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Friday, September 05, 2008

Virtual Worlds field trip

One of the most interesting comments made at the second-annual Virtual Worlds Conference I attended in L.A. this week was from Jon Landau, producer of Titanic and of a project-in-progress called Avatar. Landau said, "I grew up being taught to worry about 'big brother'; with the Internet we have to worry about little brother." I don't think anybody else heard that quite as acutely as an advocate of children's online safety would. Not only is little brother watching, little brother (of any age, basically everybody on the user-driven, fixed and mobile network) is commenting, uploading, producing, entertaining, collaborating, socializing, and exploring identity, as well as creating imposter profiles, gaming the game system, sending nude phone-snapped photos, etc. We're dealing with a new set of blended conditions, with online life not just mirroring "real life" but changing it as well, in subtle ways we don't yet fully understand.

One thing that's clear from the research but was confirmed (in my head, not yet by speakers) everywhere I turned at the conference: digital ethics and citizenship have to be central to the discussion as we learn how to negotiate this new space where – definitely for kids, in any case - the line between online and offline is fading. Learning how to behave ethically in community whether digital or physical is central to children's well-being online, right now and increasingly as we move forward.

Really exciting projects are going on in and with virtual worlds in schools around the US and world. Check out the collaborative work between schools in California, Japan, and Australia at PacRim Exchange; with libraries in Teen Second Life and youth librarians of the Eye4You Alliance; on virtual islands for public school students (Ramapo Islands) in Teen Second Life; and in Second Life and New York City with nonprofit Global Kids, which aims to help "transform urban youth into successful students as well as global and community leaders" (I want to zoom in on some of these powerful projects in future posts).

I spoke with a northern California principal, Patti Purcell of Bel Aire Elementary School, about Bel Aire's six-week pilot project teaching students digital citizenship "in-world" and in the classroom with the help of children's virtual world Dizzywood. Patti told me she felt students needed a space where they could actually practice what they learned in character education, which has long been part of the curriculum. One lesson was in collaborative tree-planting. Dizzywood co-founder Scott Arpajian told me certainly any child can plant a tree in Dizzywood, but the "game" is designed so that planting gets "exponentially faster [and a lot more fun] when they help each other out." Students are given time to explore the virtual world (they're given "agency," a sense of place and ownership in-world), but the experience is structured too, with in-world activities always followed by classroom discussion. "Graduation" included presentations by the students before an audience of parents who were very interested in how character ed was taught in a virtual world. Patti said, "It's very empowering for a 10-year-old to be able to explain their space to a group of adults." Two other cool elements: students participate in creating their own code of ethics, and Scott told me Dizzywood lets them look "under the hood" - learn about how Dizzywood's techies and graphic designers create its activities and habitat (something aspiring designers and software engineers would be fascinated with).

A few general virtual-world-industry themes I picked up on (signs of where things are headed): not making users download special software, but bringing virtual environments to them right through their Web browsers; whether kid virtual worlds should "grow up" with their users (as has happened with about 10% of's users, now in college); predictions of a merging of social networking and virtual worlds; your avatar going wherever you go on the Web (not locked into a single virtual world); and other signs of interest in or movement toward interoperability.

Going to this conference was a déjà vu kind of experience for me. Though it wasn't just about kid products and services, it felt a lot like Jupiter Media's "Digital Kids" conferences in the late-'90s: a very young industry trying to get a fix on metrics, markets, and competition folding in lots of start-ups, a handful of well-established B2B and B2C companies (,, Second Life, Multiverse) and one or two old, giant media players (e.g., Disney) barreling ahead, seemingly announcing a new "world" about every six months (Pirates of the Caribbean, ClubPenguin acquisition,, forthcoming Cars world). Lots of numbers were tossed around (some admitted by the speaker to be educated estimates because research is limited): a current 100 million+ virtual-world residents worldwide, 75% between the ages of 8 and 24, with virtual worlds "about to collide" with the Web's 550 million social networkers worldwide, and a current $1.5 billion market in virtual goods (e.g., weapons in World of Warcraft, clothes and furniture in Second Life). One number that has been researched – by the conference's organizers – is that there are now more than 150 virtual worlds for youth 3-17 either available or in development (see this post).

Related links

  • "ClubPenguin's newest competition"
  • "Top 8 workarounds of kid virtual-world users"
  • "Here comes social gaming"
  • "Xbox Live with avatars"
  • "Benefits from having virtual selves"
  • Virtual World News

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  • Kid-driven community 'newspapers'

    The big city dailies could be a little discouraged. The Club Penguin Times "is more widely read than the New York's Daily News, the Chicago Tribune or the Dallas Morning News. And it's not even 3 years old," the Los Angeles Times (bravely) reports. Assuming all penguins in Disney's kid virtual world read the CP Times, its circulation is 6.7 million. And this is user-generated journalism. The paper "attracts 30,000 daily submissions from children, who pose questions to Dear Abby-inspired 'Aunt Arctic,' compose verse for the poetry corner, tell a joke or review a party or event." Someone should do a comparative study of kid virtual world papers. Possibly a precursor to Club Penguin's paper is the Whyville Times of, which launched way back in 1999. Yasmin B. Kafai, a professor of learning sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, told the L.A. Times that the Whyville Times "provides a mixture of standard newspaper features, such as TV reviews, along with reader-submitted essays. Such digital forums can promote literacy, Kafai said, because they encourage kids to do it on their own, without prodding from teachers or parents."

