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September 29, 2006

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Online hangouts: Editorial

All kinds of virtual hangouts have formed for all kinds of interests. Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Fry recently zoomed in on two specific kinds: blogs and online alternate-reality games. I would add a third key category, the one dominated by teens and 20-somethings: social-networking sites. You can break those categories down into all kinds of subs - including all the "niche" social sites that are bringing people of all ages and interests into social networking (see "Social sites multiplying like...") - but MySpace, Facebook, Xanga, LiveJournal, YouTube are young people's online hangouts of choice.

What's interesting about this article is Jason's comparison of online hangouts vs. neighborhood ones - those homes-away-from-home described as "third places" (besides home and work or school) by U. of West Florida sociology professor Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book The Great Good Place. "Prof. Oldenburg lists eight characteristics of third places," Jason writes: "They're neutral ground; they're 'levelers' where rank and status don't matter; conversation is a main activity; they're easy to access and accommodating; they have a core group of influential regulars; they have a low profile instead of being showy; the mood is playful; and they feel like homes away from home." Today's social sites have a lot of those characteristics - except maybe the very non-leveling way some, not all, of its members use MySpace (the photo ranking and popularity status some MySpacers vie for - see the item on "friending" below). They really are the virtual version of favorite neighborhood hangouts.

So now there are three kinds of places where people of all ages are finding community: "real-world gathering places" of shared location, virtual ones of shared interests, and those in which people share both interests and physical proximity (such as social Web sites for users in Houston, Brooklyn, London, etc.). If we only had the first two, Fry suggests, there would be a danger that virtual community would replace the real-world kind - the danger "that, [when] time is spent [only] with like-minded folks, we risk retreating into echo chambers of similar thought and experience, until opposing viewpoints become rarely heard and easily dismissed." [That is a significant social-networking risk for already at-risk kids - those who find the wrong kind of support for exploring drug abuse, eating disorders, bigotry, cutting, etc. - something we all need to begin addressing.]

But the third, hybrid, kind of hangout represents an opportunity too. Jason writes: "Whether it's because we're busy, shy or tentative about making commitments, many of us may find it easiest to get more involved with our communities virtually, at least at first. If we do, the friends we'll make online will likely live nearby. When the time comes to actually meet, doing so will be easy. And it stands to reason that the meeting would take place at a real-world third place, one supported by a virtual third place." He's on to something researchers are beginning to look at.

Though Jason's talking more about adults, teens are an important part of this discussion: The challenge for parents, educators, and therapists going forward will be to help young social networkers find the safe, healthy middle ground of online socializing. For example, we'll need to allow them to use social sites to beat shyness and for healthy self-expression and interaction and not for reinforcement of extreme emotions or destructive behavior. The latter, I feel, is the real online-safety issue of the social Web going forward - one that will need all our skill sets, including teenagers' experience with online hangouts.

Related links

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Web News Briefs
  1. The friending part of MySpace

    I think there are about as many reasons and ways to use MySpace as there are MySpace users - to find new indie music or get "close" to a favorite band, to keep an online journal, to decorate one's "space," to play around with software code, to explore one's identity, or to win some sort of local or virtual popularity contest, to name a few (for some MySpacers it's probably two or three of those at one point, and then it changes as they change). In an in-depth, eye-opening article recently, USATODAY looked at one kind of MySpace use: "friending," leading with Brittnie in Columbus (17), who has 5,036 friends. Some - probably high school "queen bees" or wannabes - would see this as a sign of Brittnie's social status, others (including her peers) as ridiculous or even "creepy," as one of the article's teen sources puts it, given how many people on that list Brittnie actually knows. A lot of people see it as another kind of online game that doesn't necessarily represent anything in real life (and one that can turn sour if No. 7 in your Top 8 friends is in your real life and feels she should be No. 1). Because even this aspect of MySpace is very individual. For example, writer Janet Kornblum mentions one person with 1,327 friends who says she has "standards" for who's on her list - such as no bands or films (who can also be "friends") whose content you don't actually like, or no friends who post sexually suggestive photos or videos. But as involved as friending is, it would be simplistic to believe this is all there is to social networking.

