Yearly Archives: 2010

I AM OFFLINE! On Email Sabbatical from December 9 – January 12

I am offline, taking a deeply needed break while traveling. During the duration of my break, no email will be received by my computer. All email sent to me during this period will be redirected to /dev/null (aka “the trash”). If you send me a message during this period, I will never receive it and never respond to it. If you need to contact me, please send your email after January 12. If it is urgent and you know how to reach my mother, I will be in touch with her every few days. But I am intentionally unreachable during this period. Please respect that a girl needs a break and this is mine.

Credit: Betta Design

Background on Email Sabbaticals…

Years ago, I realized that there was no way to take a vacation and manage the always-on, always-in-contact lifestyle that technology affords. Initially, I thought that it’d be possible to simply ignore email while on vacation and deal with it afterwards but I realized that this was untenable. It takes months to catch up on thousands of emails and I’d come back and immediately burn out again trying to catch up. I’d end up declaring email bankruptcy, thereby failing everyone who contacted me because of my delinquency. I knew that I needed a different strategy.

I decided to start taking email sabbaticals as a systematic and respectful way of publicly communicating my boundaries. Six months before vacation, I let close collaborators and colleagues know that I intend to be wholly offline during a set of collectively known dates. A month before I leave, I write out to everyone that I work with to make sure that we all know what I need to accomplish before I leave and make sure that we have a check list to get it all done. I also publicly blog that I will be departing, letting everyone else know that they should get in touch if they’re going to need something from me. A week before, I message out again warning people. In this way, I systematically make sure that I take care of others’ needs before I depart. Communication is key to an email sabbatical. Disappearing without properly making certain that everyone has what they need is irresponsible and disrespectful.

When I am on vacation, I am confident that I have taken care of my responsibilities before I left. I have contingency plans set up for anything I can predict might happen while I’m away. I make sure that my brother, mother, sysadmin, and housesitters all know how to reach me in case of an emergency. But most importantly, I know that my email spool is not filling up with a big To Do list that will haunt me when I’m gone. Do I miss things while I’m on vacation? Most certainly. Inevitably, I will receive numerous emails from journalists covering year-end stories about teens, people wanting me to review journal articles, students wanting help with their term papers, and perhaps an invitation or two. I do feel guilty not personally responding to these people to say that I’m unavailable but that’s precisely the point. I need to let go in order to truly take a break and refresh. Are there going to be people pissed off at me because I’m on vacation? Sure. But I’m also used to getting pissed off emails everyday from all sorts of people yelling at me for my attempt to explain teen life. Part of me feels a guilty pleasure knowing that I will never see 5 weeks worth of angry emails.

The advantage of an email sabbatical is that I can truly take time and decompress and ease back into everyday life in January without an overwhelming and unmanageable list of To Dos. Personally, I think it’s a whole lot more respectful to preemptively and openly communicate that I need a break than to screw up and declare bankruptcy when everything crumbles. But maybe that’s just me. I’m sure some of you are reading this and thinking that I’m a royal bitch for saying enough. Or think that I’m a privileged brat for being able to carve out time for myself. Personally, I think that we all need to start looking inwards and understanding our limitations and articulating our boundaries. Breaks aren’t a bad thing; they’re a fundamentally important way to refresh. I know that I will be a far better scholar when I return than I am right now because I’m too burnt out to think straight. I need this break. And I bet you do too. And taking a long weekend isn’t the same as taking a serious break. Which is why I’ve been saving all of my vacation days so that I could take a serious pause.

Anyhow, I wish you a happy December. Chag sameach, happy holidays! And please, for your sake and mine, take some time for yourself. {{hug}}

Digital Self-Harm and Other Acts of Self-Harassment

Sometimes, things aren’t what they appear to be. And, in those cases, jumping to the wrong conclusion can be a disservice to everyone.

After I first wrote about Formspring 7 months ago, I couldn’t stop thinking about teens who chose to respond to vicious or harassing questions (since only responses are ever posted publicly). Listening to teens, I had concluded that many out there were trying to prove that they were tough and could handle anything. And I’ve continued to hear that story in the field. But as I started looking into the negative commentary on teens’ pages, I felt like I didn’t have the full explanation.

A few weeks ago, I was with Sarahjane Sacchetti (the goddess of communications at Formspring) and we got to talking about what Formspring could do to help at-risk youth. She told me that they were working diligently to respond to upset parents who were outraged by anonymous bullying but that they had hit a stumbling block. As they started looking into specific cases of teens answering “anonymous” harassing questions, they started realizing that a number of vicious questions were posted by
the Formspring account owners themselves. They appeared on Formspring as anonymous but they were written by the owner while logged into their own account.[1] In other words, there are teens out there who are self-harassing by “anonymously” writing mean questions to themselves and then publicly answering them.

