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Hub of the University: Searching for HarvardLife Online

On Wednesday April 1, 2009, the cool, blue color scheme of was tinted a more familiar shade of crimson. “That’s right, TuftsLife is now HarvardLife,” announced a banner the homepage, “With the main developers involved in TuftsLife transferring to Harvard, today we completed phase one of the transition to our new home. We are excited about the potential that our new Ivy League home brings to HarvardLife.”

A Tufts friend alerted me to the change, and we had a good laugh over the April Fool’s joke at both Tufts’ and Harvard’s expense. The developers did quite a thorough job with the “changeover,” replacing links to Tufts webmail with Harvard’s and adding Veritas crests everywhere. (Unfortunately, I didn’t get to snag a screenshot before April Fool’s ended. If anyone has one squirreled away, please do send it over to!) But it also got me puzzling, why isn’t there a HarvardLife? Why don’t we have such a useful site for students? Can the developers transfer over to Harvard for real?

TuftsLife is so useful because it pulls together all the information you need for, well, life at Tufts: announcements, events calendar, news, dining hall menu, academic resources, bus tracker, textbook swap, carpool board, etc. The same information for Harvard, on the other hand, is spread through ten different websites and is terribly unnavigable. In my frustration, I’ve consolidated all these websites as icons on a toolbar but there are still times when I’m frantically clicking around finding the exact room request form I need to. TuftsLife, in contrast to the diffuse network of Harvard resources, exists as a kind of hub of student activity; for many students, it’s their homepage and the announcements page is always worth a perusal. TuftsLife is also an entirely student run enterprise.

So where is the heart of Harvard’s online community? To be fair, I should point out there is, a portal that, in spirit, shoots for the same goals, but its clunky interface and university-wide rather than undergraduate life focus makes it an underused resource among students. When I waxed poetic to a friend about the student initiative that led to TuftsLife, a friend promptly replied, “Facebook?” Oh right, Facebook. Well Facebook’s kind of a tricky to fit in here. For one, it’s become increasingly less Harvard-centric, college-centric, or even network-centric over the past few years, as network pages have been completely phased out. It is also a primarily social network that connects you with people you already know, or at least sort of know. TuftsLife, on the other hand, is a school-wide bulletin board for student group events, marketplace exchanges, and announcements.

At Harvard – in my own experience anyway – the first place you go if you want eyeballs reading is quite haphazard and crude: email. Whether it’s about the German table you’re organizing or the physics textbook you want to sell or the survey you need 50 people to take for your thesis, open email lists, mostly by undergraduate house but also various student groups, are the way to go. For what it’s worth, it is effective enough yet seems somewhat outdated. While there have been attempts to pull together event information, it has never reached a critical mass of users to become comprehensive, and the current events calendar is dominated by department seminars and varsity sports games, lacking a lively addition of student group events.

Computer Science 50, the introductory CS class at Harvard, has been breeding ground to many useful and amusing student projects over the years. A select few recent ones are available in an “apps store,” but I am waiting a little hopefully for an ambitious student to pull everything together into sometime like TuftsLife.

Aside from convenience, such a hub will go a ways toward fostering a sense of cohesiveness in the student community. In the same way that the Harvard campus lacks a physical student center, it also lacks a digital one. It’s not everyone should be forced to participate, but that anyone who chooses to can. At a school of 6500 undergraduates, student life can incredibly fragmentary, and there is no central hub to find out what’s going on even if you want to. So, to improving HarvardLife!

Disagree? Sound off in the comments. I definitely don’t speak for every Harvard undergraduate and there is undoubtedly a range of experiences here. And if there’s some nifty service I’m missing out on, I’d be more than grateful to learn about it.

-Sarah Zhang

Intense Togetherness: Paper, Screens, and Reading

Screens aren’t paper: obvious, but intensely forgettable. Since I’ve found my way into a very odd class this semester—an investigation of paper as technology—I’ve been remembering this more often.

