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Facebook Stalking: The News Feed as Digital Dossier

In September, 2006, Facebook users revolted. The debut of the News Feed—a feature that allowed users to “get a quick view of what their friends are up to, including relationship changes, groups joined, pictures uploaded, etc., in a streaming news format.” (via) Thousands of students joined a Facebook group dedicated to protesting the News Feed. College students denounced the feature as “stalkerish.” An uproar; a measured response from Facebook. Privacy features. Fine-grained controls. The uproar quieted. And people got used to the News Feed. In fact, it’s now hard to imagine life on Facebook without it.

This story is not new. Two years later, the anecdote is already a classic case study in the fraught user dynamics that can plague social networks. In fact, I’m pretty sure I heard this very story outlined at one of Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It book talks. The story usually ends with the News Feed prevailing against the apparent odds. And that’s a fine ending. But given this week’s topic—which I’ll get to in a minute—it’s worth going back to the beginning, and asking: what dissonance provoked the uproar in the first place?

Prior to September, 2006, Facebook was largely static. Students would update their profiles with their latest favorite bands, or change their relationship status after a bad breakup, or switch their profile picture to something a little more flattering. But no one would know about those changes unless they visited your page. The changes, in fact, weren’t even indicated as such. (I’m fairly confident that the yellow highlights on new information were only introduced later.) In order to glean what was new—literally, what was newsworthy—from a friend’s profile page, you would need to visit the page frequently enough to remember what used to be there. And visiting someone’s page frequently enough for that became affectionately known as “Facebook stalking.” You might admit to your friends that you were “Facebook stalking” your crush, but you would think long and hard before admitting to your crush that you were Facebook stalking him. It was a cloaked world. News still traveled fast, and still reached the people who mattered…as long as they were checking your Facebook profile regularly enough. But it was hard to acknowledge that newfound knowledge in any sort of meaningful way: to do so, to introduce its content to a conversation, would be to admit that you were a little too interested.

Enter the News Feed. It’s been compared to 19th-century society pages, and I think there’s something to that. A reporter circulates through town, picking up on shards of gossip and announcing marriages. Announcing, even, who went to high tea at whose house. Except it’s the 21st century, and it’s Facebook, and instead of marriages, there are “It’s Complicateds.” And instead of high teas, there are hectic parties, documented via grainy cell phone pictures. And the silent reporter, slipping through town? She’s a bot. A bot who knows everything.

From this sidelong sketch, some concerns emerge. If Facebook’s News Feed algorithm is the silent reporter, then where’s her tact? You never told a reporter your secrets, after all. They just came to light (when you posted them to your Facebook profile, or someone else posted a picture of the previous night’s revelry), and the reporter relentlessly found them. Distressing, to say the least.

And now, finally, this week’s topic: dossiers. I wanted to lead off with a discussion of Facebook, since of all the repositories on the Internet, Facebook is the single destination that most resembles a comprehensive dossier for many Digital Natives. As I approached this week’s theme, though, I realized that I wasn’t 100% clear on what, exactly, a dossier was. I knew it referred to a collection of personal information, but I wasn’t sure what other connotations the term “dossier” had. Fortunately, Wikipedia came to the rescue, with the following definition:

A dossier is typically a briefing paper based on an individual of interest in police or intelligence circles. They generally contain a relevant biography, most current information on activities and any special information of interest to the agency, such as having training in various specialized fields i.e. (assassination techniques or money laundering contacts). When the target in question has retired or died, or is of no further interest, the dossier is generally filed away for reference. If the information contained inside, or the identity of the person is too sensitive, the dossier is destroyed along with all records of it.

I found this definition both illuminating and troubling. The term “dossier,” far from being neutral, actually implies some sort of surveillance—a suspicion of future wrongdoing, documentation in support of future prosecution. Is “dossier,” then, even an appropriate term for the collections of personal information amassed on Facebook?

It is and it isn’t. It isn’t true, for instance, that every Facebook profile is the object of suspicion and active surveillance. Moreover, these “briefing papers”—profiles plus Mini-Feeds—are constructed not by secret agents, but by the subjects of the briefings themselves.