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    Stealth surfing further enabled

    Parents who rely on browser history to keep an eye on kids' Web-surfing habits might want to know that stealth browsing is getting easier - at least for Windows PC families. Internet Explorer 8, now available in beta, "lets users surf without having a list of sites they visit get stored on their computers," CNN reports. "The program also covers other footprints, including temporary Internet files and cookies, the small data files that Web sites put on visitors' computers to track their activities." USATODAY says "anonymous Web browsing ... may be the most attention-grabbing feature in the new Beta 2 release" of Explorer 8. The good news for parents using the light, browser-history form of monitoring is that, when Windows Vista "parental controls are activated, InPrivate Browsing is disabled," Microsoft says on its corporate page about this new browser feature.

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    Thursday, September 04, 2008

    Silently advertising to teens

    This is advertising that in some case kids (or their parents) possibly unthinkingly pay to see. And - they're on an unlimited-text-messages - it's probably a good idea for everybody to be aware of. As the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times reports in "Retailers know texting is the totally best way to reach teens," "sale alerts, fashion tips and sweepstakes giveaways" have definitely moved from email to cellphones. " JCPenney, surfer/skate shop Tilly's and Beall's department stores all text-messaged sale alerts and offered downloadable ring tones and cell phone games as part of their back-to-school promotions this year." The Times says that "just around the corner" are ad techniques like stores sending text-message special offers to their "club members" who pass by with GPS-enabled phones and store signs with bar codes that, when captured with a shopper's picture phone, provide full sale info on the phone by text or voice. On the other hand, reports that US 12-to-17-year-olds "are not particularly receptive to mobile ads. In fact, the relative simplicity of their phones and the fact that nearly 70% of teens need their parents to pay the bill ... makes them poor campaign targets."

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    Wednesday, September 03, 2008

    Important decision on fair use

    It was an important decision for all those digital video producers and YouTube users out there. The Los Angeles Times called a San Jose federal court decision last week "a victory for fair use." Judge Jeremy refused to dismiss a lawsuit that a Pennsylvania woman filed after Universal Music Publishing forced YouTube to remove a video of her children cavorting to an old Prince hit," the Times reports. "But it may prove Pyrrhic, as the judge expressed doubt that the woman would ultimately be able to prove her case." According to PC Magazine, the judge said that "content owners must consider 'fair use' before sending Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices." The case was about a 29-second home video depicting little kids dancing in a kitchen to Prince's "Let's Go Crazy."

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    Tuesday, September 02, 2008

    Students' online free-speech rights

    Law Prof. Mary-Rose Papandrea at Boston College recently looked at "all of the various justifications for limiting juvenile speech rights" - including the in loco parentis doctrine and Tinker's material disruption test - and "concludes that none of them supports granting schools broad authority to limiting student speech in the digital media." In "Student Speech Rights in the Digital Age," she advises that, instead of making punishment or the restricting of digital speech, schools' primary approach should be to "educate their students about how to use digital media responsibly." Her article will appear soon in the Florida Law Review.

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    Everybody's 'digital dossiers'

    Most people have no idea how many details of their lives are out there on the Net - copious detail, increasingly easy for anyone to find and put together. "These data points, some publicly accessible, others safeguarded to various degrees by companies and agencies that collect and store this data 'make' Andy's identity - as it forms, even before he himself begins to shape it," starting with the sonogram that goes into hospital records and the details behind a newborn's bar-coded bracelet. "Andy" is just a name pulled out of the air by the producers of a video on our "digital dossiers." The video is a project of the Digital Natives group at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "Andy's digital dossier will even grow after his death - photos or videos of the funeral, RIP messages on MSN Messenger, or as Facebook status posts. Andy probably never knew how large his dossier was. How aware are you of the digital tracks you leave behind?" the producers ask. At the end of it are some resources for further information about the digital tracks we leave just about everywhere we go, online or offline. Here's a description in the Digital Natives blog.

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    Monday, September 01, 2008

    US tweens prefer to be online

    US kids now prefer the Web to television, the New York Times reports. It cites research from search marketing firm DoubleClick Performics showing that 83% of US 10-to-14-year-olds spend an hour or more a day online, compared to 68% of children in the same age bracket who watch an hour or more a day of TV. Interesting note about social networking among members of this age group (most underage for popular social-network sites' Terms of Use): "Performics reported that some corners of the Internet were more popular with the children than others. While 72% of the children online belonged to a social networking site (usually MySpace), 60% of them said they rarely or never read blogs."

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