Early Sunday evening, my dad and I got lost in Allston. More than once, I subtly blamed this occurrence on my sadly un-smart phone. (“If only I had an iPhone, this never would have happened!…”) As we walked along, stepping gingerly over sidewalks covered in icy craters, I thought about the conversation we’d had earlier in the day about the special qualities of paper. Though I feel a certain fondness for paper, the list I generated was nowhere near as extensive as his, which included the following advantages:

-Can go from having a very small surface area (perfect for tucking way) to having a very large surface area (unfolded, perfect for reading.)
-Disposable, or at least easily replaceable. (Unlike the devices we casually carry around, worth hundreds or thousands of dollars each.)
-Pleasantly tactile. Also, easy to view in daylight.

Though this topic has a lot to do with the class I happen to be taking right now, it also has everything to do with a bigger question: what comes next? With the news swirling around these days—imminent death of newspapers, the impending arrival of the new Kindle model, and the constant intrigue of Digital Natives and how in the world they get their information—the showdown between screens and paper is here.

Last week, Sarah wrote about one vector of this situation—the Kindle, and the question of whether it’s convenient or too convenient. Sarah ended up concluding that the lo-fi impulse is worth following, at least on occasion. But here’s what I’m wondering: will Digital Natives twenty-plus years younger than us even have a lo-fi impulse?

One clue comes from an article by the excellent Virginia Heffernan, whom Sarah also cited. Heffernan, sitting down with her 3-year-old son to “read” an e-book via laptop, is confronted by her son’s acute awareness of the screen-paper divide. The story finished, her son remarkes that “It’s not a book…It’s more like a movie or a video.” Heffernan realizes, then, that “My immersion in the Kindle is not (to him) an example of impressive role-model literacy. It’s Mom e-mailing, or texting, or for all he knows playing video games.” The activity of “reading,” for her son, is tied to intense togetherness: something he already senses and understands. “Reading” is when you set everything else aside, remove distractions, and spend quality time in each other’s presence. Bringing a device back into the picture is more than counter-productive; it’s nonsensical.

With the advent of RSS readers and Twitter and Tumblr, I’ve found a universe of to-do lists that, at last, I can actually make progress on. When all that’s required to check something off the list is to read it, then that—that’s something I can do. And usually it is what I do, first, before anything else. The satisfaction of accomplishing something (anything) is often enough to carry me forward into whatever task comes next. Just as often, though, it’s enough to pull me under into the ocean of information that the internet harbors.

Like Sarah, I’ve been trying to take time for lo-fi. The more I try to read on paper, though, the more I find I still yearn toward the connectedness I feel on the screen. For me, as a hyperdigital college student, Twitter and Facebook are the places where my far-flung friends and I “make time for each other.” When I read a sentence that strikes me, whether on paper or on the screen, I can’t help but want to share the moment. Heffernan and her son sit on the couch together, reading picture books; I sit in my dorm room, reading about typography and catching myself reaching out to my keyboard.

Screens and paper, and the possibilities and constraints behind them, lend themselves to different architectures of experience. The information we pull in has a great deal to do with what we’re thinking; what we’re thinking has everything to do with who we are. To share that with one another seems vital; the technology that enables it, incidental.

iPhone on the Brain: Technology and the Extended Mind

Like Diana, I too am in the middle finals week. But as a science major, I am mired exams instead of papers, and my brain has been clutter of symbols and numbers — amino acid structures, Fourier series, formulas galore! With this memorization frenzy, the Extended Mind hypothesis is sounding mighty attractive.

David Chalmers and Andy Clark’s paper on The Extended Mind was first published in 1998, but a more recent interview in The Philosopher’s Magazine where Chalmers alludes to the iPhone has brought their ideas into discussion again. The Extended Mind essentially states that the technology we utilize can be seen as extensions of out minds. In Chalmers’ own words:

A whole lot of my cognitive activities and my brain functions have now been uploaded into my iPhone. It stores a whole lot of my beliefs, phone numbers, addresses, whatever. It acts as my memory for these things. It’s always there when I need it…I have a list of all of my favorite dishes at the restaurant we go to all the time in Canberra. I say, OK, what are we going to order? Well, I’ll pull up the iPhone – these are the dishes we like here. It’s the repository of my desires, my plans. There’s a calendar, there’s an iPhone calculator, and so on. It’s even got a little decision maker that comes up, yes or no.

