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Backchannels and Mythbusting: DN at Berkman@10

As the school year winds to a close and the summer hovers ahead, things are about to switch up a bit at the Digital Natives Project. More on that soon, in a series of farewell-for-now posts from myself and the rest of the 2007-2008 interns. But before we switch things up completely, I wanted to spend a moment thinking about the fascinating Digital Natives Mythbusting discussion that took place at the Berkman@10 conference on May 16.

Since I ended up running the question tool for the discussion, I got a first-hand peek into how “backchannels” can work in conference settings. For the Mythbusting discussion, there were at least three backchannels running in parallel. The first, the sanctioned “question tool,” hosted official questions and suggestions, and was projected onto two screens at the front of the room. It was visible to everyone, and fairly restrained. We used it to gauge interest in the 8 different myths we offered up, and ended up choosing to address the question of “Are kids wasting time online?” because it got so many votes in the question tool. It was very neat to watch questions, rebuttals, and subpoints surface on a public screen, and it was exciting to have that first backchannel interact fluidly with the conversation at hand.

The second backchannel was Twitter—a sort of all-purpose, soundbite-based, socially-oriented repository for quick “tweets” about conference proceedings. Many people used Twitter to peek into the other concurrent breakout sessions, and thus “participate” in multiple conversations at once. They’d float ideas and ask questions about the topic matter present in other panels, and people actually in those panels would pick up on the information and send it into the mainstream of the conversation. Twitter, since it’s an all-purpose all-the-time backchannel, was a less fine-grained conversation medium in relation to the conference. But it was widely used, and provided an informal way to keep track of everything going on in an information-rich conference.

The third backchannel, though, was to me the most interesting of all. It was not a new tool. In fact, it was a very old one: IRC. IRC, as I understand it, is essentially a chatroom protocol, introduced in 1988. Since IRC requires marginally more technical expertise than Twitter (and has a history of being more techie-oriented), the berkman@10 IRC channel did host a high concentration of very savvy, prolific chatters. It was another fairly informal backchannel, and since it wasn’t projected onto a screen, it became a home for a lot of skeptical backchatter. This, of course, made it incredibly fascinating to watch; it was like reading people’s thoughts in real-time.

In the Digital Natives Mythbusting discussion, the irony was thick and delightful. During a conversation about whether kids waste too much time on the internet, and whether they can “really” multitask on their computers while listening to lectures, there were dozens of real live people in the room (young and marginally less young) chatting away in IRC about the content of the discussion. While multitasking, they were expressing their opinions about multitasking.

The discussion provides a window into an alternate view of DN issues. Wonderfully enough, Alex Leavitt—a conference attendee—had the foresight to copy and paste the IRC discussion into a post on his blog. I highly recommend reading the entire thing, but I’ve lifted one particularly interesting segment. At issue is the question of what counts as “participations” in a classroom, and what kinds of “participation” actually contribute toward the end goal of learning. After you read through it, we’d love to hear your thoughts; there’s no reason the conversation should stop here! With thanks to Alex for capturing the discussion in the first place.


[11:54am] jeckman: And yes, classrooms should be wired during class

[11:54am] sc1olist: (digital natives) So far, no mention of it being useful in class to find context to what’s happening/discussed. Or that people take notes on laptops.
[11:55am] daithi: or IRC it
[11:55am] saraw1: exactly. i don’t know why professors are so threatened by it.
[11:55am] ltsui: connectivity is great for looking up things in wikipedia during class
[11:55am] saraw1: besides, what constitutes participation? Can you participate without talking? I think yes
[11:55am] sc1olist: @ltsui Exactly. ESSENTIAL in history, particularly at the graduate level.

[11:56am] EricaG: jassamyn, it’s so time for revolt. these aren’t supposed to be lectures.
[11:56am] jessamyn: speaking of IRCing it, does anyone have a link for THIS Scott MCloud (do I have that right?)? I keep finding the cartoonist
[11:56am] dwitzel_: shouldn’t your twitter feed count for “participation”
[11:56am] saraw1: i was in school before we had any computers in the classroom. i knew then how to feign participation/interest
[11:56am] saraw1: dwetzel-I should say so!!!!
[11:57am] jessamyn: I am trapped by my own politeness
[11:57am] fonchik: I came to college with an electric typewriter
[11:57am] saraw1: the computer has nothing to do with whether you are participating or not, nor BTW does speaking in class

[11:58am] sc1olist: @saraw1: I disagree on the latter, but the former is quite true. In fact, it often helps give people the confidence to talk.

