You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.

Cyberactivism and new walls!

The use of the Internet for activism has been widely discussed in the past few years. A few years ago, I watched The Constant Gardener, a movie in which the Internet became the primary tool with which the activist characters fought for their rights.

Over the past yearI have been working with the Berkman Center to develop an online learning program entitled, Copyright for Librarians. Among the course’s main objectives, we intended to provide as much information on copyright in order to inform librarians from over fifty different countries on various copyright issues and how it was being dealt with around the world. Among our goals, we aimed to equip librarian activists with the necessary toolswith which to assist their countries in formulating better copyright policies.

So for this purpose, the Internet has been effective: It allows us to raise our voices, to mobilize the masses, and to propel change on a global scale.

It almost seems too easy. However, thinking of the Internet as an inclusive tool, that allows everyone, with absolutely no barriers, to voice their opinions, might be too good to be true.

Not long ago, a blogger named Zhou Shuguang was barred from leaving China, as an innitiative of national security. According to Wikipedia, “Zhou advocates further reform in China and as a result travels around the country documenting cases of injustice” that are uploaded in his blog, and hosted on US’s servers. This would be an example of how the use of Internet can be used, especially by governments, to work in opposition to activists.

What worries me is that as digital natives, we are always shown that the Internet works as a safe and strong tool for people to work as activists. But the Internet is also a massive tool for classifying people around the world, associating us with our digital dossiers. . So to what extent is activism on the Internet a positive thing and when does it start to become a dangerous trap for activists?

At the same time that the Internet opens possibilities for us to be heard, are we really heading a more democratic world in which people have the right to be voiced? Wouldn’t the Internet work the same way as any other mass media devices, as filtering tools controlled by governments?

– andré valle

Citizen Journalism and Mumbai

In the background of the shock and horror of the Mumbai attacks was another story about the rise of citizen journalism over mainstream media. We now have access to an array of tools to not only consume information but disseminate it ourselves. The media in India was criticized for its lackluster coverage of the Mumbai attacks. But are these problems that can be compensated for by citizen journalism?

Twitter was probably the biggest player in this discussion, so far as to merit rumors of the Indian government asking people to stop tweeting potentially sensitive information (Times Online). It seems like these rumors, despite having made it into the mainstream media, are probably unsubstantiated. The fact that the rumors were started on Twitter, got picked up by the mainstream media, and then debunked on a blog is an interesting feedback loop that illuminates how mainstream media and citizen journalism can interact with each other.

What made Twitter so prominent was its ability to immediately disseminate information, live and from-the-ground. And customized streams based on hash tags (#mumbai) or location (near:Mumbai) made it easy to find the information. Confused of Calcutta has an excellent post rounding up some of the best articles on Twitter and the Mumbai attacks. There’s also an interesting discussion that sprang up in the comments. Mayank Dhingra writes:

While following the #mumbai I realized that how big an echo chamber had it become, every third-forth update was a copy of a previous one(Noise). Similarly there were lots of rumors of sorts. Its particularly difficult to filter out the real and important news in participatory media and as some suggested its time we have an ethics guide for “citizen journalism”.

Joanne McNeil at Tomorrow Museum expresses a similar sentiment and suggests that mainstream media deserves more credit:

Like most of you with access to a television/computer Wednesday afternoon, I was glued to the news. But soon, #Mumbai was crowded with far too cut+pastes to be of much relevance (unless one was searching by location.) It’s like how everyone will join a Facebook group for a good cause — it takes 5 seconds to “retweet” breaking news. Then, there was the bizarre back and forth over whether the Indian government was asking for people to stop tweeting “sensitive information.” If anything impressed me that night, it was the network evening news, who appeared to be the first to put it all in context.

Another thing that is striking is the immediacy but overwhelming nature of all this information. As Alexander Wolfe notes in Wolfe’s Den Blog , the #mumbai tweets from the days of the attack are buried into archives hundreds of pages back. The sheer volume of information makes it, at this point, unsearchable to everyone except the most patient of researchers.

All this focus on Twitter in the role of citizen journalism obscures the fact that Twitter isn’t actually built as a breaking news source. As a listening tool, it’s almost the perfect tool for surveying the opinions of a many people at once, but this aggregation 140 character tweets has its limits. It can’t put into context all of the complex issues surrounding a terrorist attack of this nature. (Though to be fair, confusion was generally the rule for everyone including the mainstream media.) Dina Mehta’s from-the-ground commentary on Mumbai attacks hits the nail on the head on why Twitter was so important for this event, though not necessarily for its ability to disseminate information.

