Tales from the Net

a work in progress

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Economist’s debate: why I’m voting ‘pro’

The proposition in The Economist’s debate: “social networking technologies will bring large positive changes to educational methods, in and out of the classroom”. I’m going to using the definition-in-progress of “social networking technologies” I’ve proposed in the apophenia thread, currently

online or offline technologies that relate to (1) public or semi-public profiles (2) articulating the connections between actors (users, people, organizations) and (3) viewing and traversing the lists of connections for self and others

“Out of the classroom” is straightforward. Vicki Edwards and others have given powerful examples of how these technologies are already changing methods outside the classroom. On my scorecard, Michael’s very valuable participation on danah boyd’s and my blogs essentially concedes this point to the “pro” side. And these out-of-classroom applications of social networking technology like the education blogosphere, networks on Ning, and MySpace groups have a direct impact on educators’ methods in the classroom: sharing resources, exchanging best practices, discussing assessment techniques.

What about the contentious issue of social network sites (SNSses) in the classroom?


posted by Jon at 10:11 pm  

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

How we got here

The Web as we know it was just being born as I was graduating from law school. Everything was new, and all things were possible. Out of the gate I saw the benefits for everyone – everyone could use the Web, not just those with a computer science background. I also saw the tension that would be generated with that openness; privacy would become a huge issue.

At the time I had been thinking of interning (with the ultimate goal of landing a job) at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); but then discovered the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). It was clear where I belonged: EFF. EFF had the right mix of technology savvy, free speech and privacy knowledge.

After a time, I wanted to spend more time working on consumer privacy issues, and so started up a non-profit, Privacyactivism, where I spent several years as executive director.

Privacyactivsm led me to start spending time on social networks and to see them as rich areas for social activism. In 2005, the year I chaired the Computers, Freedom and Privacy (CFP) conference in Seattle, WA, I began looking for ways to involve more diverse groups of people in the conference. My thought was that there are a lot of politically minded people on social networks, and if I tapped into the right networks I’d be able to diversify the attendance, and hopefully jump start activism on privacy and First Amendment issues. My CFP campaign has led to other advocacy campaigns, including battles against the 2257 regulations and against the Real ID Act. Social networks are great for spending time with friends, but they are also a great tool for promoting many different kinds of speech and for political activism.

My hope for this book is that rather than focusing on the frequent portrayals of social networks as threats (to our families, to the children), people will see them the way I do: tools to aid participation in society and giving people a voice they may not have had before.

posted by Deborah at 9:58 pm  

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

MySpace Quietly Fixes Bug that Gave Voyeurs Access to Teens’ Private Photos

From security researcher/journalist Kevin Poulsen at Wired’s Threat Level:

The bug had been around since at least October (Thanks to Rose for tipping me off), during which time it had been gleefully exploited by voyeurs, hackers, entrepreneurs and lechers; you can find pages and pages of public message board comments around the web in which posters are peeking in on 14 and 15-year-old girls and sharing what they find.

Ad-supported web sites with names like Can’t Hide and MySpacePrivateProfile.com emerged to earn a buck off the glitch. One such site reports that its users have accessed, or attempted to access, 77,000 private profiles — 3,000 of them today.

The day after he reported it to MySpace, they fixed it. Good for them. And the websites that exploited the vulnerability aren’t delivering private photos any more. Hold on, though: why hadn’t they fixed it earlier? Kevin ends with

That seems to leave just two possibilities:

  1. MySpace didn’t know this was going on before.
  2. MySpace knew about it, but didn’t take action until the press noticed.

I’ll have more next week.

We shall see …

Claims by MySpace, Facebook, or any other online service that they protect people’s personal information only hold water if they pay a lot of attention to security when they’re building their software and running their site. One of the objections to the potential email list in the MySpace “child safety” agreement with state attorneys general was that the list would be valuable to spammers and scammers as well as child predators. Situations like this, or the recent compromise of thousands of accounts on adult web sites where the company similarly didn’t react for months, show how real this issue is.

posted by Jon at 4:48 pm  

Monday, January 21, 2008

“Social Networks from the 80s to the 00s”

Brian McConnell has a guest column on GigaOM giving his historical perspective on (online) social networks and potential future directions. There’s a lot to like here, starting his recognizing of the value of social networks to marginalized communities; he uses PlanetOut and Gay.com as examples, and the more detailed discussion of the recent history of social network sites (1997-2006) in boyd and Ellison’s Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship includes AsianAvenue, BlackPlanet, Mi Gente, and (in a different dimension) tribe.net. Brian also highlights that it’s not a winner-take-all market, and his mention of the increasing attention people are paying to big companies abuse of personal data.

