Living and Dying on Geocities

Recently, Geocities announced that they would be shutting down their services later in 2009. In my history on the Web (I’m graduating college this May, if that provides perspective), this is a significant event for Digital Natives.

At least, for the older Digital Natives. Growing up on the Internet in middle school, many of my peers had little if any digital skills. I was lucky enough to grow up with a Macintosh in my house, so I was introduced to programs like kid-targeted graphic tools (in my case, it was Kid Pix, the Photoshop for primary school students) from an early stage. Eventually, I was helping my father navigate financial programs, until we bought a 56k modem while I was in middle school, putting me on the Web through AOL. Most of my time was spent on instant messengers (specifically, AIM) speaking to friends or in AOL chat rooms speaking to strangers (but in fervent discussions about daily minutiae). However, at school, my friends and my homeroom teacher together would browse websites during our morning free period, sharing things that we probably had found in the mailing lists piled up in our inboxes (such as the epic and wonderfully celebrated Hamster Dance).

That sharing introduced me to website creation tools. A couple of my friends had already made their own webpages, and the idea intrigued me to such an extent that I had to copy them. A few of my friends had free webpages hosted by Geocities; because I owned a Mac, and the Geocities software didn’t work on my operating system, I had to settle for Homestead.com‘s services. The key for us middle-schoolers, though, was that we could click a button and suddenly own a webpage, for free. For kids without credits cards, free web services provided the first step toward something other than only consuming information on the Web. My first page attempted to chronicle every possible emoticon I could imagine; ultimately, I failed, but it was a starting point that would propel me to own a number of domains (eg., alexleavitt.com, my personal website, or Department of Alchemy, my blog) today.

The importance of websites like Geocities, though, was that it provided Digital Natives — like me — with an outlet for creative expression. I had no Internet skills at that age beyond the ability to use a chat client and browse the Web, so domains, hosting, and even basic coding were initially foreign to me. Still, it’s not that these services provided the outlet; it’s more that Geocities, Homestead, Tripod and many others provided a system for creation. That system had two sides: on one hand, it provided knowledgeable kids with enough space to code a few webpages with basic HTML; on the other hand, if the user wasn’t acquainted with code, a simple and easy-to-use navigator let him or her move around a few objects and text to throw together a page. I had not learned to code until joining Neopets in 2001, through which I taught myself HTML to update my user profile and other personal pages on the site. Once I developed a knowledge of basic Web code, I brought that over to the free webpage services. Copying and pasting existing website’s code into new HTML documents, I tweaked and edited them into my own styles, out of which I continued to build a collection of websites. I’ve tried to find the first webpage I ever created, but it seems that Homestead also threw out its collection of free pages; however, I was able to stumble upon a Geocities website I created at the beginning of high school.

I’ve heard a lot of people online — both adults and fellow Digital Natives — say that they don’t mind the demise of Geocities, because it will eradicate a number of long-forgotten webpages (aka. potential embarrassment). But particularly for Digital Natives around my age, Geocities is one of a number of web services with which we grew up and into which we poured our time. But many new services have come to replace Geocities and similar services. For instance, it’s common for a kid online today to own a blog, probably provided by a free service like WordPress or Tumblr. In the same vein, most younger users of the web maintain presences on Facebook, MySpace, and other websites that specifically foster communities.

My thought, then, is what kind of digital literacy younger Digital Natives possess nowadays. I had to teach myself HTML; perhaps more kids in the past year have been using Dreamweaver. It might even be more possible that kids see HTML as a prerequisite to living on the Web. A number of teens probably don’t even care about webpages, instead focusing on Facebook and similar services, where page customization depends on no previous knowledge of code. There are clear positives and negatives to how the Internet has evolved: less creation in some places, more opportunities for creativity in others (such as YouTube, where a kid can easily record a video on software and the webcam provided on his or her computer and then simply upload the video by making a few clicks). The benefits, of course, have been that services and software have developed quickly, and the diversity of free programs available for modern Digital Natives provides them with much more occasion to think and create.