[11:58am] alexleavitt: I don’t see why IRC shouldn’t be implemented in classroom, or at least seminar, discussion

[11:59am] saraw1: why does speaking in class count as participation while being silently involved does not? it’s discrimination against introverts
[11:59am] alexleavitt:
[11:59am] saraw1: besides, note that there is such a thing as saying something just to say it. e.g. content-free participation

[12:00pm] alexleavitt: most of my English teachers have counted class participation simply through attendance; class participation grades just seem to be part of the old system that needs to change
[12:00pm] daithi: @sara: it can raise interesting gender/class/social/ethnic/disability issues too, i.e. multiple options for participation can be an anti-exclusion device

From Email to Blog: A DN Debate on Cyberbullying

A few weeks ago, a debate was going around on the Digital Natives listserv about bullying and its echoes in the digital world. Among the participants were danah boyd, Miriam Simun, David Weinberger, Gene Koo, and Sam Jackson.

danah boyd kicked off the discussion with this definition of bullying used in a Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC) report:

As noted by Olweus (2001), “a student is being bullied or victimized when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more students.” The preceding definition highlights the aggressive component of bullying as well as the associated inherent power imbalance and repetitive nature. There are a wide range of behaviors consistent with bullying, including physical, verbal, and relational manifestations.

But as it turned out, even agreeing on a definition of bullying was tricky. The same study states that 30% of youth in the United States report involvement in moderate or frequent bullying, a number that David Weinberger found shocking. The problem, he surmised, was that bullying is being defined too broadly. Do teasing, social exclusion, and bullying all belong in the same category? Or do they represent starkly different motivations and different levels of severity?

In cyberspace, these distinctions between these behaviors become increasingly blurred. While the word bully most likely conjures up the big, mean kid who beats others up on the playground, cyberbullying is obviously not physical. Relational bullying or relational aggression – essentially emotional bullying that involves exclusion, gossip, lying, etc. Think Mean Girls – is especially prevalent among, not surprisingly, girls. Sam Jackson cited a study that 71.4% of girls and 21.1% of boys who experienced bullying were victims of relational bullying (Henington, Hughes, Cavell, & Thompson, 1998). This is also the same kind of bullying that is made easier online. Add this to the miscommunication implicit in online interactions versus face-to-face ones and you have a problem that is at once unique to the Internet yet grounded in real life social interactions.

The danger of lumping together all different forms of social intimidation like teasing and social exclusion into the serious category of bullying is distorting the severity of the problem. The debate then turned to education about bullying in schools, which both danah and David see as having adopted a loose definition of bullying. There are merits to this, of course, such as stopping teasing before it escalates into something more severe, but it also problematizes policies regarding real bullying. Gene Koo was pointed out that we also need to teach victims to deal with bullying: “Most people only know how to fight back, not how to change the power dynamic.” Kids should be taught conflict resolution.

Not surprisingly, the discussion constantly focused circled back to real world bullying. The Internet introduces new elements to the problem, but many of the basic issues are the same.

Further Reading: Pew Cyberbullying Report

-Sarah Zhang

SCVNGR: Digital Rubber Hits the Literal Road

Cross-posted from the blog of a soon-to-be Digital Natives summer intern—Nikki Leon, from Princeton.
Welcome to the team, Nikki! Original version, with links, here.

Seth Priebatsch is pretty damn smart — and I’m not just saying that because he’s a Princeton Engineer. This afternoon, with the help of computer programmers (and fellow Princeton frosh) Josh Budofsky and Val Karpov, Priebatsch launched the first-ever SCVNGR hunt. SCVNGR hunt is a new kind of treasure hunt that combines the immediacy (and product promo potential) of mobile technology with the running, clue-solving, and team play of a traditional scavenger hunt. There were over a hundred players — Princeton students participating both alone and in teams — who registered by texting to the designated SCVNGR short code. They then received various clues urging them to go to specific locations on the Princeton campus and/or to send back a txt or picture (snapped on their phones, no less) containing the solution to a given clue. Prizes included a Nintendo Wii, gift certificates, and, of course, a free hat.