There is, however, an element of apparent surveillance in play. And it is that element, I would argue, that provoked the Facebook uproar in the first place. The silent, algorithmic reporter—who, until September 2006, had been hiding in the shadows—finally announced her presence. Students felt exposed. Worse: they felt surveilled.

So what changed? Where did the uproar go? Students realized, I think, that they could take this algorithmic reporter into their confidences, and feed her headlines. With such an intermediary at their disposal, they no longer had to take responsibility for their own self-promotion. They acquired, as I wrote elsewhere in a piece on the differences between Facebook and Twitter, the “illusion of absolution”:

I think what’s so striking about this social signaling in Twitter is that it’s imbued with intentionality. On Facebook, when you do something or friend someone or post on someone’s wall, Facebook just reports it; the “hey, look at me” is automated. Therefore, the person who wants to be looked at is absolved of responsibility, vanity, or attention-seeking. Twitter is all about self-reporting, and so that all-important illusion of absolution is whisked away.

Enabling this new cozy relationship with the algorithmic reporter on Facebook, of course, was the introduction of fine-grained privacy controls on Facebook. Privacy controls—to mute relationship changes, or friend additions, or comments on other people’s Walls—allowed each student to whisper certain things “off the record.” The reporter, in these situations, might kiss. But she would never, ever tell.

And so, Facebook users turned the police blotter into the society pages. One thing I hope this sketch makes clear, though, is that the opportunities were there from the very beginning. What could you do with publicly acknowledged social omniscience? How many small-talk-athons could you skip if you already knew all the relevant news, and your friends knew you knew it, too? With all of its dangers, pleasures, and opportunities: this is the world that many Digital Natives live in today.

Constructing our realities through different channels available on the Internet.

Among the various courses I am taking at the University of São Paulo this semester, “Discourse” has a lot of interesting ideas that can be connected to discussions pertaining to DNs. In the text A social theory of discourse, Norman Fairclough (1992) defines discourse as “a mode of action, one form in which people may act upon the world and especially upon each other, as well as a mode of representation. Discourse is a practice of … signifying the world, constituting and constructing the world in meaning”.

This definition made me wonder how this concept can be applied to the practices that are taking place on the Internet. How do online tools enable users to represent themselves through different types of discourses? More than that, how can DNs’ interactions on the Internet be affected by these new possibilities?

One important topic of Born Digital refers to identity and issues related to the way the Internet is being used to propagate small bits of personal information in the form of videos, blog posts, pictures, etc. So, if Fairclough states that through the practice of discourse we are constructing our world in meaning, the Internet offers new channels of discourse through which new types of manifestations will emerge. What seems like just a few years ago, if you wanted to learn anything about me, you had to rely on a simple ID with my photo and basic information. Now, if you want to learn more about me, all you need to do is google my name. From this, you can learn about activities I have partaken in such as university projects and jobs, and you can even access pictures of me, especially if you are part of a shared social network such as Facebook, Orkut, or LinkedIn.

These different online tools allow me to propagate specific discourses about myself depending on their use, whether as social, professional, or any other kind of network. For example, I use Orkut to connect with friends as a fellow Brazilian, I use Facebook to connect with friends internationally. Alternate to a social network, LinkedIn allows me to expose my professional side, defined by my work experience, education, and the conferences I have attended. Ultimately, the Internet allows new types of channels through which we are signifying ourselves, our identities.

So, what are the consequences of these new ways of signifying ourselves, of fragmenting our identities in small portions and publishing it throughout the Internet? In Born Digital, Palfrey and Gasser refer to the importance of social identity, which is “undergoing a makeover at the hands of Digital Natives”. They note:

(…) the disclosure of personal information – say, for instance, posting your hobbies online, or disclosing where you are living, or sharing information about your tastes in music – is intended to achieve certain goals. Those goals might include, for example, social approval, intimacy, or relief of distress, among other things. In the economic and business literature, other motivations have been explored. Benefits of online information disclosure might include saving money or time (as examples of extrinsic benefits when, for instance, ordering a book online and paying by credit card), or pleasure or altruism (as examples of intrinsic benefits). According to the disclosure decision models, individuals examine – as rational actors – whether the disclosure of information would indeed be a good strategy to achieve the respective goals in a given situation, and whether the expected benefits would outweigh the risks.

