How do you deal with a world that is messy? danah boyd at RMIT.

I had the privilege this afternoon to listen to  danah boyd * deliver a talk entitled, ‘Privacy in Networked Publics’, at RMIT. danah is a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, a Visting Researcher at Harvard Law School, and an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales. I’ve long admired danah’s work, and regularly read her blog, danah boyd | apophenia. If you’re looking to understand what teenagers are thinking about when it comes to their behaviours in social networks, then danah’s research findings are the place to start.

danah presents at a blistering pace, and I took copious notes along the way. I’m not going to recount all of what was said, and you’ll be able to check into the RMIT website to listen to the podcast yourself when it is loaded there in the very near future. What I will do is discuss some of the things she said that resonated with me.

danah described teenagers’ participation in social networks as ‘social grooming’. We are seeing our children form and sustain friendships in public spaces on the Internet. I can vouch for this. When I was a teenager, I was out and about with friends on the weekend and after school, and my friendships were formed in what were public spaces, but often private in terms of my parent’s knowledge of what I was doing. The same can’t be said for my own children. They are home a lot of the time, escorted to events and picked up by their parents. Their social lives are lived in large part in online spaces like Facebook and through games where they play online with other kids they know. One thing I’m not doing is friending them in their networks. We have open discussions about their participation and I hammer home the need for control of privacy settings, but I don’t look over their shoulders and peer deeply into their social lives. I respect their need for their own development. They will make mistakes, I’m quite sure of it, but that’s part of the learning curve of life I figure.   I know that I needed space to become my own person when I was a teenager, and they need the same.

danah talked of ‘bedroom culture’ being a feature of participation, and suggested it is a natural extension of what has always been. Once again, I could relate. The only space that was truly mine as a teenager was my room; it was where I practised the latest dance moves in front of the mirror, experimented with make-up, read, slept, did homework, and dumped my clothes all over the floor. It was where my friends and I went when they visited. It was my space and it was important to me. I watch my daughter and see similar patterns, especially the clothes all over the floor. She has a laptop and we have a wireless home connection. She spends time with her friends in online spaces in the environment that she owns. I respect her need to do that. It’s her space, and its important to her.

danah made some interesting points about kids she has interviewed who have their parents as friends on sites like Facebook. She talked of teenagers ‘hiding in plain sight’. One teenager’s comment was ‘everyone disappears after the Mum post’, referring to parents who reply to their kid’s status updates. danah made reference to coded messages teenagers use to achieve a level of privacy for themselves and admitted that even she, who spends so much time examining these networks, can’t work out the coded nature of wall posts. Her overarching message was a need for open dialogue with your children, and a level of trust. She spoke of how kids today are learning to live in a world of surveillance, and are trying to carve out a level of privacy for themselves in these environments. Some have moved away from the very public Facebook to networks like Twitter, where they can make locked accounts and add only who they want into their network. There they feel more sure that what they say will not be escalated to wide scale broadcasting, and nor will they have people they don’t want peering into their conversations.

Her comments on the idea of sexual predators online were really interesting. She said, if my notes are accurate, the ‘Sexual predator statistically doesn’t exist’. The point being, there are few of these instances occurring given the fact that 93% of teenagers are operating in social networks of one form or another. She spoke of conducting 400 studies with all the evidence pointing towards less danger in online spaces than what was imagined, and was told to go back and conduct more research! What we do see is our television and newspaper media honing in on incidents and giving the impression there is danger in every interaction online. She spoke of Australia being “one of the only places competing with the US on fear mongering”. Strong words, and quite possibly, the truth.

danah spoke of how she sees us grappling with a culture of fear and it intersecting with the attention economy we find ourselves living in. Her final points were prompted from a question from Camilla Elliott about how we as educators deal with all of this in schools today. She spoke of the necessity for digital literacy teaching in our schools, and stressed that we should be looking at it with a health and wellbeing focus in mind. She said there is a case for teachers violating the rules of Facebook and setting up second accounts, separate from their own personal accounts. You would share the password to the account with your school principal. Here, teachers could accept friend requests from students, but not request that students become their friends. This space would be where teachers could operate with an eyes wide open approach to safety for kids.  An interesting thought, one that would certainly be at odds with much of what is recommended to teachers today in terms of Facebook use.