This should make you stop and swallow hard. And then sit back and realize that it’s not that surprising. What is happening on Formspring – and, likely, other sites where people can anonymously or pseudonymously post comments – can be understood as a form of digital self-harm. These teens are attacking themselves in a public forum while making it look like they’re being attacked by someone else. This is a very effective mechanism for getting attention. Thus far, I can work out three distinct explanations for why a teen might do this:

1. It’s a cry for help. Teens want their parents (and perhaps others in their lives) to notice them and pay attention to them, support them and validate them. They want these people to work diligently to stop the unstoppable but, more importantly, to spend time focused on helping them.

2. They want to look cool. In some schools, getting criticized is a sign of popularity. Simply put, you have to be cool to garner hate/jealousy/etc. By posting and responding to negative anonymous questions, it’s possible to look important by appearing to be cool enough to be attacked.

3. They’re trying to trigger compliments. When teens are anonymously attacked, their friends often jump in to say nice things in response to the negative commentary. Thus, a desirable side effect of attacks is a stream of positive support, compliments, and other loving messages.

All of these approaches are quite logical. By using the anonymous Q&A system, teens are able to make it appear like they’re getting attacked, which results in them getting attention in different ways. Of course, like any negative attention-seeking mechanism, it can also backfire if others gang up or if parents respond poorly.

It’s really important to highlight that digital self-harm is probably not the explanation behind the majority of negative anonymous comments out there, but the fact that it exists at all should be a warning to us all – and especially to parents who are trying to address bullying in their households. Supporting your daughter or son is not simply about finding the bully and prosecuting them or about going after their parents. Teens who are the victims of bullying – whether by a stranger, a peer, or themselves – are often in need of support, love, validation, and, most of all, healthy attention. I can’t tell you how many teens I’ve met who’ve been bullied by people at school who then turn to tell me about how their parents are absent – physically, mentally, or emotionally. And how often I hear teens complain about their parents trying to “fix” things by getting involved in all the wrong ways. Ways that make the dynamics around bullying so much worse. And it breaks my heart when I see teens respond to their parents’ helicoptering by engaging in self-harm practices through eating disorders or self-injury (“cutting”) as an attempt to gain some form of control over their lives. And it scares me to think that a digital equivalent is brewing, a form of digital self-harm where words can be as sharp as knives and are directed at oneself.

There is no doubt that the teens years can be very rocky as teens try to figure out the social world around them. Navigating popularity processes and social hierarchies is extremely challenging on the psyche. The increasing amount of stress in the lives of teens – especially by achievement-focused parents – doesn’t help. And there are teens who respond to these stresses by lashing out – at others and at themselves. It’s important that we don’t just focus on the symptoms but that we get to the root of the problem. Why are teens lashing out at others and themselves? What’s going on in their lives that’s prompting them to respond this way? We can’t fix the symptoms – and trying to paint over them does absolutely no good. We need to get to the root of the problem. And, all too often, the root of the problem starts with us adults.

[1] An alternative explanation could be that someone else is hacking into their account to write anonymous questions to them. While this is possible, it’s unlikely.

First image credit: Krisztina Tordai

Second image credit: Dimitri N.

“Bullying” Has Little Resonance with Teenagers

Ever had one of dem days you wish woulda stayed home / Run into a
group of niggas who getting they hate on / You walk by they get wrong you reply
then shit get blown / Way outta proportion way past discussion / Just you
against them, pick one then rush em / Figure you get jumped here thats next /
They don’t wanna stop there now they bustin / Now you gushin, ambulance rushin
you to the hospital / with a bad concussion / Plus ya hit 4 times bullet hit ya
spine paralyzed waist down / now ya wheel chair bound / Never mind that now you lucky to be alive.
– T.I. “Dead and Gone”

[Originally posted on DML]

