Things to Make and Do: ‘Fresh Brain’ and the Community Conundrum

This week’s theme is creators, and it’s one of my favorites: I love thinking about the ways that incredibly simple tools empower young people (empower everyone, really) to create or comment upon art, and find their audiences, and grow as artists and critics. So yesterday, I plugged simple search terms into simple search engines—”mashups,” “teens,” and finally “teen video mashups.” The first link, out of 172,000, just happened direct me to project I can’t believe I’ve never heard of: Fresh Brain.

Setting aside its vaguely zombie-tastic name, Fresh Brain seems like an amazing venture. It’s a nonprofit aiming to “[enhance] the education and development of our youth in the areas of business and technology by providing hands-on real world experience.” via The site is still in beta, but it seems to be modeled as a sort of 21st-century digital manual on “Things to Make and Do.

Accordingly, Fresh Brain is divided into projects. In fact, the link I followed in the first place led me to a a single page for the “Teen Video Poetry Project.” The project instructions direct the teenager to “write a poem about something important to you, shoot or mashup video that relates to the poem, add your voice over reading the poem with optional music background and special sound effects.” Instead of projects requiring sewing machines and scrap paper and mounds of felt, today’s rainy-day activities encourage Digital Natives to explore digital tools and use them toward creative ends. It’s a great idea, and a great resource for parents, teachers, and students alike.

What I’d like to explore for a minute, though, is the relative quiet of the website as it currently stands. In spite of an entire section of Fresh Brain devoted to “Community,” the forums have been silent for over 7 weeks; the blog posts are sparse, and seem to come primarily from one or two people. Clearly, the staff of Fresh Brain recognize that half the fun of creation is showing your work to a big audience. And a “community,” however elusive that term may be, can provide that built-in audience—consider, for instance, YouTube. Fresh Brain is building a space, filling it with resources, and seeding it with good ideas. But nothing will happen there unless Digital Natives choose to spend their time on the site.

Ultimately, I don’t think that’s the most important thing here. I truly believe that Fresh Brain’s most important role is to provide a point of entry for Digital Natives who are ready to make the leap from consumer of digital content to creator. If the creations go elsewhere, filling up channels on YouTube and photostreams on Flickr, then that’s proof of success—not of failure. The goal of Fresh Brain, as far as I can tell, is to help teens grow and then to send them off into the world with a greater sense of their own creative agency. If the site is bare, that only indicates that people are by and large finding what they need. And that is a good thing; worth, even, the sacrifice of an engrossing and everpresent “community.” Sites that aim to make millions off of advertising are motivated to lock Digital Natives into walled gardens. Sites that aim to educate Digital Natives are motivated to let them leave as quickly as possible, equipped with new tools and a new sense of possibility.

If you do take a look at the site, we’d love to hear what you think. What project ideas would you add to the site? What do you think of the importance of “community” for creators? What things have you made and done online?

Are privacy tools enough?

As I went on Diana’s field trip through Facebook’s privacy controls on Wednesday, I wondered two things: Do digital natives understand the gravity of what and how much information they expose of themselves on the Internet? And secondly, although disclosed information can be filtered, do we ever take into account that our information is owned by the compannies offering the services we are using? Essentially, to what extent are digital natives aware of, and comfortable with, trading off their privacy for online services?

According to Born Digital, “Many Digital Natives incorrectly perceive that their conversations online are far more private than they are. In other words, there’s new incentive to post information about yourself online (social norms suggest that more information about yourself will attract more friends), but less of a check on your behavior (an innate sense of privacy, or someone telling you “don’t you dare go out dressed like that”). The result is that at no time in human history has information about a young person been more freely and publicly accessible to so many others.”

This quote indicates how DNs bring harm to themelves by disclosing information that should be private becausethey naively trust the system they are using to publish their data. In connection with privacy and safety, a great video was created to educate digital natives about the consequences of making information public through online means. This video was posted by AuntLee two weeks ago here at the DN Blog.

However, what about the issue of owning our infomation? True, Facebook enables users to control who is accessing their information, but will Facebook itself refrain from accessing our personal information?

