Category Archives: youth culture

Harassment by Q&A: Initial Thoughts on

(This was written for the Digital Media and Learning Project.)

Questions-and-answers have played a central role in digital bonding since the early days of Usenet.  Teenagers have consistently co-opted quizzes and surveys and personality tests to talk about themselves with those around them.  They’ve hosted guest books and posted bulletins to create spaces for questions and answers.  But when teens started adopting this winter, a darker side of this practice emerged.  While teens have always asked each other crass and mean-spirited questions, this has become so pervasive on Formspring so as to define what participation there means.  More startlingly, teens are answering self-humiliating questions and posting their answers to a publicly visible page that is commonly associated with their real name.  Why?  What’s going on?

When I first got online in high school, I found email chain messages entertaining.  I fondly remember receiving surveys about my friends’ favorite movies, most embarrassing moments, and food peculiarities. The task was to erase the content written by my friend, fill in my own content, send it to my friend and forward it to 10 more friends.  With every new genre of social media, surveys and quizzes keep coming back as popular ways to get to know the people around you. Some of the basics have gotten baked into the average profile, especially favorites that can help guide behavioral marketing.

Most quizzes and surveys and personality tests and other similar activities are pretty mundane.  Coke or Pepsi?  Which Star Wars character are you?  Etc.  But there have always been more risque versions of this.  I will never forget the first time I encountered the Purity Test and was absolutely horrified at the mere notion of having sex with someone who was dead.  I remember questionnaires meant to reveal crushes and illicit practices.  (Of course, only recently, it was popular among my 30-something peers to fill out Facebook surveys listing high school crushes and illegal acts committed during childhood…)

There’s something fascinating to people of all ages about answering questions about themselves.  I rely on this human tendency when I interview people about themselves. In such a role, I’m also acutely aware of the power that I have.  I can ask people very intimate or emotionally damaging questions and, most likely, they will answer my questions.  But, as a researcher, I have an ethical responsibility to be conscious of what I ask and how it will affect someone.  This is not the same logic that teenagers use when asking their peers questions.  And this is precisely why words may be as deadly as sticks and stones.

What is is a very simple question-answer service that launched in November 2009.  Create an account and you’ll get a public profile where questions you answer are posted in reverse chronological order.  Anyone can ask questions of anyone else – anonymously or attached to their name/account.  (Recently, the site has started allowing participants to mandate that questioners are logged in.)  Participants receive the questions in their inbox and can choose what to answer.  It’s a straightforward service and you can think of all sorts of reasonable uses for it.  An expert can answer questions about a subject matter.  A celebrity can answer questions about themselves.  A company can answer questions from the public.  This service was created by Formstack, a company dedicated to creating extensible online forms, like surveys, contact forms, event registrations, etc.  So a question-answer service was a natural extension.  To popularize, they hooked it up to Facebook so that participants could spread new answers to, and invite questions from, their network.

Somewhere along the line, teenagers found Formspring.  I’m not quite sure how this happened but the service has taken off like wildfire among the teen and tween set.  And so I’ve been lurking about trying to make sense of it.  A good chunk of it is relatively mundane and I’ve found all sorts of teen profiles with questions like “What is the best pop?” and “What’s the furthest you’ve ever traveled?”  Some of what is posted is nonsensical or not written as a question with “hi” and “…” being examples.  These questions and non-questions are sometimes posted anonymously, but often, there’s a username attached to them and clearly the participants know each other and are using it as a conversational medium or a place to get to know each other better.

Social banter isn’t what makes Formspring particularly interesting or controversial.  There are also plenty of anonymous sexual innuendos like “you’re cute” or “will you go out with me” questions, followed by “who is this?” as the answer.  There are also many more explicit versions of this, with some bordering on sexual harassment.  There are also anonymous posts that ring of bullying or harassment, from the relatively painless “you’re fat” to the more crass “fuck you slut.”  Finally, there are the ones that invite the participant to talk about a third party, often by full name (e.g., “don’t you hate Kristen?”).  Now, keep in mind that only questions that are answered are posted and participants have a choice in what they decide to answer.  So when you see crass questions followed by answers, the participant chose to answer the question and post it.  I don’t even want to imagine the questions that they receive and don’t answer…

Early Observations

Many questions need to be raised about this medium.  Who are the authors of these messages?  Why are teens answering them?  And why are such crass questions common across the Formsprings of teens from extremely different backgrounds and locations? While I cannot answer these questions, I feel the need to share my observations.

It seems like teen girls are much more likely than boys to be maintaining Formspring profiles.  Some of the mean-spirited anonymous questions appear to come from girls, but many also appear to come from boys.  The questions are usually short and poorly written; the answers are equally short and poorly written.  (Compare this to the adults using Formspring who write grammatically sound questions and respond with mini-essays.)  The answers that girls give to crass questions are usually written in a standoffish manner.

Example 1:

Q: “fagget!”
A: “you spelt faggot wrong … idiot.”

Example 2:

Q: “I’d rape you so hard.  You’re fucking hot”
A: “Gross on the first part.  Sanks on the second part I think?”

Some of the answers to anonymous questions also suggest that the respondent knows who wrote the question and, in my initial conversations, I found that many teens think that they know generally who is asking them questions.

Concerned Parents, Difficult Issues

So here’s my hypothesis…Teen girls engaged in responding to crass questions are using Formspring to prove that they’re tough to their peers.  Teen boys and girls are throwing curve balls at their peers to see how much they can handle, primarily using mean-spirited and sexualized language.  While staying tough is clearly part of the game, it’s also clear from my informants that the harassment is playing a psychological toll.  I’ve talked to numerous parents who are shocked by how their children’s peers are using this site and in most cases, knowledgeable parents demand that their children delete their profiles at once.  One parent told me the story of her daughter’s friend who didn’t want to take her profile down because it would “look weak.”  This girl and her mother got into a huge fight over Formspring because the girl didn’t want to let on that she cared about what people were saying about her on the site.  I can’t help but think about my own teen years and my attempts to look unfazed by swirling rumors while throwing up in the bathroom when no one was looking.