If we want to look toward great examples of citizen journalism, how about this Google Maps mash-up of locations attacked, populated with photostreams and the latest news updates. This Wired blog post also points toward the constantly updated Wikipedia page and Vinu’s Flickr photostream. Global Voices special coverage page is also a fantastic resource for perspectives on major global events from around the world. So citizen journalism does play a vital role in the future of news and Digital Natives themselves will certainly have a role to play.

-Sarah Zhang

Closing the Digital Learning Gap

As my last assignment for a class on the Brazilian Policies of Education, I worked on a project with five other colleagues which sought to investigate how Brazil’s Internet and technology policies were being applied in real life.

As our research method, each of us spent 20 hours inside schools serving different social classes. These included: three public schools, an elite private school, and a school for the deaf. Through our conversations with students, professors, and technologists, we observed how well equipped these schools were, which in turn helped us to better understand the extent to which kids from differing social classes had access to digital technologies. Our finding were very interesting. Before starting to work on the study, we hypothesized that relative to private schools, public schools would lack basic technology equipment. However, we we were proven wrong. Although the private schools’ equipment was of a better quality and more up to date, all the schools had technology resources to work with, from computers to the Internet.

Another interesting finding was that although schools generally had the same equipement, it was the lack of trained personnel which created a participation gap between students. While private schools had well-staffed technology centers with trained professionals, the public schools had their computers locked in rooms, whcih neither students nor professors could access, because they did not know how to use them.

Given our findings, I strongly believe that workshops must be implemented to train educators not only on how to use technology, but how to teach it to their students. I have also begun to think more seriously about online learning, especially here in Brazil where there is a large participation gap between classes. Although I hail my university’s efforts to invite more students by alotting 6,000 spots by creating Distance Learning, how can we implement this new program (Online Learning) when the digital divide is still just a pervasive problem? What are some efficient methods for tackling the technology participation gap in schools?

– andré valle

In the Moment: An Analysis of the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election Based on Camphone-Video Broadcasts

This week, we are delighted to publish a guest post from Gaby David, a PhD candidate from the Lhivic (Laboratory for Contemporary Visual History) at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris. — Diana Kimball, DN Intern

Barack Obama’s presidential victory is captivating. Not only because of his personal charm, but also because of the force of hope he inspires. Being the first black president will definitely place him and his family in a special and touching place in history.

Let’s take a look at the two photographs. The first photo is from the Nov 1960 elections, when JFK was elected president. In the second one we see the democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama and his family, on election night in Chicago, on November 4, 2008 (David Katz/Obama for America). Between the photos there are 48 years, the distance between president #35 and president #44. Differences are evident: black and white versus color film, family presence, the absence of children from one and the centrality of children to the other; the light of day versus the light of lamps.

However, in both photographs we imagine the out-of-frame object: the television! Moving images and screens have always held a hypnotic fascination…but, one of the biggest differences is that now we can see the television, and therefore know what the photographed people, in this case Obama, his family and close circle were watching at the moment the photographs were taken.

(Worth noting: in the second photograph, both Obama and the person standing are holding their cellphones.)

Each campaign has its particularities: JFK’s in 1960, Barack Obama’s in 2008. But out of all those particularities, one stands apart: the role the Internet played in this latest election. Barack Obama not only had and still has his website, both in English and Spanish, and his own YouTube channel, but also his own Facebook group and Flickr photo stream, where we can even discover with which camera these pictures were shot. The Obama presence was also on Myspace, Digg, Twitter, Eventful, LinkedIn, BlackPlanet, Faithbase, Eons, Glee, MiGente, MyBatanga, and AsianAve. To take just one example, by 11/24/08 the “Yes We Can” YouTube video had already been viewed 2,106,176 times. These various social networking and media sites served as proof of authenticity and transparency for anyone willing to connect with his campaign.

Of course, the established media channels (CNN, Fox, newspapers, etc.) did their own pertinent press coverage. But most of all, it was personal blogs and sites which contributed to this enormous flow of daily information that kept us glued to an interactive net.