danah asked the question to us all, “How do you deal with a world that is messy?” Some of how we go about doing that is looking to the kids themselves and noting how they are managing their online lives. For those of us dealing with this head on in schools, I think it’s about dialogue. It’s about making time in our curriculums to have these conversations, it’s about creating safe spaces where kids feel OK about sharing their concerns, it’s about using social tools/spaces within curriculum so we can model behaviours. It’s a big job, and we need people to do it. That means we need teachers who are willing to be well versed in social networks themselves, and who are willing to commit themselves to learning from experts like danah who have spent years immersed in their understanding.

Thanks danah, for a stimulating presentation. Neurons are firing. I hope what I’ve written here is true to the intentions of your presentation. Please do correct me if there is anything here I have misconstrued.

*why is danah’s name always in lower case? She explains it on her ‘about me’ page.

My birth name was “danah michele mattas” (spelled all funky because my mother loved typographical balance). Two years later, my brother Ryan was born. My parents divorced when i was five and my mother, brother and i set off for York, Pennsylvania. My mother re-married when i was in the third grade and we moved to Lancaster. Shortly afterwards, all of us changed our name to “Beard.” My mother and step-father divorced when i was in the 9th grade, but we stayed in Lancaster. In college, i changed my last name to “boyd” to honor my grandfather. When doing the legal paperwork, i switched back to a lower-cased style to reflect my mother’s original balancing and to satisfy my own political irritation at the importance of capitalization.

What’s in a name?

The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.

Marshall McLuhan

Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, recently made a some very interesting comments while being interviewed by Holman W Jenkins from the Wall Street Journal;

“I don’t believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time,” he says. He predicts, apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends’ social media sites.

Danah Boyd’s response to this is equally interesting, if not moreso;

This is ludicrous on many accounts. First, it completely contradicts historical legal trajectories where name changes have become increasingly more difficult. Second, it fails to account for the tensions between positive and negative reputation. Third, it would be so exceedingly ineffective as to be just outright absurd.

Surprisingly, I spend quite a bit of time discussing things like this with prospective parents at my school. Our school registrar tours with them and visits me often. I talk about the vision of our new library under construction, the work we are doing at Year 9 using Ning as a virtual learning community and our efforts with Cybersafety. Parents are really interested in this last point, and I see many nodding heads when I discuss the need for our students to establish a positive digital footprint for themselves. Plenty of them realise their kids use sites like Facebook as their communication platform, but they do want them to do so with some understanding of how they conduct themselves responsibly to protect their own reputation, and the reputation of others.

Jonathan Zittrain discusses a similar idea to that raised by Eric Schmidt, but he calls it ‘Reputation Bankruptcy’. It’s the idea that you will be able to wipe your digital identity slate clean and start over. Who knows, one day it just might be possible, but what if you have a good deal of positive web content that you don’t want erased? Will we be able to be selective about what stays and what goes?

Danah makes another very good point in her post responding to Eric Schmidt’s comments;

All it takes is for someone who’s motivated to make a link between the two and any attempt to walk away from your past vanishes in an instant. Search definitely makes a mess out of people’s name-based reputation but a name change doesn’t fix it if someone’s intent on connecting the two.

So, what’s in a name?  Will we need to grapple with our digital identities, identities that can be forged by our friends (or enemies!) as much as they are forged by our own hand? Once again, we need to take this on board as educators. We need to help our students understand that they can create the long tail of good searchable content that will make their name a blessing, not a burden.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

Facebook and privacy – is your school helping students to understand privacy settings?

Facebook is the primary social network most of our students are accessing to manage their social lives. Are they going to stop using it anytime soon? No, they’re not. They’re not going to stop because it’s their communication platform- it’s where their friends are and it’s how they plan their lives.  And that’s why we have to understand how it works and ensure that we help them to understand how they use it safely. We need to be discussing Facebook’s privacy settings and how students can set them to a level that provides them with profiles they are comfortable with.