Formspring was not designed as a place for harassment, but some teens have clearly leveraged it to do precisely that, while others are using it to continue the long history of quizzes and surveys.  Why the different practices?  I’m not at all surprised that semi-anonymity results in people asking crass questions, but why are teens responding publicly for all of their peers to see?  What is it about today’s cultural dynamics that encourages teens to not only act tough when they’re attacked but to actively share the attacks of others as a marker of toughness pride?  And what is it about the way we’ve raised our children that makes it acceptable to actively humiliate and provoke?  Most likely, these two are interrelated.  While I’m sure that there are teens who are solely the object of cruel questioning, I strongly suspect that many respondents are also questioners.  Bullying is often cyclical and follows a pattern of escalation; I doubt that what we’re seeing on Formspring is much different.  How has the ethos of “suck it up, kid” and “fight back” become so commonplace amongst our youth while parents purportedly want to curtail bullying?

As I observe what’s unfolding on Formspring and begin talking to those enmeshed in it, I have more questions than answers.  But given how fast this phenomenon is taking off, I believe that we must start thinking through the implications sooner rather than later.

(Thank you to those parents out there who have pushed me to address this topic).

Image Credit: “Locker” by John Steven Fernandez

ChatRoulette, from my perspective

I’ve been following ChatRoulette for a while now but haven’t been comfortable talking about it publicly. For one, it’s a hugely controversial site, one that is prompting yet-another moral panic about youth engagement online. And I hate having the role of respondent to public uproar. (I know I know…) More importantly though, I find it difficult to respond to the fears because I find it endearing. ChatRoulette reminds me a lot of the quirkiness of the Internet that I grew up with. Like when I was a teen trolling through chatrooms, ChatRoulette is filled with all sorts of weird people. And most users ignore most other users until they find someone they find interesting or compelling. While the site was designed by a teen, minors do not dominate there (although there are plenty of young adults there). And, not surprisingly, teens on the site have ZERO interest in talking to older folks – even old folks like me. It’s the strangest pairing dynamic… You can click Next and they can click Next until something gels. And even though I might want to talk to teens on the site, they have no desire to talk to me. Imagine if I was a sketchy guy. Right: no interest. Likewise, the people who most want to talk to me – a young woman – are the people that I don’t want to talk to. So on and on and on we go clicking next until there’s a possible spark. It’s a game played by flaneurs walking the digital streets.

What I like most about the site is the fact that there’s only so much you can hide. This isn’t a place where police officers can pretend to be teen girls. This isn’t a place where you feel forced to stick around; you can move on and no one will know the difference. If someone doesn’t strike your fancy, move on. And on. And on.

I love the way that it mixes things up. For most users of all ages – but especially teens – the Internet today is about socializing with people you already know. But I used to love the randomness of the Internet. I can’t tell you how formative it was for me to grow up talking to all sorts of random people online. So I feel pretty depressed every time I watch people flip out about the dangers of talking to strangers. Strangers helped me become who I was. Strangers taught me about a different world than what I knew in my small town. Strangers allowed me to see from a different perspective. Strangers introduced me to academia, gender theory, Ivy League colleges, the politics of war, etc. So I hate how we vilify all strangers as inherently bad. Did I meet some sketchballs on the Internet when I was a teen? DEFINITELY. They were weird; I moved on. And it used to be a lot harder to move on when everything was attached to an email that was paid for. So I actually think that the ChatRoulette version allows you to move on with greater ease, less guilt, and far more comfortably. Ironically – given the recent media coverage – it feels a lot safer than any site that I’ve seen that’s attached to a name or profile with connections to people or identifying information. Can youth get themselves into trouble here? Sure… like in most public places. And there are definitely youth who are playing with fire. But, once again, why go after the technology when the underlying issues should be the ones we address? Le sigh.

Anyhow, I was hemming and hawing about what to say about this and I’m still not sure what to say because, truthfully, I like the reminder of ye-olde-Internet culture. I like the fact that there are still a small percentage of folks out there looking for some amusement because they’re bored and they want to connect with randomness, folks who recognize the joy of meeting strangers in a safer space than most physical spaces where that’s possible. I realize that this creates the potential for seeing some pretty gross and/or problematic things and I certainly don’t want to dismiss that, but I’m pretty certain that teens are responding the same way that I’m responding – by clicking Next. Is that ideal? Probably not. And I’d certainly love a filter – not just for teens but for my own eyes. (Then again, I’d also like a spam filter too… Especially here on my blog. Cuz really, who of you who are reading this want to get porn ads here either?) I’m not sure that immature folks of any age (or the easily grossed out) should be on this site. But I do hope that we can create a space where teens and young adults and the rest of us can actually interact with randomness again. There’s a cost to our social isolation and I fear that we’re going to be paying it for generations to come.

So I’m still not sure what to say except that I feel this weighted sense of Le Sigh. The same mix of depression and exhaustion I felt this morning when I was playing peek-a-boo with a smily child in an airport and her parents whisked her away, glaring at me as though I was the devil incarnate. I realize that many parents think that they’re doing good by their kids when they choose to limit their exposure to the randomness of the world, but it just makes me deeply deeply sad. And so I simultaneously am amused by ChatRoulette and depressed because I realize that so many folks would prefer to keep themselves and their teens/college-aged-kids sheltered rather than giving them a way of thinking about systems like this and teaching them to walk away when things get weird. And this deserves a Le Sigh Royale.

Post translated:


ChatRoulette by Sarita Yardi

Sarita Yardi has been doing a lot of thinking about ChatRoulette these days and I wanted to share a short essay she wrote to explain ChatRoulette to the uninitiated. I think that this is a fantastic introduction for those who aren’t familiar with the site. (And I’ll follow up with my own thoughts in the next post.)