Analyzing the Election Through Camphone-Video Broadcasts

Since my research at the Lhivic Lab at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales—the only Visual Studies department in Paris, and one of the best in Europe—focuses on the place of camphones in daily lives, I wanted to investigate the role that camphones played in individual voting experiences and how somebody like me, physically far from the States could follow the Election Day through the web and through “normal” people. It’s worth then looking at a few examples.

On Qik, some of the uploaded videos posted live, so that I—along with any other interested party—could watch big things happen live, and on the “small scale” intimated by the camphone.

Being able to share these anonymous people’s moments, and their feelings towards such an important day, has been both emotional and strange.

Two friends are driving in the rainy Election Day. The driver, Rhett, tells his mate and the blogosphere about his voting experience. Why had he decided to go for early voting? What happened with his son? He tells us about how he was explaining to his boy about the process of democracy and privacy. Then both, Rhett and his friend, discuss how they are going to watch or follow “the event.” His friend says he is going to watch the election results on Twitter: ‘cause “opinions are in real time!” Rhett replies: “well, not watching it, you are just seeing the feed come in…”

(Actually, this is intriguing: do we read or do we watch a text that is on a screen?)

They continue talking about how Rhett’s family used to watch the results together; a family tradition, the same as Obama’s photo stream shows. Rhett will also tune in and stay up late with his family and see the interactive map turn red or blue.

From this short video we get to know a lot of information:
– where and when the video was shot,
– what the weather was like,
– how both friends feel about Election Day,
– that one of them is married and has a four and a half year old son, etc.

At last, they are so much into the sharing and the mediation of their experience that they forget to take the highway exit they were supposed to.

Another special topic of this election was the lines. People were really surprised about the quantity of people that showed up to vote. So, many of the videos show and inform us about the waiting time or the “queue stats.” For example, Robert Stevens shows that “now” there is no one.

Roddykat also shares with us this waiting “dead moment” and turns it into an imaging production moment. There is no real intention, he does not master the outcome, but that does not really matter. It is uploaded live, and by 11/24/2008 it had 37 views. It is more than probable that Roddykat himself did not see his own camphone video before uploading it; he was just queuing and sent it to his Qik account.

We see images switch from horizontal to vertical: a particular and specific characteristic seen in many camphone videos. It is as though the linearity of both the shooting and the viewing are no longer that important.

From Roddykat’s Qik page there is a link to his website. From his site a link to his Twitter.
On November 4th at exactly 5:49 A.M. Roddykat’s twitter is a link towards his twitterpic page. Once again, as though we were detectives, we get to know he is almost there in the voting booth.

With something like the feeling of a suspense film, this very special moment of Roddykat’s life is being shared and broadcasted live….

First it’s “the wait for the polls to open”
The wait for polls to open on TwitPic

then it’s “Inside now”
Inside now on TwitPic

then “View from inside out”
View from inside out on TwitPic

and, at last, “Almost there”:
Almost there on TwitPic

In the last photograph we see a close up of the back of the head of the person who was standing before him. The queue line disappears into a contrasted white.

At the end, we realize: whether through Twitter or Qik, every method that Roddykat used to publish his in-the-moment experiences was mediated by a camphone.

Some Final Conclusions

As with almost all Qik videos, here the chosen videos are only shot; there is no post-editing. Today, camphones are used not only as voice transmitters but also as tools for sharing images. As O. Daisuke and M. Ito said years ago, “camera phones are changing the definition of what is picture-worthy,” and as Kindberg et al. also say: “A camera phone’s value might not lie in sending images but in using the captured images for other activities.”


• Borsch, Steve, “Lessons From Our First “Social Media” President”, Minnesota Innovation in Internet & Web Technology, November 5th, 2008,…

• Daisuke, Okabe and Ito, Mizuko, “Camera phones changing the definition of picture-worthy”, Japan Media Review, 29th August, 2003,…

• Kindberg et al, “The Ubiquitous Camera: An In-Depth Study of Camera Phone Use”, Pervasive Computing, 2nd April 2005,…


• Mclaughlin, Rhett, “untitled”, November 4th, 2008, camphone video, 6:05 minutes,
• Stevens, Robert, “#votreport #10009”, November 4th, 2008, camphone video, 17 seconds,
• Rodney L, “Election day 09’”, November 4th, 2008, camphone video, 35 seconds,
• theuptake, “Exited Obama Supporters in Denver”, November 4th, 2008, camphone video, 31 seconds,

*All links were accessed on November 24th, 2008.
* Special thanks to Diana Kimball for proof reading.