SCVNGR (Priebatsch’s startup, which hosted the SCVNGR hunt) is remarkable because it is representative of two New Media trends. The first of these is a shift towards using mobile technology to link digital interaction to a specific location in order to foster more personal, face-to-face contact. This trend has already been evinced by a few digital signage firms. Among these is LocaModa, a Cambridge, MA company that provides the technology for people to interact on large screens in public places with their mobile phones (in February, they launched a giant digital word game called Jumbli on a screen in Times Square). The second trend SCVNGR indicates is simply that of the rise of the “Digital Native” (i.e. those of us raised in an already-digital world). Most notably, Priebatsch, Budofsky, and Karpov are not just digesting pre-existing digital content, but they are expanding platforms for new content as well.

SCVNGR gives me hope for the Digital Native. The group’s efforts seem to counteract the one thing that has always bothered me about “DNs” (and I am definitely one myself): DNs’ very ease with and dependance on digital media makes them especially vulnerable to the tricks of advertisers and other profit-interested businesspeople of a slightly older generation. This is because the web is a platform like no other for tracking personal data and launching complex adver-experiences. Examples of this are product sponsored online advergames like the Coke Zero Game; info-snooping, advertiser-oriented apps like Facebook’s Beacon; and the strange quasi-webseries / quasi-social-network quarterlife, which features plenty of product placement. SCVNGR, however, is a sign that Digital Natives are gaining the ability to cater to each other and not just be catered to (and manipulated). Granted, SCVNGR is for-profit, and Priebatsch is a shrewd businessman whose prior experience in the digital postcard business shows: after my 90 minutes of SCVNGR participation, I was rewarded with a coupon to a local ice cream shop. All the same, the fact that a fellow DN is behind both the promo and the game makes me somewhat more comfortable — it’s a sign that the process of creating digital content has been democratized.

I have no doubt that SCVNGR will be successful, though to what degree I can’t predict. SCVNGR, or at least its concept, has already seen approval: in February, Priebatsch won the TigerLaunch Business Plan Competition with his plans for the startup. Using their new funding, Priebatsch, Budofsky, and Karpov are relocating SCVNGR to Philadelphia this summer and will have some new additions to the company.

There’s no website yet, but check out the SCVNGR hunt event on facebook, and an article in the Daily Princetonian.


LIVEBLOGGING: Civic Engagement and the Youth Vote in the 2008 Elections

We’re at the Civic Engagement and the Youth Vote in the 2008 Elections cohosted by Kennedy School of Government Institute for Politics and Berkman Center.

Our own John Palfrey is moderating the discussion with,

Jesse Dylan, and Director/Producer of the “Yes We Can” video

Wes Hill, co-Founder of

Ari Melber, The Nation Magazine

Jeff Frazee, National Youth Coordinator, Ron Paul 2008

Jesse Dylan: “Yes We Can” video went viral because people saw the power of Obama’s words and connected to the desire of change expressed

Ari Melber: With Internet, we have a completely new metrics of measuring political participation. Videos and social networking are like the “gateway drug” to getting politically involved.

Jeff Frazee: Facebook’s big limitation – inability to message mass users. Using Facebook to directly communicate with campus leaders on the Ron Paul campaign. Logged on to Facebook to get latest news on the campaign.

AM: Ron Paul’s campaign used creative ways of involving people in the campaign – “a collective, bottom-up project” – beyond just donating funds. McCain has failed to use SNS to engage people. But, successful in engaging conservative blogosphere (weekly bloggers conference call, talks through differences).

John Palfrey: What’s the story going to be like in campaign 2012? And what is the thing we should each to as an intervention to make a positive story happen?

JD: It doesn’t take money to reach the people you want to

JP: Is it real or a myth that young people are more able to take advantage of this medium?

JD: I don’t think young people are particularly set to benefit more. Young people are voting more because they need change.

JP: So each of us has more power to do something because we’re connected to the net?

Wes Hill: That’s the message with Message of the week::action of the week

JP: Video has taken a more important aspect here. Is there something beyond video?

JD: It’s about telling stories – video is easier to watch than reading – the web is an opportunity to tell stories in a non-linear way. By 2012, will be more ways to tell stories, not just through narrative video.