ChatRoulette is a new website that connects you face to face with Internet users around the world. When you go to the site and hit Play your webcam turns on and you’re connected to another person. Most times you’ll hit Next within a few seconds and be connected to someone else. Sometimes people stop to chat. Basically, instead of surfing the web, you’re surfing people.

ChatRoulette evokes patterns of behavior that are as old as the Internet. Our fascination with spontaneous and random forays into anonymous online interactions echo those of early text-based chatrooms and bulletin board systems in the 1990s and even earlier. Shock, boredom, play, and voyeurism characterized these early online environments as much as they do now. In ChatRoulette, there is no registration or login; staring into the bedroom of a complete stranger is fascinating and completely disconcerting.

ChatRoulette reminds me of when people said blogging was like making a private diary public. The idea of sitting in your bedroom showing your face to anyone in the world is simultaneously anonymous yet deeply revealing. This violates almost all social norms of the offline world. If someone walked up to you at a cocktail party, stared at you intensely, then simply walked away, you would feel confused and probably offended.

I was recently asked, “If a parent wanted to know if their kid should be on ChatRoulette, what would you tell them?” My experience on ChatRoulette has been about 10% sexual voyeurs, about 10% performance art (people dressed in cat costumes), and about 10% signs (show me your [x]!). There are a few older people, but the remaining majority is young people (high school and college kids) mostly just hanging out, some giggling, some looking vaguely bored. Like with anything their kids do online or offline, I would advise parents to reflect on what they consider to be socially appropriate material for their own child and to teach their kids how to weigh the costs and benefits—and risks and rewards—of any site that they decide to hang out on online.

There are a couple of quickly emerging norms on ChatRoulette:

  • Clicking Next is not only socially acceptable, but it is expected.
  • Flashing signs or stuffed animals—unless they’re particularly amusing or clever—is considered trolling. People want to be face to face with other people.
  • People wouldn’t want to see people they know.
  • It’s like window-shopping where real people are behind the window. You can look, but you can’t touch, and you can move on if you’re not interested.

There are a number of fascinating things about ChatRoulette. One is that it was written by a 17 year-old boy (Andrey Ternovskiy) who likes socializing with his friends and learned to code when he was 11. He also has an entrepreneurial spirit; he rewrote the code a few times for it to scale and he got his extended family to invest in the site so he could get more servers. In an interview with Russia Today, he says he built it so he and his friends could start doing things together online like watching movies or making things. In most contexts, we would love to hear stories of kids making cool stuff online.

Another spin is that video chat could enable kids to be more in control of their own safety than text chat. If most teens are in fact looking to chat with other teens, it is much easier for them to screen out older adults and anyone who’s doing explicitly sexual things. Imagine if we’d started with video chat 20 years ago and now, all of a sudden, we had this new “text-based chat”. We would be far more concerned because it’s so easy to deceive with text. What’s interesting is that the pervasive fears that arise with anonymous and ephemeral online interactions are actually mitigated in ChatRoulette. It’s actually *harder* to lie—it’s more difficult to lie about your age, gender, or physical features when the camera is focused directly on you.

With that said, it’s like an online Lord of the Flies, and it probably won’t last the way it is currently. There are too many unacceptable cultural and moral boundaries that are crossed—like random and unpredictable exposure to nakedness—for it to persist in its present state. This brings up interesting questions of governance. Wikipedia’s governance structure didn’t emerge in a day, nor did those of Usenet or IRC chatrooms. If ChatRoulette is more than a fad—and I suspect it is—one direction it might take is to grow and split out into categories where communities can develop roles and social norms for self-governance, like on Craigslist.

I’m not convinced that ChatRoulette is truly anonymous. The plethora of screenshots of the most outrageous (read: NSFW) and amusing webcam matchups make it possible to reveal people’s identities using facial matching algorithms or IP addresses or visual search. That’s not a criticism of ChatRoulette or a call for policing the Internet. As my adviser says “In 20 years, no one will be eligible to be president.” We’re still searching for the right balance between protecting our own privacy and being able to live out our social lives online without feeling that the rest of the world is out to get us.

Public by Default, Private when Necessary

This post was originally written for the DML Central Blog. If you’re interested in Digital Media and Learning, you definitely want to check this blog out.

With Facebook systematically dismantling its revered privacy infrastructure, I think it’s important to drill down on the issue of privacy as it relates to teens. There’s an assumption that teens don’t care about privacy but this is completely inaccurate. Teens care deeply about privacy, but their conceptualization of what this means may not make sense in a setting where privacy settings are a binary. What teens care about is the ability to control information as it flows and to have the information necessary to adjust to a situation when information flows too far or in unexpected ways. When teens argue that they produce content that is “public by default, private when necessary,” they aren’t arguing that privacy is disappearing. Instead, they are highlighting that both privacy AND publicity have value. Privacy is important in certain situations – to not offend, to share something intimate, or to exclude certain people. Yet, publicity can also be super useful. It’s about being present in social situations, about chance encounters, about obtaining social status.

Once upon a time on Facebook, participants had to be a vetted member of a community to even have an account. Privacy was a deeply held value and many turned to Facebook because of the ways in which it protected them from making public mistakes. This was especially core to youth participation. Parents respected Facebook’s attitudes towards privacy and, in a shocking moment of agreement, teens did too.

Slowly, things have changed. Most recently, Facebook made it possible for users to make Facebook content public (presumably to compete with Twitter). When participants signed in, they were asked whether or not they wanted they wanted to change their privacy settings. Many were confused and just clicked through, not realizing that this made their content more public than it was before. This upset some legal types and Facebook was forced to retreat, making the status quo the default instead of tricking folks into being public.

Recently, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg made comments that amount to “the age of privacy is over” as justification for why the company has decided to get with the times and make things more public. This prompted me to rant about Facebook’s decision.