Blogs, social networks, home pages, etc “can be understood as means to develop and evolve their notions and levels of “self” and personal identity, respectively. On the other hand, the revelation of personal data on the Internet is closely connected with establishing group membership.

All that raises issues of privacy, security and control of information which sometimes seem to be suppressed by the euphoria surrouding the digital era.

It is important to take into consideration that although online tools are enabling Digital Natives to do more creative things based on their connections to a larger, more diverse network of the online sphere, other issues arise including that of privacy and security. It worries me to see that all this information, might always be floating somewhere around the Internet; and that it can be accessed some other time in our lives when that self representation is no longer convenient, funny, or desired.

– André Valle

Internet Draws Masses for ‘Silent Dance’ Experiment

In this week’s video, Diane Kimball and Sarah Zhang take us into the world of the “silent dance experiment” – a silent, synchronized dance party which, with the help of the Internet, drew throngs of people from all over Boston, the US, and the world to Faneuil Hall in Boston in February.

Such “flash mob” happenings have picked up in popularity over the last few years thanks to the publicity they have gained through blogs, online event pages, and most especially Facebook. Of the event in Boston, one site wrote, this “silent dance party involves a large group of people assembling at a given area on a pre-decided time. They mill around inconspicuously, and at the signal (in this case, an airhorn), insert their headphones into their ears, hit play on their portable music player and start dancing as passersbys confusingly look on as a swarm of people dance in silence.”

You can check out this hilarious, spontaneous production below:

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Enjoyed this video? Look out for more Reporters-in-the-Field productions every week.

In the News: When Private Identities Go Public

One thing that irks me – rightly or wrongly – is when news reports cite a MySpace profile as a source of information. Usually, it’s the local news trying to dig up information on a suddenly news-worthy person without making the effort of a phone call. When it comes to national politics, though, the stakes are higher. Most recently, potentially detrimental quotes from the MySpace profile of Levi Johnson, the father of Republican VP nominee Sarah Palin’s daughter’s baby, were making the rounds. The information was first posted in the New York Post, after which it quickly circulated through the blogosphere, and the information gleaned from the MySpace profile eventually found its way into mainstream media. A second example comes from last year’s Republican primaries. wrote a story about Rudy Giuliani’s daughter supporting Obama over her father based on a Facebook group that she joined.

Since I’m blogging here at Digital Natives, the political implication of these stories is not going to be my focus point. My aversion of this method of journalism, though, runs a little deeper than irritation at the violation of privacy. There’s just seems to me – perhaps even a bit irrationally I admit – that it’s wrong to thrust into the national spotlight people who have done nothing deserving of it except for their associations with other public figures. They’re being judged on content never intended for the eyes of anyone but their friends. A MySpace or even Facebook profile is far from private, but does that automatically make them appropriate sources for news? On the other hand, shouldn’t the children of politicians be savvier about what’s associated with their online profiles?

One of my coworkers this summer had remarked to me, “I try to keep everything on my Facebook pretty PC – when you’re friends with 200 people, you have to be pretty careful.” Although 200 friends on Facebook is not an especially remarkable number—particularly to a college student like me, whose peers are all constantly plugged in – my coworker’s remarks forced me to reframe my point of view. 200 people, each with their different opinions, sensibilities, and ideas, truly is a lot of people to possibly offend. Even as someone who is careful about what I attach my name to online, I wouldn’t have to dig very deep to find something potentially embarrassing or offensive to someone.

So why aren’t we more careful about what is posted online? After all, our digital identities are carefully crafted to reflect ourselves in some specific light, if not an objectively “better” one. In the New York Times Magazine article, “I’m So Totally, Digitally Close to You” (which Diana also cited in her entry yesterday), Clive Thompson writes of this paradox:

Young people today are already developing an attitude toward their privacy that is simultaneously vigilant and laissez-faire. They curate their online personas as carefully as possible, knowing that everyone is watching — but they have also learned to shrug and accept the limits of what they can control.