Urs Gasser at CSN Conference in Amsterdam

Cross-posted from the CSN Blog

Today’s kids can’t imagine a life without Google or Wikipedia. These young people are already starting to enter the work force. What happens when Enterprise 2.0 meets Born Digital?

I’ll be speaking at the CSN Conference about a generation growing up online: what sets them apart, and what this means for employers.

Digital Natives have grown up in a digital world. They relate to information and to others in new and different ways. They manage multiple online identities; they share photos, music, and personal information daily; and they create and collaborate in new ways. As Digital Natives enter the workforce, they bring with them their norms of sharing, collaboration and information processing. These norms differ significantly from the workings of traditional corporate environments. How do we prepare for the integration of a new generation into the workforce? How can we harness the potential of new ways of working that those Born Digital bring to the table, while addressing the challenges posed by the more problematic habits young people may have established?

Based on a combination of research findings and experiences from practice, the presentation will dive in and discuss three main questions:

-What are the risks and opportunities are associated with the new information disclosure and sharing practices of Digital Natives?
-What is the impact of Digital Natives’ experience with peer collaboration and community building once they enter a corporate environment?
-How shall employers and co-workers think about and deal with the distinct ways in which Digital Natives — process and organize information?
-Companies that will work to integrate the new generation will benefit immensely – but a strategic approach and specific outreach to this new workforce is a necessity.

See you at the CSN Conference!

Availability and Obligation: Using Technology the Right Way

Busted! The sneaky moves of anti-social smartphone user,” seemed sensational even for the usually grandiose titles of TEDTalks, but I found myself nodding to Renny Gleeson’s every word. If you haven’t watched this video yet, I highly recommend it. At only three minutes, it’s shorter than the usually TED video but just as packed with wit and insight.

Gleeson’s talk is a humorous look at the intruding presence of cell phones in our everyday lives. Although he doesn’t explicitly separate these out, he addresses two different phenomena, both mediated by that cellphone on your pocket: the documentation impulse and culture of availability.

The documentation impulse is our urge to document, via photograph, tweet, etc., the large and small events of our lives. The camera or the cellphone (or cellphone camera) becomes an intrusion into the actual course of events; as Gleeson puts it, it indicates that “Our reality is less interesting than the story I will tell.” The culture of availability reflects our tendency to attend to our buzzing cellphones, even at the expense of our real life conversations. It’s rude, yet , I think many of us are guilty of it. So the culture of availability has a flip side too, and that is the culture of unavailability.

My most salient experience of this is sitting in a classroom the few awkward minutes before class starts. Small talk could break the silence, almost everyone in the class will be hiding behind a laptop gchatting a digital friend or hunched over a cellphone punching in letters. Even the simple act of asking a classmate about an assignment feels like an intrusion into someone else’s space. As someone guilty of the laptop/cellphone stunt as well, I don’t think we mean to remove ourselves from our surroundings – at least that is not my intention – but it is rather a way to avoid the awkward silence.

Gleeson ends his talk with a plea to the audience, “Let’s make technologies that make people more human, not less.” This alls sounded great in the context of his snazzy presentation but as I mulled over Gleeson’s words afterwards, I’m still not exactly what he means or expects out of technology. How does anything we create that is mediated by wires and microchips make us more human? According to Gleeson, tied up with the idea of being human seems to be the creation of a shared narrative, not just sharing narratives but actually creating them with one another.

To characterize phone users as “anti-social,” as the attention-grabbing title of this talk does, is a little misleading. The vast majority of the time we’re on our phones, we are being social, just with the voice on the other end of the receiver rather than with our surroundings. While it is different kind of socialization, it is not solipsistic. And we when take our photos, say at an Improv Everywhere stunt, and pool them in a Flickr group, that is a creation of shared narrative. The cellphone is not all bad, and it is probably not fair to say that technology has failed at allowing us to be human.