When researching information for this post, I bumped into the Google Privacy Policy. As its publicly known, enterprises such as Google, Microsoft, AOL, etc., have access to all we do on the Internet. By reading the Google Privacy Policy, one understands that this information exists and the purpose of its use can be shifted anytime. So, again, we are obliged to trust in these enterprises to which we offer our personal information in exchange for the use of services. But what if something goes wrong either with the company or with the information?

As Palfrey and Gasser have discussed in Born Digital, DNs leave tracks, or “digital tatoos,” throughout cyberspace. Although the environments in which they do so are meant to be safe places for such procedures, creating a sense of trust between DNs and service providers, it incentivates a disclosure of personal information with no precedents. Meanwhile, means of tracking information gets more accurated, as it happens with this GPS localizer for instance. It is disturbing to observe kids who use this site accept the idea behind it, and have incorported these technologies into their daily lives.

As we can see, technology has been offering various ways of controlling and tagging people with a discourse that makes DNs understand these devices as harmless. What if this information is used differently from what we expect? What if data gets lost? What if a companny that holds your personal information is sold? Would you like to have your personal data sold with it?

Links: Day in the Life, + New Review of Born Digital

Two quick links!

The first: a new video from Micah Spear, found via Julia Roy and American Shelf Life. The video is a stop-motion photographic tour through “a day in the life of a born digital human.” I love the style and the music, and I’m always fascinated to peek into representations of individual digital lives. It’s worth noting, though, that you don’t have to own an iPod Touch, a BlackBerry, and a fancy desktop computer to be a Digital Native. If we restricted our scholarship to such young people, we’d run out of Digital Natives very quickly!

Stop Motion Day In the Life of a Born Digital Human from Undercurrent on Vimeo.

The second link: a very thorough and thought-provoking review of Born Digital from today’s Washington Post. Having read the book in its formative stages, in my role as a book intern, it’s always interesting to see how outside readers think it turned out. I particularly appreciated that the reviewer, Amanda Henry, noted how easy it would have been for John Palfrey and Urs Gasser to take shelter in alarmist prose. I also liked this line:

While Palfrey and Gasser can leave you longing for grandiloquent generalizations, or at least a buzzword or two (“semiotic democracy” lacks sexiness), their studious, empathic approach is both valid and reassuring, and their overarching point — let’s think about these things now, rather than trying to fix them later — well taken.

As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts!

Out of Our Hands: Privacy and Internet Gossip

“Thank you for screwing up my freshman year.”
-Addressed to JuicyCampus.com, from a CNN profile of a college student who was a target of posts on the site.

So tempting is a juicy piece of gossip. Despite assurances to the original informer to keep it on the down-low, the juiciest tidbits will always manage to slip out. But there is a tinge of a guilty conscience when one violates the trust of a friend. What happens when even this bit of accountability is entirely removed and anonymity is rule? You’ve got JuicyCampus.com

JuicyCampus is a repository of gossip and rumors; organized by school, it presents information in a way that is maximally useful to gossip-seekers. Hot topics invariably include keywords like “gay,” “sex,” and “sorority.” It prides itself on complete anonymity and even directs users to proxies to mask their IP addresses. When I last JuicyCampus here, the site had just taken off, attracting media and legal controversy. I haven’t been able to find any recent news on the legal developments, so I can only assume they haven’t made much headway.

(A quick legal aside: JuicyCampus is protected by free speech and can claim immunity under Section 230(c) of the Communications Decency Act, which states “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” This means that JuicyCampus is not legally responsible for potentially libelous content on its site. What the New Jersey AG was attempted to do was sue JuicyCampus for consumer fraud in misrepresenting how it deals with content removal.)

We generally like to think that privacy is in our hands. We control the information about ourselves – Facebook has robust privacy controls, we choose what we put about ourselves online, etc. We do not, however, have any control over what others say about us. In this way, the existence a public forum like JuicyCampus allows others to invade our privacy. There are really two separate issues here, the posting of true information (invasion of privacy) and the posting of false content (libel). Let’s see how JuicyCampus deals with the former in its FAQs (my emphasis added):

How do I remove a post that someone else made?
You can’t. Only we can remove posts made by others, and generally we don’t. We do remove spam, but otherwise it’s pretty rare.