And I certainly hope he’s right about this prediction:

I would bet on a company like WordPress or perhaps Tumblr to come out with a simple tool that makes publishing profiles and updates easy, and that is designed with social search in mind.

That’s certainly a tool I’d use!

There’s a lot that’s left out. He talks about BBSs and Fidonet as important precursors; so are Usenet groups and the Well, and arguably they both have more direct influence on social networks today. The section on social search leaves out Wikia, Mahalo, and Naver (a topic I briefly covered here). In general, the focus is very US-centric and techie-oriented — as, I believe, is GigaOM’s readership. Still, it’s always nice to see people learning from the past without getting caught there; and I think he does an excellent job of articulating the business opportunities that openness creates, and sketching some likely next steps.

The comments are interesting as well, with some great perspective on the PLATO system from Steve Kraus, a lot of people going out of their way to show their lack of understanding of Facebook (something also happening in the Economist’s debate), and this very intriguing remark from Jerome at the Millennium Project:

On the history – Just for the historical record, CARINET (Caribbean Implementation Network) created with in Partnership for Productivity International in 1982/83 using Murry Turoff’s EISE softward linking about 30 developing countries and introductged x.25 and concepts of social networking to many countires in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. But the record seems to be wiped clean of its exsistence.

Sure enough, I had never heard of CARINET … very interesting.

posted by Jon at 2:10 pm  

Saturday, January 19, 2008

USA today on “when worlds collide”

Janet Kornblum’s Social, work lives collide on networking websites in USA Today has a bunch of great examples of the complexities caused when social networks intersect:

Just after her honeymoon last March, Wadooah Wali took the de rigueur next step these days: She changed her status on the networking websites Facebook and MySpace from “in a relationship” to “married” and posted pictures of her partner – another woman.

The well-wishes from friends and family poured in, stoking Wali’s happiness. Then came a note that jolted her, noticeable for what it didn’t say. No congratulations. Just: “Nice pictures.”

It was from a professional contact Wali hardly knew – someone to whom she never would have sent something as personal as a wedding announcement, let alone pictures. Wali likes to keep her personal life separate from her professional acquaintances, wary that some might react negatively to her sexual orientation. But suddenly her social circles had collided.

I had been talking about a very similar situation over dinner just a few weeks ago with a friend of mine: she had left her orientation intentionally ambiguous on Facebook, and when she got friend invites from her boss and the VP of her organization, she really had to think about it.

Other examples in the article include religion, political views, and partying together — and once again, these are all things that have come up on our lives. I remember once when Deborah had to tell somebody in law enforcement that it was a very bad idea to blog about his drug experiences at Burning Man; he hadn’t thought through where this story might go, and how fragile his pseudonymity was. Another time in a large meeting at Microsoft, somebody wanted to demonstrate a widget for MySpace profiles, and naturally asked me for mine; at the time I was leading the MySpace outreach of a political activism campaign, and if I hadn’t already been public about this at work, it would have been a difficult situation. And so on …

Good story!

posted by Jon at 4:58 pm  

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Economist’s debate on “social networking technolgies” in education

The Economist’s site is featuring an “Oxford-style debate” on the proposition “social networking technologies will bring large positive changes to educational methods, in and out of the classroom“.

Ewan Mcintosh’s opening “pro” argument describes some of the possibilities:

In Scotland, I’ve been fortunate to work with thousands of school children and hundreds of teachers, creating mini social networks based around a rather traditional ‘social object’: the classroom. Students have been empowered to publish not just their best work, but the many drafts it takes to get there. They’ve received feedback from ‘real’ people outside school and, surprisingly often, the occasional expert has paid a visit (my personal favourite: the professional diver that corrected one student ended up being invited to visit the school to demonstrate the various bits of kit that go into a marine biology dive).