Gaby David, born in Uruguay, is a PhD candidate from the Lhivic (Laboratory for Contemporary Visual History) at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS). At the Lhivic she co-coordinates both the Methodological workshop and the Lhivic’s students’ collective blog.

G. David holds a masters degree in Fine Arts from the University of Paris 8, Saint Denis.
A versatile scholar, her professional experience is both in the fields of arts and languages teaching. With a curious soul, she has already lived in Uruguay, in the United States and in Israel. In Nov. 2002 she moved to Paris and has been living there since.

Her actual field of research is the study of camphone videos—understanding how these images can be at the same time very intimate and publicly shared. Through her research, she is trying to decipher the intriguing part of the camphone: its familiarity. How the role of contemporary camphone visual auto-mediation of our daily lives is increasing, especially on the web. Because, contradictorily, the camphone videos that mirror us show us that familiarity never ceases to amaze us.

Email:  championnet4 at
Gaby David on Facebook

Can the Internet Save the World?

Guest-blogger Tyler Goulet explores how social networking sites may be the key to increasing civic engagement among youth

The wonders of the World Wide Web have been talked about for years now. The internet has evolved from a media similar to T.V. (one way interaction) to a media where content producers can interact instantly with the audience. This type of interaction has never been made so easy. In fact, the instant interaction between people hundreds of miles away is making social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook explode in popularity. Anyone who uses the internet can see the benefits of joining social networking sites. The question must be asked. Can social networking sites be used to leverage political power?

More and more people are starting to believe in the power of social networking sites. Some would argue that our most recent President-Elect, Barack Obama, would not have been elected if it hadn’t been for his use of social networking sites.

Using social networking sites to communicate and organize has proven to be very effective in many campaigns. We at the Center for Communication and Civic Engagement (CCCE) are trying find a solution to the downward trend in youth civic engagement. We believe that social networking sites may be the key to defeating this downward trend.

Professor Lance Bennett, the director of the CCCE theorizes that there has been a fundamental generational shift in how today’s youth view civic engagement versus past generations and how they have viewed civic engagement. His paper on this topic can be found here.

In summary, he argues that today’s youth “see [his]/her political activities and commitments in highly personal terms that contribute more to enhancing the quality of personal life, social recognition, self esteem, or friendship relations, than to understanding, support, and government” which is how previous generations have viewed civic engagement (Source p. 6).

What does this mean? Well, it means we need to stop telling the youth what political issues to care about, let them choose what interests them (aka what would enhance the quality of their personal life), and teach them how to become involved. We need to give them, and teach them how to use, the tools to create and implement a plan to solve issues they care about. A little spark of confidence and help in getting the project off the ground would help too.

In order to ensure that they have social recognition from their community and to increase their friendship relations, the project they work on should be local. That would make recognition easy and simple because their impact could be seen easily. If the project they are working on is local than they can include their friends and have them help which would increase their friendship relations. A local project will also show more immediate results than a large scale project. Once a youth has complete a local project and sees positive results their self esteem will increase and they will be more likely to continue down the civically engaged path they have stumbled down so far.

Currently the CCCE is working on a project that will allow the youth in the Puget Sound area of Washington State, which includes Seattle, to do all of the above. is a social networking site designed to connect teens with similar political passions so that they can easily organize and communicate with each other in order to solve problems they care about in their communities.

The site was recently launched at the beginning of September. We currently have about 500 members. The website is a revolutionary experiment in youth civic engagement. Stay posted for more blog posts about the future of and how it relates to Digital Natives.


Tyler is a Junior at the University of Washington, Seattle, where he is currently triple majoring in Communication, Political Science, and Community Environment and Planning. He has been a Research Assistant for the CCCE for nearly a year. For more information on Tyler Goulet check out

Innovating Digital Scholarship and Art

My friends will be writers. They will be scholars and journalists and novelists, and they will write about what is important to them; the places they grew up.

We grew up on the internet.

I am lucky to live and learn in a city where the internet, and other digital expanses, are taken seriously. The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard—home to the Digital Natives project—brings together cyberscholars from around the world. The Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT examines the future of entertainment and narrative in a digital world. (Incidentally, C3’s Futures of Entertainment conference is coming up this weekend, and was by far the most illuminating conference I attended in 2007.) These centers have helped to aggregate the critical mass of interest in Cambridge necessary to really start thinking about what the digital age will mean for culture, politics, and society.