Of course, it’s not only trendy gadgets made by Apple that can become part of our minds. My humble non-touchscreen cell phone has freed my actual brain from memorizing phone numbers. Perhaps a little sadly, I’ve often referred to my own Facebook profile when asked about my favorite bands or movies. Even the paper notebook where I scribbled my math notes can be thought of as an extension of my mind. (Try that argument during an exam!)

When I shut down my personal blog during freshman year of college – goodbye to high school rambling – I made the leap to a less ambitious enterprise, a tumblr. In another way though, this was more ambitious because in the description I settled upon, my proclaimed goal was “Translating electrical impulses and molecular movements of the brain into words, images, and hypertext. Brain splatter, in byte-sized chunks!” I wanted to record the transient thoughts in my head – how successful I have been is debatable.

But it’s the effects of an extended digital mind that fascinates me. Through my delicious account, Google Reader, and tumblr, I’ve essentially outsourced the archives of my mind to an easily searchable, electronic database. This may sound a little cyborgian, but it’s also totally exploded the number of things I can “think” about. The infallible ability to search and find – no digital tip of the tongue– makes these archives seemingly more powerful than my brain. As technology becomes increasingly good at predicting what I like and making recommendations, it is more than just an archive.

At the same time, I think there is still value to memorization, if not necessarily the brute force kind. Just as the power of search eliminates the serendipity of a library or bookstore, a search engine can’t make the initially random but ultimately meaningful connections that our brains do. It can’t synthesize multiple streams of information or make metaphors between unrelated concepts. (In the hours pondering physics problem, I’ve come up with way too many metaphors of physical laws describing social interactions.) Technology can augment our minds, but as it stands now, certainly not replace it.

Hat tip to Mind Hacks and The Frontal Cortex

Further reading:
How Google is Making Us Smarter – Discover Magazine

-Sarah Zhang

Things to Make and Do: ‘Fresh Brain’ and the Community Conundrum

This week’s theme is creators, and it’s one of my favorites: I love thinking about the ways that incredibly simple tools empower young people (empower everyone, really) to create or comment upon art, and find their audiences, and grow as artists and critics. So yesterday, I plugged simple search terms into simple search engines—”mashups,” “teens,” and finally “teen video mashups.” The first link, out of 172,000, just happened direct me to project I can’t believe I’ve never heard of: Fresh Brain.

Setting aside its vaguely zombie-tastic name, Fresh Brain seems like an amazing venture. It’s a nonprofit aiming to “[enhance] the education and development of our youth in the areas of business and technology by providing hands-on real world experience.” via The site is still in beta, but it seems to be modeled as a sort of 21st-century digital manual on “Things to Make and Do.

Accordingly, Fresh Brain is divided into projects. In fact, the link I followed in the first place led me to a a single page for the “Teen Video Poetry Project.” The project instructions direct the teenager to “write a poem about something important to you, shoot or mashup video that relates to the poem, add your voice over reading the poem with optional music background and special sound effects.” Instead of projects requiring sewing machines and scrap paper and mounds of felt, today’s rainy-day activities encourage Digital Natives to explore digital tools and use them toward creative ends. It’s a great idea, and a great resource for parents, teachers, and students alike.

What I’d like to explore for a minute, though, is the relative quiet of the website as it currently stands. In spite of an entire section of Fresh Brain devoted to “Community,” the forums have been silent for over 7 weeks; the blog posts are sparse, and seem to come primarily from one or two people. Clearly, the staff of Fresh Brain recognize that half the fun of creation is showing your work to a big audience. And a “community,” however elusive that term may be, can provide that built-in audience—consider, for instance, YouTube. Fresh Brain is building a space, filling it with resources, and seeding it with good ideas. But nothing will happen there unless Digital Natives choose to spend their time on the site.