  2. Principal sues MySpacers

    The next big challenge of the social-networking phenomenon is beginning to show up in news reports. This week the Associated Press picked up a story in the San Antonio Express-News about a school administrator suing two students for impersonating her in a MySpace profile (and last week I included an item about a school assignment gone awry with a student threatening to kill a dog in his MySpace page). Anna Draker, assistant principal at Clark High School in San Antonio is suing the students, both 16, and their parents for "defamation, libel, negligence, and negligent supervision," alleging that the students "set up a Web page on MySpace in her name" and posted obscene comments and pictures. The AP adds that "Draker found out in April that someone had created a page on MySpace. It had been up about a month before she discovered it. The site falsely identified Draker as a lesbian. Klasing said Draker, who is married and has small children, was 'devastated'." Social networkers of all ages are doing the same to celebrities. MySpace "is filled with dozens of user pages that purport to be profile pages created by business luminaries Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Martha Stewart and Donald Trump," USATODAY reports. "Many of the phony pages appear legitimate: They have flattering photos and list seemingly correct personal details, such as income, astrology signs and marital status. But bits of misinformation - and even malicious tidbits - are often tucked in." MySpace says that impersonating profiles violate its terms of service and removes them upon request. The problem is, the minute a profile's taken down a fresh one can be created, which can make stopping determined and/or malicious impersonators a full-time job for both their victims and MySpace.

  3. Multitasking families

    Does your family life feel like this too? A new study by Yahoo and OMD Research (of households in 16 countries!) found that families are packing 43 hours of activity into one day, and technology appears to be part of both the reason and the solution. "Multitasking aided by technology extends most people's day by several hours," ClickZstats reports. It adds, though, that "despite the overlapping activities, 72% of families with children eat dinner together each day." Not that all family communications is offline. "Seventy percent of survey respondents say technology helps families stay in better touch. Mobile phones are a means of communication for 29% of families, and instant messaging for 25%. These emerging technologies bring children to the forefront as decision makers within the family unit." In its coverage, Ars Technica quotes OMD CEO Joe Uva as finding that "it's clear that within the '43-hour day,' families are making concerted efforts to spend time together and to live out a new family value that says 'we control technology - it does not control us.'"

  4. A first for videogame safety

    This is an online-safety risk that hasn't really hit parents' and policymakers' radar screens yet, but it's no less risky than social networking. In fact, it is social networking. Game players with Internet connections (such as Xbox Live) can voice-chat and text-message with strangers just as much as social networkers can, if not more, and have been doing so for some time. The online-safety first is that NCsoft Corp. - maker of the massively multiplayer online game City of Heroes - recently announced its "PlaySmart" program "to warn its customers about real-world risks in the virtual universe of its games," the Associated Press reports. Part of the progam is to put PlaySmart guidelines for parents in its games' packaging by the end of the year. Among the tips is "Parents should not only monitor and play the games with their children, but also should be aware of the potential for social interaction that can include voice chat and text-message exchanges." Another key one: don't share your username and password with friends. NCsoft says that kind of sharing is one of its biggest sources of customer complaints. Though physical safety isn't an issue, "accounts can be stolen outright or pilfered of virtual goods such as rare weapons or armor that the true owner spent months or years accumulating."

  5. Latest on game addiction

    Some kids are more prone to addiction than others, and based on this report in TechNewsWorld, it's the players most in need of positive reinforcement who are more prone. The reward systems built into videogames are what make them so addictive, the article cites psychologists as saying - for example when the game tells a player he's done a good job. AOL Games recently conducted a study that found 10% of 14-to-55-year-old gamers surveyed admitted they'd become addicted; about 4% "actually hide their gaming use from family and friends"; 33% admit to having missed a favorite TV show due to their gaming habit, 19% have skipped a meal, and 25% have played games "all night until the sun came up." If people think online games are a grownup thing, there is evidence to the contrary: "45% of 'heavy gamers' are under 18 (and "heavy gamers" only account for 3% of the overall gaming community)," found a recent NPD Group survey cited by "The much broader 'avid console gamers' are one-third kids." Another kind of tech addition, "Internet Addiction Disorder," is explained by anthropologist Stephen Juan at the University of Sydney in