Social media has enabled new forms of publicity, structures that allow people to connect as widely as they can build an audience. Teens are embracing this to do all sorts of powerful things. But they aren’t doing so to eschew privacy. They are still keeping intimate things close to their hearts or trying to share content with narrow groups of people. It’s just that, in many situations, there is more to be gained by accepting the public default than by going out of one’s way to keep things private. And here’s where we see the shift. It used to take effort to be public. Today, it often takes effort to be private.

While Facebook has justified its decisions by citing shifts in societal expectations, they are doing a disservice to those who value Facebook precisely because of its culture of keeping things more close. It’s not so much that posting things on Facebook was ever private; no teen sees the Wall as a private space. It’s that the default was not persistent, searchable, and scaled to a mass degree. Just because teens choose to share some content widely does not mean that they wish all content could be universally accessible. What they want is a sense of control. And what Facebook is doing is destabilizing the system in a way that complicates control, especially for teens who are most vulnerable of having content go down on their permanent record.

Sociality Is Learning

This post was originally written for the DML Central Blog. If you’re interested in Digital Media and Learning, you definitely want to check this blog out.

As adults, we take social skills for granted… until we encounter someone who lacks them. Helping children develop social skills is viewed as a reasonable educational endeavor in elementary school, but by high school, educators switch to more “serious” subjects. Yet, youth aren’t done learning about the social world. Conversely, they are more driven to understand people and sociality during their tween and teen years than as small children. Perhaps its precisely their passion for learning sociality that devalues this as learning in the eyes of adults. For, if youth LIKE the subject matter, it must not be educational. Unfortunately, I fear that we are doing a disservice to youth by not acknowledging the social learning that takes place during this period. Worse, what if our efforts to curtail social interactions out of a preference for “real” learning have professional costs?

Very few of us work in professions where we are forced to focus on one anti-social task all day, every day. Even academics, a notoriously hermitic bunch, have to interact with students, fellow faculty members, and perhaps grant makers at some point. Most of us are constantly relying on and honing our social skills, developing new techniques to communicate our message, navigate office politics, manage someone’s expectations, and keep the peace. Those in service jobs face this in an acute way, having to manage irate customers and balance many people at once. Social skills are the bread and butter of professional life. So how do we learn them?

It’s easy to point to middle school as ground zero of youth drama. The rise of status hierarchies combined with budding sexuality throws all sorts of relationships upside down. Bullying, social categories, and popularity are all there. But the key to “surviving” middle school is learning how to navigate these muddy waters with an intact self-esteem. It’s not that jealousy and other social dramas disappear after middle school; it’s that they get much more nuanced as people’s skills improve. But for people to improve their skills, they must learn how to manage unpredictable and uncomfortable social situations. These aren’t skills learned in abstract; they’re learned through practice.

Over the last three decades, youth lives have gotten increasingly structured. Many youth spend little to no time in unstructured social settings, otherwise known as “hanging out.” The practice of hanging out is consistently demonized by educationally-minded folks as a waste of time. Yet, it is in that space where youth learn to navigate social situations, make sense of impression management, and develop the social skills necessary to be productive adults.

Social media has created an interesting rupture in the landscape. Youth turn to it to reclaim unstructured social encounters, to create a public space that allows them to simply hang out with their friends, peers, and cohort. The flirting, gossiping, and joking around that takes place is not proof that social media is useless, but proof that it’s extremely valuable. Without other spaces in which to gather, youth have developed their own. They want to be social, but we also need them to develop social skills. What’s fascinating is that they’re learning to do so in a mediated landscape, developing norms that will persist through adulthood. It’s not like all social encounters between adults are face-to-face; learning how to interpret a Facebook post is a great skill to have when entering an email-centric corporation.

Rather than demonizing social media or dismissing its educational value, I believe that we need to embrace the environments that youth are using to gather and help them learn to navigate the murky waters of sociality. We cannot “fix” their social worlds, but we can provide the scaffolding that they need to help learn to make sense of sticky social situations. We can serve as listeners, guides, and cheerleaders. We can be there when they’re trying to make a decision about a best way to handle a situation and play devil’s advocate when they need to work through complicated dynamics. But to be there for youth, we have to treat them with respect and value what they’re learning. We have to value the importance of learning about sociality. And we need to be able to listen as confidants, not judges.

We can continue to demonize social spaces, dismiss hanging out, and overly regulate our kids. But I believe this does them a disservice. Being a successful adult in society requires social skills. And we desperately need to give youth space to learn them. They’re committed to learning; why aren’t we supporting them in doing so?

Originally posted here.


French translation by Marie Helene Visconti:

La socialité est un apprentissage:

En tant qu’ adultes, nous considérons les compétences sociales comme données… jusqu’à ce que nous rencontrions quelqu’un qui en manque. Aider les enfants à développer des compétences sociales est vu comme un projet éducatif raisonnable en élémentaire, mais dans le secondaire, les éducateurs passent à des sujets plus sérieux. Cependant, les jeunes n’ont pas fini d’apprendre sur le monde social. Inversement, ils sont plus amenés à comprendre les gens et la socialisation pendant la préadolescence et l’adolescence que lorsqu’ils étaient petits enfants. Peut-être est-ce leur passion à apprendre la socialisation qui dévalue ceci comme apprentissage dans le regard des adultes. Parce que si les jeunes aiment le sujet, il ne doit pas être éducatif. Malheureusement, je crains que nous ne rendions pas service aux jeunes en ne reconnaissant pas l’apprentissage social qui se produit durant cette période. Pire, et si nos efforts pour réduire les interactions sociales à cause d’une préférence pour le « vrai » savoir avaient un coût professionnel.

