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Friday, August 22, 2008

How to protect from defamation?

That's an unanswered question where the social Web's concerned. Social sites seem to have more protection from US law than their users have right now. A little-known section of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) is what protects - rightfully, I think - Internet service providers and social-networking sites from liability for what's posted by users of their services, reports co-director Larry Magid in his column in the San Jose Mercury News. It's a little like the way the phone company is not held liable for the nasty things people sometimes say to each other when using its service. [What's different about the social Web, of course - and what makes it much harder for victims or parents not to blame the service provider - is that what users say to or post about each other is public, so the damage can be amplified, reposted, searched for, and perpetuated.]

Anyway, US law so far protects the service provider. The only thing that protects users from each other is the customer service departments of the more responsible social sites, or service providers. For example, MySpace takes down harassing imposter profiles, once it goes through its own internal process of proving that someone's being victimized by someone else who set up a profile impersonating the victim. (It's not always easy to prove what people claim is happening online - sometimes people will say they're being victimized to get someone else kicked off the site, or kids pose as parents to get other kids' profiles taken down.) Not even sites' Terms of Service really protect users, according to a researcher I spoke with recently, who said that sites' Terms are more guidelines than enforced rules. In any case, whether or not Terms of Use are enforced depends on the site.

There are sites like, where victimized users are just out of luck. Larry writes that, when he visited JuicyCampus recently, "the second most prominent post [he found on the home page] read: "paul [his last name, deleted here, was in the post] is a _______ piece of ____ [expletives deleted] who is a closet gay that gets drunk and fools around with other guys secretly." As mean and possibly libelous as that is, Larry writes, the site "can't be touched.... In theory, 'paul' could try to take action against the person who wrote the statement," but JuicyCampus would have to help him find who made the statement. US federal privacy law (different from CDA) prevents any site from revealing the identity of one user to another without a subpoena or other court-issued document. JuicyCampus, though, actually helps people who make such statements stay anonymous, Larry reports, by advising them to use a search engine to find services "that offer free IP-cloaking" (hiding the IP number associated with their computers for anyone trying to find them). Besides, speech like that seen in JuicyCampus, may be hateful and defaming, but it isn't necessarily criminal - it's more along the lines of cyberbullying (not that this doesn't make it less damaging).

With no real recourse, what are victims and their advocates (e.g., parents) to do? This is a discussion that the industry, consumer advocates, and legal experts need to have (or continue!). But all that's at the macro, societal, level. Obviously, there's much that can be done at the micro – household – level, as well as at school. We all need to be helping young people with whom we have influence to think just as critically, alertly, and ethically about how they behave online as they do offline. Nothing should ever take ethics out of the mix. The relatively lawless social Web demands ethical behavior more than anywhere.

The message to our children is: Anonymity and disinhibition change nothing. Not being able to see the other person you're talking to or about is all the more reason to think of that person as a fellow human being. I've never liked the term "cyberspace" because "cyber" suggests robotics. The participatory Web is not alien territory populated by robots – it's another place where human beings hang out.

Your thoughts on this are most welcome – post them in our forum or email them to me via anne(at)

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How people use the Web

People's favorite things to do on the Web are: using search engines, checking email, watching and sharing video clips, and social networking, in that order. That's what seems to be saying in "What Are People Actually Doing on the Web?" On No. 3: "There are plenty of sites devoted to the art of, well, lollygagging. Take YouTube, Americans' sixth-most-hammered site, with 75 million unique visitors last month, each of whom spent an average of one hour per visit." As for that fourth pursuit, "to be sure, social networking is still a youthful pursuit - Generation Y (ages 18 to 28) is nearly four times as likely to frequent such sites as are the 29-and-over population - but the speed at which this phenomenon has taken hold is breathtaking. Consider that back in July 2005, "Thefacebook" ranked No. 236 on Nielsen's list, with nearly 4 million unique visitors. By last month, the social networking site - now called simply Facebook - had scaled its way to No. 16, with over 34 million uniques [visitors]."

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Tinker Bell on a phone near you

For socializers too young to drive, mobile phones are lifelines, and Disney has fresh plans to capitalize on that fact. Reporting on this, Forbes cites Multimedia Intelligence figures showing that "the US had more than 16 million teen mobile subscribers in 2007, up 12% from 2006." Forbes adds that Walt Disney Internet Group estimates that more than half of US 10-year-olds own phones, and Disney wants to "'own' those mobile customers." Last year Disney launched its own site for phone screens. Now it plans to sync that mobile site with its Web sites and next month debuts "a registration system that will allow users to access their profiles automatically via their cell phones. A digital storefront - a one-stop online market for purchasing Disney games, ringtones and wallpapers - will follow," Forbes reports. (Parents, these purchases will bear added to the family cellphone service bill.) Other plans: phone-to-phone (another kind of P2P) instant messaging with a profanity filter, a downloadable "Fairy Friend" aimed at girls who like caring for a Tamagotchi-like Tinker Bell; a Pirates of the Caribbean downloadable mobile game in which players can earn virtual coins they can spend at; and GPS capabilities by which users can detect friends at Hannah Montana concerts and "automatically send them exclusive content, such as a new song" (let's hope they contact only real-life friends at concerts!). Forbes doesn't mention financial and other parental controls that could help keep costs and contacts under control. Meanwhile, CNET reports that "Disney wants to socialize with parents, too."

