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June 15, 2007

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Stalking': New fact of life?

"Stalking" isn't necessarily as bad as it sounds. Say you're single and someone lines up a blind date for you. You'd want to find out a little about him, right? So you "stalk him," as the digital natives put it. To many social networkers, it's a fun, innocuous sort of "background check," to see who a person's friends are, where her tastes lie, what she talks about, etc., and definitely what she looks like. Stalking has even become a bit of a cottage industry, the Associated Press reports (though I think the cottage industry is the more general "widgets" one, which includes all the little add-on enhancements that third-party companies are developing for the social-networking sites - see this item).

For example, 19-year-old Jared Kim, got the idea for at a backyard BBQ when his sister wanted to know who some guy was who had asked her out. Their geeky group of friends, who had all brought their laptops, "immediately turned to their keyboards to do a little cyberstalking," according to the AP. So "Kim had a thought: Why not write a program that searches all the social-networking sites at once and creates a profile of the person you're searching for?" Kind of like the file a private investigator's compiles for his client maybe? Within a month of the BBQ, Kim had put up the site, then word got out (in the blogosphere), and suddenly it had 10,000 visitors a day, the AP says (Kim also writes about this on his About page). Stalkerati was so much on the map, in fact, that MySpace noticed and blocked it as a security problem for its users (they had to give Stalkerati their MySpace passwords to use the info-gathering service). Facebook apparently allows it, but it's my impression that this, social-networking, version of "stalking" was practically coined in Facebook.

Of course there is the better-known darkside of stalking, and it can be truly awful online as much as in real life (and often there's no clear line between the two) - for example, see this post in our BlogSafety forum about a long-term stalking situation that has, the poster says, involved malicious hacking and threats of physical harm. And the Boston Globe tells the story of one online-harassment victim whose lawyer argued that social networking "encourages stalking-type behavior." Note, too, a comment by a Texas A&M sophomore in a ZDNET blog item suggesting students have something of a love-hate relationship with social sites.

Clearly (to me, anyway), like many other aspects of this increasingly user-driven medium, stalking on the social Web is neither all bad nor all good. It depends on the intentions of the "stalker" (and sometimes the sensitivity or tolerance level of the "stalkee"). There's a greater onus on stalkers, gossipers, etc. to think about the impact of their behavior because they can't see the impact - there's no body language, no facial expression. Experts call it "disinhibition," and it's a significant factor because it removes from interaction an element of humanity that softens edges and ends arguments. Ideally, personal ethics play a role here.

The anonymity of the Net seems to broaden the spectrum from really destructive to really useful, and users need to find and stay in the middle ground if they don't want "harmless" gossip, pranks, and "stalking" suddenly to turn on them.

Readers, your feedback is always welcome and can be really helpful to fellow readers - either email it to or post in our forum for everyone's benefit:

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Web News Briefs
  1. Cellphone safety basics

    There are entertainment "thumb jocks" (videogamers) and then there are the communications ones, including cellphone texters at your house. Teens love texting, I think partly because of the extra privacy this silent form of communication affords them and partly because it can be 24x7 (see "Teen dating abuse"). They also love the growing number of features cellphones have, so they can snap and share photos, swap tunes and videos, customize with skins and ringtones, access social-networking profiles, and (with the GPS technology that new phones have) pinpoint their fellow texters' physical locations - as well as text and talk with each other. More and more, reports Larry Magid in, a cellphone is "really a personal computer for your pocket with all the benefits and dangers of PCs." Therein lies the heads-up for parents, and Larry - who is also publisher of and my co-director at - offers, in this article, the full complement of parental considerations where young cellphone users are concerned, from costs to carriers to content.

  2. AMA on 'game addiction'

    The American Medical Association is looking into whether videogame play can become an "addiction." The AMA has released "an extremely readable" but "cautious" report summarizing the current "state of knowledge" on the subject, ArsTechnica reports. "In terms of 'gaming addiction,' the report suggests that it is likely to be a subset of internet addiction, as it most frequently occurs in players of MMORPGs [massively multiplayer online role-playing games]. In both of these addictions, the current definition is currently informal - the described symptoms actually most closely resemble pathological gambling, rather than an addiction. In either case, the report notes, 'there is currently insufficient research to definitively conclude that video game overuse is an addiction'." ArsTechnica links to the report. (See also "Notable fresh videogame findings.") Meanwhile, a Wired News blog reports that a new study entitled "Report of the Council on Science and Public Health: Emotional and Behavioral Effects, Including Addictive Potential, of Video Games," co-authored by Mohamed K. Khan, MD, Phd, is urging the AMA to recognize videogame addiction as a disorder. And Dow Jones reports that the AMA has taken steps in that direction.

  3. Professional videogame league

    Videogaming competition will soon be on DirecTV. There are six teams in the new Championship Gaming Series league, CNET reports: "the San Francisco OPTX, the Los Angeles Complexity, the Chicago Chimera, the Dallas Venom, the Carolina Core, and 3DNY from New York. Each team has a general manager and 10 players [or "thumb jockeys"]." You may have heard of some of the games they'll play: Counter-Strike: Source, Dead or Alive 4; Project Gotham Racing 3, and FIFA '07. And this is an international sport, of course. Besides DirecTV, the league is backed by "the UK's BSkyB and Asia's Star networks."