We need to put this in perspective. People of my generation were operating in social networks too. It’s just that our social networks were dependent on a single corded phone line placed in a usually busy part of the household. Our parents spent their lives bemoaning the fact that the phone line was under siege from their teenage children. Think about it; if a network like Facebook were available when you were young, would you have been there? I know I would.

Facebook have made some significant changes to their privacy settings in recent months. Matt McKeon has created ‘an evolution of Facebook’ and has used some very interesting visuals to denote these changes over time. I used them with Yr 11 students last week and they certainly took notice.

It’s a powerful representation of their default settings and the changes that have been made over time. Show these to your students and I’m pretty sure you’ll see them heading home to make some changes; changes they probably didn’t even know were necessary.

We have been taking our students through the account settings in Facebook, alerting them to changes that have been applied to their accounts. Some students know what’s happening and have ensured their settings are set to ‘only friends’, but many have no idea. Most don’t bother to check the ‘Applications and Websites’ settings, and don’t realise that Facebook has arranged to allow a user’s information to be accessible to nominated websites if a Facebook member accesses them. According to Facebook, it allows for a more integrated web experience and saves you time. According to me, it’s non-consensual use of my personal information. Facebook are overstepping the mark, and people are starting to sit up, take notice, and speak out.

The New York Times have been keeping up with what is happening and have produced a very good graphic showing the default settings and what needs to be done to manage your privacy;

Danah Boyd has written a ‘rant’ about Facebook’s lack of transparency. In it, she makes some observations that I’ve noted are common to students here in Australia too. Most are unaware of the fact that their information is accesible to friends of friends. What follows is a lengthy grab from Danah’s post, but she makes such good points they are well worth sharing (and of course, I’d encourage you to visit her blog to read the post in its entirity);

Over and over again, I find that people’s mental model of who can see what doesn’t match up with reality. People think “everyone” includes everyone who searches for them on Facebook. They never imagine that “everyone” includes every third party sucking up data for goddess only knows what purpose. They think that if they lock down everything in the settings that they see, that they’re completely locked down. They don’t get that their friends lists, interests, likes, primary photo, affiliations, and other content is publicly accessible.

If Facebook wanted radical transparency, they could communicate to users every single person and entity who can see their content. They could notify then when the content is accessed by a partner. They could show them who all is included in “friends-of-friends” (or at least a number of people). They hide behind lists because people’s abstractions allow them to share more. When people think “friends-of-friends” they don’t think about all of the types of people that their friends might link to; they think of the people that their friends would bring to a dinner party if they were to host it. When they think of everyone, they think of individual people who might have an interest in them, not 3rd party services who want to monetize or redistribute their data. Users have no sense of how their data is being used and Facebook is not radically transparent about what that data is used for. Quite the opposite. Convolution works. It keeps the press out.

The battle that is underway is not a battle over the future of privacy and publicity. It’s a battle over choice and informed consent. It’s unfolding because people are being duped, tricked, coerced, and confused into doing things where they don’t understand the consequences. Facebook keeps saying that it gives users choices, but that is completely unfair. It gives users the illusion of choice and hides the details away from them “for their own good.”

What really worries me, is that there are not enough people in our schools today who are confident enough with new technologies to understand how to help our students work these things out. This is part of the new digital divide that is starting to rear its ugly head. I have the feeling we will have students who are given an understanding of the benefits of creating positive digital profiles and they will do just that. They will understand that you don’t upload that unflattering photo or you avoid being photographed in compromising situations. You post the great things you are doing and your social resume helps you to get that job you’re looking for. You won’t be the kid on the other side of the digital divide who uploads all those photos from that party that got out of control. That same kid on the other side never created any great digital content because their teachers didn’t understand new technologies and never set any tasks that allowed them to show people what they were truly capable of. Their social resume is the one that recruiters look at, resulting in them sending their work resume (the one they’ve written) to the bottom of the pile.

Schools do have a part to play in informing our students about managing their lives in social networks. What this requires is teachers who are up to date with what is happening and with the nous to direct them to the information they need. It worries me that the only professional development our teachers are given to support them with understandings like these, come from blog posts written by other teachers who are doing it late into the night with dark bags under their eyes!

The thin red line….

We walk a fine line in our schools today.