I do have a quibble with Thompson’s wording: somewhere in the back of our heads we may know that it’s possible “everyone is watching,” but our digital identities are not created for the purpose of exhibition to everyone. How many teenagers are comfortable with their parents or teachers or even a random stranger friending them on MySpace or Facebook or Twitter? Our digital identities are constructed for our peers – be it our real life friends or a specific online community. We strive to present ourselves as unique and opinionated to our peers. A bland profile is as good as no profile at all. Genuine interactions with friends are uncensored by concerns of political correctness, sanitizing these interactions online in fact changes the function of social networking tools. Just as we carry ourselves differently at a job interview than when hanging out with friends, our digital identities are tuned to a specific purpose. The distinction, of course, being that what is posted online can potentially be accessible, per Clive Thompson, by everyone. Those who have been thrust into the spotlight, like Levi Johnson and Caroline Giuliani, have learned this the hard way.

-Sarah Zhang

“Avatardentity”: Digital Natives and Self-Writing

Though my writing for the Digital Natives blog went into hibernation over the summer, I quickly discovered that I couldn’t stop thinking about all the things we talk about here every week: creativity online, safety, communication, activism. More than anything, though, I could not stop thinking about online identity. In the middle of the summer, I posted to my personal blog an essay I wrote last spring, titled Algorithms and Avatars, or: What I’ve Learned So Far. In it, I explored the paradox of “building” authentic online identity:

We build up our personal online identities, in large part, through the detritus we automatically leave behind: pictures we wanted others to see, articles we wanted others to read. Online identity is a very weird idea. It hinges on faith in honesty: if identity implies authenticity, then the information that helps to construct it cannot be false. But online identities are definitely constructed in other ways. They constitute the internet’s built environment: the structures we can see and study, and whose construction we can interrogate for meaning and consequence. These structures are in some ways completely under the owner’s control, and in others complete out of it.

For instance, I control what information appears on my website and my personal Facebook page. I select and monitor the information that appears in those places, religiously. But I do not control the words and pictures that other people post. If those things have my name—my textual name—attached, then they become part of the constellation of my online identity. If a search engine can find a piece of information and associate it with my name, it suddenly reflects on me. My name is my keyword: it unlocks the floodgates to my online identity. Keywords and passwords are worth thinking about. We are putting an awful lot of stock in words.

But no matter how much stock we are putting into words, we are slyly putting even more into static photographs and grainy videos. In one of my spring classes, Constructing Reality: Photography as Fact and Fiction, we often talked about the presumed indexical quality of photographs: that they represent a real person, a real moment, and a real photographer’s proximity to that moment. Though a generation of Photoshop users surely must know to be skeptical of the content of photographs, still something tugs at our faith when we see human faces rendered flat. We both suffer from and depend upon that faith when we perceive and produce our online avatars.

These online avatars comprise words and pictures. Sometimes, as in Second Life, the avatars are full-blown—illusory three-dimensional human-form characters, constructed in online avatar engines. Choosing your hair color, gender, and clothing are recognized to be self-creative acts: they need not correspond directly to physical reality, but are rather allowed to exist metaphorically. Second Life avatars are accepted to be fictional fronts for inner realities, the executors of ideal “second lives” in a fantasy world. Facebook profiles, on the contrary, exist in a subversive fantasy world, masquerading as a mirror of reality. By tethering profiles to a real-world college environment from the beginning, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg set the stage for an assumption of unstudied authenticity. Real names, real phone numbers, real photographs, real addresses: the world of Facebook is a world that supposedly resists deception.