What if my contact information is posted?
If someone posts your email address, your home address, your home phone number, or other contact information (no, your full name doesn’t count), we’ll consider deleting it if you notify us. Shoot an email to us at  cs at juicycampus.com with “Contact Info” in the subject, give us as much info as you can about the post so we can find it, and we’ll see what we can do. FYI, we may or may not read your complaint, and we may or may not respond to it. The decision of what action to take, if any, is at the sole discretion of JuicyCampus.

JuicyCampus’s FAQs and privacy policy are remarkably cavalier. I personally find it a little upsetting to see a site flaunt its CDA immunity with such blatant disregard for privacy. So how to deal with something like JuicyCampus? The Colonialist at George Washington University has come up with one strategy to combat JuicyCampus: spam. With spam the downfall of many message boards in the past, there is some poetic justice in fighting the malefactors of the Internet with their own weapons. But the strategy requires a corps of volunteers dedicating their time to….posting spam, not a particularly sustainable enterprise.

Or we can just ignore it. Every controversy surrounding it elevates its profile; every attempt to ban brings more curious visitors. I’m probably doing a disservice by mentioning JuicyCampus here. But there is a distinction I’d like to make. Posting on JuicyCampus is actually quite different from exchanging gossip with friends and acquaintances. Gossip is a kind of social currency – it’s showing off your exclusive knowledge and bringing a select circle into your confidence. These anonymous postings on the Internet, however, have no benefit to the poster, except perhaps the satisfaction of personal retribution. It’s the digital equivalent of nasty messages scrawled in the bathroom, only worse because the potential audience is the entire world. But as any smart student would realize, JuicyCampus really just an outlet for the spiteful and the bored. I’d like to think, anyways, that the site has only limited utility and thus limited appeal. That’s not to say terrible consequences can’t come out of its limited user base, but it’s never going to be the center of our online social live. Or am I being too optimistic?
-Sarah Zhang

Insights on Cyberbullying: an interview with a digital native

In this week’s audio podcast, our Reporters-in-the-Field asked 19 year old UMASS student and New Jersey native, Lisa Epstein, to share her thoughts on the world of cyberbullying. In this interview, Epstein provides insight on how the anonymity of cyberbullies makes one question who her real friends are, and how the Internet acts as a “big shield” in such situations.

Listen here:
Download

Fine-Tuning Facebook: A Field Trip through Privacy Controls

Last week, my post about the Facebook news feed as digital dossier garnered some interesting comments. The one I found most intriguing, though, was Yvette’s observation that “It would be great if Facebook users would know a little more about Facebook’s privacy features, which were extremely primitive but are getting better.”

It’s true: once upon a time, Facebook‘s privacy controls could only be adjusted very coarsely. Over the past two years, though, Facebook has steadily improved its privacy controls—to the point that there’s very little that can’t be adjusted, now. These controls, though, aren’t worth much if Digital Natives don’t use them to fine-tune their online environments. Since this week’s theme is privacy, I wanted to kick things off with an exploration of Facebook’s privacy controls.

(Though Facebook is hardly the only place on the internet where privacy matters for Digital Natives, its popularity makes it a good test case. If Digital Natives take hold of their privacy on Facebook—a place where they likely already spend a great deal of time—they will be more aware of protecting their privacy elsewhere on the internet, as well.)

So, off we go! Let’s start with the entry point: the “Settings” button in the upper right corner of the front page:

Clicking “Privacy Settings” will take you to the next page, a portal to the various dimensions of privacy on Facebook, the “Privacy Overview”:

Profile Privacy affects what items of personal information are visible to which people:

On the Profile Privacy page, it’s possible to go line-by-line and fine-tune the accessibility of each piece of information. For instance, I can decide that posts on my Wall will be seen only by my friends, or that my work info will be visible only to people in the Harvard network. (The Harvard network is limited to people who have email addresses ending in -harvard.edu. I might feel comfortable sharing the details of my work history with those people, but not with out-of-state acquaintances.) I’m especially fascinated by the search box at the top of this page: “see how a friend sees your profile.” This feature handily illustrates the ways that Facebook now allows users to compose faceted identities.

Next up: the Search Privacy page.