Bien peu d’entre nous travaillent dans des professions où nous sommes forcés de nous focaliser sur une tâche solitaire toute la journée, chaque jour. Même les universitaires, un groupe d’ermites notoires, doivent interagir avec les étudiants, leurs collègues et peut-être les donateurs à certains moments. La plupart d’entre nous nous appuyons constamment sur nos compétences sociales que nous aiguisons, développant de nouvelles techniques pour communiquer notre message, naviguer dans la politique d’entreprise, gérer les attentes de quelqu’un et maintenir la paix. Ceux qui sont dans le secteur des services sont confronté à celà de façon aigüe, ayant à gérer des consommateurs irrités et à s’occuper de plusieurs personnes en même temps. Les compétences sociales sont le pain et le beurre de notre vie professionnelle. Alors comment les apprenons nous ?

Il est facile de désigner le collège comme point de départ du drame de la jeunesse. La montée des hiérarchies de statuts combinée avec la sexualité bourgeonnante met sans dessus dessous toutes sortes de relations. Le harcèlement, les catégories sociales et la popularité sont pleinement là. Mais la clé pour « survivre » au collège est d’apprendre à naviguer dans ces eaux troubles en gardant l’estime de soi intacte. Ce n’est pas que la jalousie et les autres drames sociaux disparaissent après le collège ; c’est qu’ils deviennent plus nuancés à mesure que les gens amélioent leurs compétences. Mais pour que les gens améliorent leurs compétences, ils doivent apprendre à gérer les situations sociales imprévisibles et inconfortables. Ces compétences ne sont pas apprises en théorie ; elles sont apprises par la pratique.

Pendant les trois dernières décades, la vie des jeunes s’est structurée de façon croissante. Beaucoup de jeunes passent de peu à aucun temps dans des environnements non structurés socialement, autrement dit à « traîner ». La pratique de l’activité traîner est constamment diabolisée par les personnes à l’esprit éducatif en tant que perte de temps. Cependant, c’est dans cet espace que les jeunes apprennent à naviguer dans des situations sociales, à maîtriser la gestion de l’impression et à développer les capacités sociales nécessaires pour être des adultes protecteurs.

Les média sociaux ont créé une rupture intéressante dans ce paysage. Les jeunes se tournent vers eux pour retrouver des rencontres sociales non structurées, pour créer un espace public qui les autorisent à tout simplement traîner avec leurs amis, pairs et cohorte. Le flirt, les potins et les plaisanteries qui y prennent place ne sont pas la preuve que les médias sociaux sont inutiles, mais la preuve qu’ils ont une immense valeur. Sans d’autres espaces pour se rassembler, la jeunesse a développé les siens. Ils veulent être sociaux, mais nous avons aussi besoin qu’ils développent des capacités sociales. Ce qui est fascinant, c’est qu’ils sont en train d’apprendre à le faire dans un paysage médiatique, développant des normes qui persisteront à l’âge adulte. Ce n’est pas comme si toutes les rencontres sociales entre adultes se passaient en face à face ; apprendre à interpréter un post facebook est une compétence précieuse à posséder lorsqu’on entre dans une entrepise organisée autour du mail.

Plutôt que diaboliser les média sociaux ou nier leur valeur éducative, je crois que nous devons nous engager dans l’environnement que les jeunes utilisent pour se réunir et les aider à naviguer dans les eaux troubles de la sociabilité. Nous ne pouvons pas arranger leurs mondes sociaux, mais nous pouvons fournir les échafaudages dont ils ont besoin pour apprendre à se débrouiller des situations sociales délicates. Nous pouvons servir d’auditeurs, guides et cheerleaders. Nous pouvons être là quand ils sont en train d’essayer de décider de la meilleure façon de gérer une situation et jouer l’avocat du diable lorsqu’ils ont besoin d’évoluer à travers des dynamiques complexes. Mais pour être là pour les jeunes, nous devons les traiter avec respect et valoriser ce qu’ils sont en train d’apprendre. Nous devons reconnaître l’importance d’apprendre sur la sociabilité. Et nous devons être capables d’écouter en confidents, pas en juges.

Nous pouvons continuer à diaboliser les espaces sociaux, interdire l’activité « traîner » et excessivement réguler nos enfants. Mais je crois que nous leur rendons alors l’inverse d’un service. Etre un adulte qui réussit en société demande des compétences sociales. Et nous avons un besoin crucial de donner aux jeunes l’espace pour les apprendre. Ils sont motivés pour apprendre; pourquoi ne les soutenons nous pas?

Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out

I am delighted to announce that “Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media” is now in the wild and available! This book was written as a collaborative effort by members of the Digital Youth Project, a three-year research effort funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Southern California. The project was spearheaded by Mimi Ito and my late advisor Peter Lyman. I had the honor of being one of the members of this group and led one of the chapters in this book (the one on “Friendship”). If you’re trying to understand the diversity of youth practices involving new media, this is a book for you!

Conventional wisdom about young people’s use of digital technology often equates generational identity with technology identity: today’s teens seem constantly plugged in to video games, social networks sites, and text messaging. Yet there is little actual research that investigates the intricate dynamics of youth’s social and recreational use of digital media. “Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out” fills this gap, reporting on an ambitious three-year ethnographic investigation into how young people are living and learning with new media in varied settings-at home, in after school programs, and in online spaces. By focusing on media practices in the everyday contexts of family and peer interaction, the book views the relationship of youth and new media not simply in terms of technology trends but situated within the broader structural conditions of childhood and the negotiations with adults that frame the experience of youth in the United States.

Integrating twenty-three different case studies-which include Harry Potter podcasting, video-game playing, music-sharing, and online romantic breakups-in a unique collaborative authorship style, “Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out” is distinctive for its combination of in-depth description of specific group dynamics with conceptual analysis.

You can also download a PDF of the book, thanks to MIT Press. All proceeds from purchases of the book go to the Peter Lyman Graduate Fellowship in New Media at the University of California-Berkeley.