And yet, Facebook cannot resist the management that goes into curating an online identity. In one study, researchers found that about 10% of teenagers who are unhappy with their real-life appearances are happy with their online appearances. This happiness, I have to believe, comes in large part from the ability to select and manipulate photographs so as to place the subject “in the best light.” A Facebook avatar is really just that: a museum of presumed real-world artifacts, curated so as to cast their star in the best light possible. This concept of “best light” is no mistake: it comes straight out of the tradition of glamour photography. Online identity management, then, is something like glamour curation. It is a skill at which millions of teenagers (and adults) are quickly becoming expert. Ironically, though, most of the photos that make it through the curation process are snapshots taken with harsh flash in nighttime social settings. The indexical quality of the photographs—where you were, with whom, wearing what—is more important than their composition. Social glamour, on a fundamentally text-based internet, is almost as important visual glamour.

Thanks to a few lucky links and some very smart writers, this essay ended up threading its way into a larger online conversation about identity. Tony Delgrosso weighed in with an essay on what he termed “Avatardentity,” writing:

It’s my general belief that the person we “put ourselves out there” as online is, phenomenonally speaking, no different than the person we would have put ourselves out there as 20, 30, or even 50 years ago. Yes, the tools are there to handcraft a virtual personality for ourselves, but I don’t see how it’s all that different than what people have always done to make the same impressions; the effort to craft an impression of “us” has simply shifted to a different kind of community and in-crowd. Today we are no more the sum of the things we choose to put on Flickr, Twitter, blogs, etc. than we were the sum of our shiny DeSoto and Cape Cod house and electric range and picket fence in 1954. Same rules, same desires to “be” a certain person, different means of projecting an image. So despite our newfound ability to shape our online self—our “avatardentity”, if you will—we’ve always been shaping ourselves.

The methods we use to judge the authenticity of a person online versus in person do get a bit more involved, I’ll admit; the line between truth and fiction is much less pronounced. It’s more difficult to engage with people and participate in communities of interest when we’re always uncertain who is being “authentic” and who is simply playing a role. But I’m confident that most people sophisticated enough to participate and be accepted into many of those communities have pretty good instincts, and don’t tend to misread the boundaries of sarcasm, personal truth, and outright fiction. I also believe the next generation of people to have spent the entirety of their lives cultivating an online persona will be even better equipped to function in that space; kids today have the best bullshit detectors of all. They have to.

It’s worth highlighting two points from Tony’s essay. The first is that we’ve always curated museums of self. It’s just that these museum’s didn’t contain “presumed real-world artifacts”; they contained real artifacts, full-stop. The second is that Digital Natives, “kids today” will have to be even better equipped to read the “boundaries of sarcasm, personal truth, and outright fiction.” That skill is sometimes shorthanded as “media literacy,” but I think the need goes deeper than that. From a very young age, Digital Natives will need to learn how each of the component parts of online identity—words, pictures, even search histories—can be constructed. How each component part is manipulable, and how often individuals manipulate them.

A few days before Tony wrote his post, Jason Gingold addressed some of the same issues, emphasizing that the internet as a catalog of action tends to trend toward truth:

I think we grow into our authenticity. I think time is the great seeker in the game of identity hide and seek. It will always find us. We might begin our venture into the social networking world with the idea that we will become someone or something we wish for ourselves. But the more time we spend online, the more messages we write, pictures we share, dialogs we have, comments we make, the greater the chance that our true selves take over where the guise of a persona falters. The more we become certain of ourselves as individuals, the easier it becomes to maintain consistency of character. Or the more of our true feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and opinions become revealed to the communities we enter.

I find this idea fascinating—that since online identities are composed of a catalog of actions, the online consistent self that can emerge is the one closest to the truth.

A recent New York Times Magazine article, in fact, addressed this very thing: the self-portraits that emerge over time, the soft pulse of an online identity being constantly updated; refreshed. Titled “I’m So Totally, Digitally Close to You,” the article explored the idea of ambient awareness:

This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating. The ambient information becomes like “a type of E.S.P.,” as Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life.