As I mused about Gleeson’s pleas for more humanizing technology, I didn’t come to an answer, but rather another question: Is it really technology itself that is the problem? The problem of our divided attention does not lie in the fact that we all have cellphones, but rather in how we use them. While having a cellphone has undeniably gotten me out of trouble more times than I can count, I have never needed it by my side 24/7. Each one of our cellphones, not matter how ancient or new, has a very simple but powerful button: OFF.

Born Digital Goes to College

This week, we got some pretty exciting news: turns out Kevin Guidry, a PhD student and teacher at Indiana University, is using Born Digital as a major text in his undergraduate class on Online Identity!

This is exciting for a couple of reasons. First, it’s always a rush to hear that people are actually reading a book you helped to coax along. (I presume it’s even more of a rush when you actually wrote the whole thing! Here’s looking at you, John and Urs.) Books, awkward physical objects that they are, do tend to take on a life of their own. Seeing Born Digital come to life in such an admirable, unpredictable environment is a delight and an honor.

Second, Kevin has already entered the new millenium of teaching and learning for which Born Digital so ardently advocates. Kevin linked us to the blog posts he’s writing on his teaching process in the half-semester course on “Online Identity,” and I spent solid minutes transfixed by his descriptions of the classroom, obstacles, student responses, and opportunities. Rather than provide dry lectures, Kevin structures his classes as a series of small-group conversations, all contributing to a whole. Though using the book’s principles to teach the book’s principles may seem recursive, I think it is a fiercely intelligent approach—and, soon, it may be a necessary one. Kevin’s iterative thought process rewards close reading.

Third, the Digital Natives team learned about Kevin’s class via an email he sent to John Palfrey. Out of the blue! Despite all of its shortcomings, the Internet has this one thing I will never stop loving: its ability to connect people and endeavors suddenly and without warning. Because Kevin took the time to write to John, the entire team behind the project now gets to see how Born Digital plays in the real world, observing its trajectory vicariously through Kevin’s classroom reports.

If you ever find yourself teaching Born Digital in a class, or reading it, or thinking further about the issues it addresses, we will always love to hear from you. In the comments, or by email: anytime. Serendipity, it turns out, almost always comes from out of the blue.

Thank you for the note, Kevin, and we look forward to more dispatches from the classroom of tomorrow!

Digital Natives SXSW Podcast

Just got word from Alex Leavitt that the podcast from our panel at SXSW is now up!

SXSW Podcast: Blackboards or Backchannels: The Techno-Induced Classroom of Tomorrow

While tending to my inbox tonight, I put this on in the background and was excited to hear a few cogent themes emerge through the panel discussion. These themes included: the primacy of good teaching, the inability of technology to solve problems on its own, and the subtle factors that distinguish online learning environments from analog environments.

If you do end up listening to the podcast, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Alexander Heffner gives us the Scoop from DC

First, let me me introduce myself to Berkman followers.

I’m Alexander Heffner, a new writer for the Center. I’m a freshman at Harvard and editor-in-chief of Scoop44, a national network of student journalists reporting on the Obama Administration from a unique generational lens. In this capacity, as an online journalist, a recent high school graduate, and as a millennial, I am the definition of digital native, by every estimation.

I’ve been stationed in Washington DC covering the Obama White House from Washington DC and the Brady Briefing Room since mid-Winter. In addition to my work reporting on the President and his administration, specifically related to the concerns and future of America’s coming-of-age, I’m exploring the intersection of politics and journalism, and how it manifests itself on the Internet … with whatever favorable (or not) broader societal implications.

Surfing Facebook on any weekday at the White House, you’ll quickly find some of the younger “deans” of the Washington press corps online, posting status updates and their recent articles or broadcast reports and, for some, exchanging comments with their readers or viewers. That can lead to enlightened debate…or not. Status updates can be used for purely self-promotional function, or for a reporter to perfect her lede for the most crisp delivery.

