Yearly Archives: 2010

Call for Papers: Digital Media & Learning Conference

Interested in Digital Media & Learning? Well, the 2011 Digital Media & Learning Conference is looking for some interesting talks, papers, and sessions. They’ve just launched the call for proposals. (I’m on the conference committee.)

The Digital Media and Learning Conference is an annual event supported by the MacArthur Foundation and organized by the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub at University of California, Irvine. The conference is meant to be an inclusive, international and annual gathering of scholars and practitioners in the field, focused on fostering interdisciplinary and participatory dialog and linking theory, empirical study, policy, and practice.

The second conference will be held between March 3-5, 2011 at the Hilton Long Beach Conference and Meeting Center in Long Beach, California. The theme will be “Designing Learning Futures”. The Conference Chair will be Katie Salen. The conference committee includes Kimberly Austin, danah boyd, Sheryl Grant, Mark Surman, Trebor Scholz and S. Craig Watkins. Keynote presentations will be given by Alice Taylor and Muki Hansteen-Izora. We are also planning a book exhibit and technology demos.

musing on child naming and the Internet

I am of the age where many of my friends are having kids and so I’ve been exposed to more conversations about what to name one’s child than I ever could’ve imagined. I’m sure people have always had long contested discussions with their partners and friends about naming, but I can’t help but laugh at the role that the Internet is playing in these conversations today. I clearly live in a tech-centric world so it shouldn’t be surprising that SEO and domain name availability are part of the conversation. But I’m intrigued by the implicit assumption in all of this… namely, that it’s beneficial for all individuals to be easily findable online and, thus, securing a fetus’ unique digital identity is a tremendous gift.

Over the summer, Omar Wasow worked on a project at MSR about transparency and the implications of putting criminal records online. We were both flabbergasted by all of the efforts underway to publish arrest records as well as sentencing records. Omar is interested in whether or not publishing criminal arrest records negatively affects individuals’ ability to rejoin society once they’ve served their sentences. Does this information affect people’s ability to get a job? To rent an apartment? Etc. One thought we had was that it’s a lot easier to live down a record if you have a common name and, thus, are just one of many in a sea being searched.

Most parents don’t want to imagine the implications of searchable arrest records on the lives of their future spawn, but I can’t help but think that it’s pretty absurd to believe that all kids are going to want to be self-branded highly-visible easily-searchable adults. Sure, we all want our kids to be successful, but what if they’re not? And what if they don’t want to stand out? I always thought it was horrific when parents would name their kids ridiculous names that were destined for torturous middle school nicknames, but what does it mean to take it to the next level such that they stick out like sore thumbs online? It’s a lot easier to live down middle school than to live down a persistent digital identity.

I’m not at all sure if it’s better to give a kid a unique name so that they can stand out like a shining star or to go with a more generic name so that they can quietly stay invisible if they want. There’s definitely something to be said for naming a child at puberty instead of at birth, but, well, that’s not really how American society is structured.

Anyhow, I don’t really have any answers on this topic but it sure is entertaining to watch it unfold all around me. If you’ve got any advice that I can offer to my friends from your own experience, please holler cuz it sure is causing lots of folks heartburn.

Favorite myth-making news articles?

The book that I’m writing is focused on myths that we have about teens and social media. I’m trying to find some good quotes from news media that perpetuate these myths and I’m hoping that you might be able to help. The more salacious and outraged, the better.  I’m looking for articles in mainstream venues that talk about all of the reasons in which social media is bad, bad, bad.  What are your favorite news articles that reinforce these widespread beliefs?

  • Myth #1: The digital is separate from the “real” world.
  • Myth #2: Social media makes kids deceptive.
  • Myth #3: Social media is addictive.
  • Myth #4: Kids don’t care about privacy.
  • Myth #5: The Internet is a dangerous, dangerous place.
  • Myth #6: There’s nothing educational about social media.
  • Myth #7: Kids are digital natives.
  • Myth #8: The Internet is the great equalizer.