JF: Some of the most powerful media was not initiatied by campaign, but by individuals who rose to the top. Advice for next time: “See what’s out there, listen to the people, allow people to have some ownership of the campagain”

JP: Continued youth involvement in politics and civic engagement?

AM: The counter culture is the culture. The media has failed – this has created real receptivity to counter narratives. With the platforms set up, it’s game on.

JP: Game on – opening questions up to the floor.

Diane Tucker: Is there anything to be learned from Huckabee experience? Bulk of his work came from youth from outside his campaign?

JF: Ron Paul and Obama groups the biggest on college campuses.

AM: From data, huge fissure among democrats: youth for Obama, older voters for Clinton. Didn’t see same split for republicans.

Q: While Internet is powerful, real-space networks more powerful. How has f2f network changed?

JP: Is this an internet story? How much is this change really due to technologies?

JD: Real story is change. People want to see change in the country.

AM: is a largely online network. Facebook is totally different – grounded in real-space identification. Real people, real network – very potent for political action.

Q: Is Obama campaing not just getting youth involved based on exciting soundbites? Is this not just superficial?

JD: Obama has said more than soundbites.

AM: If we are heading towards video, which focuses more on mode of saying rather than content of saying, this is problematic for democracy. This may lead to the beautiful people having to much power. BUT, what we are seeing on YouTube is not just soundbites – lots of people, especially young people are watching beyond the soundbite.

Vicki Nash: Youth vote may be happening in the US, what about the rest of the world? How much is this about American Exceptionalism?

JF: Technology is culturally neutral just like it’s politically neutral. Just a vehicle. [MS: what about the cultural bias inherent in technologies, largely coming out of Silicon Valley?]

VN: Can’t imagine Obama Girl in the UK

JD: Necessity to use the web is where the web will come in to play.

Q: Presidential campaign is the only time the whole nation comes together. What do you do with a national base and this energy of virtual community in our political system? (what happens in the down time)

JF: We need to localize politics. Identify city, state, congressional races to mobilize people for. Where can we effect change?

AM: Pick good fights with deadlines, villifiable opponents, and concrete goals. This is why climate change is hard to organize people for. Something more specific that people can get their head around.

JD: People connect to stories. There needs to be vision for people to respond.

Charles Nesson: How can I get a presidential candidate poker game to happen? The connection between real and virtual in terms of storytelling is so strong. You program something virtual and it becomes real. For eg, in the democratic party there needs to be a story of reconciliation. How do we make this story real?

JD: Hillary is Chagall (same picture every day), Obama is Picasso (different picture every day). Obama hasn’t been a great frontrunner.

CN: Would love to see my youtube video go viral. If Obama stand for change, he has the opportunity

Q: Is the openess of the internet really bring us further for democracy, or are the rules of the game just going to change, and the same players will learn to take advantage and manipulate the process?

Q: What about the participation gap? Disenfranchising those with out access?

Q: Young people get that online action has to mirror real space action, while older people are missing out on the interconnection of online and real space. Will this continue? What are implications?

AM: upsurge of youth vote is limited to educated youth. non-college educated youth does not enjoy this upsurge. Presidential campaigns are not incentives to spend money on this demographic.

JF: internet is breaking down bottleneck. free market of ideas will further democracy.

JD: outsider being able to be heard will just improve on the net.

Myth Busting: Kids and Information Technology

(cross-posted from John Palfrey’s blog)

We’re planning our session on Digital Natives for the Berkman@10 conference later this week. The idea is to hold a “myth-busting” session. A first pass of myths are up on the conference wiki. The idea is to discuss some of the common misconceptions about kids and technology that we explore in our forthcoming book, Born Digital. Please suggest others, and looking forward to seeing many great friends later this week. (Many thanks to Miriam Simun for her leadership on this and other matters.)”

Augmented Reality Overload: A Digital Natives Guest Post

Last week, in my post on ROFLCon, I wrote that

All barriers between real life and digital life seemed to collapse during the conference. In an audience full of laptops, iPhones, BlackBerries, and digital cameras, the volume of instant commentary created was enormous and baffling. But it wasn’t even just the audience: Adam Lindsay [a panel member, representing his website LOLCode] apparently live-posted much of his own panel directly to Twitter, between answering questions about LOLCode. And he wasn’t alone.

