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March 9, 2007

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Mini-MySpaces: Social Web's new phase

We've entered the phase of the social Web in which your child can have her very own social-networking site. Teachers can have their own classroom social-networking and media-sharing sites (private or public). So can your book club. As can bullies or gangs or porn collectors, too, for that matter - as unnerving as it is to think about that (post your thoughts in the BlogSafety forum). I've written about personal social-networking sites before, but this CBS News focus on Ning, which hosts these homemade social sites itself, really got me thinking....

Anyone can have his/her own social site, with both the upside and the downside of that. This is social networking for the 35 people who collect Pez dispensers or players of Santa Monica beach volleyball, I'm hearing in CBS News analyst (and co-director) Larry Magid's (audio) interview with Ning CEO Gina Bianchini, who says her service already hosts more than 33,000 grassroots social-networking sites. (So we can now accurately say there are thousands of social-networking sites based in this country alone - never mind (Japan), (Estonia), (Sweden), (France), (South Korea), (India), and thousands of others around the world.

One of these individual Ning sites takes anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes to create, Bianchini says. You choose your features - such as photo-sharing, video-sharing (your very own mini-YouTube), a discussion forum, widgets from around the Web, RSS reader, blogs for your members, allowing your members to customize their own pages in your site, etc.

Ning sells page-relevant ads against your pages, but if you're an educator or nonprofit, you might want to be ad-free. You can pay Ning $19.95/month to turn off the ads (or to be allowed to sell your own).

Key question: privacy and safety. That's up to you the social-networking site owner, all you mini-MySpaces out there, Bianchini basically told Larry. You choose what level of policing you want to do and the level of privacy your site should have. You can turn off video-sharing or view all videos before they appear in your site. Same with photos. You can make the whole thing members-only or public. And you can provide a "Report Abuse" button (which your members click to report to you - that's you, not Ning, as the final arbiter). A bit scary. Ringing in my ears is the word from Spider-Man's Uncle Ben: "With great power comes great responsibility." Here's my previous item on Ning.

Second key question (or group of Qs), given this week's news that states might soon enact laws requiring age verification by social sites and Web chatrooms (see first News Brief below): Will individuals have to employ age verification on their sites? Will that be a feature Ning will have to provide? Will individuals be fined $5,000 per violation of such an age-verification law?

Related links

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Web News Briefs
  1. Proposed age-verification law in CT

    Connecticut lawmakers today (3/7) introduced legislation that would require social sites to verify users' ages and to obtain parental consent before minors could post pages, the Associated Press reports. The proposed law would fine social-networking, chat, and other such sites up to $5,000 per violation. "Sites would have to check information about parents to make sure it is legitimate. Parents would be contacted directly when necessary." The state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said 10 to 20 other states were considering legislation like this.

  2. MySpace's chief security officer

    Last year we all experienced the perfect storm of parental fear development: Social networking coming out of nowhere (for parents) + MySpace's exponential growth + a ton of negative media coverage (including "To Catch a Predator") + a mid-term election in which politicians tried to respond to public fears with the effect of further fueling them. In the middle of that storm, a new position was created at a number of social sites: chief security officer. Fox Interactive, parent of MySpace, was, I'm almost certain, the first to hire one: former federal prosecutor and Microsoft consumer-safety director, Hemanshu Nigam (Hemu for short). CSO Magazine tells that story - from why Nigam took the challenge to what he has done to secure MySpace users' experience. Parents may find it helpful to see a lot of these features and corporate practices in one place. As for what he and his staff are doing right now, here's a snapshot: The social site's "24/7 support operations team - currently about 40% of MySpace's 300-person staff - manually reviews the 7 million images and videos that are posted every day. They also run searches to try to find underage users who post information, like the name of the elementary school they attend, that indicates they are not at least 14 years old. The company says it currently shuts down about 30,000 profiles of underage users each week."

  3. Sex-offender law considered in NJ

    The law being proposed in Connecticut would restrict social-networking teens (or send them underground), while a law under consideration in New Jersey would restrict sex offenders from the Internet. Under it, "released sex offenders caught using the Internet would face up to 18 months in jail and fines of up to $10,000. Sex offenders caught using the Internet to solicit a child would face a mandatory five years in jail," the Associated Press reports. The legislation, which will be considered soon by the state Senate, would also "require online dating sites to tell New Jersey residents whether they do background checks." The AP adds that it has already raised free-speech concerns.