Sometimes, I feel like I’m living in parallel universes. I attend conferences and hear from parents and journalists who are talking about the bullying pandemic. And then I talk with teenagers about their social dramas, producing the interactions that adults identify as bullying. I hear from well-meaning adults about how they want to create interventions to help teenagers with bullying. And then I hear teens complain about the assemblies and messaging that they’re forced to listen to that don’t even begin to resonate with them. Whenever I talk to folks about bullying, I’m forced to confront the fact that adults and teens are talking past one another. And then I hear songs like T.I.’s “Dead and Gone” that capture the escalation at the most extreme sense and hope that teens are taking home the core message of the song, which T.I. captures simply as “I won that fight, I lost that war.” The cultural logic underpinning bullying is far more complex than most adults realize. And technology is not radically changing what’s happening; it’s simply making what’s happening far more visible. If we want to combat bullying, we need to start by understanding the underlying dynamics. And we need to approach interventions with an evaluation-based mindset. We won’t know how to stop bullying and no amount of legislation requiring education is going to do squat until we actually find intervention mechanisms that work. And that starts with understanding what’s happening.
The Way Teens See It

When I first started interviewing teenagers about bullying, they would dismiss my questions. “Bullying is so middle/elementary school,” they’d say. “There’s no bullying problem at my school,” they’d say. And then, as our interview would continue, I’d hear about all sorts of interactions that sounded like bullying. I quickly realized that we were speaking different languages. They’d be talking about “starting drama” or “getting into fights” or “getting into my business” or “being mean.” They didn’t see rumors or gossip as bullying, regardless of whether or not it happened online. And girls didn’t see fighting over boys or ostracizing one another because of boys as bullying. They didn’t even see producing fight videos as bullying.

So then I started asking them what bullying was. What I learned was that bullying was when someone picked on someone or physically hurt someone who didn’t deserve it. I’d ask how they knew if someone deserved it and the response was incredulous, “oh, you know.” So I pushed harder… “what if you don’t know?” I asked. I got blank stares so I took a different tactic. “What if someone’s messing with someone and that other person thinks they’re being mean?” This got their attention, but not in the way that I expected. Most told me that you know when someone is messing with you and that if you don’t, you’re stupid. Besides, when someone’s messing with you, you can’t take it seriously.

Of course, teens do take it seriously. And they do misinterpret when people are messing with them. And they do take minor social infractions personally. And then things escalate. And here’s what makes bullying so difficult to address. So often, one person thinks that they’re not at fault and that they’re simply a victim of bullying. But those who are engaged in the bullying see it entirely differently. They blame the person and see what they’re doing as retaliation. None of this is communicated, of course, so things can quickly spiral out of control without anyone really knowing where it all began.

A Story: Janiya and Precious

I was talking with Janiya about who she was friends with on Facebook and she told me “everyone.” I asked her if there was anyone from school that she was not friends with on Facebook and she rolled her eyes and said, “Yeah, Precious.” When I asked her why, she said “I just don’t like her.” Slowly, the story unfolded that she and Precious were currently entangled in a “situation” that had recently blown up pretty badly such that parents were involved. After hearing about the current squabbles, I asked Janiya to think back to a time when she and Precious were friends. I asked her what went wrong. Eventually, she told me about a birthday party in the 4th grade where Janiya played a joke on Precious and Precious took it really badly. It became clear that, ever since then, they were up and down. They didn’t trust one another and it sounded like they regularly misinterpreted what the other had said or done. Everything became personal and, when things got bad, it escalated into a physical fight. From Janiya’s point of view, she’d done nothing wrong; it was all Precious’ fault. But, reading between the lines, it was clear that Precious had a very different POV. I asked Janiya if this was bullying and she told me that Precious and her mom were bullies. I doubt that Precious would see it that way.

So how do we intervene with Janiya and Precious? A lecture on bullying is going to be completely ignored by both of them, either as irrelevant or meaningless to them personally. They don’t see what they’re doing as bullying. What Janiya and Precious need is to understand the situation from each other’s perspective
and to have empathy for how the other experiences what’s unfolding. That’s not an easy thing to do. Heck, that’s extremely hard. Just ask any marital

therapist who’s trying to help a couple work through their relationship. Janiya has a different solution in mind: make Precious change schools. She’s not interested in solving the relationship drama; she just wants Precious out of her life. And the only way that she can imagine this happening is by making it hard for Precious to stick around. So she’s taken a pretty strict stance: she never looks Precious in the eye or speaks to her so as to pretend that she’s invisible. And she encourages her friends to do the same. Online and off.

Empathy, Not Technology, Is Core of the Problem and the Solution

Janiya and Precious are trapped in a full-blown battle, but these dynamics are not unique. Girls ostracize one another either because of personal collisions or in support of their friends’ dramas. They make each other miserable by spreading rumors or gossiping behind their back. Technology is employed in efforts to humiliate, deprecate, or isolate. The end result for girls tends to be verbal and emotional torment. Boys, on the other hand, tend to front in order to move towards a physical altercation. Or to intimidate or humiliate. But in all cases, the point is to show who has social power. It’s all about creating and reinforcing hierarchies. In schools where status-driven hierarchies aren’t acutely maintained by teens, bullying isn’t so dominant. But when there’s something to be gained by putting someone down, bullying rears its ugly head.