Only problem: I was wrong. In the comments, Adam Lindsay kindly noted that while he had planned to Twitter from the panel, and had in fact mentioned that he might (hence my confusion), in the end he wasn’t able to divide his attention that many ways at once. After reading this comment, it struck me that it might be valuable to see to what extent a digitally adept adult— in a sea of other digitally adept adults—experienced a digital usage generation gap between himself and his peers vs. the hundreds of college students milling about at ROFLCon. Adam was kind enough to oblige with the following guest post.

It’s worth noting that Adam’s views are his own, and though I’ve chosen to reprint them here in their entirety, they should be taken as one personal narrative rather than representative of any official position of the Digital Natives project. That said, we’re incredibly grateful to Adam for sharing his acute observations and personal experience, for writing such a thought-provoking piece, and for being willing to enter into this discussion in the first place. We look forward to hearing your responses.

Diana Kimball, Digital Natives intern

I am 35 years old. I have been on the internet for half of my life. I “speak digital” fluently, but I have to admit that I don’t speak it as a native, and likely never will. I’m a dinosaur in this world, and I know I will be replaced by more nimble successors.

I’ve been thinking about it, and my big failing is that I can’t multitask like the younger set, or as women are famed for doing. The cost of switching between digital life and real life has a real mental cost, especially in terms of attention, in the psychological sense. And the reason why I feel as though I am not a digital native is that I feel this cost with every transition. I’m monolithic. I can think about one thing at a time. I am Windows 3.11. I am Mac OS 7.

This hit home for me during ROFLCon, where, armed with iPod touch and a long-established Twitter account, I thought I could keep up with the real and virtual worlds into which I was immersed. My droll plan was to live-twitter during my own panel, perhaps with just a “HAI WORLD. IM IN UR PANEL…” As it was, the panel was too fast-paced, and required too much of my attention just to keep on top of it. I had to be present, in the moment, and any step away from that would have been unfair to everyone else in the room.

I would try to keep an eye on Twitter during the conference while I was in the audience, but always ended up discovering that focusing on it took too much away from my understanding and enjoyment of what was going on in the panels. Twitter was useful, it did enhance the experience, and I believe it was the right medium that consensus established as a backchannel. However, for me, it was a matter of stepping out of the real life experience of the Con, and stepping into a digital reality. It was not an augmented reality; for me, ROFLCon’s digital backchannel was simply another parallel session track that I could follow. It seemed clear that for the younger set at ROFLCon, there was far less difficulty in meshing the real with the virtual.

So. I don’t feel like I’m a digital native. There are some trends, some things my younger colleagues love, that I know I don’t share in fully. I think they point to my failure to change context nimbly, but it could possibly just be me. What do you think?

Unlike nearly every person out there, I hate watching video while at the computer keyboard (with one notable exception). That is, I hate browsing through YouTube. Thankfully, I don’t have to miss out on videos of cute kittens, theremins, or both together, because I can defer YouTube to its proper context: I mark a promising video as a “favorite,” and when the mood strikes me, I use my AppleTV to catch up on all these effectively bookmarked videos while lying back on my couch.

I love music. I have spent tens of thousands of dollars (erk) on a legitimate music collection over the years. Yet I hardly listen to it, primarily because I can’t listen to most music whilst working. Music with lyrics (and I love intelligent lyricists) just collides with all the reading and writing I’m constantly doing at the keyboard.

As I close in on finishing a large, overdue project, I realize more and more that I need to swear off instant messaging. I have been instant messaging, in one form or another, ever since 1990, when I stepped onto the proper internet. I like to think I communicate well in the medium. However, IM takes far too much of my attention: I dedicate myself far too intensely to a real-time conversation, and everything else that I try to do is disrupted. I don’t dip into chats while continuing with my emailing, my writing, my editing, my coding, or my web surfing. The chats eat my attention.

I look at the next generation, say, my three-year-old daughter, and am in awe of what they will accomplish, having all the collected knowledge of the world wide web at their fingertips from day one. I’m am absolutely confident my daughter will develop the mental agility that I lack in order to mediate between the real and multiplicity of digital worlds she will be presented with. I hope, both as a parent and as an educator, I can help develop the critical facilities she and her peers will need to filter through all that information.