Since we’ll be talking about identity all week, I wanted to loop in some of the ideas and issues I’ve been grappling with in that arena. One final provocation, though, is the idea of the log vs. the wiki. Any catalog-like format—blogs, Twitter, Flickr—provides a sense of time, and therefore an implication of change over time. By seeing the trajectory of posts in these places, it is possible to develop not only a mental portrait of another person’s identity, but also an “ambient awareness” of their daily habits and their path of change over time. Authoritative documents, on the contrary—like MySpace, Facebook, and other profile-based sites—act like the front page of a wiki, the page that comes before the list of changes. It is always current, therefore hiding its own course of evolution.

How do you construct your online identity, or identities? What methods have you seen that you respect? What methods make you suspicious? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

One final reminder: starting tomorrow, on September 23 and 24, Harvard Law School will be hosting the Internet Safety Technical Task Force (ISTTF) Open Meeting. We hope to meet many of you there!

Technology, Digital Natives and How to Connect Them Safely.

Reading through Diana’s post yesterday I noticed that many of my previously considered topics were present in her ideas: cyberbullying, the role of parents in controlling Digital Natives’ access to the Internet, the ideal extent of this control, the abuses it might reach, etc. Although I’m in Brazil and Diana is in North America, we as Digital Natives ultimately experience similar issues concerning safety in the online sphere.

With a simple google search, one can find multitudes of sites which list parents’ concerns regarding their young Digital Natives and Internet safety. Here in Brazil, I found websites regarding how to make computers safer for youth, how many parents are becoming virtual spies of their own children, and legislation which suggests various types of Internet monitoring..

These concerns are sometimes supported by frightening stories that exemplify negative use of the Internet. I myself have such a story:

In Brazil, Orkut is “the” networking website. While initially, users were only granted access through an invite, Orkut later changed its policy to admit anyone who wanted to join. Ultimately, the site picked up in popularity and users began using its tools to connect to other people, and publish photographs and personal information, including about family members. Unlike Facebook, Orkut initially did not have privacy tools to block users from accessing such personal information.

Around this time, we began to hear news stories about people who received false calls which ended up being money scams. The calls were meant to fake kidnappings and force parents to make money transactions in order to release a hypothetically kidnapped relative. Parents, mine included, started ordering their children to erase all pictures and personal information from the Internet, and Google almost shut down Orkut in Brazil due to crimes that were happening through the website.

All that naturally brings us to a discussion about how Internet safety policies are often built upon fears of occurrences such as the one described above. While we think of ways to improve the Internet safety for Digital Natives, we often simultaneously forfeit other rights, such as privacy.

According to Born Digital, “the introduction of the Internet as a mass medium, and one that is particularly alluring to young people, has given rise” to a generalized fear of what is being done on this mean of communication. “Our challenge is to parse out which of these fears are worth worrying about, and then to figure out how to deal with them. At the same time, we need to resist the temptation to reach for simplistic, politically expedient solutions that will do more harm than good.”

One important topic lately discussed in Brazil that exemplifies a “politically expedient solution” is a law project on cybercrimes created by Senator Azeredo that has been voted to be approved. The “Digital Crimes Bill”, which aims to punish 13 new cybercrimes has gained mass opposition from the online community which claims that it is not only an invasion of privacy but impedes on the right to free speech. Such an initiative attempts to justify a trade-off of privacy for safety, as Palfrey and Gasser note in Born Digital.

Digital Natives’ safety has undoubtedly raised some concerns, especially among parents: What are these youths being exposed to on the Internet? With whom are they chatting? How do we prevent Digital Natives from accessing harmful content? Most importantly, to what extent are we willing to give up our privacy for safety?

– André Valle

Put the Tools to Work: Parents Teaching Parents

Last week, I wrote that the ultimate goal of Born Digital and the Digital Natives Project is to facilitate better conversations between students and the adults who care about them. This is true. But what if the conversations are not forthcoming? What can adults then do to inform themselves; to better fortify the safety of the Digital Natives in their lives?

The answer is simple: put the tools to work. Talk to each other.