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Top cellphone picks for students

Yes, it has come to that: cellphones among back-to-school supplies (though maybe not on school administrators' lists!). "All cell phones are not created equal, and some are better suited for students than others," CNET reports. CNET editors picked a quiver of phones that, in various ways - e.g., full QWERTY keyboard, organization tools, multimedia features – are suited for students.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Social Web interoperability: Potential risks

Every now and then we hear the term "interoperability" held up as some sort of holy grail of online socializing, but parents might want to know that it's not necessarily all upside. It allows not only for uniform screennames and password across multiple sites but also for sharing mini applications, such as photo slide shows, across various sites. The problem is, some sites are "safer" or show more corporate responsibility than others, and it's not easy for users – especially teens acting spontaneously – to be aware of how well many sites protect their privacy, for example. And they may have a safe, manageable sense of community with real-life friends on one site but be sharing content on another with an entirely different community. Interoperability first arrived on my radar when instant messaging was the new "killer app" and AIM users wanted to IM with MSN Messenger ones. Now there are movements afoot such as OpenSocial aimed at creating interoperability among social-network sites., an early player on the social Web now much more popular in Southeast Asia than the US, is the latest social site to join Google's OpenSocial, the Associated Press reports. Other participants in OpenSocial are Yahoo, MySpace, Hi5, LinkedIn, Ning, Google's Orkut, and Bebo, the AP adds.

Microblogging: Heads up

It might be interesting to ask your kids if they're Twittering these days ("microblogging" is the generic term if they're using a service other than early entrant Twitter). Microblogging is basically a blow-by-blow account of one's life, sent via phone or Web site. Kind of hard for some non-digital natives to imagine doing ("so very narcissistic" is the dismissal I've heard, or "why would my friends care if I'm at such-and-such a conference or the grocery store?"). Well, some adults and a lot more young people do want to know and share up-to-the-minute activities and thoughts. It's a form of intimacy and presence that express highly connected friendship, manifest in Facebook newsfeeds and prolific phone texting (for a bit more on intimacy, see "Fictionalizing their profiles"). However, as with all technologies, there's a potential downside along with the upsides, and youth don't always think about the former. "There is the risk that teens could use microblogs to reveal personal information or engage in a relationship with someone whose intentions are less than honorable," writes my co-director at ConnectSafely, Larry Magid in Yahoo!Parents. "By default, Twitter messages can be seen by anyone, so if you want privacy you need to go into Settings and click 'Protect my updates' to make sure only people you approve can see what you type. Otherwise anyone can 'follow' you and see what you enter." Please see his piece for more on this. See also "The text version of hanging out" and "Do you Twitter?"

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Teen fashion blogs: Creative outlet

A New York Times style writer reads these teen fashion blogs and "weeps," according to the sub-headline. "Meet the next generation of style bloggers. They might not be able to drive yet, but their fashion sense is so incredible, it's actually intimidating," Elizabeth Spiridakis writes. Ten years ago, teen fashionistas would pore over their issues of Vogue. Now they have their own readerships. Spiridakis points out a number of them in her article. "These sites are part of a developing sense of fashion and self, today's equivalent of doing your hair 20 ways before bedtime. Only you use a digital mirror." And your audience is part of that mirror, posting comments and possibly shaping your fashion sense. This is participatory creativity, learning, maybe even career development. For more on teen design and artistry online, see this in the New York Times last February and this on the study behind these findings.

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Psychologists on videogame impacts

A series of studies about videogames presented at the just-ended American Psychological Association convention pointed to more positive than negatives. According to an article in the Hartford Courant, researchers suggested that "video games can be powerful learning tools - from increasing the problem solving potential of younger students to improving the suturing skills of laparoscopic surgeons. One study even looked at whether playing "World of Warcraft," the world's biggest multiplayer online game, can improve scientific thinking." A Wired blog on the findings cited one presenter as saying, "The single-best predictor of [a surgeon's] skills is how much they had played video games in the past and how much they played now." It also said gamers of different ages approach videogames differently. For example, younger gamers focus more on planning and problem-solving, while teens focus more on the "here and now." Here's more in-depth coverage from the psychologists at Meanwhile, the Nintendo Wii is still the top-selling game console. Nintendo sold 555,000 Wii systems last month, compared to PlayStation 3's 224,900 units and Microsoft Xbox 360's 204,800, USATODAY reports. Here's the ESRB on "what parents need to know about videogames," courtesy of the Lynchburg (Va.) News & Advance.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Be sure they're real friends!

Tell your kids not to feel bad if they fall for fake friend requests in a social-networking site. After all, some of the smartest computer-security professionals have fallen for them. What's important is that they know to be alert. Accepting new friends indiscriminately is really becoming bad news, reports. The article says two top network security executives conducted an experiment, creating "fake profiles of prominent computer security professionals" on several social-network sites, and then sending out "plenty of friend requests to other security experts. They were so astounded by the results they presented to the Black Hat hacking conference" in Las Vegas this week. "Each time they lured in more than 50 new friends within 24 hours. Some of those people were chief security officers for major corporations and defense industry workers."

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