When I look at how teens hurt each other, I can’t help but also see how they’re developing training wheels for future relationships and reflecting normative behaviors that they see around them. I hear teens’ dramas reflected in their stories about how their parents fight – with each other, with their friends and family and colleagues, and with them. What teens are doing is more coarse, more direct, and more explicit. But they’re witnessing adult dramas all around them and what they tend to see isn’t pretty. Parents talking smack about work colleagues or bosses. Parents fighting with each other or ostracizing their family members over disagreements. And it’s not just parents…Teens are seeing fights and dramas all over the media. Celebrity fights and dramas aren’t just in their face; they’re glorified! And even if MTV comments on domestic abuse after airing Jersey Shore, the way that the housemates treat each other sets a standard for what’s societally acceptable. Teens are seeing drama everywhere – they’re seeing it as a legitimate part of adult society that can often lead to notoriety.

Let’s Understand, Then Act

And here’s where we run into another major component of bullying… attention. In a world of brands and marketing, there’s a sentiment that there is no such thing as bad attention. Countless teens are desperately seeking attention. And there’s nothing like “starting drama” to guarantee both attention and entertainment. So teens jump in, adding fuel to the flame because it’s fun. They know that it hurts, but it also feels good sometimes too. And this is what makes music videos like Eminem & Rihanna’s “Love the Way You Lie” resonate with both adults and teens. The drama is half the fun, even when it hurts like hell.

Combating bullying is not going to be easy, but it’s definitely not going to happen if we don’t dive deep in the mess that underpins it and surrounds it. Lectures by uncool old people like me aren’t going to make teens who are engaged in dramas think twice about what they’re doing. And, for that matter, using the term “bullying” is also not going to help at all either. We need interventions that focus on building empathy, identifying escalation, and techniques for stopping the cycles of abuse. We need to create environments where young people don’t get validated for negative attention and where they don’t see relationship drama as part of normal adult life. The issues here are systemic. And it’s great that the Internet is forcing us to think about them, but the Internet is not the problem here. It’s just one tool in an ongoing battle for attention, validation, and status. And unless we find effective ways of getting to the root of the problem, the Internet will just continue to be used to reinforce what is pervasive.

Banner image credit: lenifuzhead

Second image credit: *nimil*

NOTICE: Email sabbatical will start December 9

If you don’t know me, you probably don’t know that I work obscene hours for most of the year and then take a proper vacation. As in no internet, no work, no geeking out on research. For me to continue doing the work that I do, I have to refresh. In order to refresh, I go offline. No email, no Twitter, no blogging. And only pre-downloaded Wikipedia-ing (because how can you tour foreign countries without wanting to know weird information about the universe?).

More importantly, I have learned that vacation isn’t vacation if you come home to thousands of pending emails. Cuz then you spend most of vacation worrying about the work that’s piling up. So, over six years ago, I started instituting “email sabbaticals” in my life. While I’m away, my lovely procmail file (aka “filtering software”) will direct all of my email to /dev/null (aka “the permanent trash”). I will not be reachable. The only person that I stay in contact with while I’m gone is my mother because it’s just too cruel to my mom to disappear entirely. Twitter and my blog will also loudly proclaim my MIA-ness. But the bigger issue is that I will return to a zero-inbox. Nothing sent to me during my email sabbatical will survive. All senders will receive a lovely bounce message saying that their message will never get through. In this way, no one can put things in my to-do queue while I’m trying to take a break. I need to recharge and there’s no way to recharge when the pile-up grows ever unmanageable.

From December 9-January 12, you will not be able to reach me. More importantly, you won’t be able to put things in my to-do queue. So, if you need something from me, holler now. Or wait until I come back. But please recognize that I need a break.

Social Science PhD Internships at Microsoft Research New England (Spring & Summer 2011)

Due to overwhelming interest, we are no longer accepting applications for this year’s internships. Please apply next year!

Microsoft Research New England (MSRNE) is looking for PhD interns to join the social media collective for Spring and Summer 2011. For these positions, we are looking primarily for social science PhD students (including communications, sociology, anthropology, media studies, information studies, etc.). The social media collective is a collection of scholars at MSRNE who focus on socio-technical questions, primarily from a social science perspective. We are not an applied program; rather, we work on critical research questions that are important to the future of social science scholarship.