To block or not to block, that is the question.

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outraged parents,
Or to take arms against a sea of misinformation
And, by unblocking, free them.

OK. My apologies to William Shakespeare, who’s probably rolling over in his grave right now!

But the issue of blocking vs unblocking is a vexed one in schools. At my school, we are trying to be as open as possible. We want our students to learn how to navigate the Web responsibly. For many of them, there are no filters when they use the net at home. I think I’m right in saying that the philosophy we’ve adopted is that school should be a place where students can make the most of the resources the Web offers, with the help of responsible adults guiding them in their learning.

I’ve said it many times before, but it’s worth repeating. Sites like YouTube are at the core of my teaching now; I really don’t know how I’d function without them. I was speaking with a public school teacher today who was telling me how the Department blocks this wonderful site. It bothers me greatly that my counterparts in the public system are forced to download videos at home if they want to use them. Some of my best teaching over the past year has sprung from moments when we’ve been able to jump into sites like YouTube to enhance discussion and extend our thinking. Because we have a 20mg pipe, the videos load quickly and we are streaming just as quickly as our ideas are forming.

But sometimes, you just have to block. Sites like Omegle and ChatRoulette, where you are encouraged to talk to strangers, are just not appropriate in any school setting. ChatRoulette has upped the ante, using WebCams as the basis of their communication. I found out about ChatRoulette via Twitter last week, and immediately notified our Network Administrator to put a block on it. I was surprised this morning to see The Today Show, here in Australia, feature it as the site for discussion for their technology segment. Their pitch was that they were helping parents out there, and to some extent they were. But they were also giving national exposure to a site that may not have hit some teen’s radars yet. Plenty of families would have had television sets on this morning, and if the teenagers today are anything like I was when I was young, a segment like that would have been the Pandora’s Box I just had to open. I know, it’s probably spreading like wildfire through sites like Facebook and Myspace and old media like television is probably not where the kids are. But still, I wonder where the thinking comes from sometimes with the media; do they want to fire up a debate for ratings purposes or genuinely help out the unsuspecting public?

Danah Boyd has written an interesting post about ChatRoulette. I’d encourage you to read it to gain her perspective. She makes this interesting observation;

What I like most about the site is the fact that there’s only so much you can hide. This isn’t a place where police officers can pretend to be teen girls. This isn’t a place where you feel forced to stick around; you can move on and no one will know the difference. If someone doesn’t strike your fancy, move on. And on. And on.

The problem as I see it, is that our young people are not always blessed with enough maturity to make wise decisions like ‘move on’, particularly if they are with their peers while engaging with a site like this. The thin red line that is our ability to block is a defence needed in schools for sites that put our young people in situations that many do not have the maturity to handle.

The Tweet, the search, the hashtag and the backchannel

My relationship with Twitter is evolving. It’s maturing into an incredible networking and search tool. (Or maybe it’s always been that, and I am the one maturing!) I suspect the majority of the population know nothing of the potential it holds, let alone are able to work out what words like hashtag and backchannel mean. Working with social media is like negotiating a new language; when you are fluent in it you walk confidently through the new landscape. When you are learning, your steps are tentative and you look for those who can lead you in the right direction. Thankfully, that is part of the appeal of social media; there are plenty of guides out there ready to help.

Twitter – Real time search

The use of Twitter as real time search is something that I’m sure most of the population would have no clue about. It’s called real time search because people are sending out tweets relevant to what is happening right now. I know that when I go to Twitter I have a network of people who are willing to share what they know. I can guarantee if there is something new on the horizon I will find out about it first from this network. The point of Twitter for me is that I have a network.  But even if you don’t have a network you can use Twitter for real time search. There is a search box on the front page of the Twitter home page. Just type into that box what it is you are interested in and you will receive a lists of tweets that contain the words you were looking for. Below is a screenshot of a Twitter search I did for Danah Boyd.