Before you ask… These are indeed the rough ideas that my book is organized around.  I’m not settled on any of the phrasings so if you’ve got feedback, I’m all ears.  I’m not yet ready to publicly describe what’s in each chapter but the structure is pretty simple.  I start with a widespread belief and then I use my data to complicate it, highlighting both why we have these myths and why they are focused on the wrong issues.  Hopefully it’ll be a fun read for everyone. <grin>

How Censoring Craigslist Helps Pimps, Child Traffickers, and Other Abusive Scumbags

[Originally posted at Huffington Post]

For the last 12 years, I’ve dedicated immense amounts of time, money, and energy to end violence against women and children. As a victim of violence myself, I’m deeply committed to destroying any institution or individual leveraging the sex-power matrix that results in child trafficking, nonconsensual prostitution, domestic violence, and other abuses. If I believed that censoring Craigslist would achieve these goals, I’d be the first in line to watch them fall. But from the bottom of my soul and the depths of my intellect, I believe that the current efforts to censor Craigslist’s “adult services” achieves the absolute opposite. Rather than helping those who are abused, it fundamentally helps pimps, human traffickers, and others who profit off of abusing others.

On Friday, under tremendous pressure from US Attorneys General and public advocacy groups, Craigslist shut down its “Adult Services” section. There is little doubt that this space has been used by people engaged in all sorts of illicit activities, many of which result in harmful abuses. But the debate that has ensued has centered on the wrong axis, pitting protecting the abused against freedom of speech. What’s implied in public discourse is that protecting potential victims requires censorship; thus, anti-censorship advocates are up in arms attacking regulators for trying to curtail first amendment rights. While I am certainly a proponent of free speech online, I find it utterly depressing that these groups fail to see how this is actually an issue of transparency, not free speech. And how this does more to hurt potential victims than help.

If you’ve ever met someone who is victimized through trafficking or prostitution, you’ll hear a pretty harrowing story about what it means to be invisible and powerless, feeling like no one cares and no one’s listening. Human trafficking and most forms of abusive prostitution exist in a black market, with corrupt intermediaries making connections and offering “protection” to those who they abuse for profit. The abused often have no recourse, either because their movements are heavily regulated (as with those trafficked) or because they’re violating the law themselves (as with prostitutes).

The Internet has changed the dynamics of prostitution and trafficking, making it easier for prostitutes and traffickers to connect with clients without too many layers of intermediaries. As a result, the Internet has become an intermediary, often without the knowledge of those internet service providers (ISPs) who are the conduits. This is what makes people believe that they should go after ISPs like Craigslist. Faulty logic suggests that if Craigslist is effectively a digital pimp whose profiting off of online traffic, why shouldn’t it be prosecuted as such?

The problem with this logic is that it fails to account for three important differences: 1) most ISPs have a fundamental business – if not moral – interest in helping protect people; 2) the visibility of illicit activities online makes it much easier to get at, and help, those who are being victimized; and 3) a one-stop-shop is more helpful for law enforcement than for criminals. In short, Craigslist is not a pimp, but a public perch from which law enforcement can watch without being seen.

#1: Internet Services Providers have a fundamental business interest in helping people.

When Internet companies profit off of online traffic, they need their clients to value them and the services they provide. If companies can’t be trusted – especially when money is exchanging hands – they lose business. This is especially true for companies that support peer-to-peer exchange of money and goods. This is what motivates services like eBay and Amazon to make it very easy for customers to get refunded when ripped off. Craigslist has made its name and business on helping people connect around services and while there are plenty of people who use its openness to try to abuse others, Craigslist is deeply committed to reducing fraud and abuse. It’s not always successful – no company is. And the more freedom that a company affords, the more room for abuse. But what makes Craigslist especially beloved is that is run by people who truly want to make the world a better place and who are deeply committed to a healthy civic life.

I have always been in awe of Craig Newmark, Craigslist’s founder and now a “customer service rep” with the company. He’s made a pretty penny off of Craigslist, so what’s he doing with it? Certainly not basking in the Caribbean sun. He’s dedicated his life to public service, working with organizations like Sunlight Foundation to increase government accountability and using his resources and networks to help out countless organizations like Donors Choose, Kiva, Consumer Reports, and Iraq/Afghani Vets of America. This is the villain behind Craigslist trying to pimp out abused people?

Craigslist is in a tremendous position to actually work _with_ law enforcement, both because it’s in their economic interests and because the people behind it genuinely want to do good in this world. This isn’t an organization dedicated to profiting off of criminals, hosting servers in corrupt political regimes to evade responsibility. This is an organization with both the incentives and interest to actually help. And they have a long track record of doing so.

#2: Visibility makes it easier to help victims.

