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Friday, June 12, 2009

Social site + virtual world = Hi5

It's the first marriage I've seen of social networking and virtual worlds: that of Auckland-based Small Worlds and San Francisco-based, by most measures one of the world's Top 20 social-network sites. A bit about (which is not a kids' virtual world) from Venture Beat: Like Hi5, it's aimed at people 13 and up. It has signed up 650,000 users since launch last December, about 65% of them female and half aged 13-18 (30% 19-35). One of its attractions is that, in building out your "small world," you can "easily import anything [you've] created on the Web." Small Worlds also has "built-in incentives to keep users coming back. The more you participate, the more access you get to virtual items." Hi5 had already launched its games channel earlier this year, so this seems a very logical next step. It also already had a virtual economy in place (users could pay for virtual gifts with real-money-based Hi5 "Coins"), so now users will have spaces in which to place virtual furniture, art, plants, etc., along the lines of the very international Habbo, which could be considered a precursor to the Hi5/SmallWorlds arrangement. What's new is mature social network and fairly well-established VW making a go of it together.

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Microsoft: Forget the controller

Is it a trend, or is Microsoft just trying to leapfrog Nintendo as it goes for more family videogame players? Maybe both. First, with the Wii, Nintendo turned the videogame controller into "a simple swing-and-swivel device. Now Microsoft wants to ditch the controller entirely and leave the swinging and swiveling to you," USATODAY reports. With the help of none other than Steven Spielberg, Microsoft made the point at the recent E3 gaming conference that controllers are intimidating to people and - despite the huge videogame market - 60% of households don’t own videogame consoles. So it unveiled the console-less "Project Natal" with demos of "a painting game that lets players fling paint onto the screen like Jackson Pollock" and a "dodgeball-type game [that] had a player moving forward and back, left and right, using arms, legs and the whole body to ricochet balls and knock down walls of 3-D tiles," USATODAY adds - but with no details on pricing or release date, the Christian Science Monitor adds. But Nintendo keeps innovating too, also with sensors. At E3, it showed off a "Vitality Sensor," which takes videogame players' pulses, Forbes reports. It's "another milestone in Nintendo's quest to break down traditional definitions of videogames," Forbes says, but adding that Nintendo didn't announce what role the sensor would have in future games.

But back to the controller. Microsoft probably hopes that the 60% of households who don't own consoles won't just play games on cellphones. The New York Times recently reported that the iPhone is becoming a significant gaming platform, with games representing three-quarters of "the most popular paid downloads" from the iPhone App Store (Apple also recently announced that 1 billion apps had been downloaded from the store in its first nine months). But beyond games, iPhone's just about all things to all people - it can be anything from a baby rattle (USATODAY reports) to a musical instrument (hear it on the YouTube video).

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Online privacy: Photos out of control

Baby pictures, family photos, travel pix, party photos, whatever - there can be far-reaching unintended consequences of posting them online, whether you're blogging, social networking, or photo- or video-sharing by phone or computer. Take mom and dad bloggers, for example. They post a lot of photos of their families, and their numbers are significant. Johnson & Johnson's, a parenting portal, estimates that there are 5 million mom bloggers in the US, Advertising Age reports. More needs to be said about what can happen to the photos they post.

One mom blogger's serendipitous discovery that a photo of her family filled a Prague grocery shop window is a case in point. An old friend was in the Czech Republic and had driven by the shop, Grazie, when he saw the giant photo of Danielle of the blog, her husband, and two kids (see her post for illustrations).

As of this writing, nearly 360 people have posted comments about the incident, the vast majority of them shocked that it had happened, some suggesting that she get a lawyer (US? Czech?) and sue the shop so her family could make money on this "advertising"! But the value that can be derived from this experience is the reminder that photos and videos are out of control the instant they're posted online or sent around by phones and other digital devices are good. Even if privacy options are used, people who are allowed access can unthinkingly, sometimes intentionally, copy and paste them elsewhere. It's also a great reminder that the Web is global, and each country has its own laws about intellectual property and privacy rights.