This project was one of many funded by the MacArthur Foundation to explore digital media and learning. New projects in this area are being aggregated through the Digital Media and Learning Hub. If you are interested in this area of work, you should also consider attending the first annual Digital Media and Learning Conference in February in San Diego.

help me find innovative practitioners who address online safety issues

I need your help. One of our central conclusions in the Internet Safety Technical Task Force Report was that many of the online safety issues require the collective engagement of a whole variety of different groups, including educators, social workers, psychologists, mental health experts, law enforcement, etc. Through my work on online safety, I’ve met a lot of consultants, activists, and online safety experts. Through my work as a researcher, I’ve met a lot of practitioners who are trying to engage youth about these issues through outright fear that isn’t grounded in anything other than myth.

Unfortunately, I haven’t met a lot of people who are on the ground with youth dealing with the messiness of addressing online safety issues from a realistic point of view. I don’t know a lot of practitioners who are developing innovative ways of educating and supporting at-risk youth because they have to in their practices. I need your help to identify these people.

  • I want to know teachers. Who are the teachers who are trying to integrate online safety issues into their classroom by using a realistic model of youth risk?
  • I want to know school administrators. Who are the school administrators who are trying to build school policy that addresses online safety issues from a non-fear-driven approach?
  • I want to know law enforcement officers. Who are the law enforcement officers who are directly dealing with the crimes that occur?
  • I want to know people from social services. Who are the people in social services (like social workers) who are directly working with at-risk youth who engage in risky behavior online?
  • I want to know mental health practitioners. Who are the psychologists and mental health practitioners who are trying to help youth who engage in risky practices online? Or who help youth involved in self-harm deal with their engagement with self-harm websites?
  • I want to know youth ministers. Who are the youth pastors and ministers who are trying to help at-risk youth navigate risky situations?
  • I want to know other youth-focused practitioners. Who else is out there working with youth who is incorporating online safety issues into their practice?

I know that there are a lot of people out there who are speaking about what these partitioners should do, who are advising these practitioners, or who are trying to build curricula/tools to support these practitioners, but I want to learn more about the innovative practitioners themselves.

Please… who’s incorporating sensible online safety approaches into their daily practice with youth in the classrooms, in therapy, in social work, in religious advising, etc.? Who’s out there trying to wade through the myths, get a realistic portrait, and approach youth from a grounded point of view in order to directly help them, not as a safety expert but as someone who works with youth because of their professional role? Who do I need to know?

(Feel free to leave a comment or email me at zephoria [at] zephoria [dot] org.)

Twitter is for friends; Facebook is everybody

I was talking with a friend of mine today who is a senior at a technology-centered high school in California. Dylan Field and his friends are by no means representative of US teens but I always love his perspective on tech practices (in part cuz Dylan works for O’Reilly and really thinks deeply about these things). Noodling around, I asked him if many of his friends from his school used Twitter and his response is priceless:

Dylan: “as for twitter, we are totally not representative, but ya a lot of people use twitter. it’s funny because the way they are using it is not the way most do… they make private accounts and little sub-communities form. like cliques, basically. so they can post stuff they don’t want people on fb to see, since fb is everybody. it’s odd, because the way i see it get used with my friends is totally contradictory to what everyone is saying. people seem to think teens hate twitter because it’s totally public, but the converse is actually true. but it’s not everyone… probably 10-15% at most.”

As someone who has argued about the challenge of Twitter being public (to all who hold power over teens), I find this push-back to be extremely valuable. What Dylan is pointing out is that the issue is that Facebook is public (to everyone who matters) and Twitter can be private because of the combination of tools AND the fact that it’s not broadly popular.

My guess is that if Twitter does take off among teens and Dylan’s friends feel pressured to let peers and parents and everyone else follow them, the same problem will arise and Twitter will become public in the same sense as Facebook. This of course raises a critical question: will teens continue to be passionate about systems that become “public” (to all that matter) simply because there’s social pressure to connect to “everyone”?

when teachers and students connect outside school

In my last entry, I made a comment about the value of “cool” teachers interacting with students on social network sites. I received some push-back from non-educators. Most of the concerns revolved around teachers’ ethics and their responsibilities with respect to legal structures like the Federal Rights and Privacy Act. There were also concerns that teachers who would interact with students in these environments would be putting themselves at risk.

There is undoubtedly a lot of fear about teacher-student interactions, both in the US and elsewhere. All too often, there is an assumption that when teachers interact with students out of the classroom, they have bad intentions. This breaks my heart because, for all of the fear, most of the teachers that I’ve met in my line of work have really meant well by their students and their engagement with their students has helped their students tremendously. I’ve heard so many stories of teachers intervening and helping kids who really need it. Stupid things like giving them lunch money or being there to listen to their woes or helping a first generation kid learn about college.

The fear about teacher-student interactions also worries me at a broader societal level. A caring teacher (a genuinely well-intended, thoughtful, concerned adult) can often turn a lost teen into a teen with a mission. Many of us are lucky to have parents who helped us at every turn, but this is by no means universal. There are countless youth out there whose parents are absent, distrustful, or otherwise sources of frustration rather than support and encouragement. Teens need to have adults on their side. When I interview teens who have tough family lives (and I’m not talking about abuse here) but are doing OK themselves, I often find that it’s a teacher or pastor that they turn to for advice. All too often, the truly troubled kids that I meet have no adults that they can turn to for support.

Do teachers have to comply with federal privacy laws? Absolutely. Do they need to maintain a high level of ethics when engaging with students at all times? Most definitely. But I worry when folks translate this to suggest that teachers should never interact with a teen outside of the prescribed setting of a classroom. As a society, we desperately need non-custodial adults who teens can turn to for advice. Adults who can help guide youth without playing their parents.

Most of what teachers hear from students outside of the classroom might be answerable by students’ parents if only youth felt comfortable asking them. Teachers get asked about learning in general (e.g., “Why should I care about Shakespeare anyhow?”). They get asked health and sex-ed questions (e.g., “When will I get my period?”). They get asked for relationship advice (e.g., “How do I ask Alex to go to prom with me?”). They get asked about the future (e.g., “How do I get into college?”). Teachers get asked about the serious and the mundane, the personal and the abstract. But most of it has nothing to do with harm or abuse. Youth turn to teachers because they trust them, because they need advice from an adult and because they think that a trusted teacher might be honest with them. While some teens have other adults they can turn to, this isn’t the case for all teens. And for those teens in particular, it’s absolutely crucial that teachers are able to be there.

