Microcelebrity and Managing Online Identity

Clive Thompson of WIRED recently wrote a piece called The Age of the Microcelebrity. In it, he describes the phenomenon of being well known, followed, and even discussed by a group of followers, however small. Sure, well know bloggers like Scoble are followed by thousands of enthusiasts, but they are explicitly aware of this and, in my opinion, fall outside the realm of “microcelebrity.” As Thompson discusses interesting anecdotes of people being live blogged as they chat at a conference or his own experience finding a discussion about “whether it’s healthy for [him] to have a nanny look after [his] son during work hours ,” I started to consider how DNs negotiate this reality every day. How has the broadcasting of DNs affected their assumptions and how they operate?

Thompson suggests that “we are learning to live in front of a crowd,” and to some extent, I agree. It is normal on a Monday morning to receive e-mails that you have been “tagged” in photo albums that sprouted over the weekend. I imagine that bloggers with small followings experience the thrill of their posts being debated or discussed. For much of the information we post online about ourselves, privacy is not of paramount concern because we control it ourselves and—often, but not always—tailor the content for our target audience. But in some cases we may want to, as Thompson puts it and as I mentioned in an earlier post, use pseudonyms or private accounts to “wall off” personal details. And here is where many users of online services may go wrong. Although our profile may be hidden, the Terms of Use often allow the service provider to do anything it chooses with that data in the future. A false sense of security can be more harmful than none at all.

What are the effects of this (over)exposure to the rest of our social group and even beyond? Is it good to take care in what we say and do, for fear that we may be misrepresented? Or does that make normal conversation and expression rife with politics? Certainly the strains of managing one’s “personal brand” are felt more by working professionals than DNs still in school, but the skill to manage an online identity is a good one to have.

Thompson finishes with the keen observation that this may not be such a new thing: “Small-town living is a hotbed of bloglike gossip. “ It is true that networked communities dissolve geographic boundaries to give the feeling of that small down, but there are critical differences. Expression in the online world is replicable, searchable, oftentimes irremovable (from the web, once it circulates) and can be viewed by so-called invisible audiences. These differences are part of the digital literacy that is so important for DNs and other users of services to have and apply when negotiating their foray into the online world from the offline one.

   – Tony P.

The digital (native) Arab

Last week, Digital Natives’ principle investigator John Palfrey presented at the Fikr6 in Bahrain.  The conference was not explicitly about digital youth, but so much of the conversation ended up dominated by related themes.

Much of the conversation centered around digital youth and education – incredibly similar to conversations taking place here in the US, and throughout much of the world.  A key question, one that is being pronounced globally:  How can we reform our education system (and get our educators up to speed!) to take into account what youth are doing online, and with digital technologies – and how can the informal learning and creative skills arising from young people’s digital fluency be incorporated into the formal education system?

Mahmood, one of the leading bloggers in the Arab world, and certainly in Bahrain, reflects on the conference, and on how the fluency of youth in the digital world calls for a re-formulation of the educator’s role.  He writes:

 Young people are at the forefront of the technology curve, most of the time way ahead of their own teachers; hence, a serious investment should be applied to the teachers to get them retrained in new technologies not as “rote learning providers” or ones who teach how to use simple computer operations, but be mentors and enthusiastic educators who can explain the new trends and technologies which in turn will allow their charges to easily absorb and apply that information.

Digital Natives in the Arab world certainly have a unique set of issues to tackle within the digital world – from cultural differences in what should be available online, as Berkman Center’s Open Net Initiative investigates, to what to do about the “brain drain” (or what not to do – when considering how global connectivity enables “drained brain(s)” to be present, in many ways, at home), to thinking about the expansions of new industries within the region.  Certainly, youth in the Arab world experience high levels of inequality in terms of access to digital technologies – although Global Voices Bahrain blogger Esra’a blogs that this divide is closing.

Nevertheless, the common, global strains of issues arising from the emergence of the new digital generation – the digital natives that exist worldwide – are definitely present.   Now, how can we best collaborate to come up with globally-informed solutions to local challenges facing countries the world-over?  Education seems like a great place to start.

– Miriam S.

Discussing ‘Born Digital’ with European Students

(Cross posted from Dr. Gasser’s blog)

John Palfrey and I are getting tremendously helpful feedback on the draft v.0.9 of our forthcoming book Born Digital (Basic Books, German translation with Hanser) from a number of great students at Harvard and St. Gallen Law School, respectively. Last week, John and I had an inspiring conversation about the current draft with our first readers on this side of the Atlantic: a small, but great and diverse group of law students here at www.unisg.ch. The students, coming from Switzerland, Germany, France, Singapore, and the U.S., were kind enough to share their feedback with us based on reaction papers they’ve drafted in response to assigned book chapters.

