Tales from the Net

a work in progress

Thursday, January 31, 2008

A “Creative Commons” letter to The Economist’s editor?

We’re considering sending a letter to the Economist’s editor.  Here’s a draft:


In your recent debate on social networking technologies in education, the Moderator described the comments as “so good they should be bound and published”. We heartily concur that they should be published — and we ask that you unbind them and the speakers’ statements with a Creative Commons attribution (“by”) license.

Deborah Pierce, Jon Pincus (and potentially others)

Creative Commons License

Thoughts? Questions, suggestions, references, other perspectives?

Please discuss!

posted by Jon at 7:05 pm  

Thursday, January 31, 2008

“Black Blogosphere Proves Potent Force in Story of Race in the New South”

Reggie Royston interviews the Chicago Tribune’s Howard Witt, a civil rights correspondent and Southwest bureau chief based in Houston, for the Maynard Institute. A brief excerpt:

[In the spring of 2006, Witt wrote about 14-year-old Shaquanda Cotton, who was sentenced to seven years in prison for shoving a school hall monitor in Paris, Texas. That story led to national criticism of the Texas juvenile prison system.]

That story was published in March of last year, and very quickly a day or two after that I started getting a lot of e-mails from people who were encountering that story across the Internet and I was just curious where they were finding that story. I did a little Google searching and discovered that the story had been picked up on a number of these African-American blogs. They were, generally speaking, quite thoughtful and had interesting things to say. It wasn’t at all what I had assumed to be of blogs, which is generally a bunch of narcissistic stuff.

I also discovered that this was a very potent way for my stories to get distributed to audiences who would otherwise never see them. People who would never know about the Chicago Tribune or look at the newspaper were suddenly having access to the story via blogs or e-mails from people who saw it somewhere else.

Potent stuff indeed. Lots of discussion of the coverage of Jena; well worth reading.

Wikipedia’s Afrosphere page, Electronic Village’s Top ten black blogs (January 2008) are good places to find out more, as is There are 116 Black Blogs in the Afrospear/Afrosphere, a link list on Jack and Jill Politics — the same site that recently started up an experiment in community information gathering.

posted by Jon at 11:36 am  

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Economist’s debate: continuing the discussion

The comments in The Economist’s excellent debate on social networking technologies in education are now closed, so I guess it’s officially over. Fortunately, the discussion’s continuing in several places — somewhat fitfully thus far, but these things often have a way of gathering momentum:

  • Let’s define our terms on danah boyd’s apophenia is discussing semantics: just what do we mean by “social networking technologies”?
  • Ewan McIntosh’s The finale covers the digital divide, bans on Blogger in schools, feelings that practitioners were marginalized, and speculations on why the voting swung against the pro side, and more.
  • The Wikia page is a hub for collecting links and references to supplement the The Economist’s links; the page on Educational Networking collects resources on the broader topic.
  • A thread in the (registration required to view) Facebook group proposes that The Economist license the comments under Creative Commons, preferably attribution.

There are plenty of other interesting things to discuss — about the debate, about the underlying topic. So in the tradition of the political blogosphere, please treat this as a “post-debate open thread”, and jump in with links, observations, references, opinions, …

Some potential topics: Who else was marginalized in the debate? Which statements particularly rocked? How could the ‘pro’ and ‘con’ side have done better? How should The Economist improve their next debate (in early February, on privacy)? Why didn’t the tech blogosphere — or techies in general get involved? And perhaps most importantly:

How to build on this initial success?

The debate succeeded in getting issues on the table, giving a snapshot who is currently being included and excluded from the discussion, and creating connections where none existed before (check out of the comment stream of this thread, or any of the ones I linked to above). Now what?

posted by Jon at 8:21 am  

Sunday, January 27, 2008

CNN on “Parents crashing online party”

Parents crashing online party is a great complement to last week’s when worlds collide, looking at the challenges when parents are on the same social neworking sites as their kids:

Nowhere are the technological turf wars more apparent than on social networking sites, such as MySpace and Facebook, which went from being student-oriented to allowing adults outside the college ranks to join.

Gary Rudman, a California-based youth market researcher, has heard the complaints. He regularly interviews young people who think it’s “creepy” when an older person — we’re talking someone they know — asks to join their social network as a “friend.” It means, among other things, that they can view each others’ profiles and what they and their friends post.

And on Facebook, as my friend Bubba Murarka pointed out to me last week, it also means that they’ll potentially see any photos of you posted and tagged by your other friends.  Yikes!

Of course once you know that your parents (or their friends) are watching, you can do things differently … but there’s a cost:

Lakeshia Poole, a 24-year-old from Atlanta, says “my Facebook self has become a watered down version of me.” Worried about older adults snooping around, she’s now more careful about what she posts and has also made her profile private, so only her online friends can see it.

“It’s somewhat a Catch-22, because now I’m hidden from the people I would really like to connect with,” she says.

Really what I’d like is to have a couple of different personas, one for parents and colleagues, another for friends.  Some sites allow multiple accounts, which gives a way of doing this; but it’s a real pain: multiple places to check, multiple places to update, remembering which of your friends are where.  Other people use different networks for the different personas (for example, LinkedIn for professional purposes); that’s annoying too, in much the same ways.  So right now there really isn’t a great solution for this.

posted by Jon at 4:52 pm  

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  
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