As a newcomer to the Oval Office beat, I’ve used these nativist tools to identity fellow reporters, arrange coffee with new colleagues, and identify Obama staffers (although most senior officials, as you might expect, are not on Facebook). While Facebook might lead you to post sensitive information, Twitter, the hot cyber gadget which facilities only short sentence-long updates, seems to give users greater control and less risk…especially to those politicians and journalists who fear compromising their credibility.

Either way, all statistics denote that both Facebook and Twitter, alongside other social networking sites, are growing up quickly, as Web aliens from older generations are learning to navigate these technologies.

Please stay tuned every Tuesday, either by video or in conventional print type, and I’ll give you a Berkman Internet-angled scoop from down in DC.

Hub of the University: Searching for HarvardLife Online

On Wednesday April 1, 2009, the cool, blue color scheme of TuftsLife.com was tinted a more familiar shade of crimson. “That’s right, TuftsLife is now HarvardLife,” announced a banner the homepage, “With the main developers involved in TuftsLife transferring to Harvard, today we completed phase one of the transition to our new home. We are excited about the potential that our new Ivy League home brings to HarvardLife.”

A Tufts friend alerted me to the change, and we had a good laugh over the April Fool’s joke at both Tufts’ and Harvard’s expense. The developers did quite a thorough job with the “changeover,” replacing links to Tufts webmail with Harvard’s and adding Veritas crests everywhere. (Unfortunately, I didn’t get to snag a screenshot before April Fool’s ended. If anyone has one squirreled away, please do send it over to  zhang50 at fas.harvard.edu!) But it also got me puzzling, why isn’t there a HarvardLife? Why don’t we have such a useful site for students? Can the developers transfer over to Harvard for real?

TuftsLife is so useful because it pulls together all the information you need for, well, life at Tufts: announcements, events calendar, news, dining hall menu, academic resources, bus tracker, textbook swap, carpool board, etc. The same information for Harvard, on the other hand, is spread through ten different websites and is terribly unnavigable. In my frustration, I’ve consolidated all these websites as icons on a toolbar but there are still times when I’m frantically clicking around finding the exact room request form I need to. TuftsLife, in contrast to the diffuse network of Harvard resources, exists as a kind of hub of student activity; for many students, it’s their homepage and the announcements page is always worth a perusal. TuftsLife is also an entirely student run enterprise.

So where is the heart of Harvard’s online community? To be fair, I should point out there is my.harvard.edu, a portal that, in spirit, shoots for the same goals, but its clunky interface and university-wide rather than undergraduate life focus makes it an underused resource among students. When I waxed poetic to a friend about the student initiative that led to TuftsLife, a friend promptly replied, “Facebook?” Oh right, Facebook. Well Facebook’s kind of a tricky to fit in here. For one, it’s become increasingly less Harvard-centric, college-centric, or even network-centric over the past few years, as network pages have been completely phased out. It is also a primarily social network that connects you with people you already know, or at least sort of know. TuftsLife, on the other hand, is a school-wide bulletin board for student group events, marketplace exchanges, and announcements.

At Harvard – in my own experience anyway – the first place you go if you want eyeballs reading is quite haphazard and crude: email. Whether it’s about the German table you’re organizing or the physics textbook you want to sell or the survey you need 50 people to take for your thesis, open email lists, mostly by undergraduate house but also various student groups, are the way to go. For what it’s worth, it is effective enough yet seems somewhat outdated. While there have been attempts to pull together event information, it has never reached a critical mass of users to become comprehensive, and the current events calendar is dominated by department seminars and varsity sports games, lacking a lively addition of student group events.

Computer Science 50, the introductory CS class at Harvard, has been breeding ground to many useful and amusing student projects over the years. A select few recent ones are available in an “apps store,” but I am waiting a little hopefully for an ambitious student to pull everything together into sometime like TuftsLife.