Today, the second session took place. John and I are currently revisiting the final chapter of the book. The “final” chapter, of course, is by no means “final” – even not if it once becomes a chapter of the printed book. What we’re trying to do is simply to synthesize some of the things we’ve said so far, and to look ahead once again and ask ourselves how the digital world will look like for our kids given the things we know – and we don’t know – about their digital lives. In this spirit, the last chapter of the book in particular is an open invitation to join the discussion about the promises and challenges of the Internet for a population that is born digital. Against this backdrop, we prepared three discussion questions for today’s session here in St. Gallen.

First, what do you think is the greatest opportunity for Digital Natives when it comes to digital technologies? Second, what are you most concerned about when thinking about the future of the Internet? Third, what approach – generically speaking – seems best suited to address the challenges you’ve identified?

Here are the students’ thoughts in brief:

Greatest opportunities:

  • Democratizing effect of the net: DNs can build their own businesses without huge upfront investments (Rene, Switzerland)
  • ICT enables networking among people across boundaries (Catrine, Switzerland)
  • Encourages communication among DNs (Pierre-Antoine, France)
  • Increased availability of all kind of information, allows fast development and sharing ideas among DNs (Jonas, Germany)
  • Availability of information, DN can go online and find everything they’re looking for; this shapes, e.g., the way DNs do research; as a result, world becomes a smaller place, more common denominators in terms of shared knowledge and culture (Melinda, Switzerland)
  • Efficiency gains in all areas, including speed of access, spread of ideas, … (Eugene, Singapore)

Greatest challenges, long-term:

  • Problem of losing one’s identity – losing cultural identity in the sea of diversity (Eugene, Singapore)
  • Dependency on technology and helplessness when not having the technology available; DNs are becoming dependent on technology and lose ability to differentiate b/w reality and virtuality; other key challenge: bullying (Melinda, Switzerland)
  • Who will get access to the digital world – only the wealthy kids in the West or others, too? Digital divide as a key problem (Jonas, Germany)
  • Addiction: DNs are always online and depend so much on Internet that it may lead to addictive behavior (Pierre-Antoine, France)
  • DNs can’t distinguish between offline and online world, they can’t keep, e.g. online and offline identities separate (Catrine, Switzerland)
  • Notion of friendship changes; DNs might forget about their friends in the immediate neighborhood and focus solely on the virtual (Rene, Switzerland)

Most promising approaches:

  • Teach digital natives how to use social networks and communicate with each other; law, in general, is not a good mode of regulation in cyberspace (Rene, Switzerland)
  • Technology may often provide a solution in response to a technologically-created problem like, e.g., privacy intrusion (Catrine, Switzerland)
  • Don’t regulate too much, otherwise people won’t feel responsible anymore; education is key, help people to understand that it’s their own responsibility (Pierre-Antoine, France)
  • The laws that are currently in place suffice (except in special circumstances); learning is key, but who shall be the teacher (since today’s teachers are not DNs)? (Jonas, Germany)
  • Generic legal rules are often not the right tool, problems change too fast; instead, kids need general understanding of how to handle technology; goal could be to strengthen their personality in the offline world so that they can transfer their confidence, but also skills to the online world (Melinda, Switzerland)
  • Technology will most likely help DNs to solve many of the problems we face today; education is the basis, but focus needs to be on the question how to put education from theory into practice (Eugene, Singapore)

As always, we were running short in time, but hopefully we can continue our discussion online. Please join us, and check out our project wiki (new design, many thanks to Sarah!), our new DN blog, or for instance our Facebook group. John, our terrific team, and I are much looking forward to continuing the debate!

-Urs G.

Kindle: not your parents’ eBook.

On November 19, Amazon.com announced its first foray into hardware: a portable eBook reader called the Kindle. Amazon hopes the Kindle will become the iPod of books – a portable personal library you can take anywhere.

Amazon Kindle (image courtesy Amazon.com)

That same day, the National Endowment for the Arts announced the results of a new study: young Americans are reading less.

So it makes sense that despite obvious similarities, the Kindle and the iPod target very different markets. Whereas Apple turned the iPod into an icon of digital native culture, Amazon is aiming the Kindle squarely at digital immigrants.

Look at the features Amazon is touting. A display that mimics the look of ink on paper. A built in wireless book store so you never have to touch a computer. The ability to change text size. In short, it’s designed for people who hate using computers and have bad eyesight.

Meanwhile, with a screen saver featuring the likes of Jane Austen and the Gutenberg printing press, along with what the popular technology blog Engadget calls “a big ol’ dose of the ugly,” the Kindle is almost aggressively unhip. As one analyst told the Wall Street Journal, “No one is going to buy Kindle for its sex appeal.”

Moreover, digital natives tend to be more comfortable reading from traditional LCD screens than their parents are. Indeed, some of us, myself included, actually prefer reading from a screen. I’d much rather read a book on, say, an iPhone, than have to carry a separate device.

But as the NEA study (3.3 MB PDF) makes clear, most readers aren’t digital natives. If older consumers take to the Kindle in droves, perhaps they could become the digital natives of literature, defining the new paradigm for how we read digital books.

In a sense then, whether knowingly or not, Amazon is performing a large scale social experiment. We can’t wait to see the results.

-Jesse Baer