Ultimately, I don’t think that’s the most important thing here. I truly believe that Fresh Brain’s most important role is to provide a point of entry for Digital Natives who are ready to make the leap from consumer of digital content to creator. If the creations go elsewhere, filling up channels on YouTube and photostreams on Flickr, then that’s proof of success—not of failure. The goal of Fresh Brain, as far as I can tell, is to help teens grow and then to send them off into the world with a greater sense of their own creative agency. If the site is bare, that only indicates that people are by and large finding what they need. And that is a good thing; worth, even, the sacrifice of an engrossing and everpresent “community.” Sites that aim to make millions off of advertising are motivated to lock Digital Natives into walled gardens. Sites that aim to educate Digital Natives are motivated to let them leave as quickly as possible, equipped with new tools and a new sense of possibility.

If you do take a look at the site, we’d love to hear what you think. What project ideas would you add to the site? What do you think of the importance of “community” for creators? What things have you made and done online? 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!


According to the web-comic he posted online , Sean Travis Tevis was fed up with his anti-abortion, censorship promoting, anti-gay marriage, pro-intelligent design state representative, Arlen Siegfreid. Sean decided to run against him. He only needed 151 signatures to get on the ballot, but needed to raise $26,000 to run a decent campaign. So, like so many established and aspiring politicians today before him, he turned to the Internet.

But this plea for donations was different. Sean did not tap the “netroots,” (the left-leaning political blogosphere). Instead, he posted a simple website containing a web-comic telling his story. Using an Internet meme archetype to illustrate his absurd hometown political reality, he hit a nerve. Self-consciously designed utilizing simple xkcd-style stick-figures, and making a few quasi-insider-but-not-too-elitist geek references, he managed to simultaneously solicit outrage, empathy, and, most importantly, lots of donations.

Sean Travis 1

P.J. Huffstutter reported Sean’s story yesterday in the LA Times Huffstutter mentions Sean’s jokes about “down-modding” and “trolling.”, The story also identifies the stick-figure style as being based on the stick-figure illustrations found in xkcd, a popular web-comic by Randall Monroe (…an web-comic author who has somehow managed to earn a stylistic monopoly on stick figure drawings.) While Huffstutter describes the details accurately, I don’t think he realizes how significant these cultural touchstones are.

Sean is an insider of a growing internet sub-culture. By making quips about “down-modding” Arlen Siegfreid’s conservative ranting “below the thresh-hold” in the first frame of the comic, Sean is consciously proving himself to be an insider in a particular slice of a rich semantic web 2.0 / 3.0, social bookmaking, viral meme-generating online cultural space. Sean obviously lives in this space, as does his audience of donors. (Huffstutter’s style indicates that he is wading through at least somewhat unfamiliar territory in his LA Times article.) (Hang wrote this great post last week about masquerading as an insider not just by knowing a few facts, but by knowing the jokes and therefore demonstrating knowledge of the professional culture.)

This sub-culture is far larger and far more accessible than it ever was. The behaviors (and values?) of this space are going slightly more mainstream as a new generation of Digital Natives comes to occupy the space. Conversations and ideas that seem outlandish in suburbs across the nation have taken root online and drawn in new audiences through computer screens. These conversations have even leaked off the web into our newspapers, helping to make Al Gore a hero and Richard Dawkins culturally relevant.

By demonstrating that he is a cultural insider with this particular slice of internet-meme generating culture, Sean strikes a nerve that garners support on an emotional level. Sure, it helps that his politics agree with mine– but the cultural references in this comic signal more. Sean socializes the way I do, and derives pleasure from the things I derive pleasure from. Sean lives the way I do. The details of Sean’s politics aren’t important; Sean is -like me-, and therefore… of course Sean will fight for the things I would fight for.


This tactic, this emotional connection stemming from a feeling of likeness, has always been a powerful tool in politics. “That politician is a [religious group here], like me.” “That politician is a family man, like me.” “That politicians daddy was a coal-miner, and therefore worked as hard as my dad did.” “That politician speaks with a southern accent, like me.”

