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August 07 2012

14:00

Tired of Text Spam and Dropped Cell Phone Calls? You're Not Alone

Think you're the only one ready to throw your cell phone out the window the next time you have a dropped call or text spam? You're not alone, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. The survey found that cell phone problems are a common reality for the 280 million users in the United States.

The report identified four major cell phone problems: 72 percent of all cell users experience dropped calls, 68 percent of all cell users receive unwanted sales or marketing calls, 69 percent of text messaging users in the U.S. receive unwanted spam or text messages, and 77 percent of those who use Internet on their cell phones experience slower than desirable download speeds.

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The report also surveyed the frequency of all four mobile phone problems as experienced by smartphone owners. And in all four cases, smartphone owners reported higher incident rates. The largest margins are in spam and unwanted texts -- 29 percent of smartphone owners compared with 20 percent of other cell owners -- and slow download speeds -- 49 percent of smartphone owners compared with 31 percent of other cell owners.

Limited Solutions to Block Spammers

There are several ways people may attempt to remove cell phone nuisances from their daily lives. Step one is to contact your mobile carrier and request the available spam-blocking services.

University of New Hampshire student Feier Liu uses a non-smartphone and first called her mobile carrier to block a spam number about three years ago. The service was free, but only blocks individual numbers. Liu said she hasn't received a spam call since. She is certainly a lucky one.

Another service introduced back in March also counts on mobile users to vigilantly report spam text messages. North American mobile carriers have adopted a centralized spam-reporting service, which collects spam complaints into a shared database to help carriers identify and stop spammers. In practice, users forward spam texts to the shortcode 7726 (or SPAM), prompting the carrier to request the spam number.

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Allin Resposo, a web designer and smartphone user, has been reporting every spam text to 7726 since the service was introduced. Resposo hasn't seen an obvious decrease in spam and said that the spam texts are never from the same number.

While smartphones experience more problems, they paradoxically enable more possible solutions. A search for "block spam" on Google Play brings up dozens of apps created to block spam calls and texts. Most of these apps have ratings of four stars or more and could be worthwhile efforts for Android users. However, because of Apple's restrictions on developers, similar apps are not available for the iPhone, which, according to a prior Pew report, is used by some 53 million people in the U.S.

Finding Digital Authenticity

The Pew report stated, "It is against the law in the U.S. to place unsolicited commercial calls to a mobile phone when the call is made by using an automated random-digit dialing generator or if the caller uses a pre-recorded message." Yet spam phone calls, like those offering free cruises to the Bahamas with a pre-recorded "[fog horn] This is your captain speaking" are as real as ever. Clearly, spammers are evolving faster than legislation.

In fact, they may be piggybacking on our mobile dependence. The report also noted that non-white cell owners experience all four of the common cell phone problems at higher weekly rates than white cell owners, possibly due to the fact that "African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely than whites to rely on their cell phones as their primary or exclusive phones for calling and for Internet access."

Does all this indicate that more mobile usage equals more problems?

In a world where there are 14 million spam accounts on Facebook and probably similarly disturbing figures on other social networks, it's not hard to imagine that spammers on these mobile-enabled networks will find a way to spam our mobile devices.

Jenny Xie is the PBS MediaShift editorial intern. Jenny is a rising senior at Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying architecture and management. She is a digital-media junkie fascinated by the intersection of media, design, and technology. Jenny can be found blogging for MIT Admissions, tweeting @canonind, and sharing her latest work and interests here.

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July 30 2012

14:00

Do We All Have iDisorders?

Raj Lal, a senior engineer for a mobile phone company, checked his iPhone at the dinner table before getting a searing look and some strong words from his wife in the middle of a romantic restaurant.

It was their 10th anniversary. Lal, 34, said he felt embarrassed about the scene, but more so that he didn't even think about it as he pulled out the smartphone.

