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Friday, October 27, 2006

Game ratings debate

Debate has heated up recently over whether the videogame industry is qualified to rate games (the way the film industry provides movie ratings). At a "summit" held in Minneapolis by the National Institute on Media and the Family, the organization's president, David Walsh, pointed out that, even as people discuss how games are rated, the process is only getting complicated by the fact that games are moving from discs inserted in players to the Web – "users can join online role-playing games that aren't covered by the current rating system [and] many of these games are hosted in foreign countries, muddling the issue of jurisdiction, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports. The question has also been raised (in Washington and in the news media) over how the rating is done. Raters "just view an hour-long videotape of an upcoming title's most graphic content. Game companies pick the content and submit the tapes themselves to the Entertainment Software Rating Board," the Washington Post reports. "The board says there isn't enough time to play every game in full to come up with a rating. The average game today contains dozens of hours of action. If the board discovers content it objects to after a game is released, it has the power to re-rate a title and, effectively, get it pulled off the shelves." The Post doesn't mention the key issue of how to rate games that are becoming more online services than products. In other words, videogames are increasingly like social-networking sites – content comes from the users, so by its nature is increasingly tougher to rate or control.

Another student's unwanted 'fame'

Wee Shu Min, a sophomore at Raffles Junior College in Singapore and daughter of a member of Parliament, found herself in the middle of cybercontroversy (see last week's "Student hit hard by Web fame"). She "sparked a heated debate on the Internet when she derided another blogger … for his views on the anxieties of Singapore workers," the UCLA Asia Institute's news service reports. She apologized and shut down her blog (after her college's principal and her dad said she'd been "counselled for using insensitive language." The blogger she criticized, Derek Wee, who works for a multinational corporation, had written that he was "concerned about competition from foreign talent and the lack of job opportunities for older workers" in Singapore. The student wrote, "Derek, Derek, Derek darling, how can you expect to have an iron rice bowl or a solid future if you cannot spell? There's no point in lambasting the Government for making our society one that is, I quote, 'far too survival of the fittest...' If uncertainty of success offends you so much, you will certainly be poor and miserable." She later suggested he "get out of my elite uncaring face." According to the report, "her attack was criticised by hundreds of Internet users, who accused her of being elitist, naive and insensitive to the lives of Singaporeans from humbler backgrounds."

Free speech & student blogging

The clash between high school administrators and students over the latter's online free-speech rights is increasingly being worked out in courts around the US, USATODAY reports. It appears that the participatory Web is forcing everybody – school officials and boards, parents, and students - to know more about First Amendment law than we've ever had to. In some cases students have been expelled for venting about school personnel in blogs or social sites. In a case in Texas, a student "was kicked off her cheerleading team last year when a friend posted a derogatory statement about other cheerleaders on her blog. [School] officials … said the posting was a violation of the code of conduct for cheerleaders [requiring] 'high moral standards'," according to USATODAY. One problem there, it appears, was a misunderstanding of how someone else can post in a person's blog. Anyway, "school officials say students are increasingly crossing the line from innocent rants about teachers to harassment or worse." But an American Civil Liberties Union attorney told USATODAY that punishment is appropriate in cases where students "post admissions of illegal activity - such as high-schoolers who post pictures of themselves drinking, doing drugs or committing other criminal acts … [or] racist remarks or postings that promote or predict violence should be punished." The Associated Press looks at educational and punitive activity at the college level. On a global scale, "bloggers are being asked to show their support for freedom of expression by Amnesty International," the BBC reports. Here's the Electronic Frontier Foundation's FAQ on student blogging and free speech . Meanwhile, blogging's not going away. Chicago Tribune Internet writer Steve Johnson blogs that, "with 175,000 new ones created every day, blogs [are] about to join the mainstream."

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Big social sites in decline?

The Wall Street Journal reports there is "a fringe of Internet users now renouncing MySpace and other social-networking sites – not in spite of their popularity but because of it." Because of that, and because the Journal reported that traffic at MySpace and Facebook's fell 4% and 12% respectively in September, a blogger at MediaPost asked, "Are kids getting sick of MySpace and Facebook?" and a blogger at MarketingShift wrote, "MySpace will become like the mall to a teenager on Friday nights. It's too crowded so nobody goes there anymore." I don't think it's that simple. Growth on MySpace and Facebook had to flatten out, but I don't think we're going to see anything like a mass exodus to niche sites any time soon. I think geographically-based social sites or or sites for new-school skiers or skateboarders are just another arrow in teens' social quiver. It's hard to move entire peer groups from one social site to another, and - until all the niche sites are interoperable with email and IM, there will always be a need for one that aggregates friends, potential friends, and even ex-friends who might come back into the circle at one's school. That's my impression of this latest development.