If you live a privileged life, your exposure to prostitution may be limited to made-for-TV movies and a curious dip into the red light district of Amsterdam. You are most likely lucky enough to never have known someone who was forced into prostitution, let alone someone who was sold by or stolen from their parents as a child. Perhaps if you live in San Francisco or Las Vegas, you know a high-end escort who has freely chosen her life and works for an agency or lives in a community where she’s highly supported. Truly consensual prostitutes do exist, but the vast majority of prostitution is nonconsensual, either through force or desperation. And, no matter how many hip-hop songs try to imply otherwise, the vast majority of pimps are abusive, manipulative, corrupt, addicted bastards. To be fair, I will acknowledge that these scumbags are typically from abusive environments where they too are forced into their profession through circumstances that are unimaginable to most middle class folks. But I still don’t believe that this justifies their role in continuing the cycle of abuse.

Along comes the Internet, exposing you to the underbelly of the economy, making visible the sex-power industry that makes you want to vomit. Most people see such cesspools online and imagine them to be the equivalent of a crack house opening up in their gated community. Let’s try a different metaphor. Why not think of it instead as a documentary movie happening real-time where you can actually do something about it?

Visibility is one of the trickiest issues in advocacy. Anyone who’s worked for a non-profit knows that getting people to care is really, really hard. Movies are made in the hopes that people will watch them and do something about the issues present. Protests and marathons are held in the hopes of bringing awareness to a topic. But there’s nothing like the awareness that can happen when it’s in your own backyard. And this is why advocates spend a lot of time trying to bring issues home to people.

Visibility serves many important purposes in advocacy. Not only does it motivate people to act, but it also shines a spotlight on every person involved in the issue at hand. In the case of nonconsensual prostitution and human trafficking, this means that those who are engaged in these activities aren’t so deeply underground as to be invisible. They’re right there. And while they feel protected by the theoretical power of anonymity and the belief that no one can physically approach and arrest them, they’re leaving traces of all sorts that make them far easier to find than most underground criminals.

#3: Law enforcement can make online spaces risky for criminals.

Law enforcement is always struggling to gain access to underground networks in order to go after the bastards who abuse people for profit. Underground enforcement is really difficult and it takes a lot of time to invade a community and build enough trust to get access to information that will hopefully lead to the dens of sin. While it always looks so easy on TV, there’s nothing easy or pretty about this kind of work. The Internet has given law enforcement more data than they even know what to do with, more information about more people engaged in more horrific abuses than they’ve ever been able to obtain through underground work. It’s far too easy to mistake more data for more crime and too many Aspiring Governors use the increase of data to spin the public into a frenzy about the dangers of the Internet. The increased availability of data is not the problem; it’s a godsend for getting at the root of the problem and actually helping people.

When law enforcement is ready to go after a criminal network, they systematically set up a sting, trying to get as many people as possible, knowing that whoever they have underground will immediately lose access the moment they act. The Internet changes this dynamic, because it’s a whole lot easier to be underground online, to invade networks and build trust, to go after people one at a time, to grab victims as they’re being victimized. It’s a lot easier to set up stings online, posing as buyers or sellers and luring scumbags into making the wrong move. All without compromising informants.

Working with ISPs to collect data and doing systematic online stings can make an online space more dangerous for criminals than for victims because this process erodes the trust in the intermediary, the online space. Eventually, law enforcement stings will make a space uninhabitable for criminals by making it too risky for them to try to operate there. Censoring a space may hurt the ISP but it does absolutely nothing to hurt the criminals. Making a space uninhabitable by making it risky for criminals to operate there – and publicizing it – is far more effective. This, by the way, is the core lesson that Giuliani’s crew learned in New York. The problem with this plan is that it requires funding law enforcement.

Using the Internet to combat the sex-power industry.

It makes me scream when I think of how many resources have been used attempting to censor Craigslist instead of leveraging it as a space for effective law enforcement. During the height of the moral panic over sexual predators on MySpace, I had the fortune of spending a lot of time with a few FBI folks and talking to a whole lot of local law enforcement. I learned a scary reality about criminal activity online. Folks in law enforcement know about a lot more criminal activity than they have the time to pursue. Sure, they focus on the Big players, going after the massive collectors of child pornography who are most likely to be sex offenders than spending time on the small-time abusers. But it was the medium-time criminals that gnawed at them. They were desperate for more resources so that they could train more law enforcers, pursue more cases, and help more victims. The Internet had made it a lot easier for them to find criminals, but that didn’t make their jobs any easier because they were now aware of how many more victims they were unable to help. Most law enforcement in this area are really there because they want to help people and it kills them when they can’t help everyone.