As a sub-culture becomes less insular and community grows, they realize that they actually have the power to create change.

Sean’s online culture has been testing the waters for a while now. In what has seemed like online mischief, they have used social networking sites to swarm news sites with precision timing to alter the results of online polls. In December, the whale adopted by Greenpeace was officially named Mr. Spashy Pants, the name that beat the runners up Humphrey, Aiko, Libertad, Mira, Kaimana, Aurora, Shanti, Amal and Manami with almost 80% of the vote. This particular community is also responsible for swarming countless MSNBC, ABC, and CNN online polls to express their support for Ron Paul, and swarming many other online polls to express a lack of religious belief. It was only a matter of time before the sub-culture graduated into real politics.

Perhaps Sean Travis embodies the next step in this sub-culture reaching for political power. By insinuating that anything is possible because “THIS IS THE INTERNET!” he is cracking open a new political reality. Unlike Jello Biafra, Sean might actually win.

Sean Travis 1

John Randall

Web-less Woes

February 2nd 10:00 AM: In my hotel room in Amsterdam – I’m here with a school trip to an MUN (Model United Nations) Conference – and packing my bags for our return flight to Cairo in the evening.

10:15 AM: Suddenly, my room mate bursts in:

– You are not going to believe this!
– What?
-There’s no Internet in Egypt!!
-You have got to be kidding me…….

My initial reaction, on hearing this not-so-spectacular piece of news, was evident disbelief; I really thought my friends were collectively playing a joke on me. Unfortunately, once they provided the evidence – headline news on all the major news sites on the web (all sanity had not been lost, and Internet was still available in Holland it seemed) – I had no choice but to face the music.

No Internet? The idea seemed ridiculous. And what more incredulous reason than because an underwater cable had been damaged?

News reports showed that a cable underwater off the coast of Dubai was cut at 05:59 GMT on Friday and that this was following a cable cut in the Mediterranean on Wednesday. Reports highlighted:

Damage triggered wide Internet outages, hampering businesses and private usage across the Mideast and Asia

With this news in my head, I grabbed the closest computer to me in the hotel lobby and initiated ticking off things one needs to do before going web-less:
– Check email inbox, and send last emails to loved ones, tick;
– Check MSN and tell everyone online about what has happened, tick;
– Check Facebook, MySpace and leave my status to explain my disappearance (so no-body gets worried), tick;
– Check weather, news, and essential entertainment gossip online, tick; and
– Finally kiss the Internet Explorer interface goodbye, tick.

I had ceremoniously parted with the Internet and ensured that I would survive the tremulous days ahead. But, being the naïve little Digital Native I am, I did not stop and think that if this was bad for me, it would definitely be much worse for others, especially those in commercial businesses. And it was.

Wireless Internet providers in Egypt were forced to give all customers a month of free Internet for the inconvenience caused – a substantial loss in revenue. Telecommunications companies were bombarded with complaints and inadvertently lost significant customer goodwill. Businessmen in general lost money; a friend’s father who was waiting for some documents to be sent via email for a crucial meeting with a client never got them and so lost out on big deal. The phrase ‘the end of the world’ no longer seemed as farfetched when I found Digital Natives, Internet consumers and providers all in utter chaos.

On a more personal level, after stepping off the plane and into my home, I noticed the hollow look my laptop had without the green ‘online’ icon. In school, sitting in the ICT (Internet and Computer Technology) room was a mockery, where my hand kept itching to check my email but which I knew would be futile.

On a more positive note, I can say that this incident afforded a rare opportunity for my friends and me to engage in greater “real-life” social interaction, as we now suddenly found ourselves spending more time discussing the latest gossip face to face (no more Facebook for that, remember?).

So, the incident was…I wouldn’t go as far as to say refreshing….but different, nonetheless.

Thursday July 17th 4:00 PM – In the Berkman Center’s kitchen, writing this blog post. Four months since The Incident, and still thankful that we have Internet!

-Kanupriya Tewari

Unveiling the Veil – on the web

The veil?

And that’s where many of us would simply end the discussion.