It’s actually possible to circumscribe your presence on Facebook such that strangers searching for you won’t even be able to see that you’re on Facebook at all. A search for your name, if you chose to limit your search availability, would turn up nothing. Also notable on the Search Privacy page is the option to remove your public search listing—the link to Facebook that’s indexed on search engines under an individual’s name. One of the most common concerns I hear from parents is “Will anybody be able to find my child’s Facebook page on Google?” The Search Privacy page on Facebook actually gives a definitive answer: the Facebook pages of minors are automatically not submitted to search engine indexes. If your child is a minor, then a Google search will not turn up a link to your child’s Facebook presence. And even if your child isn’t a minor, the Search Privacy page offers a way to opt out of search engine indexing for non-minors. This is a very simple and effective step to take in protecting online privacy, though it’s worth noting that the Facebook page that shows up in Google results is vastly limited; in fact, it only shows a headshot, the headshots of a few of that person’s friends, and the ability to log in to Facebook itself.

Next comes the News Feed and Wall Privacy page:

This page is interesting in that it allows you control what’s reported to your friends on Facebook. If a person removes a relationship status, and has unchecked the box such that relationship removals aren’t reported, then no part of Facebook will actively tell your friends about your breakup. They’ll still be able to take a look at your profile and notice the absence of the breakup, if you’ve elected to make that information visible. But if you don’t want the breakup shouted from the rooftops, and don’t want to cause a fuss, it’s possible to just gently change the state of the profile page without it being a huge deal.

The Applications Privacy page offers good information on how Facebook’s platform interacts with developers’ applications, but I’m actually more interested in what comes below the link to the Applications Page: the “Block People” field.

This is Facebook’s strongest tool for dealing with unpleasant interlopers. Blocking someone means that they cannot “find you in a Facebook search, see your profile, or interact with you through Facebook channels (such as Wall posts, Poke, etc.).” Though the text of the field reminds the user that this blocking “does not extend to elsewhere on the Internet,” it remains a powerful tool for severing communications with people on Facebook, should such a need ever arise.

Facebook’s privacy controls have grown more and more powerful. Having not adjusted my own privacy controls in a while, I was excited to see how far they’ve come. Facebook has long allowed Digital Natives to publish unprecedented volumes of personal information. Though this can have some great consequences—friends being able to find your phone number when they need it, the instant sharing of photographs, a way to effortlessly message contacts—it can also have some unintended ones. Facebook’s success depends on its ability to keep those who use it feeling comfortable. Their privacy controls have gone a long way towards allowing every Facebook user to determine exactly what levels of information sharing they are and aren’t comfortable with.

Ultimately, privacy on the internet isn’t about keeping all personal information under wraps all of the time. It’s about making sure that the right information is available to the right people at the right times. Facebook’s privacy controls go a long way toward putting this capability in the hands of Digital Natives. Many Digital Natives, sadly, never seize this opportunity because they don’t know it’s there. My hope is that this post will start more parents, teachers, and Digital Natives thinking about the ways in which they can seize control of their personal information—safeguarding their privacy in the process.

Digital Dossiers: always a glass half empty…?

As a person interested in research regarding the use of the Internet, and who believes in education through the use of digital devices, I have always tried to find positive aspects about the phenomenas created by our digital environment. I was born in 1983 and although I’m considered a Digital Native, I don’t necessarily consider myself “born” digital, and have the privilege of being able to reflect on what has changed since computers and digital devices have entered my life. I remember clearly the first time I ever saw a computer and how, initially, it always seemed to be related to video games. Then, I started using e-mails and, ultimately, chat-rooms. After that, my memory seems to get blurry, signalling around the time I started to view digital technology as a part of everyday life. By then, I felt all the information in the world could be reached through the Internet and a lot of useful things could come out of it.

When I think of dossiers, however, nothing positive seems to come to mind. I did a lot of research before deciding on how to write this post, trying to find arguments that could point to the benefits of having an extensive Digital Dossier. However, the search was not successful.