There’s a lot more political gain to be had demonizing profitable companies than demanding more money be spent (and thus, more taxes be raised) supporting the work that law enforcement does. Taking something that is visible and making it invisible makes a politician look good, even if it does absolutely nothing to help the victims who are harmed. It creates the illusion of safety, while signaling to pimps, traffickers, and other scumbags that their businesses are perfectly safe as long as they stay invisible. Sure, many of these scumbags have an incentive to be as visible as possible to reach as many possible clients as possible, and so they will move on and invade a new service where they can reach clients. And they’ll make that ISP’s life hell by putting them in the spotlight. And maybe they’ll choose an offshore one that American law enforcement can do nothing about. Censorship online is nothing more than whack-a-mole, pushing the issue elsewhere or more underground.

Censoring Craigslist will do absolutely nothing to help those being victimized, but it will do a lot to help those profiting off of victimization. Censoring Craigslist will also create new jobs for pimps and other corrupt intermediaries, since it’ll temporarily make it a whole lot harder for individual scumbags to find clients. This will be particularly devastating for the low-end prostitutes who were using Craigslist to escape violent pimps. Keep in mind that occasionally getting beaten up by a scary john is often a whole lot more desirable for many than the regular physical, psychological, and economic abuse they receive from their pimps. So while it’ll make it temporarily harder for clients to get access to abusive services, nothing good will come out of it in the long run.

If you want to end human trafficking, if you want to combat nonconsensual prostitution, if you care about the victims of the sex-power industry, don’t cheer Craigslist’s censorship. This did nothing to combat the cycle of abuse. What we desperately need are more resources for law enforcement to leverage the visibility of the Internet to go after the scumbags who abuse. What we desperately need are for sites like Craigslist to be encouraged to work with law enforcement and help create channels to actually help victims. What we need are innovative citizens who leverage new opportunities to devise new ways of countering abusive industries. We need to take this moment of visibility and embrace it, leverage it to create change, leverage it to help those who are victimized and lack the infrastructure to get help. What you see online should haunt you. But it should drive you to address the core problem by finding and helping victims, not looking for new ways to blindfold yourself. Please, I beg you, don’t close your eyes. We need you.

[As always, my views on my blog do not necessary reflect the opinons of any institution with which I’m affiliated. They are mine and mine alone.]

Regulating the Use of Social Media Data

If you were to walk into my office, I’d have a pretty decent sense of your gender, your age, your race, and other identity markers. My knowledge wouldn’t be perfect, but it would give me plenty of information that I could use to discriminate against you if I felt like it. The law doesn’t prohibit me for “collecting” this information in a job interview nor does it say that discrimination is acceptable if you “shared” this information with me. That’s good news given that faking what’s written on your body is bloody hard. What the law does is regulate how this information can be used by me, the theoretical employer. This doesn’t put an end to all discrimination – plenty of people are discriminated against based on what’s written on their bodies – but it does provide you with legal rights if you think you were discriminated against and it forces the employer to think twice about hiring practices.

The Internet has made it possible for you to create digital bodies that reflect a whole lot more than your demographics. Your online profiles convey a lot about you, but that content is produced in a context. And, more often than not, that context has nothing to do with employment. This creates an interesting conundrum. Should employers have the right to discriminate against you because of your Facebook profile? One might argue that they should because such a profile reflects your “character” or your priorities or your public presence. Personally, I think that’s just code for discriminating against you because you’re not like me, the theoretical employer.

Of course, it’s a tough call. Hiring is hard. We’re always looking for better ways to judge someone and goddess knows that an interview plus resume is rarely the best way to assess whether or not there’s a “good fit.” It’s far too tempting to jump on the Internet and try to figure out who someone is based on what we can drudge up online. This might be reasonable if only we were reasonable judges of people’s signaling or remotely good at assessing them in context. Cuz it’s a whole lot harder to assess someone’s professional sensibilities by their social activities if they come from a world different than our own.

Given this, I was fascinated to learn that the German government is proposing legislation that would put restrictions on what Internet content employers could use when recruiting.