Notice how many links you can see in the results I received. This is the real beauty of Twitter. Links take you places, they expand your thinking and introduce you to new voices and opinions. We need to be teaching our students the value of using tools like Twitter and Diigo and Delicious for search purposes. They act as a filter; human intervention has played a part in the results you receive. Someone has made a conscious decision to note this link as important.  A search engine may not find a web page that has been loaded to the web for a day or two or maybe even longer. That’s the reason why search engine companies like Google are interested in companies like Twitter and integrating their results into their search results. It’s the human filter at work; our consciousness making results relevant.  Note also that you can click on the trending topics links in the right sidebar to take you to tweets about what people are interested in now, in real time.

The Hashtag

Twitter hashtags are really interesting. They came about as a creation of the Twitter community, as a means of organising information around a topic, idea or conference. It’s the conference hashtags that I am finding most relevant to me at the moment.  Last week there was a really interesting conference taking place in the United States (San Francisco I think) called Supernova 09. Developers of content and leading thinkers were talking about business and the rise of social media and new ways of doing things. Great speakers like Chris Anderson and Jonathan Zittrain were speaking. The hashtag for this conference was #sn09. Someone sent out a tweet with this hashtag as part of it. When you are using twitter, a hashtag becomes a link to a results page that collects any tweets using that hashtag. When I visited #sn09 I discovered a ustream link to the conference that was streaming the entire thing live. I was able to dip in and out of this conference in some of my spare moments (not too many of those unfortunately!) and hear what some of the leading thinkers out there had to say about how business is responding to the rise of social media. Conference organisers are now setting up Twitter hashtags before conferences start to try and generate interest in upcoming events. #acec2010 is already being used for next April’s ACEC Digital Diversity conference. Read this Mashable guide to hashtags for more detailed information on how to use hashtags well.

The Backchannel

Hashtags being used at conferences are providing what is being called a backchannel to events taking place in real time. What they enable is for people to use their computers or networked devices to provide commentary about what is happening at events they are attending. Now this can be illuminating when it is done well. People often provide a blow by blow description of what presenters are relaying and you can feel like you are part of the conference. If you’re not there physically you have the ability to send out tweets asking the people there to relay your questions or probe for more detail. This is the ‘using backchannel for good’ approach.

‘Using backchannel for bad’ is something I’ve seen happening for some time. There is nothing wrong with constructive criticism or questioning someone’s thinking about a topic, but I do see something wrong with attacking a presenter’s skills at delivery. I’ve sat through conferences of late when I’ve felt the presenter is giving a less than stellar performance, but I’m not going to send out tweets bemoaning this to a public audience. It’s rude and bad form in my opinion. I’ve seen it happen when people are ustreaming presentations and viewers are criticising the stream and asking people to do a better job. The reality is that the people going to the effort of doing this don’t have to. They are going out of their way to ensure that others can participate. There are times when I’ve been embarrassed by the behaviour of people who really should have better manners.

Danah Boyd, a researcher with Microsoft, suffered from a nasty backchannel incident at the Web 2.0 Expo recently. She’s been transparent enough to write about it in depth and let people know the effect it had on her. I admire her for doing so. It seems that some people take the 140 character tweet as an opportunity to send out some pretty hurtful commentary. Unfortunately, incidents like this will see the backchannel suffer in conferences with event organisers potentially shying away from its use.  Joe McCarthy has written a very detailed assessment of the dark side of the backchannel that is more than worth reading. Visit his post for a deep insight into the use of backchannels at conferences as far back as 2004.

In all, Twitter, you continue to amaze me with you useful application to my learning. You are my most crucial network; you lead me in directions I might never have discovered any other way. It’s quite often serendipitous. I find myself  led to new thinkers I have never read before and my mind is expanded. Our relationship will continue; I’m certainly not ready to give you up.

Friending your students – a researcher’s perspective

When I was in Form 6 (today’s Yr 12) I had a teacher who gave us his phone number so that we could contact him if we needed clarification about the work we were doing out of school hours. We knew that on certain nights he had umpire training and wouldn’t be home until after 10.30pm.

Did I ever call him? You betcha I did, and so did the other students from our class. Even after 10.30pm on some occasions. He was an extraordinary teacher; a real father figure who guided us and believed in us. Did we ever abuse the privilege and hassle him? Never. We respected him and would do anything he asked. I still hold him in high esteem and hope that I am modeling the kind of good teaching practice he lived and breathed.