Dicey video-sharing

Yes, video copyright owners have issues with YouTube, Grouper, and Bolt, but they may have even more litigious feelings for TVU Networks. The Shanghai-based video P2P company provides a downloadable media player that "transmits TV shows [much less grainy than streamed video], including pay-for-view broadcasts, from U.S. and international broadcasters such as ABC, HBO, the Disney Channel, The Comedy Channel, Al Jazeera and Telecapri Sports of Italy," CNET reports, adding that TVU could be the next Napster. CNET cites copyright experts as saying the company "can't legally rebroadcast the shows" without the copyright owners' permission. In addition to distributing a player, TVU is different from YouTube because it doesn't let users upload videos and doesn't appear to be signing licensing agreements with copyright owners (aka media companies). Canadian online legal expert Michael Geist looks at the legal ins and outs. Parents, it might be interesting to see if your kids know about and, if so, whether they've downloaded TV shows from it. CNET says "the TVUPlayer appears to have gained attention in the United States following the 2006 FIFA World Cup tournament in Germany. Thousands of soccer fans downloaded the software in order to watch matches not available on US stations." The TVU story reminds me a little of the one about in Russia (see this item on the latter).

Families that play games together...

…are the sweet spot for console makers, the Washington Post reports. Some companies, e.g., Microsoft, *say* they want to sell more game players to little kids and women but keep selling action games that appeal more to teen an adult men. Nintendo is a different story, according to the Post. "So adamant is the company about reaching families who don't consider themselves game fans that it has taken to showing up on doorstops with its new system, called the Wii (which rhymes with 'me'). Seriously. Last month, the game company rented a moving truck and drove to the home of a Southern California mother of two girls, ages 8 and 3. Inside the truck were large-screen televisions and four units of the new console." The mom blogs about motherhood (this is a story about online marketing, too), and her family doesn't own any game consoles. Nintendo is thrilled that she wrote in her blog that she's now a fan of Wii. For its part, Microsoft told the Post "family-friendly" games are on the way. We'll see how it's looking for the PlayStation 3 when it becomes available next month. For a closer look at the three consoles, check out's reviews of Wii PS3, and Xbox 360. Meanwhile, MS has launched a campaign to teach parents how to use Xbox 360's parental controls, ArsTechnica and the BBC report (here's Microsoft's page about the safety settings).

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Fighting child porn: Update

Some 30,000 Web sites containing child pornography have been taken down in the past 10 years, Britain's Internet Watch Foundation announced, citing a study marking its 10th anniversary. "Although the number of UK websites providing such content has fallen [from 18% to 2%], the severity of the images has significantly increased in the last 12 months," the BBC reports. IWF chief executive Peter Robbins "blames this on pay-per-view sites that use sophisticated means to avoid detection." In a thorough update on anti-child-porn efforts, USATODAY summarizes the significant law-enforcement work going on while reporting that all these efforts on the part of credit card companies, Internet service providers, the Ad Council, and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) can't keep up. "In the past 24 months … the task forces have identified 6.5 million pornographic pictures of children online, up from 3,600 three years ago. Forty percent originated in the USA," USATODAY reports. A key reason for this flood of illegal content, it adds is that "much child porn isn't about money but pedophilia…. Many images are traded free like baseball cards." In releasing its CyberTipline reporting figures, the NCMEC said few of the report come from the victims. "Of more than 800 online child porn victims identified by the National Center, [Michelle] Collins [who runs the Tipline] says only about 30 blew the whistle. She says some are too young to describe what happened. Others are afraid. More than a third, 36%, were abused by a parent, 10% to 15% by another relative and 30% by other people they know. About 10% are enticed by strangers to post photos [such as in the case of Justin Berry – see "Kids & Webcams"]; 5% do it unasked."

Parenting social networkers

Even as social-networking sites multiply, so do articles about parenting their most avid users. This is great. It means the coverage is no longer just about sexual predation (there are other, non-criminal risks we all need to be discussing). So the reporting is getting more granular and helpful to parents. Here are some examples: The Sun-Herald in Mississippi led with the experience of 15-year-old Amanda Morris, who checks her MySpace profile about four times a day and whose mom checks it about once a month. In the same article, the Sun-Herald tells the sad story of another teenager who was expelled from school, she told school authorities, for having a handgun in her car because "she feared being physically attacked by a group of girls who recently posted threatening messages on MySpace" – a more extreme example of cyberbullying that we're probably going to hear more about in the coming months, as a risk of online socializing (in IM and phone texting as well as Web sites) which will affect a great many more kids than predators gets increasing coverage. Another good sign: The same day the Sun-Herald also ran a clear-headed, balanced commentary about social networking by Chloe Harvill, high school student and member of the paper's teen advisory board.