A decade ago, all of our legal approaches to the Internet focused on what data online companies could collect. This makes sense if you think of the Internet as a broadcast medium. But then along came the mainstreamification of social media and user-generated content. People are sharing content left right and center as part of their daily sociable practices. They’re sharing as if the Internet is a social place, not a professional place. More accurately, they’re sharing in a setting where there’s no clear delineation of social and professional spheres. Since social media became popular, folks have continuously talked about how we need to teach people to not share what might cause them professional consternation. Those warnings haven’t worked. And for good reason. What’s professionally questionable to one may be perfectly appropriate to another. Or the social gain one sees might outweigh the professional risks. Or, more simply, people may just be naive.

I’m sick of hearing about how the onus should be entirely on the person doing the sharing. There are darn good reasons in which people share information and just because you can dig it up doesn’t mean that it’s ethical to use it. So I’m delighted by the German move, if for no other reason than to highlight that we need to rethink our regulatory approaches. I strongly believe that we need to spend more time talking about how information is being used and less time talking about how stupid people are for sharing it in the first place.

Social Steganography: Learning to Hide in Plain Sight

[Posted originally to the Digital Media & Learning blog.]

Carmen and her mother are close. As far as Carmen’s concerned, she has nothing to hide from her mother so she’s happy to have her mom as her ‘friend’ on Facebook. Of course, Carmen’s mom doesn’t always understand the social protocols on Facebook and Carmen sometimes gets frustrated. She hates that her mom comments on nearly every post, because it “scares everyone away…Everyone kind of disappears after the mom post…It’s just uncool having your mom all over your wall. That’s just lame.” Still, she knows that her mom means well and she sometimes uses this pattern to her advantage. While Carmen welcomes her mother’s presence, she also knows her mother overreacts. In order to avoid a freak out, Carmen will avoid posting things that have a high likelihood of mother misinterpretation. This can make communication tricky at times and Carmen must work to write in ways that are interpreted differently by different people.

When Carmen broke up with her boyfriend, she “wasn’t in the happiest state.” The breakup happened while she was on a school trip and her mother was already nervous. Initially, Carmen was going to mark the breakup with lyrics from a song that she had been listening to, but then she realized that the lyrics were quite depressing and worried that if her mom read them, she’d “have a heart attack and think that something is wrong.” She decided not to post the lyrics. Instead, she posted lyrics from Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” This strategy was effective. Her mother wrote her a note saying that she seemed happy which made her laugh. But her closest friends knew that this song appears in the movie when the characters are about to be killed. They reached out to her immediately to see how she was really feeling.

Privacy in a public age

Carmen is engaging in social steganography. She’s hiding information in plain sight, creating a message that can be read in one way by those who aren’t in the know and read differently by those who are. She’s communicating to different audiences simultaneously, relying on specific cultural awareness to provide the right interpretive lens. While she’s focused primarily on separating her mother from her friends, her message is also meaningless to broader audiences who have no idea that she had just broken up with her boyfriend. As far as they’re concerned, Carmen just posted an interesting lyric.

Social steganography is one privacy tactic teens take when engaging in semi-public forums like Facebook. While adults have worked diligently to exclude people through privacy settings, many teenagers have been unable to exclude certain classes of adults – namely their parents – for quite some time. For this reason, they’ve had to develop new techniques to speak to their friends fully aware that their parents are overhearing. Social steganography is one of the most common techniques that teens employ. They do this because they care about privacy, they care about misinterpretation, they care about segmented communications strategies. And they know that technical tools for restricting access don’t trump parental demands to gain access. So they find new ways of getting around limitations. And, in doing so, reconstruct age-old practices.

Ancient methods

Steganography is an ancient technique where people hide messages in plain sight. Invisible ink, tattoos under hair on messengers, and messages embedded in pictures are just a few ways in which steganography is employed. Cryptographers are obsessed with steganography, in part because it’s hardest to decode a message when you don’t know where to look. This is precisely why spy movies LOVE steganography. Of course, average people have also employed techniques of hiding in plain sight for a long time, hiding information in everyday communication, knowing that it’ll only be interpreted by some. Children love employing codes and adults generally pretend as though they can’t understand pig Latin or uncover the messages that children hide using invisible ink pens purchased from toy stores. Yet, as children grow up, they get more mature about their messaging, realizing that language has multiple layers and, with it, multiple meanings. They often learn this by being misinterpreted.