MSRNE internships are 12-week paid internships in Cambridge, Massachusetts. PhD interns at MSRNE are expected to devise and execute a research project during their internships. The expected outcome of an internship at MSRNE is a publishable scholarly paper for an academic journal or conference of the intern’s choosing. The goal of the internship is to help the intern advance their own career; interns are strongly encouraged to work towards a publication outcome that will help them on the academic job market. Interns are also expected to collaborate with full-time researchers and visitors, give short presentations, and contribute to the life of the community. While this is not an applied program, MSRNE encourages interdisciplinary collaboration with computer scientists, economists, and mathematicians. There are also opportunities to engage with product groups at Microsoft, although this is not a requirement.

Topics that are currently of interest to the social media collective include: privacy & publicity, online safety (from sexting to bullying to gang activities), transparency & surveillance, conspicuous consumption & brand culture, news & information flow, and locative media. That said, we are open to other interesting topics, particularly those that may have significant societal impact. While most of the researchers in the collective are ethnographers, we welcome social scientists of all methodological persuasions.

Applicants should have advanced to candidacy in their PhD program or be close to advancing to candidacy. (Unfortunately, there are no opportunities for Master’s students at this time.) While this internship opportunity is not strictly limited to social scientists, preference will be given to social scientists and humanists making socio-technical inquiries. (Note: While other branches of Microsoft Research focus primarily on traditional computer science research, this collective does no development-driven research and is not looking for people who are focused solely on building systems at this time. We welcome social scientists with technical skills and strongly encourage social scientists to collaborate with computer scientists at MSRNE.) Preference will be given to intern candidates who work to make public and/or policy interventions with their research. Interns will benefit most from this opportunity if there are natural opportunities for collaboration with other researchers or visitors currently working at MSRNE.

Applicants from universities outside of the United States are welcome to apply.


The collective is organized by danah boyd ( and includes postdocs Alice Marwick ( and Mike Ananny ( Full-time spring faculty visitors will include Nicole Ellison of MSU ( and Mary Gray of Indiana University ( Summer full-time faculty visitors are TBD.

Previous interns in the collective have included Amelia Abreu (UWashington information), Scott Golder (Cornell sociology), Alice Marwick (NYU media studies), Omar Wasow (Harvard African-American studies), Sarita Yardi (GeorgiaTech HCI). Previous and current faculty MSR visitors to the collective include: Beth Coleman, Bernie Hogan, Christian Sandvig, Eszter Hargittai, Helen Nissenbaum, James Grimmelmann, Judith Donath, Jeff Hancock, Kate Crawford, Karrie Karahalios, Lisa Nakamura, Nalini Kotamraju, Nancy Baym, and Tarleton Gillespie.

If you are curious to know more about MSRNE, I suspect that many of these people would be happy to tell you about their experiences here. Previous interns are especially knowledgeable about how this process works.


To apply for a PhD internship with the social media collective:

1. Fill out the online application form: Make sure to indicate that you prefer Microsoft Research New England and “social media” or “social computing.” You will need to list two recommenders through this form.

2. Send an email to dmb -at- microsoft-dot-com with the subject “PhD Intern Application” that includes the following four things:
a. A brief description of your dissertation project.
b. An academic article you have written (published or unpublished) that shows your writing skills.
c. A pointer to your website or other online presence (if available).
d. A short description of 1-3 projects that you might imagine doing as an intern at MSRNE.

We will begin considering internship applications on November 19 and consider applications until all social media internship positions are filled.

Due to overwhelming interest, we are no longer accepting applications for this year’s internships. Please apply next year!

Risk Reduction Strategies on Facebook

Sometimes, when I’m in the field, I find teens who have strategies for managing their online presence that are odd at first blush but make complete sense when you understand the context in which they operate. These teens use innovative approaches to leverage the technology to meet personal goals. Let me explain two that caught my attention this week.

Mikalah uses Facebook but when she goes to log out, she deactivates her Facebook account. She knows that this doesn’t delete the account – that’s the point. She knows that when she logs back in, she’ll be able to reactivate the account and have all of her friend connections back. But when she’s not logged in, no one can post messages on her wall or send her messages privately or browse her content. But when she’s logged in, they can do all of that. And she can delete anything that she doesn’t like. Michael Ducker calls this practice “super-logoff” when he noticed a group of gay male adults doing the exact same thing.