The issue of the veil is one that raises a red flag for many; it has on innumerable occasions lead to heightened emotions that at times culminate in drastic acts of violence. Many now approach the topic as a ‘danger-zone’ of sorts; afraid that it may spiral into debate rather than discussion. But there are signs that new modes of communication and Digital Natives may be changing this.

Women’s battles for or against the veil are long-standing, but it seems that recently the battle field has been moved to the Internet, through the mediums of blogs and social networking sites (SNS). Most of these discussions have not been Muslim vs. Non-Muslim, but rather between Muslims. Bloggers like Lisam have started to create online spaces simply entitled ‘Head Coverings’ where anyone and everyone is able to freely express their views- a phenomenon which has only been brought about with the turn of this decade.

Such a multitude of Muslim women’s voices, especially of those living in the Middle East, is a genuinely new thing. And it seems the initiative, for this fight for freedom of speech, has been taken up by the younger generation, namely Digital Natives. Perhaps most surprising is the increase in males online who support the removal of the veil – a clear signal of progress in the minds of many Muslim women.

Political and social issues are often taken up by Digital Natives on social networking sites but now more and more groups on Facebook and on other sites like MySpace are being dedicated to the cause of discussing the veil. What is important to note is how this once unapproachable topic has literally unveiled itself to the world with the help of Digital Natives and the tools and mediums available on the Internet. The Internet, with its lessened degree of intimacy as opposed to face to face conversations, has allowed many to gain enough confidence to say what they really think, without the fear of being hunted down or physically attacked. Thus, the Internet has bridged the gap between Muslims, especially women, all around the world – living up to its promise of global connection and mediation.

But this young uprising has not gone unnoticed, especially in countries in the Middle East with Iran having banned high-speed Internet in 2006 so as to “cut the West’s influence” and Egypt contemplating a total ban on Facebook. Nevertheless, the voices haven’t been stifled completely.

Muslims living abroad are taking up the initiative and increasingly using blogs and social networking sites as microphones for their thoughts. With the introduction of “Fullah”– the veiled version of Barbie – have come calls for avatar based sites like Second Life to provide more options of veiled avatars.

Fullah- Veiled Barbie Doll

Whether this call is attended to is yet to be seen, but what we can acknowledge is the extent to which this topic has been realised and opened up on the web; it signifies not only an improvement for society as a whole but also provides a positive notion in the midst of so many negatives that are attached to our exponentially growing digital world.

The veil?

Well, now it’s no longer a question that needs to be avoided.

-Kanupriya Tewari

Who’s Hussein?

Switch your name on Facebook, and the New York Times will declare a national movement.

Maybe that’s not exactly how it happens, but a recent Times article suggests that changing your Facebook moniker may actually be far more significant than, say, uploading a new batch of photos. The June 29th piece, which made the front page of the Times website, traces what appears to be a trend among young Obama supporters, some of whom have informally adopted the middle name Hussein to show loyalty to their candidate. Their object is twofold: first, to reject opponents’ attempts at making Obama’s middle name a campaign issue and second, to demonstrate that, in the words of blogger and Obama supporter Jeff Strabone, “We are all Hussein.” This statement is meant to be a declaration of solidarity in the vein of “I am Spartacus,” a 1960 film in which Roman slaves attempt to protect one of their number from solitary execution by declaring that they, too, are Spartacus. To this end, some Obama acolytes have not only adopted the name on Facebook, but have also begun to sign their checks with it or to have their friends append “Hussein” when addressing them. The trend only goes so far, however. As the Times reports, “Legally changing names is too much hassle, participants say, so they use ‘Hussein’ on Facebook and in blog posts and comments on sites like, and, the campaign’s networking site.”