But the internet is not bound by geography, and my friends are distant, too. A few weeks ago, I got an email from Gaby David, writing from France. She studies cameraphone videos—the intimacy, and the “auto-mediation of our daily lives,” constructed by the filming and sharing of grainy personal videos. She wrote to me after reading through this, the Digital Natives blog, and ever since I’ve been blown away by the depth of research she and her colleagues in Paris are embarking on. (Their collective blog is here.) Gaby and I are living through the internet. We connected through the internet. The internet is, in many ways, the substrate of our parallel—though distant—lives. But digital life is the substrate of Gaby’s research and art, too. And that’s true of so many people I know.

Christina Xu is writing her thesis about the short history of communication in the digital age. Recently, she posted to her blog a paper she wrote last year about her experience as a teenager on a GameFAQ message board. Christina’s research examines a past so recent, it’s almost present. But that’s the reality of the digital age: it’s so young, and we’re so young. For Digital Natives and those barely older, it will be more than an obvious topic for study; it will be impossible to ignore. The curve of digital innovation, the vanguard of digital innovators, will race forward. For now, Digital Natives may be the first to recognize en masse how much there is to see. How urgent it is to keep up, to try to study the future as it unfolds.

Digital innovators, after all, are hardly just the people constructing that future. They are also the scholars, journalists, and novelists who will have to figure out how to study everything that has happened in the almost-present past, and everything that will happen in the fast-approaching future—a future that is already here.

* * *

For further reading in young scholarship on convergence culture and internet & society, two more pieces from among more than I can count:

Lana Swartz on fanfic and noobdom
Xiaochang Li on storytelling on Twitter.

The Cloak of Anonymity: Trolls as Digital Aggressors

What does a “digital aggressor” look like? Unfortunately, that’s exactly the problem: it’s often hard to tell. The internet, as an environment that accepts anonymity, often plays host to anonymous interactions. Anonymity cloaks the individuals who produce and post words and images; the seeming lack of consequence for anonymous actions can be emboldening. In certain repressive states, the potential for anonymity provided by the internet can embolden individuals in positive ways: to speak out against social ills, to report on systematic cruelty. But in other cases, anonymity provides the mask for cruelty itself.

In an article titled “Malwebolence,” published in the New York Times Magazine this past August, reporter Mattathias Schwartz attacked the question of anonymity. He focused his attention on one specific facet of anonymous activity online: the advent of trolling. Schwartz describes the origins of this pursuit in Usenet forums in the early days of the internet, but then continues on to say that

“As our emotional investment in the Internet has grown, the stakes for trolling — for provoking strangers online — have risen. Trolling has evolved from ironic solo skit to vicious group hunt.”

Digital aggression, in this genre, usually takes the form of words. In fact, since the internet remains a primarily textual medium, most digital aggression remains textual as well. When combined with anonymity, this type of aggression can look suspiciously like passive aggression: idle needling performed without any expectation of responsibility.

However, trolling takes a turn when it leverages the communicative power of the internet to transmit not insults, but plans. Anonymous organizing can occasionally lead to real-world action, as in the case of protests against Scientology described by Schwartz. Fittingly, though, these protesters do so wearing signature Guy Fawkes masks—carrying the cloak of anonymity offline.

It’s tempting to be alarmist. But only in exceptional cases does the digital realm actually produce new kinds of cruelty. It makes certain expressions of aggression easier—particularly verbal/textual ones—but it also makes those expressions more public. Schwartz’s article is a fascinating tour through a troubling world. But it’s not the online universe that most digital natives live in, nor is it one they need to live in. That there is a dedicated place on the internet for trolling, perhaps, helps to protect the rest of digital realm from some of its excesses.

Google DC: Thoughts on Policy

As Diana posted earlier this week, we had joined John Palfrey as part of the DC Talks series at Google’s Washington, D.C. office. I just wanted to echo that it was an fantastic experience, and I am truly privileged to have taken part. Since we were in DC no less, one of the salient questions that emerged was how Digital Natives will affect policy as we move into the next decade or two. In his post at in reaction to the DC Talk, Drew Bennet has a great analysis of the issues at hand.

Will we see a dramatic shift in priorities that will lead to the development of new paradigms and new solutions for internet policy conflicts? Will a digital native in the White House do for broadband what Eisenhower did for highways?