  4. Narcissism due to social networking?

    Remember "looking out for No. 1"? The results of a just-released study on narcissism sound a little like that phrase I heard a lot when I was just out of college (we won't say how long ago). "A new study argues that self-absorption in college students is at a new high," reports the Chicago Tribune on a study at San Diego State University. "The authors of the study - which has tracked college students' attitudes about themselves yearly since 1982 - are not talking about pathological narcissistic personality disorder; just an attitude of 'It's all about me'," the Trib says, and they say blogging and social networking are "playing a big role" in this. Tech educator Andy Carvin takes exception to this argument in his blog at "The vast majority of people who use social networking sites aren't in on it to become famous and have hordes of adoring fans. Sure, some people are there for vanity or proto-celebrity purposes, but most people are there for us, not me.... They're communities where people reinforce interpersonal relationships through sharing and creating content.... [They] want to be a part of something bigger than themselves."

  5. Social norms on social sites

    It's the new, Internet-enabled principle of reciprocity (see this page ), going something like this: Comment on others' as you would have them comment on your profile - but don't go to theirs too much because it's invading their privacy. Yes, even though they put all that very personal info out there, social-networking social norms are beginning to indicate it's too aggressive, even a little voyeuristic, to check out people's profiles before you know them very well. The term USATODAY uses in a story about this is "Facebook stalkers" . This illustrates that social norms are beginning to develop in the social-networking space - not surprisingly, they're extensions or refinements of those in RL (real life) social lives. But it's very complicated. Here's a set of rules one Facebook user told USATODAY: "With close friends, it is always OK to comment on their profiles; they expect it and might even be upset if you don't. With distant acquaintances, it is almost never OK. It's those in the middle that are tricky; it's OK to bring up their profiles only if there is a reasonable explanation for why you were looking at it in the first place." See also this USATODAY piece with tips for online socializers on how to break up with someone in RL (real life). They include: It helps to announce the breakup online as quickly as possible (clean break), remove him/her contact data from all devices, and don't check out his or her blog.

  6. PS3 to add Net features

    The PlayStation 3 enhancements are designed to "draw gamers into Sony's cyberspace community and allow them to share entertainment content they have created, la YouTube," the New York Times reports. Yet another example of how mobile and device-agnostic the Internet is becoming. With "the centerpiece" of PS3's new features, PlayStation Home, players will be able to create a single gamer's profile or "identity," in essence, which records their achievements in various games. This way gamers can rate or rank each other across the Net. Sounds like a logical addition to the experience, but it adds the Internet's downside, too, of course: people with bad intentions having access to that information and gamers themselves adding sex to the PlayStation home experience. As one gaming blogger put it: "That Sony's new social channel "Home" looks suspiciously like Second Life is hardly news to anyone who's seen the footage from Sony's Phil Harrison's keynote [at the Game Developers Conference]. What I couldn't help giggling about the whole time he showed off the world, though, was just how much sex is going to happen in Home. Realistic avatars? Private spaces? Customization? Think about Second Life. So. Much. Sex." Then there's the downside of content now accessible through Net-connected videogame consoles and handhelds. Miami reports that, "even though the game systems are not marketed as computers, that's what thy are; specialized computers optimized for graphics and sound, and with the new consoles, the ability to play with other gamers anywhere in the world, via a connection to the Internet.
It's that connection, and the ingenuity of porn site operators, which have made adult images available to young eyes." See also on this.