Danah Boyd, Researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society , has recently posted on her blog this post, ‘When teachers and students connect outside school ‘.   It’s a common sense post in my opinion. Refreshing really. There is so much she says that I see as valid when it comes to this discussion. She makes these important points;

The fear about teacher-student interactions also worries me at a broader societal level. A caring teacher (a genuinely well-intended, thoughtful, concerned adult) can often turn a lost teen into a teen with a mission. Many of us are lucky to have parents who helped us at every turn, but this is by no means universal. There are countless youth out there whose parents are absent, distrustful, or otherwise sources of frustration rather than support and encouragement. Teens need to have adults on their side. When I interview teens who have tough family lives (and I’m not talking about abuse here) but are doing OK themselves, I often find that it’s a teacher or pastor that they turn to for advice. All too often, the truly troubled kids that I meet have no adults that they can turn to for support.

I worked in a tough Govt. school for many years. (The same school I attended as a teenager as a matter of fact!) Many of the students there needed supportive and well intentioned adults around them who were looking out for their best interests. In quite a few cases, the only people in their lives who met that criteria were their teachers. These were the kids who’d turn up at school on pupil free days even if they’d been suspended the day before.  School was the structure lacking in their lives. There were kids there who I gave my phone number to, kids who needed a supportive adult who would be there for them to listen when life was tough. Not a whole lot of those kids rang me, but I know they appreciated me showing them I cared. 

One of my former students is my hairdresser now. She convinced me awhile ago to join Facebook and become a member of the school’s alumni group. So many of my former students have added me as a friend and left kind messages. Quite a number of them are the kids who would put you through the wringer in class. These are the kids who say, ‘Hey, great to see my fave teacher here.’ It’s amazing really. You see how much influence you have had, influence you may have never realised without a forum like Facebook.  

Danah offers this when discussing whether or not teachers should be adding students in social networking sites;

Teachers do not have to be a student’s friend to be helpful, but being a Friend (on social network sites) is not automatically problematic or equivalent to trying to be a kids’ friend. When it comes to social network sites, teachers should not invade a student’s space. But if a student invites a teacher to be present, they should enter in as a teacher, as a mentor, as a guide. This isn’t a place to chat up students, but if a student asks a question of a teacher, it’s a great place to answer the student. The key to student-teacher interactions in networked publics is for the teacher to understand the Web2.0 environment and to enter into student space as the mentor (and only when invited to do so). (Translation: teachers should NEVER ask a student to be their Friend on Facebook/MySpace but should accept Friend requests and proceed to interact in the same way as would be appropriate if the student approached the teacher after school.) Of course, if a teacher wants to keep their social network site profile separate from their students, they should feel free to deny student requests. But if they feel as though they can help students in that space, they should be welcome to do so.

I have had current students request that I be their friend on Facebook and I’ve hesitated. I haven’t added them, but I’m not sure it would be problematic if I did. I’m highly conscious of my online behaviour and enter these spaces as a teacher, first and foremost. One of my students is on Twitter and I follow her. I do so to support her in that online environment and we often speak at school about something that may have popped up on Twitter. It is a mentoring role and because I use Twitter as a professional tool for learning I feel very comfortable about this.  

It’s a debate that will continue I have no doubt. I encourage you to read Danah’s post and reflect about what you feel is appropriate. Danah leaves her post with these questions;

What do you think is the best advice for other teachers when it comes to interacting with students on social network sites? When should teachers interact with students outside of the classroom? What are appropriate protocols for doing so? How can teachers best protect themselves legally when interacting with students? How would you feel if you were told never to interact with a student outside of the classroom?  

I wonder what your answers would be. I’d love to hear them if you care to leave a comment.

The comment thread on Danah’s post is interesting to read. John Heffernan shares this (and I’m sorry John, there is no link to a blog that you may be writing. Are you,  I wonder, the John Heffernan who writes children’s books in Australia?) ; 

I wonder if Socrates was walking in the Agora, would he stop and talk to his pupils outside of teaching time?

Teenager’s Agora is now predominantly online.

If Socrates was alive today, where would he sit and would he still be charged as “corruptor of youth”?

 

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