Students used to approach teachers before/after school, during lunch, or between classes. I’ve found that in many schools, this is no longer viable. These days, strict rules about being on campus before/after school and limitations to student mobility during school often make such face-to-face encounters untenable during the school day. As teachers started encouraging students to email homework assignments, students started approaching teachers online. Not surprisingly, social network sites (and IM) have come in as a new wave of this.

Teachers do not have to be a student’s friend to be helpful, but being a Friend (on social network sites) is not automatically problematic or equivalent to trying to be a kids’ friend. When it comes to social network sites, teachers should not invade a student’s space. But if a student invites a teacher to be present, they should enter in as a teacher, as a mentor, as a guide. This isn’t a place to chat up students, but if a student asks a question of a teacher, it’s a great place to answer the student. The key to student-teacher interactions in networked publics is for the teacher to understand the Web2.0 environment and to enter into student space as the mentor (and only when invited to do so). (Translation: teachers should NEVER ask a student to be their Friend on Facebook/MySpace but should accept Friend requests and proceed to interact in the same way as would be appropriate if the student approached the teacher after school.) Of course, if a teacher wants to keep their social network site profile separate from their students, they should feel free to deny student requests. But if they feel as though they can help students in that space, they should be welcome to do so.

We used to live in a world where space dictated context. This is no longer the case. Digital technologies collapse social contexts all the time. The key to figuring out boundaries in a digital era is not to try to revert to space. The key is to focus on people, roles, relationships, and expectations. A teacher’s role in relation to a student should not end at the classroom door. When a teacher runs into a student at a local cafe, they are still that student’s teacher. When a teacher runs into a student online, they are still that student’s teacher. Because of the meaning of a teacher-student relationship, that should never be relaxed; the role of teacher should always be salient (except when the teacher also happens to be the parent which is when things get very murky very fast).

If a teacher is capable of interacting with students as a teacher in environments other than the classroom, they should be empowered to do so (and given the tools to do so well). On the ground, many teachers are motivated to help students beyond the classroom and many students need that help. To prevent them from doing so, to say that they shouldn’t respond when a student asks for their help simply because of the technology, is to do damage to students and society more broadly. Teachers certainly don’t enter the profession for the money; they typically enter it for the service and the potential to help. I am worried about mandates that prevent teachers from doing what they can to help youth.

So here’s a question to the teachers out there: What do you think is the best advice for other teachers when it comes to interacting with students on social network sites? When should teachers interact with students outside of the classroom? What are appropriate protocols for doing so? How can teachers best protect themselves legally when interacting with students? How would you feel if you were told never to interact with a student outside of the classroom?

answers to questions from Twitter on teen practices

Before I headed to Atlanta to do fieldwork, I asked folks who follow me on Twitter (@zephoria) what questions I should ask teens. Many of the questions that I received were more general questions about teens, rather than questions for teens. Still, I’m going to take a stab at very briefly answering some of the questions that I received based on what I know and what I learned. I am not answering the larger questions that would require pages and pages and my apologies if my short answers are not sufficient but I wanted to at least respond. Thank you all who contributed questions and my apologies if I didn’t answer yours.

To all who asked questions about Twitter: average teens don’t use Twitter. They may in the future, but they do not now. Those who do are early adopters and not representative of any mainstream teen practice. Because of Oprah and celebs, some teens are starting to hear about it, but they don’t understand it and they aren’t using it.

@connyb: Parents’ concerned with what kids do online, right? I’d ask teens if they know what exactly their parents do at their dayjobs.

Teens do not tend to know exactly what their parents do, nor do they particularly care. (It’s important to note that parental concern stems from a position of power, not interest in the actual activities.)

@mauraweb: when they’re searching for info, how do they know what info to trust? esp. w/internet searches

Media literacy amongst teens is extremely varied, but the short answer is that most don’t know what to trust. They know that they are not supposed to trust Wikipedia because it’s editable (and they automatically recall Wikipedia when you ask about trustworthy information.. that’s so actively hammered down their throat, it’s painful). One girl told me that she trusts websites that “look” like they are reputable. When I asked her about this, she told me that she could “just tell” when something was a good source. And besides, it came from Google. Le sigh.

@AlterSeekers: According to Facebook Era, Teens see email as a “work” tool and prefer to Facebook message. Is this true among these teens?

I was surprised to find that email is deader than ever among teens. As more of their parents and teachers are getting on Facebook (or MySpace), they see little reason to email with anyone. Thus, email is increasingly needed for having an account on various sites and for getting access to or sending attachments. But even when teens do use email for “work”, they do not use it for social purposes.

@mirroredpool: What borders to teens place of social networking sites and education? How would they react to using an SNS to do class work?

@annejonas: i’m curious if they want schools involved in social networks or if they like it as a social space outside the realm of formal edu.

This is messy. Many teens have ZERO interest in interacting with teachers on social network sites, but there are also quite a few who are interested in interacting with SOME teachers there. Still, this is primarily a social space and their interactions with teachers are primarily to get more general advice and help. In some ways, its biggest asset in the classroom is the way in which its not a classroom tool and not loaded this way. Given that teens don’t Friend all of their classmates, there are major issues in terms of using this for groupwork because of boundary issues.

@shcdean: What future do they see for FB or Twitter.

They don’t use Twitter. When asked, teens always say that they’ll use their preferred social network site (or social media service) FOREVER as a sign of their passion for it now. If they expect that they’ll “grow out of it”, it’s a sign that the service is waning among that group at this very moment. So they’re not a good predictor of their own future usage.

@lazygal: Do they really care about/use school library websites? Twitter? Pageflakes? Libguides? or only if teacher insists?