What’s to be made of all this unofficial renaming? Is it a revolution, as the tone of the Times article seems to imply? Or is it, as the title of one critical blog suggests, only so much hot air? It’s hard not to be skeptical. The article consists mainly of testimonials from those who have already adopted the name Hussein, omitting any alternative viewpoints that might lend some perspective on the trend. To be fair, reporter Jodi Kantor does throw in one mitigating phrase about halfway through — “The movement is hardly a mass one, and it has taken place mostly online, the digital equivalent of wearing a button with a clever, attention-getting message” — but because she presents no sources or statistics to buttress it, the statement seems like an afterthought. And really, what does changing a username prove, other than the fact that you have internet access?

My initial fear in reading the article was that Kantor’s coverage only substantiates what Mark Bauerlein and others have already alleged – that today’s youth are the “Dumbest Generation,” a demographic that equates activism with fashion items and the Facebook causes everybody puts on their profile but never actually contributes to. Indeed, responses to a handful of blog posts critical of the article include such choice lines as “What a bunch of dillweeds” (at HotAir Headlines) and “Just stoopid kids” (on Sweetness and Light). The piece itself does little to counter this impression: the five newly-minted Husseins in the accompanying photo are posed more like a rock band than a group of political volunteers, and the arrangement of the subjects suggests the photographer was particularly concerned with showcasing the most photogenic members of the group. The article also dodges a more significant point – that adoption of the name among young people reflects both growing acceptance of Muslims and a rejection of the anti-Islamic sentiment often promoted by critics focused on Obama’s middle name (and yes, to say it again, Obama is Christian, not Muslim).

It appears to me that the Mark Bauerleins and Jodi Kantors of the world, despite their divergent impressions of young people, are all guilty of the same thing: oversimplification. Their portrayals of Digital Natives gloss over the legitimate and difficult work youth are doing to address a variety of international and domestic issues — whether launching NGOs like TakingITGlobal, which promotes youth activism in various social and political arenas, or running national grassroots organizations like ObamaWorks, which organizes community-oriented service projects.

Teenage frippery, which usually involves toying with identity, has always gone hand in hand with youthful idealism and achievement; nowhere is this combination more pronounced than online. As danah boyd notes, young people today are no different from the youth of generations past, and much of what they do online (hanging out, listening to music) is normal, real–life behavior that has simply been transferred to a digital space (albeit with additional opportunities and risks presented by the new medium). Just as these activities take place both online and off, so too do youth activism and political engagement. It seems that both Kantor and the advocates of the “Dumbest Generation” argument have been misled by the blurring of young people’s private and public faces, confused, perhaps, by the fact that teenagers’ shallow and serious tendencies are expressed simultaneously in the enduring public space of the web.

Kantor and reporters like her would do well to acknowledge this balance and to cover stories in a way that reflects what young people are really doing in the world today: defining themselves, determining their loyalties, and doing much more to bring about change than just tweaking their usernames.

Nikki Leon

Digital Natives, by a digital native from Germany

I am proud to be invited to write a guest post here for the Digital Natives blog of Harvard’s Berkman Center. It all started with sending an email to Urs Gasser, who is one of the heads of the team. As a Digital Native myself, I know best how they behave, how they think, and how they “work.” I know, my words reveal no new discovery, but I am not a researcher — I am just a digital native writing down his perspective…

German teenagers don’t really behave differently from their companions in the US. What is different are their primary social networks, where they upload photos, publish guestbook posts, and discuss in groups. There is StudiVZ for students or SchülerVZ for younger children. They are a complete copy cat of Facebook, which does not play a role in German children’s lives.

SchülerVZ and StudiVZ both have an enormous reach. More than 90 percent of students in my class and probably the same percentage in my age-group are registered. Those who don’t use it don’t exist. It’s often used for sharing photos; “traditional” photo sharing sites likes Flickr are not used. The two social networks don’t offer the same degree of functions and features that Facebook does (for example there is no open API), but what is interesting for me to see is the fact that they both allow you to share short messages with your friends, like Twitter does. And this feature is used a lot – believe me. But if you ask me, I would suggest they offer a txt-based Microblogging tool as well. That’s firstly a way to monetize it and secondly a new way for the users to send messages.

