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Friday, November 24, 2006

Shopping season gift lists

Lists of this holiday shopping season's hottest gifts are all over tech news right about now. One of the more reliable sources (for its independence) is the San Jose Mercury News with its list of "what's hot" for all ages this season (basically listing the newest electronics products). For zoom-ins on specific ones, there's PC World on the Nintendo's Wii, targeting the family market more than any videogame console in recorded history, and the Washington Post on PlayStation 3 and Wii (see my earlier item on Zune, with links to the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post). For help on the software side – specifically in games – don't miss Common Sense Media's holiday videogame roundup. And the St. Petersburg Times offers its picks of kid-friendly videogames for specific players.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Social-networking burn-out?

I doubt social networking's just a passing fad, as some say. In fact, it's still in growth mode (MySpace has just passed the 130 million-profile mark). But according to the San Francisco Chronicle, the novelty is wearing off. One of its examples, though, is a 44-year-old guy who established accounts at 15 difference social sites and is finding it hard to keep up! I doubt many teenagers, the most expert multitaskers, maintain profiles on that many sites. The Chronicle cites Nielsen/NetRatings figures showing that "between August and September, traffic to almost all popular social networking sites fell," but social-networking sites say the August/September traffic dip is perennial because of summer holidays and back-to-school. MySpace, for one, told the Chronicle it's growing by 320,000 new profiles a day worldwide, and Web traffic measurer comScore Media Metrix says MySpace traffic for September/October went up "on a weekly basis." Then there's the generational thing, which the Chronicle points out: New social networkers keep coming up (I wonder how many people turn 13 around the world each year). The Chronicle has a sidebar (at the bottom of the article) that lists and links to nearly two dozen social sites.

University presidents blogging

In this age of digital public exposure, I've been thinking (and blogging) that parents will soon need to teach their kids spin control – or at least have family discussions about it. It appears public figures are already blogging for that reason. "While some colleges and their presidents have seen their reputations shredded on student blogs, and others have tried to limit what students and faculty members may say online, about a dozen or so presidents, like Dr. [Patricia] McGuire [of Trinity University], are vaulting the digital and generational divide and starting their own blogs," the New York Times reports. Another example the Times gives is Towsen University Robert Caret, who has "Bob's Blog." But he doesn't seem to approach his blogging quite the way his students would. An assistant types in his posts, while he dictates; and he didn't respond to one comment a student posted, he just forwarded it to a provost. The questions occur: Does he get it? And if he doesn't, why blog? As for teens, here's what social-media researcher Danah Boyd told me in our book, MySpace Unraveled: "Kids are getting all these messages saying, 'Expose, expose, expose.' If you don't, your friends will expose you. We're all living in a superpublic environment, getting the message that you have more power if you expose yourself than if someone else exposes you."

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Cellphone as tracking device

People's thinking about the pluses and minuses of using phones to track their locations is changing. GPS (Global Positioning System) on phones has been around a while, but so far the significant privacy concerns have outweighed the upside, according to a thoughtful commentary in the New York Times, as attractive as the latter can be: "Maps on our phones will always know where we are. Our children can’t go missing. Movie listings will always be for the closest theaters; restaurant suggestions, organized by proximity. We will even have the option of choosing free cellphone service if we agree to accept ads focused on nearby businesses." But then there's the hypothetical 16-year-old customer described to the writer by a Verizon spokesperson, who "said it was one thing for the customer to imprudently send out her e-mail address to a stranger, and still another for her phone to reveal her home’s location." Yes, we may be able to track our kids when they're carrying these phones, but so can others. And mobile social networking targeted at youth (e.g., Boost/Loopt, Dodgeball, and a new Dallas-based one called ublip) further complicates the discussion, while increasing the attraction of GPS-enabled phones for young people. The New York Times article goes into the unregulated realities of this business, offering great background for parents trying to get a handle on what mobile tracking and socializing means for children's (and everybody's) privacy. And moving beyond mere socializing, here's the BBC on yet another application toward the all-purpose cellphone: phone as "smart wallet," carrying around our financial info, to be transmitted over the phone, at a concert ticket office, etc. (yet another reason to be scared about losing my phone!).