Importantly, they’ve received more communication, feedback and interest from the one group they value most: their parents. Parents, too, have reported feeling more in touch with what their children are actually learning, rather than simply what they’ve ‘done’ at school that day. Teachers feel more connection to parents, too, as communication is daily, online, rather than once a year at parents’ evenings.

Ewan goes into more detail at Edublogs about the discussion so far.

Michael Bugeja argues for the opposition, focusing on “motives embedded in interfaces and scripts interwoven in applications”:

In a recent online forum I observed how technology altered education in every conceivable facet. I have seen it used as delivery system, then as content in the classroom and finally as classroom, building and campus itself, and in every case, pedagogy changed to accommodate the interface. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Unless we impose that logic on social networks, they will align educational methods with corporate motives, as previously discussed….

We must analyze use of social networks in education with a high degree of skepticism to ensure time-honored standards. Otherwise we may realize belatedly that those standards had value—social rather than financial—and that we inadvertently shortchanged our students who above all need to think critically and interact interpersonally to succeed in a diverse, multicultural world.

Social networks advertise access to this diverse world while simultaneously confining users to affinity groups so as to sell, sell, sell.

I, for one, am not buying.

Parry Aftab’s guest comments in the debate describes her experience:

My Teenangels programme (teenangels.org) holds a summit every year in Washington, DC where the teens are on the stage and the adults in the audience. It’s a packed house every single year with long waiting lists of VIPs. This year, on February 6th, my Teenangels chapter from Hortonville, Wisconsin, will be presenting to a room full of industry leaders, Congressional representatives and Senators, law enforcement agencies, Ambassadors and the media. They will be sharing their research on how social networks can help bridge the cultural gap among teens around the world. They think that the more teens communicate with each other online, the better they will be able to understand each other when real world conflicts arise….

Learning was fun and inevitable. And is ongoing.

The most interesting point, however, was that until they had participated in this study and the projects they designed, most of the students had only use the networks for fun, communication with their friends and sharing music. It took imaginative educators to show the students the real power of these technologies to do more. They learned first hand their power to collaborate, inspire and create. According to the research report, “students began very deep and meaningful discussions. For example, one Sunday afternoon several students began to discuss the Kyoto Treaty and possible U.S. participation. Some students decided to post information so that others could directly email the Bush Administration in support of environmental and political efforts to save the polar bear. Students began to understand that they had a strong voice via their publication on the web. There was no inappropriate use of the tool and discussions were very scholarly.”

If one can hide learning under the excitement of the technologies and communication tools, perhaps the students will never realise that their favourite activity is also good for them.

More statements from both sides will be forthcoming; and there are also extensive comments by participants (without, alas, a good way of searching them)

I agree with danah boyd’s characterization of both the pro and opposition comments as missing the point: “I’m frustrated with Ewan for collapsing all social technologies into “social networking” and I’m frustrated with Michael for being so afraid of technology that he lets technology dictate his reality.” After a lengthy and interesting response from Michael in her thread, danah rephrased the latter to “I should’ve talked about how your views reflect a cultural fear around technology rather than accusing you personally of being afraid.” She goes on to give her stab at a response:

In their current incarnation, social network sites (SNSs) like Facebook and MySpace should not be integrated directly into the classroom. That said, they provide youth with a valuable networked public space to gather with their peers. Depending on the role of school in their lives, youth leverage these structures for educational purposes – asking questions about homework, sharing links and resources, and even in some cases asking their teachers for information outside of the classroom. SNSs do not make youth engage educationally; they allow educationally-motivated youth with a structure to engage educationally.

Social network sites do not help most youth see beyond their social walls. Because most youth do not engage in “networking,” they do not meet new people or see the world from a different perspective. Social network sites reinforce everyday networks, providing a gathering space when none previously existed.

Educational pedagogy has swung over the years between focusing on individual-centered learning, group learning, and peer-to-peer learning. If you take a peer-to-peer learning approach, you are inherently valuing the social networks that youth have and maintain, or else you are encouraging them to build one. These networks are mediated and reinforced through SNSs. If there is pedagogical value to encouraging peers to have strong social networks, then there is pedagogical value in supporting their sociable practices on SNSs.