To speak more generally (and not simply about German youth), teenagers at large don’t have an understanding of copyright and ownership of digital goods. They want to share, want to mix, and want to edit. They can’t understand why it is not okay to go to Wikipedia, print a page, and use it for a speech. Anyway, that’s how they still do it. Most of their created presentations are totally or partly rip-offs and plagiarism. But teachers – especially the older ones – simply fail to discover them, and so it’s not punished, and there are no consequences for the students. Although they know it’s illegal, they do it, just because they can and because they know nothing else. Besides the school-related illegal sharing, there are of course downloading and sharing of songs, movies and other stuff. I don’t know whether that is because students do not have the needed money for buying every interesting movie or just because those things are too expensive.

Mobile phones are children’s toys of choice and primary tools of communication. Nearly every single person in school has one – which can be an advantage but also a torture. Cyberbullying can start with taking photos of people you don’t like and sending them to your friends or editing them with mobile photo editors. Since mobile phones became practical MP3 players, they have become a plague. Wherever you go, music played aloud bothers you if it’s not your taste of music. But, to be honest, I am one of these troublemakers myself. Teachers have to deal with that and with students playing during the lessons instead of listening.

To point out one of the major differences between students and adults: young people don’t use email to communicate with their friends. It’s just not important, because it’s just not fast enough. They use IM or social networks to communicate with their friends. That’s also a much better way to meet new people, because you don’t know what the person looks like in an email. With social networks, you even know how you are connected to them (maybe you share the same friends or attend the same school). Of course, they all have an email account (you need it to register to SchülerVZ and StudiVZ of course) but if they use it, they do so only for sending big files and attachments.

I didn’t want this to become something like egotainment, so I decided to mention the things I do last. I am 16 years old and attending Realschule in Germany but will change to a new school soon. In my later life, I want to become a journalist. I was also one of the organizors of BarCampHannover.

It was my idea in July 2007 to write a post about why we should do a BarCamp here in Hanover (known for the largest exhibition ground in the world, the EXPO2000 and the annual CeBIT). Some people answered and we formed an organization team – of which I was the youngest, followed by some university students. I was responsible for sponsoring affairs and asked some of my entrepreneur friends to help us. In February 2008, we successfully finished our work with BarCampHannover. During this time, we met several times for organizational meetings, and, because everybody knew how old I was, they all respected me, even though I “fighted” several discussions. You must know, I am not one of these guys who hides his opinion. But it was a lot of fun and a great experience for life. In addition to that, I am the organizer of Lunch 2.0 in Germany, which had its first anniversary in May.

When I first met Sören Stamer, CEO of CoreMedia AG, in August 2007, he told me about his idea of doing a workshop for teenagers to discuss things like “How has the Internet influenced your life?” or “How would you like to work in the future?”. In December, we realized this idea and created the “Delle im Universum” (Dent in the universe), where CoreMedia employees, Sören the CEO, some of their partners, I, and a friend of mine met. We talked some hours about our future plans and played foosball after the workshop in a relaxed atmosphere.

Last month, Sören attended the so-called “Deutscher IT-Gipfel” (German IT summit), organized by the German Government, where IT people and high-ranking German politicians gather to discuss ideas. In his workgroup, Sören introduced the idea of the “Delle,“ and together they fine-tuned the plan and got new ideas. One of these was a competition where teenagers can upload their thoughts in a video. The best ones, selected by a jury, will be invited to meet with the workgroup (Deutsche Telekom is one of its members) and get the chance to meet the German chancellor Angela Merkel.

I liked organizing the BarCamp. Because I am a teenager and want to spread the thoughts we have, I am tinkering with the idea of organizing another conference, maybe even an unconference, about Teens in the Internet. There are already plans to do something similar in Germany, but with a different focus: while I want to gather people within this context and have experts talk about this topic (even older ones), the other unconference currently in development would have younger bloggers go to a BarCamp. The issue is really unresolved, and I am still searching for people to help me. If you are interested, use the email address below.

In case you have any questions, would like to give feedback, or just want to get in touch, here’s how: mail at timoheuer com (I choose email to demonstrate that not all the teenagers don’t use it..)

Timo Heuer