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New phone app: Color me (& us) careful!

The new Color photo-sharing app for iPhone and Android smartphones, is free, potentially fun, and has no age restrictions. And it will probably have a lot of appeal for our highly social, digital photography-loving kids who love to share and tag. It also has staying power. Color “has all-star founders who have an impressive track record,” reports ReadWriteWeb, and they raised $41 million to get this shiny new toy off the ground, with one investor telling a CNET reporter that only once or twice a decade does a company like this emerge from Sillicon Valley.

Through a parent’s lens

So here’s the not so shiny-new problem: privacy for adults, safety and privacy for kids. Picture this:

  • A bunch of 12-year-olds at various stages of undress, snapping away at a group sleepover, maybe playing a digitally-”enhanced,” developmentally normative game of “Truth or Dare”
  • Or slightly more grown-up people in the late stages of a frat party experiencing reduced levels of critical thinking
  • Or a couple of teammates in a locker room playing a little post-game “prank” (the prank that keeps on giving)
  • Or even slumber party + creepy parent parked in front of the hosts’ home also taking pictures with Color installed.

The first three scenarios are all about temporarily impaired or underdeveloped critical thinking, the last something else entirely that you already hear plenty about in the news. But if parents are concerned about the impacts that photos shared on Facebook can have on young reputations and social and emotional well-being, they need to be thinking about realtime, mobile, “multi-lens” photo-sharing that doesn’t have a minimum age, sends to and keeps in the “cloud” (the Internet) all the photos taken by everybody – whether known to one another or not – within 100 feet of one another, and makes all those photos available for as long as the people involved are interested in them. COPPA, the US’s children’s online privacy law, doesn’t even come up (thus no min. age). “Every photo, video, or text captured by each smartphone is instantly shared with surrounding phones also using Color,” Color says, adding that it’s all public. No photos can be marked private, which Color says keeps everybody honest. Hmm.

“Also using Color” in that quote above is an important qualifier, because it’s a non-experience if only one person in a crowd has installed the app. So it has to reach a critical mass of users before it actually becomes compelling, but a young peer group can reach peer-group-specific critical mass pretty fast. Once that happens, everybody involved becomes part of each other’s “beautiful photo diary, and you get a perfect representation of your life [or sleepover party] from everyone around you – like having disposable cameras all over the place at a wedding, and everybody gets to keep all the photos,” Color founder Bill Nguyen told my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid in an audio interview at CNET. Users can easily block individuals, but to do that they need to know who’s paying too much attention to them, it appears.

Color’s perspective

The Color people say the most effective safeguard is social norms, like “not yelling ‘fire!’ in a movie theater,” Nguyen told Larry. “There’s actually real accountability. Because when you take pictures in public, in the open, those pictures come with you. You won’t take inappropriate ones because when you go to work, those people nearby you at work will see them,” he said. There’s something to this, I think we’ll find, and users can delete photos or turn off the app any time. But Color seems to assume that users always act on rational thought, not impulse. “Along with making sure people will do the right thing [based on Terms of Service], we have really powerful enforcement tools as well,” Nguyen said. “If someone’s flagged an inappropriate picture, we’ll investigate, and when we deactivate their account, we’ve prevented a $600 smartphone from ever being able to use our app again.” He suggests that, on phones, accountability is so much greater than on the Web, but I keep wondering if they’ve thought about teens‘ mobile social norms, not just adults’.

I’m writing all this because Color is not just pushing the technology and human interface envelopes (in very interesting ways for users of all ages). It’s also pushing the privacy and safety ones by an order of magnitude. “When you take a picture or video, Color gathers a variety of information. It collects sound levels, Bluetooth readings, light readings, antenna strength, the time – even the direction you’re pointing your phone – and more and uses it all to determine your proximity to other users,” ReadWriteWeb.com reports. So the new reality that safety and privacy protection are a shared experience just got updated: With Color, it needs to be a real-time and not just real-world but on-the-spot shared experience, and sometimes a negotiation, not only for photo-sharers but also for everybody who has their best interests at heart, I hope including Color!

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