What fascinates me is that teens are taking these strategies into the digital spaces, recognizing multiple audiences and the challenges of persistence, and working to speak in layers. They are not always successful. And things that are meant to mean one thing are often misinterpreted in all sorts of the wrong ways. But that doesn’t mean teens aren’t experimenting and learning. In fact, I’d expect that they’re learning more nuanced ways of managing privacy than any of us adults. Why? Because they have to. The more they live in public, the more I expect them to hide in plain sight.

Image credit: Jon McGovern

(This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.)

social divisions between Orkut & Facebook in Brazil

I have been writing about social divisions between Facebook and MySpace for some time now, focused exclusively on American teenager dynamics. Yet, every time I post about this subject, folks write to me to ask if I know much about social divisions elsewhere in the world. Alas, I have never done fieldwork outside of the US and so most of my knowledge is second-hand. Even worse, I’m never quite sure where to point people to.

When word of my upcoming article – White Flight in Networked Publics? How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook – got around, I got another wave of questions about global differences. But I also received a wonderful email from Pedro Augusto at the Centro de Tecnologia e Sociedade in Rio. He wrote to share his observations about the social divisions that took place between Orkut and Facebook in Brazil. I asked if it would be OK for me to share his email with you and he kindly obliged.

Social networking really hit the Brazilians when Orkut was launched, in 2004. In the beginning (2004-2005), Brazilian users were mainly the geeks and tech-savvy boys and girls who could afford a broadband connection. Also, at that time, you had to be invited by some insider to join. So people like Julian Dibbell and John Perry Barlow, who had many connections in Brazil, started sending invites to their friends. The invitation-only membership contributed to the impression that it was cool to be part of that restricted group, and Brazilians became crazy about it.

Today Orkut is by far the largest social network and the most accessed website in Brazil. There is about 65 million internet users in the country , and (approx.) 90% of internet users use social networking (79% of this number are Orkut users), according to IBOPE/Netratings. Which means that there is approximately 25 million Brazilians at Orkut. So it is no coincidence that in 2008 Google transferred all of Orkut technical operations and management to Brazil.

In spite (or because) of all this success, there is a great deal of discrimination towards Orkut. Some people claim it to have become a website for lower-income classes, and migrate to Facebook. This impression is caused by the rising numbers of digital inclusion in Brazil. There are two important factors contributing for digital inclusion here: expansion of broadband connections and the rise of the so-called “LAN houses” phenomenon. As pointed out by researchers at the Center for Technology & Society at FGV, LAN-houses (a sort of cybercafé that can be found especially in lower-income areas) are responsible for 45% of all Internet access and 74% of lower-income classes access. There are far more more LAN Houses in the country (108,000) than movie theaters (2,200) and bookstores (2,600). In Rocinha, one of the largest shantytowns (favelas), there are more than 100 LAN Houses. They provide Internet access and other services involving technology and more. LAN Houses are places where young kids gather for social encounters, playing games, visiting social networks, and internet messaging. They have become a public space for socializing. At the beginning of this phenomenon (2001-2003), people would gather in LAN Houses for playing games (like Counter Strike and Warcraft III), mainly. But after Orkut, most of the users are going to LAN Houses for checking their online profiles and connecting with friends.

On the other side, Facebook took longer to hit the Brazilians. Before 2009, Facebook was used mainly by kids or adults who traveled abroad, as a way to keep in touch with friends abroad. Even with more technical resources than Orkut, Facebook’s popularity wasn’t high. But, in 2009, the winds changed direction. A significant portion of former Orkut users started migrating to Facebook. Now they are 3,6 million users.

Today it’s common to hear higher-income class kids and tech-savvy geeks saying that “Orkut is over”, that they see no use for Orkut and that they are deleting their profile. In fact, some users are indeed deleting there profiles, or simply letting them idle. They say Facebook is cooler and better. Orkut is now kitsch and full of fakes and non sense communities. However, the largest portion of Orkut users seem not to care about this criticism, and keep using the site with passion everyday. Personally, I (Pedro Augusto) have no problems with Orkut, but as a lot of people whom I’m used to interact are going to Facebook, I’m reducing my time using Orkut.