I asked the panelists if they felt today’s policy makers and presidential candidates were really addressing the issues that are important to digital natives and the researchers seemed to say that they couldn’t be sure yet. It seems the digital natives are only beginning to come of age when it comes to their political and policy preferences…

When I was initially asked these questions at the panel, I admit I didn’t know how best to respond. Working on Digital Natives in the dual roles of researcher-subject has trended me toward a lot of self-analysis, but it has only brought up more questions in the process. Part of my difficulty with this question was how to tease out the various interactions. The question isn’t simply how will Digital Natives affect policy, but how will the two interact with one another. Because Digital Natives are not the policymakers now, everything that happens between now and that point will shape our attitudes on these issues. Could we have predicted a site like Facebook could embody and arguably even have set the standard for privacy online? It is indeed, as Drew also notes, that our opinions are still being formed.

Drew also writes of the dividing line between Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants.

Thinking back on some of the issues discussed – privacy risks, political engagement, online safety – I fear that digital immigrants, though they may have achieved vital access, will be at risk and at a disadvantage as the larger population of digital natives ascend.

This is a good question to ask because Born Digital focuses on current policy, at a time when Digital Natives are the ones affected by policy but don’t have an input in it. So what happens when the tables are turned? Tech policy in general – whether it’s in the realm of privacy, copyright, etc. – seems to be trending toward greater openness. I wonder though, at least when it comes to privacy, whether there will be a boomerang where a generation that has grown up without privacy begins to demand more control of their privacy. Or does privacy simply become something we value more as we grow older? How much of these differences are simply generational differences between young and old? How much of it is actually a function of the Internet?

I’m going to end on one more question, a question that I expected to get but didn’t: “How much time do you spend online per day?” It seems like a natural entrée into a survey of Internet usage, and it’s a question I often field from my parent’s friends. Perhaps that’s a nod to the savvy of the audience because I think there is no answer that that question. I am constantly online. Unlike the age of dial-up, there really is no distinction between online and off. I live on a college campus blanketed by Wi-Fi and even if I don’t carry my own laptop around, I can easily hop onto a computer and plug in online. The cell phones in our pockets no longer a portal only to the people in our phonebooks, but to the entire Internet. Email can be constantly checked on the fly. This kind of total immersion – there’s something unique growing up with this kind of constant access.

– Sarah Zhang

“Our Time”: New Youth Radio Program Gives Teens a Voice

“Now is the time to either step up, or sit out.” This is the recurring theme of a compelling new youth radio program entitled, “Our Time: Teens and Politics,” the third collaboration between Generation PRX, a social network for youth radio producers, and KUOW. In this “One whole hour of radio stories made by teenagers,” teens candidly discuss a diverse range of topics including the Iraq war, global warming, and meetings with prominent politicians. The following excerpts by teen radio reporters serve as excellent examples of this compelling new youth special:

Lena tries to make sense of the relationship between the Iraq War and her personal beliefs on the value of protesting through an interview with a committed protester:

“Personal connections, friendships, loss… are often what galvanize people into taking action… But is that what it’s going to take? Do we have to wait for everyone to have a friend step on a landmine before we really organize or mobilize against war? Or will I, or will we all, continue to sleep in on Saturday mornings and rely on (protestors like) Alan Wolf to do it for us?”

Greg shares his experience of attending an extravagant dinner with former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich:

“It was like the Matrix, because in that movie the main character finds out that everything he thought was real was just a perception of real. He gets taken to a world which is parallel but very separate. I feel we’re just trapped in our own matrices, and the only way out is to realize that we need to understand other perspectives. I was there to see what they were all about, but I could never see them trying to figure out my life.”

By promoting an atmosphere of civic engagement and critical, political analysis among America’s youth, GPRX challenges pundits who argue that we are “Generation Q” or the “Quiet Americans.” Although political participation and civic duties have increasingly been transferred to the online sphere, initiatives by Digital Natives such as Our Time are neither to be underestimated nor ignored.

Keep up the great work GPRX!

Fine-Tuning Facebook: A Field Trip through Privacy Controls

Last week, my post about the Facebook news feed as digital dossier garnered some interesting comments. The one I found most intriguing, though, was Yvette’s observation that “It would be great if Facebook users would know a little more about Facebook’s privacy features, which were extremely primitive but are getting better.”

