one very important thing about this document: it is done. And by the end of the process, I accepted the age-old PhD mantra: the only good dissertation is a done dissertation.

I don’t expect you to read this, but I know that for some sick and twisted reason, many of you have an urge to do so. That makes you very weird. Still, I have a favor to ask… if you’re going to take the time to read this beast – or even a single chapter of it – could you share your thoughts? I really want to push this further and deeper. Parts of it will turn into journal articles. Other parts will emerge in a book. The more feedback I get now, the better I can make those future document. So, pretty please, with a cherry on top, could you share your reflections, critiques, concerns? I promise I won’t be mad. In fact, the opposite. I would be most delighted!

i’m baaaaaack!

::wave:: Hello! I’m currently clicking keys on a keyboard for the first time in a month and boy oh boy does it feel weird. It’s been a fun-filled adventurous break. The first chunk involved driving cross-country on our “real America” tour of the U.S. This was followed by some fun family time for the holidays. And then we headed south to Costa Rica where we tromped around both coasts and rain/cloud forests and played with all sorts of animals (from monkeys to toucans to armadillos). I feel rested, rejuvenated and utterly ecstatic to be starting up at MSR on Monday.

Not surprisingly, I have a lot more to say about all of the above, but it’s 1.30AM and I’m bloody tired. And I still need to drive from Pennsylvania to Boston. Still, I wanted to let all who are still reading know that I’m back and that my email has been turned on again. Also, I’ll address the release of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force Report more when I can see straight. But in the meantime, HELLO WORLD!