  6. Latest on Web video viewing

    Web videos are hot. "More than 106.5 million people," or about 60% of US Internet users, viewed or downloaded a video from the Web in July, according to the latest figures available from traffic measurer comScore. Yahoo, MySpace, and YouTube are Nos. 1 through 3, respectively, in video-viewing traffic. Yahoo! Sites got 37.9 million "unique US streamers" (or viewers), MySpace got 37.4 million, and YouTube 30.5 million. Time Warner Network and Microsoft Sites came next with 25.7 million and 16.2 million. Of course the same person can be viewing multiple videos in multiple sites. By way of explanation, comScore says, "In total, nearly 7.2 billion videos were streamed or downloaded by U.S. Internet users for an average of 67 streams per streamer, which means the typical video streamer viewed an average of more than two streams per day." Here's TechNewsWorld's coverage.

  7. Worm 'epidemic' on MSN Messenger

    Tell MSN messagers at your house to be extra careful about clicking on links in IMs. "Last week, two out of three of the most active worms spread over MSN's instant messenger program," the Washington Post's security blog reports. Kids can download all kinds of nasties if they're not cautious about what they click on in IMs. The Post suggests that, "no matter what instant message or email software you use, think thrice about whether you really need to click on any link sent to you via IM or e-mail." To check on a link's legitimacy, start a new conversation with the friend who seems to have sent it, and ask him or her if they really did. If the answer is "no," don't click!

  8. MySpace's new safety-ed campaign

    The world's largest social site is teaming up with Seventeen magazine, the National School Boards Association, and the National Association of Independent Schools to get social Web safety tips in the hands of more parents and educators. They'll distribute safety brochures (also downloadable in pdf format on MySpace's Tips for Parents page) to "about 55,000 schools representing grades 7 through 12 in the United States in October," Reuters reports.

  9. New browser for social networking

    Move over, Explorer, Firefox, Safari, etc., etc., now social networking has its own Web browser. I say "move over" because it's quite possible that very social people will use the Flock browser in addition to one of the above, at least while Flock's still in beta and may not have all the features of "traditional" browsers. Flock makes social networking easier by letting bloggers and profile updaters drag photos into their pages - probably its most attractive feature for social networkers, ZDNET reports (I bet *video* drag 'n' drop is coming). "There is also support for updated picture notification; you can maintain a Friends list of others who use Flickr or PhotoBucket and be notified when their pictures have been updated." ZDNET adds that "Flock also takes on a new approach to searching. When you type a search term, Flock returns results from your bookmarks, your browsing history, and live results" using Yahoo search. "The unique thing here is that Flock contains a built-in search engine that indexes the content of every Web page visited" so you can find that tidbit of info you ran across three days ago but just can't remember what site it was in.

  10. Help for college searches

    Parents of high school juniors and seniors may already know this, but some 35 states have Web sites helping students with their college searches. For example, GAcollege "has already registered more than 100,000 students and families in just 18 months," the Associated Press reports. The site helps students apply for financial aid, prep for SAT tests, has virtual tours of and applications for more than 100 colleges, and includes info on getting "one of the state's full-ride, lottery-funded scholarships."

  11. Social networking, East and West

    They're "going global" from countries all over the world, as the International Herald Tribune reports. Once a Korean-only social site, Cyworld has launched in the US and soon will do so in Germany, while MySpace is "on the verge" of announcing its arrival in two Asian countries (if Japan is one, MySpace will be taking on Mixi, "a two-and-a-half-year-old social networking site with more than 5 million members" that just went public, valued at $1.8 billion). The Herald Trib describes the experience of Korean-American Hawaii resident Danny Kim who grew up in New Mexico and had 750 friends on MySpace when he started up his Cyworld account. There are cultural differences in social networking, as in the rest of life, and Kim said he wondered if most Americans would be as attracted to Cyworld's "cute" feel as Asians are. And Mixi users seem to like its "structured approach," as compared with MySpace's more free-form style, with which "members can easily create multiple profiles, add their own programming and post other kinds of media, like pictures, music and videos," according to the Herald Trib. At Mixi (more like the Facebook experience), "a person can join only if invited by current members. Personal profiles are based only on text, except for three photos (premium service allows more). Surprisingly, [Mixi] users do not seem to mind. In fact [unlike MySpace users], most members do not post pictures of themselves, opting instead for photos of celebrities, scenery or pets."

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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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