In the meantime, I’m having fun in this new world, myself. I get by pretty well with the language, after all. I know there will come a time when I will reach my limit, when all I can do is sit back and watch in wonderment what these kids can do.

But not just yet.

Adam Lindsay finally got used to being called The LOLCODE Guy while at ROFLCon. He sporadically blogs at, and formerly blogged more regularly on the role of digital multimedia tools for research in the humanities at

Twittering the Manila Folder: My Experience at ROFLCon

What happens when you’re standing at the front of a room full of digital natives?

Better yet: what happens when they’re armed with laptops?

For the past 6 months, I’ve spent the majority of my time putting together a conference called ROFLCon. As one member of the ROFLCon team-a group of undergraduates from Harvard and MIT-I found myself at the center of something that quickly became bewilderingly huge. It’s a little bit out of the journalistic mode we strive for here at Digital Natives, but since this was such an unusual project, I wanted to take a moment to record some of my observations from the inside.

Last week, we heard from Sarah about her thoughts on ROFLCon. Her post-about the gender question at ROFLCon-incited a lively set of comments and responses, including some remarks from one of ROFLCon’s panelists, Adam Lindsay of LOLCode. Sarah just so happens to be one of my fellow interns on the Digital Natives project, and her post just happened to be really well-written and thoughtful.

But when you’re at a conference about the Internet, held at MIT, where the majority of the audience is under the age of 25 (the age we usually consider to be the upper bound of digital-nativehood), a cavalcade of instant blog reactions suddenly becomes the norm.

In fact, all barriers between real life and digital life seemed to collapse during the conference. In an audience full of laptops, iPhones, BlackBerries, and digital cameras, the volume of instant commentary created was enormous and baffling. But it wasn’t even just the audience: Adam Lindsay apparently live-posted much of his own panel directly to Twitter, between answering questions about LOLCode. And he wasn’t alone.

These layers of metacommentary were almost necessary for understanding the ROFLCon at all. At one point, I went up to the microphone at the end of a panel, to announce that audience members could organize interest-based dinners in our website’s forums. Someone yelled out from the audience: “Didn’t we already do that on Twitter?” (Twitter is a micro-blogging service where people can track each other’s thoughts and activities.)

The audience had self-organized; they had skipped right over the sanctioned forums. Since I had been running around for most of the day, sans screen, I had missed that entire subtext. The audience, at that point, was running their own experience to a remarkable degree. Their self-organizing skill was one of the highlights of the conference-certainly for me, and I hope for them as well.

Then again, I think that people who weren’t tuned into these substreams ended up feeling a slightly lost. At the end of the first day, a few audience members came up to me, wondering where the main dinners for the evening would be held. Since I hadn’t been tuned in to Twitter, and the forums were vacant, I didn’t know, and neither did they. When I exited into the lobby, I realized that someone (a few ROFLCon team members, I later discovered) had self-organized a solution: a manila folder with main dinner hangouts scrawled in black sharpie, taped to a concrete column. Although the solution ended up coming from the ROFLCon team, it could have come from anyone: another instance of digital/real life spontaneous interfacing.

So what is it like to stand at the front of a room full of digital natives? Surreal. But also exciting. The audience at ROFLCon was far more than just an audience. They were members of a network that was enthusiastically manifesting itself both online and off. Almost invariably, they were there at the conference (in real life) because they’d heard about it on the internet. They wanted to be there, make friends there, fill their blogs and streams and feeds up with information about the conference. They were out in full force, and that made it so thrilling to be right out there with them.

If you had asked me two weeks ago what I expected from the conference, I would have predicted a lot more negative commentary. But the amazing thing about standing up in front of a throng of self-publishing people (young and old alike) is that later, after it’s all over, you get to hear what they really think, unfiltered by the unbias of journalism. It’s not always pretty. But I think it’s real. And, whatever else it might be, it’s intoxicating to know that you were at the front of a room of full of people who were paying attention.

Well. Some attention, anyway. Can’t neglect Twitter, after all.

Diana Kimball

If you’ve got thoughts on this matter or any other, please do leave a comment, and / or email: diana dot kimball at gmail dot com.

DN Forum: ID & Privacy Roundup

Today, we at the Digital Natives project held our first Digital Natives Forum. With so many great people in attendance, the discussion was really thought provoking. Check out the video, soon to be posted on the Berkman site.