As pointed by Ronaldo Lemos, Director at Center for Technology and Society, Orkut has become a better mirror of the Brazilian society, with its class and social differences. That may be the reason some people are not happy with it. There is a lot of diversity there, different from its beginning in 2004, where there was a pretty homogenic group of people there (almost like Facebook today). This certainly bother hipsters, fashion kinds and other high-income groups. There is even a neologism: “orkutificação”. In English it would be something as “orkutization”. It’s used as a negative term to refer to this “here comes everybody” feel, in which orkut has become full of “strange” people. Nowadays, there is even people saying that Twitter is becoming “orkutized”, because it is gaining popularity in Brazil and is becoming more diverse as well.

Pedro Augusto, Centro de Tecnologia e Sociedade, FGV DIREITO RIO

a few thoughts on name changes & reputation

I’ve changed my name twice. First, I took my (now ex) stepfather’s last name when I was a child. At 18, I started the process to take my maternal grandfather’s name to honor him and to create an identity that meant something to me. The process was finalized when I was 22. And let me tell you, it was a Pain in the F* Ass.

With this in mind, I nearly bowled over laughing when I read that Eric Schmidt told the Wall Street Journal that he thought that name changes would become more common place. The WSJ states:

“[Schmidt] predicts, apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends’ social media sites.”

This is ludicrous on many accounts. First, it completely contradicts historical legal trajectories where name changes have become increasingly more difficult. Second, it fails to account for the tensions between positive and negative reputation. Third, it would be so exceedingly ineffective as to be just outright absurd.

Changing one’s name didn’t used to be a big deal. Hell, if you stepped off a boat on Ellis Island and the folks there couldn’t understand your name, it would’ve been changed for you automatically. Children used to get name changes upon arriving in the US simply to make them fit in better. Today, changing your name is a bureaucratic nightmare (unless you’re getting married in some states). You have to inform the local paper of every place you’ve ever lived. Not just once but thrice. At least in Pennsylvania. You have to contact everyone you owe money to, including all credit bureaus. You have to go through loop after loop to prove that you’re not doing it to avoid creditors or escape legal restrictions. If you change your name outside of the institution of marriage, you are assumed to be a security threat. And boy is it annoying. This has only gotten more difficult over time – why would anyone think it’ll get easier?

That point aside, reputation is built up over time. It can be built up negatively and positively. But even when folks have a negative reputation, they often don’t want to lose the positive reputation that they’ve built. Starting at zero can be a lot harder than starting with a mixed record. Most people who have bruises on their public reputation also have gold stars. Just look at various infamous people who have had their names dragged through the mud by the press. Many have been invited to change their names but few have. Why? Because it’s more complicated than a simple name change.

To make matters worse, changing your name doesn’t let you avoid past names. All it takes is for someone whose motivated to make a link between the two and any attempt to walk away from your past vanishes in an instant. Search definitely makes a mess out of people’s name-based reputation but a name change doesn’t fix it if someone’s intent on connecting the two. (Personal humor… I thought when I created that I could separate my digital identity from my reputation as a scholar. My blog was supposed to be pseudonymous. Ooops.)

Don’t get me wrong – we’re in for a really confusing future as reputation gets complicated by digital self-presentations and the mouthing off of our friends. I’m not at all convinced that I know the answer but I do know that name changes aren’t going to solve anything.

The thing is… I’m really curious about this strange depiction of Schmidt’s attitude, especially given his previously strange comments on the end of privacy. How does he see privacy as dead while imagining a world in which reputation can be altered through a name change? Does anyone have any good insights into how he thinks about these issues because I’m mighty confused and I’d love to understand his mental model.

Facebook privacy settings: Who cares?

Eszter Hargittai and I just published a new article in First Monday entitled: “Facebook privacy settings: Who cares?”

Abstract: With over 500 million users, the decisions that Facebook makes about its privacy settings have the potential to influence many people. While its changes in this domain have often prompted privacy advocates and news media to critique the company, Facebook has continued to attract more users to its service. This raises a question about whether or not Facebook’s changes in privacy approaches matter and, if so, to whom. This paper examines the attitudes and practices of a cohort of 18– and 19–year–olds surveyed in 2009 and again in 2010 about Facebook’s privacy settings. Our results challenge widespread assumptions that youth do not care about and are not engaged with navigating privacy. We find that, while not universal, modifications to privacy settings have increased during a year in which Facebook’s approach to privacy was hotly contested. We also find that both frequency and type of Facebook use as well as Internet skill are correlated with making modifications to privacy settings. In contrast, we observe few gender differences in how young adults approach their Facebook privacy settings, which is notable given that gender differences exist in so many other domains online. We discuss the possible reasons for our findings and their implications.