Nope, they don’t. All but Twitter are categorized as school tools and are only used when absolutely necessary and Google won’t suffice.

@anindita: My favorite question: read anything good lately?

I asked “Recent book that you enjoyed” on my questionnaire. Half said “none” and most said books they read in school (with a *). Books that were mentioned: City of Bones, Ashes & Glass, A Year of Impossible Goodbyes, The Outsiders*, Drama High Series, Mice and Men*, Catcher in the Rye*, The Poisonwood Bible*, Twilight series (twice).

@texas_sooner: I’d be interested to know if teens denied access to SNS (by parents/choice/SES reasons etc ) feel left out/pressure to join, etc.

Parental restrictions are a huge source of frustration because of a sense of isolation. (As a result, they are typically ignored.) SES is not actually a predictor of non-use at this point except in more rural regions where Internet access is generally absent for the majority of teens. In these cases, teens don’t feel left out because they aren’t being socially isolated by it.

@SavvyPriya: what is one thing that teens are passionate about?

This varies across teens, but God comes up a lot. The only thing that really competes is friends. Family is also important to some teens. School and sports are also important to some teens. And then some teens have particular hobbies or activities that they love. But God and friends really dominate the passion list.

@paullowe: where do they get their news from and what kind of news do they want to get

Teens primarily get their news from word-of-mouth, not directly from any particular source. School current events and TV time are the other dominant place I hear about. Otherwise, it’s generally osmosis. They walk through the living room when their parents are watching the news. Or they pass by a news article when they get online. But they are not directly and intentionally consuming much news at all.

@thornet: ask ’em how they judge whether a news outlet is credible.teens r good @ spotting fakes & phonies;wonder what their news criteria r

They don’t watch a lot of news and they have no media literacy training and they’re not even thinking about credibility of news.

@andrewmiller: how does having a smartphone change their interactions w/each other on SNS? more photos/videos? faster rumors? have/have-not gap?

A gap is definitely occurring. A smart phone means more more more more more – more SMS, more web consumption, more status updates, more photos, etc. Certain smart phones are desperately desired items. That said, teens are also doing quite well with the iPod Touch + wifi as an alternative. Smart phones are helping them stay more engaged and connected.

@shawncalhoun: Were teens more engaged in politics by Obamas #socialmedia storm? If so has engagmnt continued evolved in2 something new or faded?

Most teens are pretty oblivious to his social media practices. That’s actually hitting the college/20-somethings more.

@alexleavitt: Ask them if they feel like they’ll want to develop the social Net when they get older: eg., developers developers developers.

No. Most don’t associate using social media with computer science or developing software whatsoever. And the classes on programming in their schools aren’t helping.

@pbernard: do they still care about changing the ringtone on their phone, even though they make less and less calls?

Ringtones are tricky with American youth because it very much depends on who pays for the phone/ringtones. Among teens who can change their ringtones whenever they want, there’s still motivation. The phone still rings (and beeps with new SMSes) and having a cool sound is desired. But of course many teens spend most of their day with their phones on buzz-only.

@harraton: Do they care about their privacy?

VERY much so. But what constitutes privacy for them is often quite different than what constitutes privacy for adults. Privacy is not dead.

@simonchambers: I’d ask how they see themselves helping to solve problems like climate change and extreme poverty…

They don’t. Most teens are not that engaged with larger societal issues (except as activities to get into college). This makes sense – they are not part of public life. They have no voice. They don’t hear the debates. They aren’t exposed to much beyond their narrow worlds. And, for most of them, their parents aren’t involved either.

@dougthomas: Teens; what are their thoughts about downloading songs? films? software? without paying for it.

They want access. Their parents won’t pay for it. They don’t have credit cards. They get what they are looking for by any means necessary. And those who get access to it traffic in that content among their peers who may be less technologically savvy/economically privileged.

@jamesb: how does their mobile contacts differ from social network contacts? When do they crossover?

Mobile consists of their closest friends because of the economics of the phone. Social network sites are their broader peer group. Their closest friends are a subset of their broader peer group.

@alfredtwo: Do teens view all adults in social networking the same or are parents a special case? Young relatives friend me not their parents

Depends on the teen, but many are happy to connect with adults who don’t directly hold power over them or who they “trust” – aunts, older cousins, youth pastors, “cool” teachers, etc.

@mjmantey: how aware are they of general advertising/marketing ways and means?

If it has advertising, they think that it means that it’ll be free for a long time. But they don’t really think much about it.

@mojo_girl: how many email accounts do they have that parents don’t know about- do they use same password 4 all #socialmedia ? #teens

They don’t use email so it’s more a matter of which ones they forgot about. They often forget their passwords so I would guess that they don’t use the same password consistently. Of course, they also share certain passwords with their closest “trusted” friends so that gets messy really fast. And they change it when there’s a breakup.

@matlockmatlock: OMGSEXTINGWTF?

Continuing to be present and very very messy. Sharing of naked photos seems to be more prevalent in certain teen groups than others and I’m still trying to work out what this means.

An interesting question from the comments:

maxoid: is there any data on teen usage of Capitalization and proper grammar vs. SMS-shorthand and all-lowercase? (is format now used as a way to stand out from adults as much as langauge has long been?)

You can definitely look to certain subcultural practices to witness distinctions, such as the culture around AzN pRiDe. But there are huge differences between linguistic practices that are meant to be distinct and culturally resistant (such as those that are actually hard to produce) and those that are meant to make communication easier (fast IMing) or accommodate techno-economic limitations (160 chars). It’s important to remember that a lot of our writing (and speaking) is intentionally redundant to account for issues in hearing and penmanship. With typing, a lot of this falls by the wayside and it’s hard to argue against shorthand except to cling to inertia. Language changes. New genres of media change language. Expect things to change. Expect new generations to be pulled between what they will see as “obvious” shifts and what they’ll be forced to accommodate by those who demand status quo.