In other tech-parenting reports, Wall Street Journal Work & Family columnist Sue Schellenberger looked at "How Young Is Too Young When a Child
Wants to Join the MySpace Set?"; Business Week earlier looked at social sites for the "sandlot set"; and the Washington Post more generally considered "Mom vs. the Machines." In "Experts cite need for online parenting," the Cape Cod Times focuses on parents' general bewilderment with the social Web, and across the country the Tucson Citizen looks at teen socializing online from a southern Arizona perspective. The Vancouver Sun, in the land of what is reportedly western Canada's most popular social-networking site,, in July went very in-depth on the social Web's attraction for youth and how grownups of all perspectives (parenting, law enforcement, advocacy, etc.) are handling it. See also Wired News's "Teens Online: Not a Freak Zone."

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Web 2.0 in the classroom

Ever wonder how the social Web might be used at school (by educators as well as students)? An article by tech educator David Warlick in provides a bunch of insights. Take social studies teacher Mrs. L, for example: She "scans through [Web] sites tagged genetics in the school's social bookmark service. Her students may need quick access to them as they discuss genetic engineering current events during class…. All assignments in Ms. L's class are turned in via blogs because she finds that their conversational nature encourages students to think and write in more depth than traditional formal essays or short answer assignments…. [She] crafts the blog assignments with an eye toward training students to think critically and to post informed, well-considered opinions. A common classroom activity, for instance, is to have students read the blogged entries of others and write persuasive reactions — one in agreement, another in disagreement — and post these writings as comments to their classmates' blogs." David Jakes, another tech educator, responded with what he felt was a needed reality check. In "Is MySpace Your Space As Well?" ed-tech expert Andy Carvin is among the first to look at what might be tricky about having students and teachers in the same social space after school hours (in his blog at, and USATODAY covers teacher blogs as an opportunity to vent job dissatisfaction ("blog tracking website lists 848 teacher blogs"). See also the Seattle Times, for a more elementary-school-level view, and the Houston Chronicle's "Plugged in for learning."

Best 'search engine': Librarians!

I hope this doesn't come as a surprise: Librarians are even more irreplaceable now than before the Web came along. Why? Because we are increasingly awash in information, which requires increasingly critical thinking. Librarians are critical thinkers extraordinaire. They're media literacy experts. They can help you search the Web intelligently and also find books (remember those?) and other reference and media materials that just might have more than a Web site can offer. Besides, CNET reports, most Web researchers rely on the info they get in the top few search results. For example, if you search for "Martin Luther King" in three of the most high-traffic search engines, you get the site of a white supremacist group in the first or second results. So, if a librarian isn't handy, here are some resources that they'd probably recommend, CNET reports: Librarians Internet Index ("Web sites you can trust"), and The Internet Public Library, and Infomine ("Scholarly Internet Resource Collections") at the University of California, Riverside. BTW, here are CNET's "Top 10 Research Tools."

Monday, October 23, 2006

Mobile social networking

That would be social networking by cellphone. The trend is gathering steam, with Helio for MySpace users, Google's Dodgeball, Silicon Valley start-up Loopt, and Microsoft's SLAM (see ComputerWeekly. These services take advantage of the GPS (global positioning system) technology now in most new phones. So, in timely fashion, the New York Times looks at the related dilemma of parents: when to get them their first cellphones. The Times goes into that other, parental, reason for using GPS-enabled phones. "Most of the major wireless companies have introduced a Global Positioning System technology that allows someone (parents presumably) to track children using cellphones. There is, for example, the Chaperone Service through Verizon Wireless, Family Locator from Sprint and Wherifone by Wherify Wireless" – which of course only works when the phone is on the child's person (key consideration for kid-phone decisionmaking: how old are they when they're better about not losing their phones!). The Times writer thinks it's all a bit "creepy" – what do you think? (Email me your comments via Here, too, is some school cellphone policy perspective from the Albany Democrat-Herald.

Social media research: Major funding

I doubt there was ever a faster-moving subject for research: studying digital natives! They will be constantly moving under the microscope. For that reason, the financial commitment, and the scope of the study, this is a significant milestone in our understanding how young people use the social Web and digital media. The MacArthur Foundation has just announced it's committing $50 million over the next five years for research designed to help "build the field of digital media and learning," the foundation announced. Now the public discussion can get both more granular and broader, moving beyond the incessant message to parents that they need to fear social networking. I'm also excited to see the MacArthur researchers will be paying particular attention to how to teaching media literacy and critical thinking in and out of the classroom, "ethical uses of digital media," and "engaging young people directly via Global Kids, a nonprofit youth development organization, and a University of Chicago effort to expand after-school media literacy programs in Chicago. Here's MacArthur's site on the project and researcher Danah Boyd's blog post on the announcement and an associated conversation.