Tripping through links this week, I encountered a 2007 article about schoolyard harassment moving online. The article was good, but the comments were the real highlight of the article. Parents used the article’s comment section as an ad-hoc forum, sharing strategies and revealing concerns. One parent outlined her own efforts, writing:

I am a mom and a middle school teacher. I struggle at home to teach my own boys to be kind and also try to be a role model for my kids at school. Personal responsibility is a difficult thing to teach. It’s a constant struggle, but one that will be well worth it in the long run. I am always looking for new information to take to school and will definitely be ordering some new books before the start of the new school year!

The reasoning is clear; the intentions are boundlessly good. I particularly admired this parent’s resolution to “order some new books before the start of the school year,” since parenting Digital Natives is a challenge to be approached like any other: through investigation, contemplation, and conversation. Another parent drew parallels between cyberbullying and more familiar bullying scenarios, writing that:

My daughter, now 29, was the victim of bullying behavior and it still brings tears to her eyes when we discuss this issue. She was very small in early elementary and that’s when the bullying started by a girl from an emotionally abusive home. This is not a new issue, but tremendously facilitated by technology. Parents MUST be educated about the effect of cyberbullying, and must monitor use. We hope to start programs on Internet Safety at our PTO’s this year.

Her observation that “this is not a new issue, but tremendously facilitated by technology” is one of the core arguments of Born Digital: the problems aren’t new, they’ve just accelerated. The intention to “start programs on Internet Safety at our PTOs this year” reveals the beginnings of more persistent conversations among parents about the challenges facing Digital Natives. Though these programs will prove to be echo chambers without some sense from the Digital Natives themselves on “what’s really going on,” parents can only bolster their knowledge and arsenal of strategies by sharing information with one another. This can occur in forums, in comment threads, on email lists, or even in “real life,” in forums such as PTOs.

There’s another advantage to all of this. When parents and educators use digital tools to communicate about something deeply salient to all of them—the safety of the young people in their lives—something happens in the background. They learn about the tools themselves, almost without trying. This is the world that Digital Natives live in: the tools are secondary to the message. The tools are what you use to have the conversation. When you have a reason to use a message board, or a commenting system, all of a sudden these tools aren’t impenetrable intergenerational obstacles. They’re just simple, elegant, lightning-fast ways to share information. Whether that information is about cyberbullying or Hannah Montana, media literacy or Club Penguin, doesn’t matter so much in the end. What matters is that, by sharing it, you all of a sudden know more than you ever did before.

What tools do you use? What forums do you learn from? We would love to hear about your strategies in the comments!

And, a quick and exciting reminder: next week, on September 23 and 24, Harvard Law School will be hosting just such an information-sharing forum: the Internet Safety Technical Task Force (ISTTF) Open Meeting. We hope to meet many of you there, and look forward to continuing the conversation! a conversation with blogger Qin Zhi Lau

Rest your eyes — we’re going audio-only this week. Digital Natives reporter Nikki Leon chatted online with Qin Zhi Lau, a second-year Princeton student who runs the blog in his spare time. Although the blog started as a side project for QZ (as he’s sometimes called), it’s become a small-scale hub for English-speaking fans of Asian music. In this interview, QZ gives insight into what it’s like to manage an online community and how being a digital native has shaped his view of the world.

Listen here:

Come back each Wednesday for more multimedia on Digital Natives issues!

When To Let Go: Negotiating Parental Controls

Although a digital native by any criteria, I am often finding myself out of touch with the even younger generation. I learned to read long before I learned to type. But this younger generation is making Internet buddies before they can talk and playing Tetris online before they can read. Two recent incidents made me feel like an old fuddy-duddy. First, there was the New York Times article linked above, about parents creating profiles for their babies on social networking sites such as Second, I returned home this summer to find my six-year-old brother entirely engrossed in playing Webkinz.

As children begin using the Internet at younger and younger ages, parental concerns about safety have become more prescient. An eight-year-old is naturally going to approach the Internet with more naiveté than a preteen. How do parents navigate these shifting waters? What responsibilities do websites aimed at young children have for their safety?