We look forward to your comments!

MySpace and Facebook: How Racist Language Frames Social Media (and Why You Should Care)

(This post was written for Blogher and originally posted there.)

Every time I dare to talk about race or class and MySpace & Facebook in the same breath, a public explosion happens. This is the current state of things.  Unfortunately, most folks who enter the fray prefer to reject the notion that race/class shape social media or that social media reflects bigoted attitudes than seriously address what’s at stake.  Yet, look around. Twitter is flush with racist language in response to the active participation of blacks on the site. Comments on YouTube expose deep-seated bigotry in uncountable ways. The n-word is everyday vernacular in MMORPGs. In short, racism and classism permeates every genre of social media out there, reflecting the everyday attitudes of people that go well beyond social media. So why can’t we talk about it?

Let me back up and explain the context for this piece … three years ago, I wrote a controversial blog post highlighting the cultural division taking shape.  Since then, I’ve worked diligently to try to make sense of what I first observed and ground it in empirical data.  In 2009, I built on my analysis in  “The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online”, a talk I gave at the Personal Democracy Forum.  Slowly, I worked to write an academic article called “White Flight in Networked Publics? How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook” (to be published in a book called Digital Race Anthology, edited by Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White).  I published a draft of this article on my website in December.  Then, on July 14, Christoper Mims posted a guest blog post at Technology Review entitled “Did Whites Flee the ‘Digital Ghetto’ of MySpace?” using my article as his hook.  I’m not sure why Mims wrote this piece now or why he didn’t contact me, but so it goes.

Mims’ blog post prompted a new wave of discussion about whether or not there’s a race-based (or class-based) division between MySpace and Facebook today. My article does not address this topic. My article is a discussion of a phenomenon that happened from 2006-2007 using data collected during that period. The point of my article is not to discuss whether or not there was a division — quantitative data shows this better. My goal was to analyze American teenagers’ language when talking about Facebook and MySpace. The argument that I make is that the language used by teens has racialized overtones that harken back to the language used around “white flight.” In other words, what American teens are reflecting in their discussion of MySpace and Facebook shows just how deeply racial narratives are embedded in everyday life.

So, can we please dial the needle forward? Regardless of whether or not there’s still a race and class-based division in the U.S. between MySpace and Facebook, the language that people use to describe MySpace is still deeply racist and classist. Hell, we see that in the comments of every blog post that describes my analysis. And I’m sure we’ll get some here, since online forums somehow invite people to unapologetically make racist comments that they would never say aloud. And as much as those make me shudder, they’re also a reminder that the civil rights movement has a long way to go.

Race and class shape contemporary life in fundamental ways. People of color and the working poor live the experiences of racism and classism, but how this plays out is often not nearly as overt as it was in the 1960s. But that doesn’t mean that it has gone away.

There is still bigotry, and the divisions run deep in the U.S. We often talk about the Internet as the great equalizer, the space where we can be free of all of the weights of inequality. And yet, what we find online is often a reproduction of all of the issues present in everyday life. The Internet does not magically heal old wounds or repair broken bonds between people. More often, it shows just how deep those wounds go and how structurally broken many relationships are.

In this way, the Internet is often a mirror of the ugliest sides of our society, the aspects of our society that we so badly need to address. What the Internet does — for better or worse — is make visible aspects of society that have been delicately swept under the rug and ignored. We could keep on sweeping, or we could take the moment to rise up and develop new strategies for addressing the core issues that we’re seeing. Bigotry doesn’t go away by eliminating only what’s visible. It is eradicated by getting at the core underlying issues. What we’re seeing online allows us to see how much work there’s left to do.

In writing “White Flight in Networked Publics?”, I wanted to expose one aspect of how race and class shape how people see social media. My goal in doing so was to push back at the utopian rhetorics that frame the Internet as a kumbaya movement so that we can focus on addressing the major social issues that exist everywhere and are exposed in new ways via social media. When it comes to eradicating bigotry, I can’t say that I have the answers. But I know that we need to start a conversation. And my hope — from the moment that I first highlighted the divisions taking place in 2007 — is that we can use social media as both a lens into and a platform for discussing cultural inequality.

So how do we get started?

Photo credit: Moyix on Flickr