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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Nokia wants to help family communication

If you're interested in how a mobile phone maker is thinking about how to improve family communication, listen to Rafael Ballagas at the Nokia Research Center in Palo Alto describe what his group - which does research for implementation 5-10 years out - is finding. They're looking at current family practices with an eye toward "promoting a stronger sense of family," Ballagas said. One thing they've found is that a lot of families still use standard voice calls, while children, particularly around 7 or 8, "have a lot of different difficulties communicating on cellphones," from cognitive (e.g. holding a phone up to their heads in a sustained way, pointing at things the listener can't see) to social (such as the give-and-take of voice conversations) to motivational (getting kids to stay engaged in audio-only conversations).

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Zillions of social network sites

There are now more than 1 million social network sites. Some may hear that and think, "Wow, a million+ Facebook- and MySpace-type sites?!" Well, sorta. What Mashable's actually reporting on with that figure is Ning's explosive growth. In the fewer than four years since Ning's launch, more than a million mini-MySpaces have sprung up on its network. These are smaller, more narrow-interest social network sites - from those focused on a particular celebrity to cooking to a conference to a local club - with all the same features (video, photos, groups, blogs, comments, etc.). This is different from MySpace and Facebook, which are huge and general - more social utilities than nings. Just another sign of the diversification of fixed and mobile social-Web use (see "Where will online teens go next?"). Meanwhile, here are very recent rankings of the big "stand-alone" social network sites from Hitwise and Nielsen at

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Sexting repercussions: Update

Here's a sampler of sexting cases (in three states) in the news this past week: Two Ohio 15-year-olds pleaded guilty to "contributing to the delinquency of a minor" and have been sentenced, the boy to 30 days' house arrest and the girl to writing a research paper for the court on the dangers of sexting and both to 100 hours of community service and no cellphones for 30 days, WHIO Radio reports. Investigators from the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office showed up at the homes of five Florida teens aged 14-16 with search warrants and "seized their cell phones and home computers, in a stunning sexting investigation," a Fox TV station there reports. As of Tuesday they had not been arrested, but the stakes are high in Florida if they are (see "FL teen a registered sex offender for sexting"). And in Nebraska, a 15-year-old high school freshman has been convicted and sentenced to 12 months' probation for sending nude photos to a 13-year-old girl, the first sexting conviction of a minor in that part of the state, the North Platte Bulletin reports. See also "Sending of Explicit Photos Can Land Teens in Legal Fix" in the Washington Post and our "Tips to Prevent Sexting" at You might also appreciate this meaty conversation on sexting on Capitol Hill, offering three important perspectives: that of law enforcement, from Monique Roth, senior counsel at the US Justice Department; Donna Rice Hughes, president of Enough is Enough, on the sexualized media environment; and Ting-Yi Oei, assistant principal of Freedom High School in Loudoun County, Va., on sexting incident at his school (see also "Asst. principal tells his own story").

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Deal with cyberbullying in laws?

It's a perfectly normal reaction to the cases of cyberbullying that make it into the news: "there oughta be a law!" But when you read about thoughtful debates on the subject such as the one at the Paley Center for Media in New York this week (see this Wall Street Journal blog), you begin to wonder what new legislation based on the most extreme cases would accomplish - especially since MySpace and Facebook, for example, provide the identities of cyberbullies to law enforcement when they get subpoenas to do so (without a subpoena, they're required by federal law to protect users' privacy). Protecting users' privacy and free speech while at the same time protecting them from libel, defamation, and physical harm is complicated, these debates show. Advocates of new legislation argue that "Internet providers ask for something beyond what other outlets, such as newspapers and magazines, ask, since they are liable for what they publish," according to a debater cited in the Journal blog. But that is the argument of those who doesn't understand the difference between social-media companies and mass-media publishing. Though no analogy's perfect, a slightly better comparison is social-network sites and phone companies. People are libelous on the phone, but the phone company isn't held responsible. In other words, the source of the libel is the person being mean, not the environment. Another lawyer cited by the Journal blogger said that "the Yahoos and Craigslists of the world are serving a different function, serving as community hubs rather than sources themselves." What complicates this, of course, is that - in social media - the libelous person's statement can be seen by others. This hybrid of the phone-company and publishing-company models is keeping legal scholars and legislators on their toes! So we will all stay tuned. [For some of the most thoughtful coverage of cyberbullying litigation and law, see Kim Zetter's "Threat Level" blog at Wired.]