The most popular websites for children have addressed the issue of safety head on. Chat on Webkinz, which I played around with alongside my brother, only allows a preprogrammed list of questions such as, “Which Clubhouse room is your favorite” in the KinzChat Area or filters all messages through a dictionary excluding numbers, proper nouns and inappropriate language. (KinzChat Plus Area). The oft-mentioned Club Penguin, a virtual world where players interact with each other as penguins, has similar safety features in its chatrooms.

But Webkinz and Club Penguin are most popular among the younger set. More problematic is when children reach an age when they are not only more eager to shake off parental supervision but also savvy enough to do so. Emily Yoffe, in “What Kids Like to Do Online – A Slate Investigation,” found that several sixth graders were underwhelmed by Club Penguin because advanced access to the site required a fee of $5.95 per month or $57.95 per year fee, involving money and of course, parents.

All the kids had enough insight into economics and psychology to know that asking their parents would not only get a “No” but draw undue attention to their leisure activities. “I only do what’s free, but you get bored quickly,” Anna said

Although the sample size of this Slate survey was small and entirely unscientific, it sheds light on the general attitudes of preteens toward Internet safety and parental involvement. A 2007 “Safer Internet for Children” study by the European Commission surveyed boys and girls 9 to 10 years old and 12 to 14 years old in 29 European countries. All of the children were well aware of the dangers on the Internet, from viruses to pornographic sites to bullying. Striking, though not really surprising, is their attitudes toward parental involvement.. A lack of technological know-how on the part of parents is often cited as a reason kids prefer not to get them involved. “My parents don’t teach me, I teach them!” was the response of one boy in the European Commission study. And parental involvement is important, but they are not the sole gatekeepers

Parents are of course privileged informers, but they are sometimes perceived as excessively
protective, which can lead, among some, to relatively intrusive behaviour or behaviour perceived
as such (checking of the websites consulted, checking of e-mails) and hence a loss of privacy and
self-censorship. In this respect, children’s peers, classmates, friends and brothers and sisters
are interlocutors who are sought out more readily.

So as important as it is to monitor the activities of their children though, it’s also important not to over monitor. Drawing upon my own experience, I’d agree with that. While doing online research for a school project on witchcraft in fifth grade, I stumbled across a web site with a warning page cautioning that the content was not appropriate for children under the age of 16. I immediately went to my parents to ask permission. What my father did was launch into an angry lecture about Internet use, cut off my Internet access for a week, and demand a meeting with my teacher. I understand my parents’ concern, but my fifth-grade self found the episode completely embarrassing. Their reaction – overreaction I’d argue even now, I had gone to them after all – made me reluctant to ever ask them for permission online again. Whereas I used to ask permission every time I logged on (dial-up with limited hours – those good ol’ days), I began sneaking online after school.

Although this tug and pull regarding privacy between parents and children is natural in the process of growing up – a friend was recently complaining that her father had friended her on Facebook – parents don’t need to stand by helplessly. The key, and also the goal of the Born Digital book, is to foster a dialogue among parents and children and educators and policymakers. Internet use is yet another facet in the tricky job of parenting. The safety of younger children can be regulated by restricting and monitoring Internet use, but older children will eventually demand more freedom and privacy. How do we make this transition? I obviously write this post from the perspective of a child (though an fairly old child), so I would be interested in hearing parents weigh in!

-Sarah Zhang

Internet Safety Technical Task Force (ISTTF) Meeting Coming Up Next Week

Next week, on September 23rd and 24th, the Berkman Center will host a day and a half-long public meeting of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force (ISTTF) at Harvard Law School.

Created in February 2008, the ISTTF is a group of Internet businesses, non-profit organizations, academics, and technology companies that have joined together to identify effective tools and technologies to create a safer environment on the Internet for youth. This meeting will be an opportunity for members of the public to learn about the work of the Task Force, to explore the different technology-related problems and solutions under consideration, and to raise questions and share ideas. (For an example of ISTTF’s work, watch this video on “Teens Online, Stranger Contact, and Cyberbullying”.)

The meeting will conclude on Wednesday, Sept. 24th with an open discussion of the technologies presented on the previous day. For more information on this event and how to participate, check out the Berkman website here.