Aside from convenience, such a hub will go a ways toward fostering a sense of cohesiveness in the student community. In the same way that the Harvard campus lacks a physical student center, it also lacks a digital one. It’s not everyone should be forced to participate, but that anyone who chooses to can. At a school of 6500 undergraduates, student life can incredibly fragmentary, and there is no central hub to find out what’s going on even if you want to. So, to improving HarvardLife!

Disagree? Sound off in the comments. I definitely don’t speak for every Harvard undergraduate and there is undoubtedly a range of experiences here. And if there’s some nifty service I’m missing out on, I’d be more than grateful to learn about it.

-Sarah Zhang

Ubiquity: Laptop Culture and the Demise of the Campus Computer Lab

Last week, Ars Technica asked: When every student has a laptop, why run computer labs? The article reported on the University of Virginia’s recent decision to “dismantle the community computer labs” at the school, after discovering that in 2007, 3,113 out of 3,117 freshmen arrived on campus with computers in tow (the vast majority of which were laptops.) School administrators took a look around, and realized that the computer lab’s moment may have passed. An artifact of a time when colleges were working to integrate computers, word processing, and eventually the Internet into the curriculum, computer labs operated as a kind of talisman against protest: teachers could demand papers be word-processed, because even if you don’t own a computer, the lab meant you had no excuse. The project succeeded: computers, today, are an integral part not only of students’ education, but of their entertainment and social life as well.

As a cost-cutting measure, closing community computer labs on college campuses seems to make sense: unlike grassy quads, computer labs seldom encouraged student happiness or wellbeing; unlike campus health centers, they can now hardly be kept around out of dire necessity. In my experience as a computer user assistant at Harvard, it’s overwhelmingly true that most students arrive at school Harvard with a laptop. [In the comments, Kevin correctly points out that to extend this to all schools would be a massive overgeneralization, considering different degrees of personal computer ubiquity/scarcity at different institutions in the U.S. and indeed across the world. (In my eagerness to confirm the University of Virginia’s observations with my own, I slipped and effectively extended the observation to cover all institutions everywhere—certainly not my intention!) See Kevin’s comment below for a thoughtful discussion & links. I’m especially interested in his entreaty to somehow move beyond running in analytical “Participation Gap”/”Digital Divide” circles, to a deeper understanding of the variety of situations at hand.] And yet, in the many hours I’ve spent at the helpdesk in one of Harvard’s main computer labs over the past few years, I’ve observed that the lab is busy and bustling almost 24 hours a day. Students definitely make use of community computer labs when they’re there; if they don’t have to, and the labs are kind of dismal places to begin with, then what’s the deal?

Over the Digital Natives list this week, we discussed a few possibilities. Computer lab computers, for one thing, tend to have large screens and real keyboards; for certain kinds of graphics work, or prolonged typing, a desktop computer in place of a laptop can make a difficult project slightly less miserable. They also provide a source of overflow computing without the requirement of maintaining a separate distribution network—imagine a college’s IT department trying to loan out, and keep track of, a fleet of laptops for students whose computers have died during finals? Also, though modern Macs are capable of dual-booting Windows and OS X, few students actually do so. Computer labs make it possible for schools to offer students access to operating systems (and the attendant OS-specific programs) that they would otherwise be unable to run.

Computer labs offer a combination of connectivity and escape at the same time: they provide a location, a destination, where all of the necessary technological tools are assembled and maintained. They also establish in student’s minds the existence of a “computer place” on campus—the natural place to gravitate toward when your laptop has gotten a virus, or its hard drive has died, or you’re wondering how to set up your email client. Here, the IT helpdesk is right in the computer lab, reinforcing that relationship.

With laptops all but ubiquitous, community computer labs may seem frivolous. But that very ubiquity, and its inescapability, means that colleges have a responsibility to respect and support the relationship between students and computers. A computer lab sends a strong signal, offers an obvious location to honor and troubleshoot that relationship, and gives students an alternative to squinting at tiny screens. They may not be necessary, but campus computer labs are nevertheless good to have around.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on computer ubiquity, how campus computer culture has changed over time, and anything else that’s on your mind—comment away!