Virtual worlds on phones

First there was cellphone access to social sites on the Web (e.g., MySpace Mobile). Then there was social networking on phones themselves (e.g.,,, Next: whole virtual worlds on phones – sort of SecondLife meets MySpace meets loopt. A San Mateo, Calif.-based company called Gemini Mobile plans to provide cellphone companies like Cingular and Verizon software that allows their customers to interact in virtual worlds. The first company to bite is Softbank Mobile in Japan, which "created the S! Town online village community," reports. "In S! Town, users [using a phone with the Gemini software] move in a 3-D world as avatars, and chat online as well as talk to each other through the voice connection of the phone. They share photos with other S! Town visitors and shop at retailers posting on S! Town." Just as kids see no border between online and offline socializing, soon there will be little distinction between social environments or virtual worlds (pick your favorite terminology) on phones or on the Web.

'Second Life,' 2nd campus?

Educators are beginning to explore the idea of virtual worlds like Second Life as learning environments, CNN reports. People socialize, buy and sell products, advertising, and real estate, build stores, design clothes, and even operate news bureaus (e.g., Reuters in Second Life) in alternate-reality games like Second Life and Entropia – why not take classes? "More than 60 schools and educational organizations have set up shop in the virtual world and are exploring ways it can be used to promote learning. The three-dimensional virtual world makes it possible for students taking a distance course to develop a real sense of community," CNN cites one educator as saying. The article is referring mostly to educators at the college level, it appears, which is probably good, because virtual worlds often include red light districts. Second Life's parent Linden Labs created an ostensibly safer Teen Second Life for that reason. Who knows? They may also see some virtual (or real) regulation at some point, at least where minors are present (see "Lively alternate lives" and "Games' shadow economy"). [One thing's for sure: virtual worlds and gaming community need to be part of the online-safety and -privacy discussion.] Back to education: In the K-12 area, a writer at Wisconsin Technology Network considers the question: "Is it realistic to expect educators to adopt video games in the classroom anytime soon?"; the article has all kinds of links to in-depth discussions on this. And here are a teacher's thoughts on where teachers can social (and professional) network right now.

Monday, November 20, 2006

France: Skyrock's social ambitions

Not surprisingly, taught its parent Skyrock (a hip-hop radio station popular among French youth) the power and "universal potential" of the social Web, the International Herald Tribune reports. Now Skyblog – which gets 11.1 million visitors a month and gained "a measure of notoriety when some of its young bloggers urged French youths to revolt against the police in the midst of disturbances in the Parisian suburbs last year" – is expanding linguistically to include communities in German, English, and Spanish. "Skyblog is unusual in its global ambitions to target a multinational youth network," according to the Herald Tribune. I'm not so sure this isn't what MySpace has in mind too, with its goal of being in 11 countries by next April 1, but it is possible that Skyblog plans to mash up the cultures and languages it embraces more than other social sites, something that one of the Herald Trib's sources said will not be easy. The French company does have a leg up, though, because it has appealed to the French diaspora, from primarily French-language countries like Belgium to French speakers in Spain, Germany, the US, Morocco, and most probably other French-speaking countries in Africa. On the online-safety front, interestingly, Skyblog has "a team of 30 people [who] do screening with a 'cybercop' icon on every page allowing users to complain about violent or hateful speech." The icon on every page is something the New Jersey attorney general is calling for in US-based social sites (see

Schools' dilemma: Block or educate?

Student social networking has schools in a bit of a quandary, a new survey suggests. Thirty-six percent of school officials polled recently said students' use of social sites is "disruptive" at school, but at least half of school districts don't yet have policies addressing student use of such sites, eSchool News reports, citing an email survey the National School Boards Association (NSBA) sent out to people attending its annual Tech + Learning Conference in Dallas earlier this month. "Only 35% of the educators, administrators, and school board members who … responded said their districts had policies to address the use of social-networking sites by their students"; 50% said their districts had no such policies; and 15% weren't sure. In schools where there is one, the most common policy appears to be simply blocking access to social sites, according to eSchool News. In this and various news reports, I'm seeing a growing number of educators and legal experts saying that not only is merely filtering ineffective (with all the workarounds students are aware of), but it spells missed opportunities to teach students safe, responsible use of the social Web. Among the experts saying this who are cited in this meaty, in-depth article are Anne Bryant, executive director of the NSBA and Harold Rowe, associate superintendent for technology at the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Texas. This view seems to be based on a certain realism expressed by Jeff Hunt, director of instructional technology for the Indian Prairie School District in Illinois: "By their very nature, explained Hunt, schools themselves are social-networking sites," eSchool News reports. "Just as students congregate on the Web to chat with friends on popular Web sites, they gather in schools in the hallways and cafeterias to socialize. It's only natural that the Internet would become an extension of that interaction, he said. For schools, the challenge is finding a way to harness that power, without compromising the safety and integrity of their students."