High res, low res. One smart commenter to Danielle's post offered a very likely scenario for what happened in her case:

"Go to google. Type in 'happy family.' Select search results to display huge files, and there you are on Page 1 of the image results. Here's the link. Comes from, not facebook." Sure enough, a photo with high enough resolution for printing is on that page.

Danielle later wrote that she remembered having posted a very high-resolution version of her family photo in some site other than Facebook, which - when I asked Facebook's spokesperson Barry Schnitt about this - told me "we have not, are not, and will not sell user content." Facebook also says, "the rights you give Facebook are subject to your Privacy Settings." So, through using those settings, if you tell Facebook (and other responsible sites, hopefully) that only your friends can see your photos, it can't share them with anyone besides those people on your friends list. In other words, take advantage of privacy features!

Another helpful tip to family bloggers: While you're posting, post only the lowest-possible resolution, ideally the most common on the Web, 72 dpi (some sites, like Facebook, I believe, don't even allow higher res in order to save space on their servers). That does nothing to stop people from using your photos elsewhere on the Web, but it makes it just about impossible for them to be used in print for commercial purposes, as was the case with Danielle's photo in Prague. It's also a good idea to check photo-sharing sites' Terms of Service to see who has the rights to photos people post in those sites.

Children's privacy. Now for a more disturbing reminder: A teacher and parent's earlier blog post about photos he'd posted of his 4-year-old daughter (well-clothed in the images) had been "favorited" in Flickr. He checked the situation out, and here's what he found: "three pages of favorited photos of preteen girls, most shots in bathing suits or with little clothing. Had I viewed any of these photos individually, isolated from the others, I am sure that this same feeling of disgust would not have come over me. But these photos, viewed together, favorited by some anonymous user, told a very different story."

Note what he did (it might come in handy): "1. Blocked the user. This means my photos would no longer appear in the list. However, if your photos are viewable to the public, this means they can still be viewed, just not favorited. 2. Contacted Flickr: I reported this user, and within a couple of hours, the user was taken down." But that wasn't the end of his story, so check out his post for more.

[Thanks to Anne Bubnic in California for pointing out the "Extraordinary Mommy" incident.]

Related links

  • Photos stolen: A 17-year-old who "had photographs taken of herself at the age of 14 stolen and used on the cover of a pornographic DVD without her consent"

  • On mom bloggers: Ad Age recently took an in-depth (video) look at how they're changing the face of media and marketing. The video says mom blogs have altered the marketing practices of some of the country's largest retailers (e.g., Wal-Mart, which supports 24 major mommy bloggers) and have confronted media companies with unexpected new competition. According to blog publisher BlogHer, 8 million women publish blogs (moms are a subset, of course), 22.7 million read blogs.

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  • Wednesday, June 10, 2009

    EFF's copyright curriculum for students

    "Youth don't need more intimidation - what they need is solid, accurate information," says the Electronic Frontier Foundation in its introduction to Teaching Copyright, a curriculum about students' rights and responsibilities when using technology. "When we surveyed existing digital education resources related to copyright, we were dismayed to find that much of the available material relied on inaccurate generalizations about technology and law," the EFF says. So it worked with educators around the US, it says, to design "a fun and flexible plan that would not just provide information, but also help foster basic skills in research, writing, and critical thinking." The curriculum addresses these three questions: "What is legal online?", "How is creativity being enabled by new technologies?" and "What digital rights and responsibilities exist already, and what roles do we play as users of digital technology?" The curriculum was released last week, as the Copyright Alliance - "backed by the recording, broadcast, and software industries" was promoting its "Think First, Copy Later" curriculum, the Music Industry News Network reports, editorializing that the latter curriculum "is just the latest example of copyright-focused educational materials portraying the use of new technology as a high-risk behavior."