Mikalah is not trying to get rid of her data or piss of her friends. And she’s not. What she’s trying to do is minimize risk when she’s not present to actually address it. For the longest time, scholars have talked about online profiles as digital bodies that are left behind to do work while the agent themselves is absent. In many ways, deactivation is a way of not letting the digital body stick around when the person is not present. This is a great risk reduction strategy if you’re worried about people who might look and misinterpret. Or people who might post something that would get you into trouble. Mikalah’s been there and isn’t looking to get into any more trouble. But she wants to be a part of Facebook when it makes sense and not risk the possibility that people will be snooping when she’s not around. It’s a lot easier to deactivate every day than it is to change your privacy settings every day. More importantly, through deactivation, you’re not searchable when you’re not around. You really are invisible except when you’re there. And when you’re there, your friends know it, which is great. What Mikalah does gives her the ability to let Facebook be useful to her when she’s present but not live on when she’s not.

Shamika doesn’t deactivate her Facebook profile but she does delete every wall message, status update, and Like shortly after it’s posted. She’ll post a status update and leave it there until she’s ready to post the next one or until she’s done with it. Then she’ll delete it from her profile. When she’s done reading a friend’s comment on her page, she’ll delete it. She’ll leave a Like up for a few days for her friends to see and then delete it. When I asked her why she was deleting this content, she looked at me incredulously and told me “too much drama.” Pushing further, she talked about how people were nosy and it was too easy to get into trouble for the things you wrote a while back that you couldn’t even remember posting let alone remember what it was all about. It was better to keep everything clean and in the moment. If it’s relevant now, it belongs on Facebook, but the old stuff is no longer relevant so it doesn’t belong on Facebook. Her narrative has nothing to do with adults or with Facebook as a data retention agent. She’s concerned about how her postings will get her into unexpected trouble with her peers in an environment where saying the wrong thing always results in a fight. She’s trying to stay out of fights because fights mean suspensions and she’s had enough of those. So for her, it’s one of many avoidance strategies. The less she has out there for a jealous peer to misinterpret, the better.

I asked Shamika why she bothered with Facebook in the first place, given that she sent over 1200 text messages a day. Once again, she looked at me incredulously, pointing out that there’s no way that she’d give just anyone her cell phone number. Texting was for close friends that respected her while Facebook was necessary to be a part of her school social life. And besides, she liked being able to touch base with people from her former schools or reach out to someone from school that she didn’t know well. Facebook is a lighter touch communication structure and that’s really important to her. But it doesn’t need to be persistent to be useful.

Both of these girls live in high-risk situations. Their lives aren’t easy and they’re just trying to have fun. But they want to have fun with as little trouble as possible. They don’t want people in their business but they’re fully aware that people are nosy. They’re very guarded in general; getting them to open up even a teensy bit during the interview was hard enough. Given the schools that they’re at, they’ve probably seen far more trouble than they’re letting on. Some of it was obvious in their stories. Accounts of fights breaking out in classes, stories of classes where teachers simply have no control over what goes on in the room and have given up teaching, discussions of moving from school to school to school. These girls have limited literacy but their street smarts are strong. And Facebook is another street where you’ve got to always be watching your back.

Related tweets:

  • @tremblebot: My students talk abt this call it “whitewashing” or “whitewalling.” Takes forever for initial scrub then easy to stay on top of.
      @techsoc: College students too! Altho their issue is more peers & partners. One spent 1 hr a day deleting everything BF might be jealous of

        @futurescape: I know someone who deactivated account all festivals, important occasions for her so that people cannot leave comments etc

Facebook & helicopter parenting

I recently received an email from a teen that I speak with that piqued my interest. I thought I’d share it with you:

My friend (17 yo girl) isn’t allowed on Facebook because she has helicopter parents.  She has one anyway under a pseudonym. She is also battling depression and has been going through many therapists. When I saw her a few days ago, she excitedly told me about how great her new therapist was. Her therapist lets her go on Facebook during the sessions.  While she uses Facebook, the therapist watches her use the site.  They have discussions around her photos and her friend’s status updates.  Apparently this is how the majority of her therapy sessions begin. This friend is prone to exaggeration, but the way she told the story passed my personal bullshit filter.

I regularly hear parents talk about how they want to keep their kids off of Facebook for any number of reasons. It kills me to hear this because they don’t understand that their pushing their kids to choose between social status and parental obedience. I don’t know whether or not this story is true, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I’ve watched too many teens be pushed into a corner by over-protective parents who think that they’re doing the right thing for their kids. But there’s nothing like social ostracization to increase depression. And I’ve heard too many stories from teens’ therapists about how parents are often a huge part of the problem.