In a follow-on post, danah also points out that people are being very careless about defining their terms, and asks just what is a social networking technology?

There’s lots of other good discussion going on in different places about this, for example Will Richardson at Weblogg-ed, Vicki Davis at Cool Cat Teacher (which includes a lot of detail on the ways she uses Ning), David Warwick at 2 cents worth (and Henry Thiele’s response at Two Learn Twice), John Connell at his blog, and Ira Socol at SpeEdChange.  There’s a Facebook group as well, which is currently verrry quiet but who knows, could catch fire.  The cross-participation and cross-linking give a great feel for the educational power of social networking technologies – and the people learning from this are getting a chance to experience the participative and mutual educational approach that these technologies engender. Seems like a tale from the net in progress!

Updates: I edited on 1/19 to clarify in response to Michael’s comment below, and have been steadily adding to the last paragraph as the discussion unfolds.

posted by Jon at 4:22 pm  

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Unapologetic Mexican heads to MTV!

Nezua Limón Xolagrafik-Jonez, aka The Unapologetic Mexican, is a deservedly well-respected anti-racist blogger. His Glosario and later brief definition of terms reflect somebody who’s thought really deeply about both the issues and how to articulate them (see The White Lens for an example of his excellent and well-presented analysis). Over time, he’s gotten increasingly sophisticated graphically, for example in this recent The Story of Roderick Gamble and Silk Littlejohn and Clinton Camp woos Imus for ’08 Ticket — great bumper sticker!

A few months ago he posted that he was auditioning for an MTV call for vloggers; and lo and behold, he got selected as the 2008 Street Team representative for Oregon. As he says in his 2008: transition post, the move from a standalone text/graphical blogger to a network-affiliated video blogger will lead to changes:

I’ll be heavily engaging a citizen journalist/filmmaker role in this coming year. In addition to this vlogger gig that will be taking up most of my time (cuz baby, if ya gonna do it, do it right), I may be co-writing a column in a Mexican newspaper….

The posts that once gave (and occasionally still do give) this blog such a distinctive feel—daily posts for a while that took about eight to ten hours each (or at least for the first post of the day), as well as a regular offering of grafiks that take a fair amount of time all on their own—will at least for the time being, be absent. (In fact, you don’t need me to point out that they’ve been fading more and more since last summer, when I began to get more business in the world o’ grafikal illusion-making).

While those posts will of course be missed, he’s still blogging (and also on his non-political House of Nezua blog) — and helping other bloggers. What’s really exciting is that with this move his perspective and talent will now be on a much larger mainstream stage.

Go Nezua!

And great job by Natasha Smart for picking this up in her Reading List on MyDD, one of the hubs of the progressive blogosphere.

posted by Jon at 3:36 pm  

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Myspace and 49 state attorneys general announce “industry guidelines” for child safety

Myspace has announced a set of child safety measures — and proposed them as industry-wide standards.  Scott Duke Harris reports in the San Jose Mercury News:

Under an agreement with attorneys general of 49 states, MySpace agreed to a host of policy changes, including changing the default setting to “private” for 16- and 17-year-old users. The move represents another departure from the open, free-wheeling culture that helped make MySpace a teen sensation. Another measure allows parents to submit children’s e-mail addresses to limit the potential for the creation of bogus profiles.

There’s general praise for the change in default settings and other improvements like making it easier to report obscene content and abusive behavior.  Criticism has centered on the address list.  First of all, it’s not really likely to help very much, since kids can (gasp!) easily create new email addresses on gmail or hotmail or a zillion other sites.  And as Parry Aftab of Wiredsafety.org points out in the article:

“There’s no system that will work for age verification without putting kids at risk,” she said. “Age verification requires that you have a database of kids and if you do, that database is available to hackers and anyone who can get into it.”

Paula Selis, a senior counsel in the consumer protection division of the Washington State Attorney General’s Office, describes it as a “good start” in a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article, and noting that one out of five kids has been solicited online adds “you are going to probably see it proliferate even more and (be) used for even more things.”

