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Friday, July 03, 2009

Lori Drew acquitted in cyberbullying case

In a second ruling in the Megan Meier cyberbullying case, a federal judge yesterday threw out Lori Drew's three misdemeanor convictions of late last year, the Wired "Threat Level" blog reports. "The case against Drew hinged on the government’s novel argument that violating MySpace’s terms of service was the legal equivalent of computer hacking." US District Judge George Wu, who is expected to issue his written opinion early next week, told Wired that the prosecutors were basing their arguments on the premise that it's up to a Web site operator "to determine what is a crime.... And therefore it criminalizes what would be a breach of contract," the judge said, referring to a site's Terms of Service. What Judge Wu's ruling did not concern was testimony in the case last year which "showed that nobody involved in the hoax [against Megan Meier] actually read the terms of service." In that testimony, Ashley Grills, who was also involved in the hoax against Megan Meier and was testifying under a grant of immunity, "also said that the hoax was her idea, not Drew’s, and that it was Grills who created the Josh Evans profile, and later sent the cruel message that tipped the emotionally vulnerable 13-year-old girl into her final, tragic act." This latest ruling was about the prosecution's application of the law to cyberbullying, and a commentary from the Progress & Freedom Foundation in Washington zooms in on that, saying that one problem with the discussion of this case (leading to confused lawmaking) has been conflation of cyberbullying (which the PFF calls "kid-on-kid" online abuse), general online harassment (involving people of all ages), and adult-on-kid online harassment (as in the Meier case). Here's the Los Angeles Times's coverage of this week's news and my coverage last December.

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Who's in charge in virtual worlds?

The global population of virtual worlds is growing fast, as is the business of creating and running them (venture capitalists reportedly invested more than $590 million in VWs last year). The question is, when bad stuff happens in VWs - theft, fraud, harassment, etc. - how should it be dealt with? Who's in charge, and how should "the management" set and enforce policy? "Another Perfect World" – a documentary from the Netherlands on what users and eventually humanity will learn from virtual worlds about governance, self-government, and community building – is about "grownup" spaces online, but the way these issues get worked out will certainly affect kids' online worlds as well (kids 5-9 are the fastest-growing demographic in a global VW user base expected to grow more than three-fold to 640 million by 2015 - see my coverage).

We're only at the beginning of this question, so maybe our educational institutions worldwide will have the wisdom to enable children to be part of what society works out – not as guinea pigs but as participants, members and hopefully stakeholders in the health of their own online communities, appropriately supervised but supportive of students' own agency as community members. For example, Quest Atlantis, an educational virtual world and game involving quests (the curriculum) that was designed at Indiana University, has 7 guiding principles (called "social commitments"): social responsibility, personal agency, healthy communities, diversity affirmation, environmental awareness, creative expression, and compassionate wisdom, which frame all activity and behavior in-world. One of the issues I hope QA and other educational VWs will address is social stratification and how power is attained and wielded – which, social-media scholar danah boyd pointed out in a talk she gave this week, is happening no less on the social Web than always has happened offline.

"Another Perfect World" gives examples of several adult virtual worlds that are engaged in fascinating governance experiments. The management of US-based Second Life takes as hands-off an approach as it can, leaving it largely to users to work out disputes, which they sometimes do with real-world detectives and lawyers. South Korea-based Lineage's management takes a similarly hands-off approach, but its users, who are largely Korean and have different cultural expectations of authority and hierarchy (than, e.g., the much more multi-national user population of Second Life) have staged an in-world revolution against the mainly feudal system in Lineage (I'm not sure if its outcomes have totally been worked out). Iceland-based Eve Online's management has undertaken a fascinating experiment, gathering a kind of parliament of players whose "power" (or influence over management) will grow only in proportion to their ability to grow its influence with fellow users in-world. These are, in some ways, advanced "civilizations" that are starting from scratch, where government is concerned.

The questions they are all being forced to consider are: Should users largely govern themselves in these worlds, as is the current modus operandi in most? When should management step in - when property gets stolen or people get harassed? What is management like - a capricious and arbitrary bunch of "Greek gods," enforcers of corporate policy, judge and jury? Will in-world user courts or arbitration boards need to be set up, as Philip Rosedale, founder of Second Life parent Linden Lab, predicts? Already, the documentary suggests, it seems clear that a utopian society is no more possible in alternate worlds than it is in this one.