Lal isn't the only one who can't escape the lure of his mobile device. Today, it's commonplace to compulsively check a smartphone or text friends on any, perhaps all, occasions, special or not.

This constant connectivity is so much a part of our culture that it's become a hot debate in the last few years -- so much so that two recently released books tackle the issue head on: Sherry Turkle's book, "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other" and "iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming its Hold on Us", in which psychologist Larry Rosen even coins a term for our problem: iDisorder.

The 'iDisorder'

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"It's a mood disorder that's kind of a lifestyle," Rosen said. "I'm a tech devotee, but on another level, they are dangerous and encourage obsessive behaviors."

Rosen cites a study that shows that more than half of the iGeneration (born 1990 to 1998) and Net Generation (born 1980 to1989) respondents polled checked their text messages every 15 minutes or less. While the percentage goes down as the age goes up, Generation Xers (born 1965 to 1979) still make up 42 percent of frequent text-checkers, while 20 percent of Baby Boomers (born 1945 to 1964) seem to constantly check for calls. Rosen said it's easy for technology to become an addiction.

In Sherry Turkle's book, "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other," she interviewed several teens on their mobile phone addiction. One refused to quit texting while driving, saying, "If I get a Facebook message or something similar posted on my wall... I have to see it. I have to." Others have chipped teeth or bruised themselves walking into furniture or objects while engrossed in their phones.

But similarly, older adults have also changed their expectations. In a chapter entitled "No Need to Call," Turkle interviewed several people who say an email or a text is sufficient and using the phone to speak to another person is just unnecessary. One 46-year-old architect explains it this way, "(A phone call) promises more than I'm willing to deliver."
Part of the reason, Turkle suggested, is that these people believe the human connection of a phone call is "asking too much, and they worry it will be received as demanding too much." Turkle even found herself not calling a close friend because it might be considered intrusive.

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Part of the attraction is also the idea that by not using the phone, which can lead to an unscripted conversation that may portray them as awkward, email and texting lets people present themselves as they wish.

Infiltrating our most intimate moments

Technology is also taking a toll on our sex lives. "People are so addicted to that immediacy, that when they're up in the morning, before looking at their partner like they used to, they grab for the phone," said Mary Jo Rapini, a sex and relationship psychotherapist based in Houston. "Your smartphone isn't smart in bed."

It's also creating a generation of exhibitionists who are too shy to ask anyone out.

"What's intimate now is not what we used to consider intimate," Rapini said. "Teens are posting provocative pictures of themselves and sending nude pictures to each other."
Rapini said that sending nude photos is a powerful act for kids who feel pretty powerless. "They control it and feel good about it. But when you meet someone you have no control over it," she said. "Having a date and being judged, they don't have the skills to handle that."

The madness of multitasking

Rosen, a professor of psychology at CSU Dominguez Hills, said that human communication can't compete with technology's bells and whistles, likely the reason why some people often check their phones or messages while talking to another human being. "Technology overstimulates our brains with all the various sensory images we have," he said. "They're highly engaging. And what people aren't doing is taking time to let their minds calm down."

Instead of using your smartphone in the grocery line, Rosen advocates talking to someone else in line, looking at the magazines, or just taking time to decompress. "Go look at a flower, speak a foreign language or listen to music without ear plugs," he suggested.
Without this ability, people can't use metacognition, or the awareness of when to pay attention and determining when not to pay attention. "Instead they're thinking about their phone and what they're missing out on by not checking it," he said.

The idea of multitasking, which had become such a corporate buzzword, is also a bit of a parlor trick. More productivity is observed in "unitasking," but most multitaskers aren't convinced of that. "They're so interested in multitasking that when someone says, 'Let's talk face-to-face,' they can't do it," Rosen said. The same goes for students. "You can't listen to music and read a textbook at the same time."

Many in the psychological and medical fields have debunked the myth of multitasking as productive. Instead, the interruptions lead to more stress, attention difficulties, and poor decision-making.