Andy Greenberg’s MySpace’s Shaky Safety Balance on Forbes.com talks about MySpace’s challenges in this situation, and does a good job both of presenting privacy advocate’s concerns as well as those government officials (such as the Texas attorney general, who refused to sign on) who argue the filtering system still hasn’t gone far enough because it doesn’t require age verification — and the challenges of technical reality:

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal pushed MySpace to go further by creating a system that would automatically block users below the site’s minimum age of 14, and also prevent sexual predators from impersonating teens. “If we can put a man on the moon, we can do age and identity verification,” he said.

MySpace Chief Security Officer Hemanshu Nigam wasn’t so sure. “Today, there is no product that can prevent someone from pretending to be a different age than they really are,” he told reporters.

posted by Jon at 5:29 pm  

Monday, January 14, 2008

Marc Andreessen on adult content and porn on Ning

Marc Andreessen, originally of Mozilla/Netscape fame and now at Ning.com, has a lengthy blog post up on Porn, Ning, and the Internet.  The context here is suggestions that a large part of Ning’s traffic is from adult content; since Penthouse just spent $500 million acquiring a set of adult content-focused social networking sites including Adult Friend Finder, this wouldn’t be completely surprising.

Although he disputes the numbers (“adult topics and content are a relatively small percentage of the total activity on Ning”) and warns in general that reported numbers are often misleading (“I’m talking about Compete, Quantcast, Alexa, and even Comscore — none of their data maps in any way to numbers or patterns we see in our own server logs and activity metrics”),  Andreessen isn’t apologetic about the presence of porn and adult content on Ning.  In fact, he draws a hard line about why Ning doesn’t attempt to eliminate or restrict legal porn and adult content:

“In a nutshell, we aren’t pro-porn, but we are pro-freedom.”

However, he’s also very conscious that any social network platform like Ning needs to support the people who don’t want to deal with content that that find objectionable:

Social networks on Ning are segmented by definition — and networks can be configured to be totally self-contained, so you don’t see any content or users outside of your network.

You can use Ning safely for many purposes without ever being exposed to any potentially offensive content.

He ends by looking at how different internet companies have responded to porn, contrasting what he sees as the relatively balanced approach of some companies with the “much more activist — or harsher, depending on your point of view” approach of YouTube and Facebook:

I think both approaches — agnosticism and zero-tolerance — can work to build a business. We’re very comfortable with the approach we have chosen, because we find it comfortable to be on the side of relative openness and freedom, along with AOL, Yahoo, and Google.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to take this stance in the current climate where the 2257 regs (which have very onerous requirements on web sites which host content that could be considered adult) aren’t being actively enforced.  Still, it’s a strong statement that Andreessen is willing to be so explicit about Ning’s stance, rather than take the “let’s not talk about it” approach that AOL and Yahoo prefer.

posted by Jon at 3:13 pm  

Monday, January 14, 2008

Social.im: chatting with your Facebook friends

Your friends are spread across a bunch of IM networks:
Yahoo, MSN, AOL, Google, etc.

but they are all on Facebook!

Even though it’s not the first of it’s kind, social.im’s alpha release last week of a chat/instant messaging client for Facebook has gotten some good coverage, including by Megan McCarthy on her Wired Blog and Michael Harrington in Techcrunch. This version’s Windows-only; a Mac version, and clients for other networks, are in the works.

I really like the promise of a ‘universal’ client that can connect with my Facebook, Myspace, tribe.net, etc. friends as well as my MSN, Yahoo, and AIM contacts. My initial reaction is that this initial release wouldn’t help me personally in terms of connectivity: I already use multi-protocol IM clients (Adium on the Mac, Trillian on Windows) so while my friends are indeed scattered across networks I can connect with all of them. And a lot of my friends don’t use Facebook because it’s so creepy from a privacy perspective — or just because they don’t like it; so the implication that people aren’t your friends (and maybe don’t even exist) if they’re not on Facebook is really troubling.

Still, it’s worth keeping an eye on, and once they get a Mac client, I’ll check it out …

posted by Jon at 2:06 pm  
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