If you’re a parent, please think twice before you get all control-freak on your teen kids. They need space to engage with friends in a healthy manner. And regardless of how you grew up, that means the Internet today. Exclusion isn’t a solution.

Combating Sexual Exploitation Online

Today, I testified in front of Martha Coakley and other members of the Massachusetts Attorney General Office as part of their Hearing on Sexual Solicitation Online. I spoke on behalf of my research (not as a part of Microsoft). I’ve spent the last 12 years working directly on issues related to violence against women and girls and so I felt that it was critically important to come to the table and express my concern about the approach many are taking with respect to technology. I was absolutely terrified but hopefully my message got through at least just a little bit.

I’ve posted my testimony online for anyone who wants to know what I said. Feel free to argue with me because I’d love to hear dissenting views on this issue.

“Combating Sexual Exploitation Online: Focus on the Networks of People, not the Technology”

Also, you should know that the Massachusetts AG’s office is taking written testimony until Friday October 22. So if you have something to say about this issue, I’d strongly encourage you to submit your own testimony.

“Pep Rally” – a truly exogenous trending topic on Twitter

Logging onto Twitter to check out a few things quickly before running off to a homecoming football game, I couldn’t help but notice something important: “Pep Rally” was trending as a US trending topic. I immediately clicked on through and found countless teens commenting on their school pep rallies. These teens were posting about pep rallies that were happening at different schools across the east coast. The fact that teens are on Twitter still comes as a surprise to some but what surprised me about this trending topic is that it’s the first truly exogenous trending topic I’ve seen teenagers produce.

There are two types of trending topics on Twitter: endogenous and exogenous. Endogenous TTs happen when a topic has a viral spread. Once it becomes a TT, everyone jumps onto it to spread it even further. So when we see a hashtag like #intenyears we know it didn’t happen naturally. It spread by a group of people until it became a TT and then off it went. Most highly visible teen participation centers on endogenous TTs. Sure, there are lots of tweens who like Justin Bieber but he trends on Twitter because people actively work to make that topic (or a related hashtag) trend. Exogenous TTs happen when everyone is talking about the same thing simultaneously, not really responding to each other or to the trending topic per say but responding to a cultural moment. This often happens when there are major new events or TV shows that are broadcasting something of great interest. For example, when Michael Jackson died, Twitter users were talking about MJ not because the topic was hott on Twitter but because it was simply of great public interest. Same with teens responding to events happening at the Teen Choice Awards.

So then why am I so enamored with “pep rally” as a trending topic? It’s Friday in the middle of October. A lot of high schools will have homecoming games tonight. Whenever there’s a homecoming game in the States (and often for other games too), there are pep rallies at the end of the school day. Schools typically let out around 2.30PM. So around 3PM, I login to Twitter and voila, Pep Rally is a trending topic. Click on through and there are thousands of teens from all over the east coast (because time zones haven’t shifted yet) talking about having just gotten out of the pep rally. Some were talking about it being lame; others were talking about it being awesome. But they weren’t talking about the same pep rally. They were talking about their individual schools’ pep rallies. Collectively, many teenagers are experiencing pep rallies right now, but it’s not the same event that they’re experiencing. They’re talking about pep rallies, but what they’re referring to isn’t a shared event. Collectively, their discussions are trending. It’s a fascinating exogenous trending topic that isn’t even about the same event but rather about an activity that teens across EST (and now CST) are experiencing simultaneously but not coherently. Thus, the TT is more about marking a pattern of day (like “good night”) than a particular event. And, in this case, an event that is wholly teen-centric. And now, as I finish this post, I can see the pep rallies finish in CST and start in MST. Amazing. And delightful.

OK… enough talking about pep rallies. It’s time to go get ready for the homecoming games of the night. Hopefully I’ll wear the right colors this time. (I’m really not good at color coordinating for football games.)

Thank you Nashville!

I’m just finishing up the first 10 days of my fall sprint at intensive fieldwork. I’m a long way from being about to synthesize what I’m seeing but I wanted to share a few things since many of you are curious about my observations.