  7. Parents & kids talk Net safety

    Way to go, parents - 86.4% of teens say their parents have discussed online safety with them. That's teen users of the social virtual world, anyway, but I suspect they're very representative of teen social-networkers in general. Habbo recently completed its Teen Online Safety Awareness Month, which it says got "over 20,000 teens taking part in safety-related activities and educational programs, including many that involved discussion time between the teens and their parents. Nearly 21,000 teens received limited edition virtual safety badges to show that they had their parents read Habbo's online safety guide. Nearly 10,000 teens visited a virtual lounge within the community with a safety theme." On the sobering side, here are other key findings:

    • 51.7% visit chat rooms at least once every day
    • 18.5% have "experienced chatting online with someone they found out was an adult pretending to be much younger"
    • 57.2% have "chatted, IM'd or emailed with someone online that they have never met face to face"
    • 26.6% have "been asked questions about their sexuality or sexual experiences while chatting online that made them feel uncomfortable"
    • 31.7% have posted personal information online
    • 72.5% "are aware that anyone can view personal information they post online, not just their friends."

  8. Porn spam declining

    Spam, or junk email, is still a big problem, certainly, but the X-rated kind "has been on a steady decline and hit an all-time low in February," CNET reports, citing a report from Symantec, which sells email-security tools. It found that adult spam constituted only 3% of the spam it filtered last month. Health-care and general product ads constituted 48%, followed by emails advertising financial service (21%) and Internet service (15%).

  9. Do-it-yourself ad sales

    Our kids may soon be supplementing their allowance with ads on their profiles and blogs. For a while now, anybody who has a Web page has been able to sign up for Google AdSense and make money on ads appearing on his/her page (lots of traffic certainly helps!). The new thing is bloggers and social-networking profile owners making money on ads in their pages. Here's an early version of this trend-to-be: Italy-based social site's partnership with Google AdSense called Friend$, according to (part of a mostly UK-based digital marketing agency). That's what you might call opt-in advertising on the social Web. Another approach: opt-out advertising., host and production-tool provider for homemade social sites, is free to people who allow it to sell ads against their social-networking sites; but if they pay $19.95 to Ning, they can either be ad-free or sell their own ads in their sites' pages (see this in the San Jose Mercury News).

  10. DOJ wants photo-sharer data

    The Bush administration is proposing that media-sharing sites keep records on who uploads photos and videos, CNET reports. That's for "in case police determine the content is illegal and choose to investigate," the article adds. The proposal came up in a meeting the Justice Department held with Internet companies about data retention. The DOJ is pushing for it as "valuable in investigating terrorism, child pornography and other crimes," and reportedly asked the companies how much it would cost to record details on their subscribers for two years."

  11. Videogames at the cinema

    Soon Mom and Dad may go see a film while Jr. goes to a sort of public LAN party at the same multiplex. Cinegames are already happening in Spain, where movie theater company Yelmo Cineplex spent "more than $390,000 to modify one of its small individual theaters in a high-tech video gaming hall seating about 50 people," the New York Times reports. Predictably, the busy time is weekends, with individual gamers paying a currently discounted 3 euros (about $4) to play multiplayer games (friends pay 1 euro just to watch). Yelmo is also organizing tournaments and - to fill in on weekdays - developing "an educational division that would rent out the hall to schools that could use the system for learning and testing." Yelmo's plans also include reaching out to senior citizen groups "in an attempt to attract a broader audience."

  12. China cracks down on Net use

    It's known as the "Great Firewall," and - unlike the age-old Great Wall - it seems to go up and down. Right now, the firewall's up. Possibly timed to the National People's Congress meeting in Beijing, China seems to be in the middle of a crackdown on Net use, Wired reports. "The Chinese government began blocking access to the popular blogging site LiveJournal on Friday, cutting off its citizens from the roughly 1.8 million blogs the service hosts. SixApart, the company behind LiveJournal, says there are 8,692 self-reported Chinese bloggers on the site, a number that's likely low since it's based on information volunteered in user profiles." It wasn't the first time for LiveJournal. "While China has reached an accord with some blog hosting companies, including Microsoft's MSN Spaces, it has a history of blocking others, including Google's," Wired adds. The government .LiveJournal announced the block Monday. Ginger Tulley, director of worldwide strategy and analysis for Six Apart, says the company isn't certain when the censorship began. But the site, which tests connectivity to popular websites from within China, first spotted the block Friday. The government also has blocked any new Internet cafes from opening this year, Agence France Presse reports, adding that the number of cafes "soared 23.4% to 137 million in 2006" and China's number of Internet users is expected to surpass that of the US in two years.

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


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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