[Readers, pls note that shortly after I posted this, the producers of "Another Perfect World" took their doc off YouTube, so it doesn't seem to be available in full online (I checked a lot of sites). I could only find their own site with a trailer. Tx to Dennis Richards for the heads-up in Twitter.]

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Friends and 'friends': Advice for tweens

I'm a long-time fan of author Annie Fox, who teaches life literacy to tweens and teens through her writing and "Hey Terra!" advice site. So it was great to see she has a new book out: Real Friends vs. the Other Kind, the second in her new "Middle School Confidential" series. The book offers "insider information on making friends, resolving disputes, and dealing with common hazards of the middle school social scene – like gossip, exclusion, and cyberbullying, its press release says. There's also expert advice on crushes, peer pressure, and being there for friends who need help." Here's Fox's site.

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Facebook's new public/private feature

Is Facebook becoming a cross between Twitter and a mini-blogosphere? Partly – if you make your status updates as long as blog posts. The social network site "is rolling out a new option for users who have made their profiles viewable by everyone," the Washington Post's Rob Pegoraro reports. "A new lock icon in the Publisher, the "what's on your mind?" form, will allow users to choose a potential audience for each status update: everybody on or off Facebook; all of their friends and all of their networks; friends and their friends' friends; only friends; or a custom combination that includes some people and excludes others." Pegoraro goes on to correct a misconception some users have had about this development. Which leads to the question of when Facebook will simplify all these private-vs.-public options. The potential upside of being able to choose how public each status update is that it encourages users to think before they send each update. That would be good. Then again, the Post's headline is "Facebook Adding Overexposure Options."

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Canadians are big-time social networkers

More than three-quarters (76%) of online Canadians teens 12-17 now have profiles on social-network sites, and many of them on more than one site, reports, citing Ipsos Reid numbers. That 76% is up from 50% in 2007 (eMarketer reports that 75% of American teens use social network sites). For Canadian adults, the number is 56%, up from 39% two years ago. Facebook's No. 1 with Canadian teens, 93% of whom have profiles there. If anyone's interest is lagging at any particular site, they may not be alone - see on the "lifecycle" of - I'm not sure - either a particular site or a single user's interest in one.

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Monday, June 29, 2009

Heads up on Free Realms chat

Chat has always been a problematic piece of the Internet where child safety's concerned - some would say that's putting it mildly! So it's a bit surprising that Sony included chat in its new Free Realms virtual world for kids. Online game specialist and blogger Jaime Skelton registered her surprise about this in, saying that Sony's parental controls allowed parents to restrict what young users could say in chat but not what they could see. She later added a correction: "If you use parental controls to restrict chat to quick chat only, it goes both for what the child says and what the child sees, nor can children [registered as] under 13 see open chat at all." I would add that qualification in brackets because parents need to be involved in the registration process if they want the parental controls to work properly (they also need to know if a child's even using the Free Realms world, of course!). This is a great illustration of how parents need to be engaged if they want virtual worlds to be pure kid entertainment. Skelton gives an example of off-topic chat in a screenshot with her post and, in her correction at the bottom, links to an explanation of chat settings in the Free Realms forums (though that's where anyone can change the settings, including kids, unless parental controls override them). Here's my post about Free Realms when it launched.

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Japan's school bullying problem

The vast majority of Japan's elementary and middle-school students "have experienced bullying, both as the victim and the perpetrator," Agence France Presse reports, based on a survey of 4,800 students aged 10-15 by the country's National Institute for Educational Policy Research. Among the key findings, 86.9% of elementary students had been "shunned by friends, ignored or talked about behind their backs at least once in the past three years," and 84% "had bullied their schoolmates at least once"; 80.3% of middle-school students had been "picked on at least once in the same period," and 81.3% had bullied their peers. The AFP adds that bullying has long been a major educational issue in Japan due to concerns over the high suicide rate among schoolchildren who are picked on." Not that the US doesn't have this problem too - here's a school-bullying case in Los Alamitos, Calif., reported in the OC Register, where a mother received support from the Anti-Defamation League.

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