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    A few Apple bytes for families

    Some of Apple's just-announced news is good for families thinking about laptops for a new school year - now just one basic Macbook at $999 and a new Macbook Pro with much longer battery life for just $200 more, CNET reports. Apple also unveiled its new Snow Leopard operating system, to which Leopard users can upgrade for $29, the Washington Post reports, adding that "the company said it will use less disk space and run faster" than Leopard. Then there were the announcement about new iPhone hardware and software, including the new iPhone 3G S, which looks a like the current 3G but which Apple says performs "a variety of tasks 2-3 times as fast as the current model. It includes a new 3-megapixel camera that can record video in addition to still images, a voice-control feature that lets you place calls and control music playback by speaking commands to the phone, a digital compass and built-in support for Apple's Nike+ running-tracking system," according to the Post. The new 3.0 iPhone software Apple's releasing next week for the first time includes age-level parental controls for the phone's App Store, the New York Times reported recently. "All iPhone applications will be rated in one of four age categories: 4+, 9+, 12+, or 17+.... I assume," the Times's Saul Hansell writes, "the new system will allow Apple to accept more applications that it now rejects, on the theory that parents will be able to limit children from getting applications that can give them access to raunchy or violent material." So new controls spell added responsibilities for parents of iPhone users.

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    Tuesday, June 09, 2009

    Webkinz for little kids

    Now there's a Webkinz virtual world for preschoolers, the New York Times reports in its "Kid Tech" blog. The price of admission to Webkinz, Jr. "is a plush animal about a third larger than a traditional Beanie Baby, with a proportionally higher price of about $18." The games are good, as good as pricier sites for this age group, and parents have a good deal of control over their children's experience in the VW, writes blogger Warren Buckleitner, but "children also can figure out that they can add more $18 pets to their account, and then switch between their animals." Shopping is part of the experience too, with play money, of course. But, hmm, is the site also teaching preschoolers how to shop?

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    Facebook: No. 1 tool for parenting? Maybe. Use wisely.

    In fact, "the No. 1 tool in our lifetimes for parenting," according to B.J. Fogg, who runs Stanford University's Persuasive Technology Lab and teaches about Facebook with his sister, Linda Phillips, parent of 8, in a free, noncredit class. Their reasoning: "Because it enables parents to ask about specifics." Absolutely. That's a great point. But, please, parents, think this monitoring option through carefully. Every child's different - at some point in the spectrum of age, maturity, and trust levels - and parental questions and monitoring need to be calibrated to those levels. Why? If we go too far and really hover - try to friend all their friends and maybe embarrass them (not that Fogg and Phillips are suggesting this) - we risk losing their willingness to engage with us and communicate. That, I contend, is, always has been, and always will be the No. 1 tool for parenting. If kids stop wanting to communicate and go into stealth mode online, which is very easy for them to do, we're even farther out of the equation, the one in which they use us as their chosen backup. For a teen's view on this, see Aseem Mehta's blog post here. Also don't miss "Parental Faux Pas on Facebook," by author and blogger Sharon Cindrich. Meanwhile, Lisa Belkin, the New York Times's "Motherlode" blogger seems to have declared the end (or at least rapid decline) of helicopter parenting in "Let the Kid Be." [Thanks to Susan Fassberg in California for pointing out the Stanford Alumni magazine article.]

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    Monday, June 08, 2009

    Wonder how much teens tweet?

    Not much, if we can extrapolate from just-released Pace University figures on 18-to-24-year-olds. A study by Pace and the Participatory Media Network found that, "while 99% of 18-to-24-year-olds surveyed say they have profiles on social network [sites], only 22% say they use Twitter," CNET reports. And the researchers offered a bit of insight into how that 22% use Twitter: "85% of them follow friends [in real life, I'm assuming], 54% follow celebrities, 29% follow family members, and 29% follow companies." I think it's safe to extrapolate similar if not less interest on the part of tweens - at a recent conference, a Pew/Internet researcher told us teens aren't really on Twitter. At 140 characters or less per message, Twitter's a bit like texting, and texting - which pretty much replaced instant-messaging for youth - rules for short messages in that age bracket, I think. Pew says 77% of US 12-to-17-year-olds own a cellphone, and that percentage is growing.

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