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Learning how to navigate virtual communities: Key to digital citizenship

"Once you enter digital media - whether through email, social networking, blogging, or playing a game - you simply don't know how wide a community you're part of, you can't control that.... This is unprecedented in human history," Howard Gardner told Education Week in this video. He went on to explain that, in the past, we all "evolved to deal with groups of 50 or 100 people whom we knew, they knew us, and our morality - how we treated them - was based on everyday [in-person] experience." And those circles would widen as we grew up. "What's unique about digital media and our era," he continued, "is you can be as young as 7 or 8 and participate ... in some kind of a social network site or game and you are in touch potentially with thousands and thousands of other people, and so the former lag between behaving morally toward people you know and behaving ethically toward people in the community who you don't know - that's been lost. To me that's a very, very striking finding.... Once they go into digital media, people will be parts of much larger communities, and the only question then is, do they behave as good citizens or not?"

This is the psychologist and Harvard University professor of education who famously taught us about multiple intelligences. Gardner has been studying ethics and citizenship in American society for many years and most recently "Young People, Ethics, and the New Digital Media," part of his MacArthur Foundation-funded GoodPlay Project. The project's researchers asked five questions about ethics in digital media: "what is your sense of identity and how do you portray yourself to the rest of the world; what's your stance on privacy - your own and how you should relate to others' privacy; the issue of ownership and authorship (should that be respected or ignored in digital media?); issues of trust and credibility - whom you should trust and why you should be trusted; and what does it mean to belong to a digital community." Gardner said that last question turned out to be the most important question of all.

I think of this work as the kernel of the study of digital citizenship, which - along with social media literacy - represents the bulk of what's needed for "online safety" education by the vast majority of online youth going forward, those not already at risk offline (see "A new online safety: The means, not the end"). Listening to Gardner, I wonder how the two can possibly be separated - how can children learn to function appropriately and ethically in virtual communities without instruction also in media literacy? On the social, user-driven Internet, media and community have melted into each other.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

A summit for saving lives

I learned so much last week at a two-day gathering in Washington called a "Summit to Save Lives." SAMHSA, the US government's Substance Abuse & Mental Health Administration, brought together activists in the areas of suicide prevention, healthcare, social media, online safety, and government to develop strategies for growing the presence in all social media of information and help for anyone thinking about or affected by suicide. And this was not just about prevention, but online intervention and postvention (e.g., help for survivors) as well. [Please see the links list below for a sampler of the amazing people and organizations present.]

Here is just a partial list of info and insights:

The need: Some 33,000 people in the US took their own lives in 2006 (the latest figure available) - 91 people a day. And last year there was a 436% increase in the number of online suicide crises (people in suicidal crisis reaching out online), the reason for great interest at SAMHSA in social media. The normal range of dark thoughts in human beings is deeper and wider than most people know, I learned, and people need to be reassured of that - in many cases they don't have to believe they're in crisis and act that out.

Help on the social Web: The SAMHSA-funded National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800.273.TALK) has 2,000 friends in MySpace, 1,100 fans in Facebook, and has had 16,000+ views through the YouTube Abuse and Safety Center, but that and other projects aren't enough....