It’s true: once upon a time, Facebook‘s privacy controls could only be adjusted very coarsely. Over the past two years, though, Facebook has steadily improved its privacy controls—to the point that there’s very little that can’t be adjusted, now. These controls, though, aren’t worth much if Digital Natives don’t use them to fine-tune their online environments. Since this week’s theme is privacy, I wanted to kick things off with an exploration of Facebook’s privacy controls.

(Though Facebook is hardly the only place on the internet where privacy matters for Digital Natives, its popularity makes it a good test case. If Digital Natives take hold of their privacy on Facebook—a place where they likely already spend a great deal of time—they will be more aware of protecting their privacy elsewhere on the internet, as well.)

So, off we go! Let’s start with the entry point: the “Settings” button in the upper right corner of the front page:

Clicking “Privacy Settings” will take you to the next page, a portal to the various dimensions of privacy on Facebook, the “Privacy Overview”:

Profile Privacy affects what items of personal information are visible to which people:

On the Profile Privacy page, it’s possible to go line-by-line and fine-tune the accessibility of each piece of information. For instance, I can decide that posts on my Wall will be seen only by my friends, or that my work info will be visible only to people in the Harvard network. (The Harvard network is limited to people who have email addresses ending in I might feel comfortable sharing the details of my work history with those people, but not with out-of-state acquaintances.) I’m especially fascinated by the search box at the top of this page: “see how a friend sees your profile.” This feature handily illustrates the ways that Facebook now allows users to compose faceted identities.

Next up: the Search Privacy page.

It’s actually possible to circumscribe your presence on Facebook such that strangers searching for you won’t even be able to see that you’re on Facebook at all. A search for your name, if you chose to limit your search availability, would turn up nothing. Also notable on the Search Privacy page is the option to remove your public search listing—the link to Facebook that’s indexed on search engines under an individual’s name. One of the most common concerns I hear from parents is “Will anybody be able to find my child’s Facebook page on Google?” The Search Privacy page on Facebook actually gives a definitive answer: the Facebook pages of minors are automatically not submitted to search engine indexes. If your child is a minor, then a Google search will not turn up a link to your child’s Facebook presence. And even if your child isn’t a minor, the Search Privacy page offers a way to opt out of search engine indexing for non-minors. This is a very simple and effective step to take in protecting online privacy, though it’s worth noting that the Facebook page that shows up in Google results is vastly limited; in fact, it only shows a headshot, the headshots of a few of that person’s friends, and the ability to log in to Facebook itself.

Next comes the News Feed and Wall Privacy page:

This page is interesting in that it allows you control what’s reported to your friends on Facebook. If a person removes a relationship status, and has unchecked the box such that relationship removals aren’t reported, then no part of Facebook will actively tell your friends about your breakup. They’ll still be able to take a look at your profile and notice the absence of the breakup, if you’ve elected to make that information visible. But if you don’t want the breakup shouted from the rooftops, and don’t want to cause a fuss, it’s possible to just gently change the state of the profile page without it being a huge deal.

The Applications Privacy page offers good information on how Facebook’s platform interacts with developers’ applications, but I’m actually more interested in what comes below the link to the Applications Page: the “Block People” field.

This is Facebook’s strongest tool for dealing with unpleasant interlopers. Blocking someone means that they cannot “find you in a Facebook search, see your profile, or interact with you through Facebook channels (such as Wall posts, Poke, etc.).” Though the text of the field reminds the user that this blocking “does not extend to elsewhere on the Internet,” it remains a powerful tool for severing communications with people on Facebook, should such a need ever arise.

Facebook’s privacy controls have grown more and more powerful. Having not adjusted my own privacy controls in a while, I was excited to see how far they’ve come. Facebook has long allowed Digital Natives to publish unprecedented volumes of personal information. Though this can have some great consequences—friends being able to find your phone number when they need it, the instant sharing of photographs, a way to effortlessly message contacts—it can also have some unintended ones. Facebook’s success depends on its ability to keep those who use it feeling comfortable. Their privacy controls have gone a long way towards allowing every Facebook user to determine exactly what levels of information sharing they are and aren’t comfortable with.

Ultimately, privacy on the internet isn’t about keeping all personal information under wraps all of the time. It’s about making sure that the right information is available to the right people at the right times. Facebook’s privacy controls go a long way toward putting this capability in the hands of Digital Natives. Many Digital Natives, sadly, never seize this opportunity because they don’t know it’s there. My hope is that this post will start more parents, teachers, and Digital Natives thinking about the ways in which they can seize control of their personal information—safeguarding their privacy in the process.