The first idea that came to my mind referred to a conversation I had once with a friend. By then, I was mentioning to her the fact that I always get bugged when I go buy something on Amazon.com. The website knows exactly what I might buy and how to make me spend money on things I didn’t even need. Interestingly, this friend of mine said that this was exactly what she loved about it. She didn’t have to keep searching for information on books: the website would offer her all she needed.

In his text “Surveillance in cyberspace: the Internet, personal data, and social control,” David Lyon writes: “The Internet was born in (and for) an era in which two cultures found themselves in tension – the culture of the free consumer and the culture of control, … consumption has become a central way of organizing society around the idea of free choice. But consumer management, in a delicioux paradox, attempts assiduously to guide our choices!”

When thinking of all the personal information I have spread on the Internet, all I can think of are security or privacy issues. For me to use services on the Internet, as I said before, I give free access to my personal information in exchange. This personal information is then used for different purposes: I receive credit cards I did not order from different banks, my personal data is sold to companies trying to sell me something (they keep calling me), people have access to personal information made available against my will, etc. None of these uses seem to have any benefit for me!

It seems Digital Dossiers have become a fact of life. Everything from the message I send on my cell phone, to the channels I watch on my digital TV, to the pictures I upload on my Flickr account: everything is tagged, creating a diffused map of who I am. What I ask, is for you to help me find a positive aspect on it. How can Digital Dossiers be used in a positive way, enhancing social relations and all the possible connections that may come out of it?

– André Valle

Leaving Footprints

Earlier this week, Diana kicked off the discussion of digital dossiers with a fantastic post on the Facebook News Feed as dossier. News Feed may be powered by an automated bot, but the user tells the bot what to do. If you’re savvy about privacy settings, News Feed allows you to manage exactly what could show up in your friend’s feeds. It gives the illusion of no control while you’re in control. There’s another dimension to digital dossiers though, and the most concerning part is the information that you can’t control.

Before launching any deeper into this discussion, I’d like to link back to a great video produced by Kanupriya Tewari, one the summer interns here at Digital Natives. I didn’t fully appreciate the meaning of “digital dossier” until I watched this video, which follows the digital life of Andy from before birth to after death. Andy’s digital dossier includes all the usual suspects such as his Facebook profile and email archive, but it also includes his online credit card statement, the GPS tracking device on his cell phone, the surveillance cameras around his college buildings, etc. At the end, Kanu says that Andy probably never knew how large his digital dossier was. Neither did I.

Even given fluid nature of the Internet, we have a fair degree of control over our digital identities. Digital dossiers, on the other hand, are by definition the accumulation of all digital information, most of which is out of our hands. This quote from the Digital Dossiers chapter of Born Digital linked sums up the key issues surrounding dossiers:

The problem with the rapid growth of digital dossiers is that the decisions about what to do about personal information are made by those who hold the information. The person who contributes the information to a digital dossier may have a modicum of control up front, but he or she rarely exercises it. The person to whom the information relates — sometimes the person who contributed it, sometimes not — often has no control whatsoever about what happens to the data. The existence of these dossiers may not itself be problematic. But these many, daily, individual acts result in a rich, deep dataset associated with an individual that can be aggregated and searched. The process, start to finish, is only lightly regulated.

Those who are vigilant about privacy may find the lack of control over our digital dossiers quite unsettling. Although most of the information is gated, there is no one or no central location to go to for our digital dossiers. Information is strewn across the Internet, with or without our knowledge.
Sometime last year, I had posted a short comment relating an anecdote about Facebook in Slate.com’s The Fray. (For non-Slate readers, The Fray is their discussion board and comments section rolled into one.) There were a few more comments back and forth before the discussion, as most threads do, eventually died out. I forgot about this exchange until I recently Googled one of my frequent Internet handles and found many of the results to be Chinese. Perplexed, I investigated further. What happened? Someone had taken the original Slate article by Christopher Hitchens along with several reader comments (including mine), translated it into Chinese (it was a very good translation, no Babelfish there) and posted it on a Chinese website. Several Chinese forums then picked up the article and discussions ensued. That my comment had sparked an entire conversation in a different language halfway across the world was something I only became aware of when I was vain enough to Google myself. My name, or my pseudonym, was attached to something that I didn’t know existed — another piece of my digital dossier I wasn’t aware of.

-Sarah Zhang