The next generation

Another problem with our increasing Internet-laden society is that many children and young adults may believe all information found on the Internet is true. "There's no media literacy training," Rosen said. "You can't just assume your kids are good at parsing media."

The problem with teens and young adults is that their devices give them constant reinforcement and a squirt of dopamine, Rosen said. Worse, they feel they have to react to an incoming communication instantly or something bad will happen. That they will miss out on some conversation or news nugget that may be life-changing, he said. "That's compulsion," he said. "The Fear of Missing Out."

The biggest challenge and first step for those addicted is turning off the phone while they go to sleep, Rosen said.

And how do you know you're an addict? You start finding reasons to get up from the table so you can check your phone without anyone noticing. Manufacturing a reason is a bad sign. "You have to practice being strong," Rosen said.

So why are children allowed to become so dependent on a smartphone? Because for many parents, having a child quiet and not needing attention is considered a blessing to an overworked parent, he said.

Dinners Without Technology

Parents can help lessen the grip of the smartphone by not using their own smartphone as much and establishing "dinners without technology." Mainly he said he blamed many parents on what he termed "partial parenting," where parents continuously give children partial attention. "That's not how you should parent and the kids are not going to be OK," he said. "Learn to focus better and longer."

Mitchell Weiss, a business professor at the University of Hartford, told MediaShift that he worried about his students in the business world. "They avoid eye contact," he said. "You can see them tense when you get too close...The failure to make eye contact used to mean hiding something or being devious, but you can't think that way when dealing with these kids. Their social skills are not as developed."

Weiss said that many of the bad behaviors learned at home and school won't work at a job. "You can't be text-messaging back and forth with friends," he said. "Even having a conversation with an employee, their phone will make a noise, and I can see their eyes look over to the phone. And I can see they really want to pick up the phone but know they can't."

Despite the momentary lapse at his recent anniversary, Lal said that he tries to have more meaningful moments with friends and family. "The more you talk with people, the richer the experience," he said. "And that's more important than surfing the Web or talking to friends on Facebook."

Related Reading

> Special Series: Unplug 2012

> Hands-Free Parenting: How Much You Gain When You Unplug by Rachel Stafford

> 5 Tips to Prevent Digital Burnout and Maintain Good Mental Health by Sandra Ordonez

Barbara E. Hernandez is a native Californian who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has more than a decade of experience as a professional journalist and college writing instructor. She also writes for Press:Here, NBC Bay Area's technology blog.

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December 19 2011

15:20

Getting a Tablet Is Easy; Getting Digital Magazines Is a Pain

Buying that new iPad, Kindle or Nook for Christmas is just the first step to becoming a digital magazine reader. While shopping for books and movies is a fairly straightforward process, getting your favorite magazines onto your new e-reading device can be trickier.

The ways you can buy a magazine are rapidly multiplying, making it harder for readers to evaluate their choices. Major magazine publishers, digital newsstands and magazine customer service companies are trying to simplify the process of setting up digital magazine subscriptions, but so far, it's still sometimes a confusing process. Here's one strategy to get your digital magazine subscriptions set up for e-reading enjoyment.

Check Subscription Expiration Dates

It's helpful to know when your print magazine subscriptions expire if you really want to switch fully to digital-only subscriptions. If you have only one or two print issues left, you might wait until the print subscription ends to sign up for a new digital-only subscription, if that's offered by the publisher. The reason for delaying the move is that the "midstream" print-to-digital subscription switch is challenging for publishers right now. Some magazines can immediately convert your subscription to digital and stop your print issues from arriving in the mail; some can't.

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Zinio, one of the major newsstands for digital magazine subscriptions on iOS and Android, is developing a way to make this conversion easier, but it's still in the works.

"For example, if you had Men's Fitness and you wanted to switch it midstream, you would let Zinio know, and Zinio would contact the publishers to handle it for you," said Jeanniey Mullen, Zinio's global executive vice president and chief marketing officer.