Andrea Flores and John Francis from Harvard Graduate School of Education’s GoodPlay project started off by presenting some initial findings from their research of young people and ethics online. They described the opportunities online tools give young people to explore their identities in new ways, and how these identities are tied to new norms and conceptions of privacy arising among the digital generation. Also, that young people tend to be concerned about privacy only if they perceive dire consequences to such a compromise.

Judith Donath
responded by pointing out the persistence of the ephemeral. Disclosures that young people make online now may not seem important – or to have dire consequences – but what happens twenty years from now?

With this, discussion got started.

We have the ability to track people’s past to an unprecedented degree, as young people traverse online territories, compiling their digital dossiers

So what do we do?

Spell (or draw) it out: Tools need to be better built, for sure, to help clue users in to just how visible one’s personal information is, how much information is being collected by various parties, how this information moves through space. Donath touched on an idea of exploring what it means to be photographed in public spaces: a hidden camera, vs. a subtle-yet-noticeable camera, vs. a very explicit camera. How might we behave differently in front of each one? How may we build social tools online and in digital space that may visibly reflect the privacy individuals compromise when they engage?

Educate, educate, educate! How do we instill ethics? How do we teach the importance of privacy, both protecting your own, and respecting others?

And finally, John Palfrey pushed things a bit further. Education is surely very important in this arena, to empower youth with the critical skills needed to navigate safely and ethically in the arena. And so are better tools, in order to display appropriate information for us to make good decisions, and to encourage thoughtful engagement with what it is we do when we share personal information online. But, is this enough?

No. Laws need to change. As it stands now, we as individuals have very little rights over our personal information. Once we tick the box of the Terms of Service, we very often give complete and total power to the platform to do what they will with everything we share through these services. John suggests that this needs to change: Individuals must have legal ownership and control over their data. Only then will we be able to both live digitally, and retain some control over our sense of privacy.

– Miriam Simun

ROFLCon, Women, and Digital Natives

This past weekend, I spent an amazing two days at ROFLCon, a conference self-described as a mix of a “bunch of super famous internet memes [and] some brainy academics.” As promised, it was provided lots of laughter but also posed some interesting questions. During the opening panel, the question was asked(I’m paraphrasing), “If the Internet is a thought of as this democratizing force, why all the panelists white men?” Various retorts and theories were thrown around the issue, and it become somewhat of a running gag throughout the conference. “I apologize for being a white male,” said Christian Lander, writer of Stuff White People Like, before beginning his talk.

As the conference progressed though, it became obvious that all the panelists were overwhelmingly male. (To be fair, Alice Marwick gave one of the keynotes and women were well-represented in both the ROFLCon attendees and organizers.) Yet if ROFLCon aims to bring together the most famous people on the Internet, it seems like the most famous people on the Internet are usually white and male, even though online interactions are usually gender-blind. What makes this particularly striking is the fact that girls are no longer a minority on the Internet. Pew Research Center’s Dec 2007 report on “Teens and Social Media” found that of teenage content creators, 55% were girls and 45% boys.

This is a sweeping generalization, of course, but it may simply be that girls are interested in using the Internet in different ways. Girls are more active on social networking sites dominate the teen blogosphere (Pew) as a way of keeping in touch with their friends. Along the same lines, there exist certain online communities online dominated by females just as there are communities dominated by males. And the type of humor that ROFLCon particularly caters to just happens to include a lot of men.

The crucial distinction is that ROFLCon does not reflect the average Digital Native. It represents certain niche communities, outside of which names such as 4chan or Anonymous have little resonance. Parsing the gender discrepancy of the panelists is really a moot point, as they represent a very specialized demographic within the Internet, not the Internet at-large. Although the exact definition may still be open to discussion, the term digital natives encompasses far more people than those whom we – for lack of a better term – would call geeks. In includes Kyle, who figured out how to connect a computer to IRC in 1st grade, and me, who’s never gone on IRC, and my roommate, who’s never heard of IRC. In short, it includes a generation of young people who have grown up immersed in this digital technology, be it cellphones, iPods, YouTube, or Facebook.

Related posts:
No Boys Allowed
“Digital Natives” Under Attack

– Sarah Zhang