More help coming: SAMHSA and others in the fields of mental health and suicide prevention want to be everywhere - all online spaces - where there are people even thinking about suicide as well as friends who can help them. Because of social media, the range and number of helpers are growing. And even though the very social-network sites where they want to reach out are blocked at SAMHSA and other government agencies, the summit showed their determination to get past bureaucratic resistance. [Fortunately, they can use their cellphones at work - they recognize text-messaging as an important channel too.]

Users make the difference, Chris Le, CEO of Emotion Technology in Austin, told us. And Gallup, which has been doing research for SAMHSA, told us that "thousands of social-network-site users are active in educating and supporting fellow users to prevent suicide."

Other key risk prevention: I learned that RAINN (Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network), the US's largest anti-sexual assault organization, now has a national sexual-assault online hotline that goes to great measures to protect callers' anonymity and privacy. Why online? Because teens and 20-somethings are online, and 80% of all rape victims are under age 30. Why anonymity? Because the vast majority of sexual exploitation involves people the victims know, and it's vital that abusers don't know when victims are calling for help. Also: "More teens use the Web to find health information than to download music (75% vs. 72%)," RAINN told us. Other risk-prevention communities: Summit participants represented work with soldiers and veterans, youth, gay and lesbian youth, and native Americans and other ethnic communities.

To Write Love On Her Arms: You have to read this organization's story, really, to understand what it's about, because it's based on the story of a young woman in crisis, as written by someone who helped her - and who founded this organically growing organization on that story of hope. I saw heads around the room nodding as founder Jamie Tworkowski illustrated how people respond to honest messages of hope and inspiration (see NBC News).

Non-conventional media: I have been involved with social media for so long that I forget how revolutionary new media like social networking, tweeting, and texting are and how mysterious they can seem to those who, like me, didn't grow up even with email. I realized many people think...

1) social media are complex, sort of interactive conventional mass media in which people "get the message [or education] out" rather than the more appropriate approach: create a space and be an unintrusive, caring, credible, presence that people find, "friend" or "follow" and send friends to if or when needs arise
2) online community is somehow something in addition to and separate from people's offline social groups, instead of a visual representation of people's offline social networks
3) messaging has to be perfect before it's published, rather than - in the more spontaneous and social nature of new media - put out there as a kernal developed in collaboration with users. Social media is about creative networking and social producing, not the we're-the-experts, unidirectional style of mass media.

Next steps: As I listened, immersed for two days in a culture and language new to me, it occurred that these organizations had already taken the biggest next step. They were right then engaged in social-media development. As they spoke and acknowledged each other's work, they were networking as individuals, organizations, and interest areas. And just as "social networkers" do on the Web, it's just a matter of giving digital representation to the networks that are already in place. The Lifeline's pages in MySpace and Facebook are perfect examples. Now they can include links to, e.g., RAINN, The Trevor Project, the Hispanic Communications Network, Indian Health Service, Active Minds, the US Department of Veterans Affairs, and other sources of help. In social media, ideas and work grow organically - we learn as we go as individuals and organizations. There's something unnatural about ideas being preplanned and presented perfectly right out of the gate, as in old mass media. And there's safety and help in approaching both the medium and each other in this humble, open, authentic way - one that's based on and represents the respect and trust already in place in the "real world" network. Thank you, SAMHSA!

Related links

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - 1.800.273.TALK
  • American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
  • RAINN (mentioned above)
  • (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education)
  • (honoring a boy who committed suicide by raising awareness)
  •, which operates "the only nationwide, around-the-clock crisis and suicide prevention helpline for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth"
  •, "preventing suicide and emotional distress" among college and university students
  • To Write Love on Her Arms (mentioned above) - first online presence was on MySpace here
  • - "a mental health site for teens" from the Annenberg Foundation
  • - "changing the conversation about mental health," with chapters on more than 200 college and university campuses
  • (for "Suicide Prevention Action Network")
  • The Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention and Treatment
  • Inspire, which started 10 years ago in Australia, is now "creating opportunities for young people to change their world" in the US
  • In the federal government: Veterans Affairs, Indian Health Service, and SAMHSA

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