Mullen said magazine publishers might model this process on Canada's epost service, which provides a centralized location for consumers to request e-bills instead of paper bills from a variety of billers.

For now, don't count on being able to immediately go all-digital for your existing magazine subscriptions. Depending on the magazine's policies, you may be better off waiting until the end of an existing print subscription, or may have to continue the print subscription to get digital access. You may also find that some of your favorite publications don't even have digital editions yet.

Investigate Your Options

When you're ready to pursue digital subscriptions, your first step should be to review -- thoroughly -- each magazine's website. Information about digital editions and magazine apps can sometimes be hard to locate, so rather than sifting through the magazine's website, opt for a Google search for its title and "digital edition" or "tablet edition."

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"Over time, I'd like to see a standard way of communicating what formats are available and a standard way of getting to them," said Tony Pytlak, president and chief operating officer of Strategic Fulfillment Group, which provides fulfillment services to a number of magazine publishers. "Right now, even a lot of the newsstands that are coming out don't provide things clearly."

You might find that you can access a digital edition for free as a perk of your existing print subscription. For example, subscribers to the print editions of The New Yorker or Wired can immediately get access to their tablet editions for free. Later, when you renew your subscription, you might seek a digital-only option if you find you're enjoying the digital editions more than print.

Publishers are experimenting with package deals, meaning offerings will vary widely among different magazines.

"Our publishing partners are trying to find, for their unique audience, what's the right combination of print/digital, at what price points -- and what does a subscriber to one or the other, or both, actually have access to," Pytlak said.

SFG gathers customers' responses to various print and digital subscription package deals in its database so that publishers can analyze their success. "If you're going to test print only, or digital only, at one price or another, or digital at a slightly higher upsell, capturing the customers' responses to those kinds of offers will help our partners understand them," Pytlak said.

Some magazines have chosen dedicated apps as their only digital content option (other than their websites). That means you'll have to visit the app store for your device (such as the iTunes Store) to download the app, and then likely will purchase the subscription to the magazine's content through the app. You'd then revisit the app on your device to access new content as it's made available.

Additionally, some magazines' digital editions are offered through a newsstand-type app like Zinio, which serves as a storefront for digital magazines. Amazon also sells digital subscriptions for Kindle devices through its Kindle Store, just as Barnes and Noble does on its website for the Nook.

Make the Switch

Once you know what subscription choices a magazine offers, you can either attempt to switch your print subscription to digital by using the magazine's website, if that's an option available online, or -- more likely -- you'll need to call customer service to get help.

"The best proactive approach is to contact the publisher directly, and let them know what they're trying to transfer to digital, and let them know what digital platform," said Zinio's Mullen. "If they've got an iPad, they can say, 'I want to transfer my print subscription to the digital version you have on [the iTunes] Newsstand' ... It will be extremely helpful for the customer service team to know that."

Still, there's no guarantee that customer service representatives will be able to help you. Pytlak said your success may differ from publisher to publisher.

"It varies in how they let their service providers help them," Pytlak said. "Some service providers are not able to handle the transition from print to digital. It's a function of the publisher and the service provider working together to sync those things up and make it easy for the customer to do that."

Form a Digital Magazine Habit

Once you've successfully made the switch to digital subscriptions, it can be hard to remember that you have new issues to read without the physical reminder of a new issue arriving in the mail.

Some magazine and newsstand apps will provide a notification on your device that a new issue is available to read. Those notifications can pile up and become easy to ignore, however. If notifications aren't available, you'll have to remember to reopen the app and see what's new. It can be easy to forget about apps, especially considering app users' habits: 26 percent of apps downloaded are never opened again after their first use. If you're paying for a subscription, though, your motivation to revisit an app might be higher.

Some magazines' digital editions will give you the option of receiving an email notification whenever a new issue is available, which -- depending on your email habits -- might be a more effective reminder to read your magazine.