First off, Nashville is a great city to do fieldwork because of a mix of different dynamics taking place here. There’s the obvious suburban dynamics which are really notable here, especially given some of the extraordinarily wealthy suburbs which their posh football fields and McMansions. But even in the low income regions, there are really interesting things going on, both in the city and in the suburbs. On one hand, you have amazing local organizations dedicated to youth culture. The public library’s facility for teens is better than anything I’ve seen in any public library in the States and boy do teens flock there after school to play with the Wii, get free snacks, do homework, get on the computer, and even read books. The energy after school is fantastic. The library and rec center are where many teens go after school to wait for their parents to pick them up or because they live close to these places and find them to be more fun than going home (for a whole host of reasons). Of course, the teens that go to these places aren’t necessarily representative of all teens in Nashville. One teen told me that the types of people who went to the library are “ghetto” which is why she won’t go there. Still, many of the teens that I met there are trying to stay out of trouble and it was great to see a place for them to go. Likewise, Rocketown, a club founded by Christian musician Michael W. Smith is a popular place for youth trying to keep out of trouble. And there’s a Youth Opportunity Center and a whole host of other organizations working to create activities and opportunities for teens. And, unlike many regions I’ve been in, many of the retailers and fast food joints employ teens.

And then there’s the flipside… There are drug issues, namely pills (although oddly, heroin also seems to be coming back). And gangs. Sure, there are gangs in other cities, but the Kurdish Pride gang down here is quite unique. Kurdish Pride is filled with teens and young adults who come from middle/upper-class two-parent families and are doing well in school, but are engaged in a two-front gang warfare battle. On one hand, they’re trying to stand up to the black and Hispanic gangs here; on the other, they’re trying to show that they’re tough to their cousins back in Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere. Things escalated post 9/11 and I can’t imagine that all of this anti-Islamic fever is helping anything down here at all.

A lot of how Nashville is organized depends on transportation, with teens in the suburbs rarely making it into the city because of lack of transportation (and familial rejections of the bus). Malls and movies trump everything in terms of hang out spaces for suburban youth, with parks operating as a critical site for urban youth. All of the youth centers and whatnot are located downtown, although some of the megachurches have great youth programs in the suburbs. Things like football games and Young Life are still playing a huge role in the communities. The biggest socio-economic mixing seemed to have happened at the Opry Mills Mall (which shut down after the flood) and among kids who attend magnet schools or other specialty schools (of which there are some phenomenal ones here… sadly, though, the typical public schools leave much to be desired). As always, geography and mobility really shape the social dynamics.

Anyhow, I could go on and on about the social dynamics of Nashville which are totally fascinating and require much more nuance than I can offer in 3 paragraphs, but I’m sure what you really want to know is about technology. Simply put, technology is really fading into the background and is mostly being used on top of everything else that teens are doing. Teens who are more likely to be stuck at home (namely the teens from wealthier families) are much more consciously engaged in the technology for technology sake, much more likely to sit and chat on Facebook because it’s Facebook. Cell phones are everywhere with texting at unbelievable levels across socio-economic divisions. But teens are treating technology with the same level of emotional connection as they treat their clothes. Some are obsessively passionate about it and some just see it as a functional thing that they may or may not want to engage with.

Some fun little things that I found intriguing… All of the MySpace Top 8 stuff has reappeared in Facebook under “siblings” as teens list their closest friends as their brothers and sisters (which requires confirmation). While joining “groups” used to be a cool way of doing identity marking, it’s now all about clicking “Like” to funny things that get passed around. Relationships aren’t official until they’re “Facebook official.” MySpace isn’t dead among teens but the socio-economic issues around it are extremely pronounced and those who are on MySpace are typically also on Facebook at this point. MySpace and YouTube are ground zero for law enforcement doing gang intelligence. Particularly interesting given that Facebook is heavily used by the Kurdish Pride kids to connect with family back in Iraq; both sides post photos with guns to show toughness and connection. And I confirmed the reality that Facebook is pretty darn public for these teens – available to everyone that they know. And they know very little about how to manage their settings but feel like Facebook’s defaults must be what they should use.

I also heard some pretty crazy heart-wrenching stories. For example, complications to the sexting picture in the news. A boy that I met shared his cell phone with his mother.  He takes the phone during the day and she takes it at night.  His mother appears to be promiscuous (“gets around”).  All day long, he receives naked photos of older men to his cell phone intended for his mother. He’s terrified that his friends will see those pictures and think that they’re intended for him.  He’s super embarrassed about his mother but too uncomfortable to confront her.

Anyhow, there’s a lot more in all of my notes that I still need to process and think through what I have before I can offer more conceptual reactions but I wanted to share a little bit of what I’ve seen. And thanks to everyone who has been so supportive and welcoming. There are some truly dedicated folks in Nashville trying to make a difference and it really warms my heart to see so many dedicated folks working to help teens.

More soon! (Next stop… Raleigh and Durham.)