  4. Online spin control for teens, everyone

    There's an interesting ongoing debate on news sites around the Web about what the digital natives are doing to their reputations and future job prospects with all this public blogging and social networking. At first glance I thought this USATODAY column was just another commentary about how doomed teen social networkers' reputations are. Then I got to the part with some good advice (maybe I'm just biased because it's like what I've been saying). USATODAY's Andrew Kantor writes, "It pays to go on the offensive and take some control over what people see about you online." Toward the end he concludes that "if you're a small business [sub in "a person"], even if you don't need a website, you need a website. Otherwise your reputation is completely in the hands of anyone who wants to write about you online, good or bad. When a comment about you on a small blog is the first thing people see when they search for you, you need to spend some time on your cred." Tell this to your kids and have them read "Overexposed teen," a compelling example. Kantor's bottom line: "Businesses and individuals need to be proactive when it comes to their reputations." See also a commentary from the Wall Street Journal's Jason Fry, linked to in "Growing up in public," looking at whether today's online youth really will "pay the price for youthful indiscretions."

  5. Texas arrests 7 social-networking sex offenders

    With identity info provided by MySpace, Texas police have arrested seven sex offenders, the state's attorney general announced Thursday. CNET reported that "the seven, whose profiles on MySpace had already been removed under an internal program to weed out sex offenders prowling the News Corp.-owned site, were arrested for breaking parole or probation rules." Six were picked up because they had MySpace profiles and their parole requirements banned their Internet use.

  6. Employers searching social sites

    Just another bit of evidence that job recruiters are "stalking" too (see my feature this week) - using social sites to find out more about job candidates. Though it may take employers a little more work, they probably prefer free "background checks" to costly services. According to, "Rob McGovern, CEO and chairman of online job site Jobfox, claims that recruiters are increasingly using content from social networking sites to get more information on job candidates." Remind young job seekers in your family. But remember, too, what Jason Fry of the Wall Street Journal suggests - that, as time goes on, more and more recruiters and employers are social networking themselves (see "Growing up in public"). BTW, here's Business Week on the professional networking part of social networking.

  7. Outfitting their penguins

    Some kids and tweens are obsessed with the virtual care, feeding, outfitting of their penguins, Webkinz, Neopets, etc. - not to mention furnishing their igloos and other spaces. In many cases, kids just have to amass points by playing lots of games in these sites, in which case the "cost" is screen time, a lack of healthy, active outdoor time, and something marketers aim for: serious brand loyalty (e.g. from playing games sponsored by cereal companies and driving virtual cars placed by automotive sponsors). Common Sense Media recently ran a commentary for parents with tips on how to turn these online activities into "value-able" discussions about how to be wise spenders (and savers).

  8. Bullying made easy

    University of Michigan student Emmarie spent "countless hours" as a teenager "justifying [her] online journal to her parents," she writes in her university's student newspaper, The Michigan Daily. They didn't understand why she wanted to make her private thoughts so public, but she said it made her "feel connected knowing that someone knew my exact mood at that moment ... and my side of the latest gossip." But then the gossip turned against her. "By giving adolescents the opportunity to voice their opinions in public - an opportunity once reserved for the supposedly more responsible members of the media - the Internet has allowed them to elevate high school drama to a tabloid-like level of sophistication," writes Emmarie, who is the paper's associate editorial page writer this summer. "Worse still," she adds, "there's a degree of suspended reality involved in Internet communication. Without face-to-face interaction, we can't actually experience the consequences of our words, making it easy to hurt others without a second thought." You may be interested in her conclusion.

  9. FBI fights 'zombies'

    The FBI says people have their cars inspected once a year, they should have their PCs inspected regularly too. It's talking up the problem of "botnets," or "zombie networks," the Associated Press reports - networks of infected computers, very often family PCs, that are controlled by the malicious hackers who infected them. "Because the hacker has complete control of each 'bot' computer, the botnet can be used to launch denial-of-service attacks, send spam email, steal account login information or run any program." The federal agency is publicizing some high-profile arrests it has made of botnet jocks, including one of the "world's top spammers," based in Seattle, who kept distributing spam even after Microsoft won a $7 million lawsuit against him in 2005, and a guy in Texas who infected "more than 10,000 computers globally, including two Chicago-area hospitals" (delaying medical services). People, keep those PCs patched and protected with firewalls and anti-virus software!

  10. Cellphone monitoring on steroids

    It's a little chilling, but maybe some parents feel they need to go to these lengths to protect their cellphone-using chilling. I can see parents using a product like this openly as a tool for solving a cyberbullying problem that might include calls and text message to a child's cellphone. It's called Flexispy, and it's downloadable monitoring software for cellphones. The Thailand-based company's tagline is "Protect Your Children. Catch Cheating Spouses." According to its press release, the software "has already been used successfully worldwide to bring to light to extramarital affairs, disloyal employee activities, and to protect children from predators and SMS [phone text] bullying. It "runs invisibly in the background and can only be accessed using a secret code." Flexispy Light "automatically records all incoming & outgoing SMS messages, calls, emails and tracks the device location" and uploads all this to a Web site the "spy" can access. The "pro" version does all that and offers "the ability to secretly switch the phone's microphone on from any other phone; thereby listening into the target's surroundings."

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


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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