Improving the Process

Clearly, making the switch from print to digital magazine subscriptions isn't always an easy process. And not everyone is choosing to switch completely just yet.

"I'd call it a shift in consumers' media habits, but not necessarily a transition from print to digital," Pytlak said. He said today, SFG receives more requests from readers to change subscriptions "either print to print, or print to digital and print, more so than print to digital."

Mullen said that rather than just converting existing print subscriptions, many new e-reader users are trying out magazines that are new to them, especially when promotional offers are available.

"They'll buy a single issue of a magazine they've never bought in print before," she said. Additionally, using Zinio, "a very high percentage of people will subscribe to magazines they've never subscribed to in print."

Both Pytlak and Mullen say that standardization of print and digital subscription management is necessary both to make subscribers' lives easier and to improve publishers' ability to gather and analyze data about their subscribers.

"I see 2012 as a big year of change around subscription management on the back end and in fulfillment processing," Mullen said. "It's a very consumer-oriented challenge that we all need to address. A lot of publishing houses are interested in making the midstream switch as easy as possible. The lack of standardization is really the challenge, and where I think we will see advancement in 2012."

Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Linfield College. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at sivekmedia.com, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.

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August 03 2011

18:51

The Literacy of Gaming: What Kids Learn From Playing

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"When people learn to play videogames," according to James Paul Gee, "they are learning a new literacy."

This is one of the reason kids love playing them: They are learning a new interactive language that grants them access to virtual worlds that are filled with intrigue, engagement and meaningful challenges. And one that feels more congruent with the nature and trajectory of today's world.

As our commerce and culture migrates further into this emerging digital ecosystem it becomes more critical that we develop digital literacy, of which videogames inhabit a large portion.

Gee, a linguist and professor of literacy studies at Arizona State University, thinks we should expand the traditional definition of literacy beyond reading and writing because language isn't the only communication system available in today's world. And there is no better example of a new form of media that communicates distinctive types of meaning than videogames.

The literacy of problem-solving

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Although games can be immensely entertaining, it would be a mistake to consider them as only a form of entertainment. Games are fun, but their real value lies in leveraging play and exploration as a mode of learning the literacy of problem-solving, which lowers the emotional stakes of failing.

In Sir Ken Robinson's TED talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity?, he reminds us that our educational system has stigmatized mistakes. As a result, kids are frightened of being wrong. Yet if we are not prepared to be wrong than we won't be able to come up with anything creative or solve complex problems. Videogames, on the other hand, embed trial and error into the foundation of gameplay.

Kids aren't naturally great at gaming the first time. They develop mastery through disciplined practice -- a path marked by dead-ends, wrong turns and blunders. Yet gamers aren't angst-ridden about making wrong decisions because games encourage a growth mindset. Mistakes are how one figures out what doesn't work and provides the impetus to zero in on what might.

Conversely, the game of modern education revolves around right and wrong answers. Now this kind of learning may be appropriate in some instances, say, when you want a student to remember the capitals of countries. That method is important, but it can only take you so far. It certainly can't penetrate more sophisticated, and I would argue, more important questions, such as: How does geography shape culture?

Games on the other hand, cultivate problem-solving, that, with that right kind of scaffolding, could begin to gain traction with these more exploratory questions and knowledge.

Focusing on the process, not the content

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Much of the critique leveled at videogames is oriented around their content. In Everything Bad Is Good For You, Steven Johnson writes of a hypothetical high school English teacher admonishing videogames' lack of content: "There's no psychological depth here, no moral quandaries, no poetry. And he'd be right! But comparing these games to 'The Iliad' or 'The Great Gatsby' or 'Hamlet' relies on a false premise: that the intelligence of these games lies in their content, in the themes and characters they represent."

Games are based on problems to solve, not content. This doesn't mean that game-based problem-solving should eclipse learning content, but I think we are increasingly seeing that a critical part of being literate in the digital age means being able to solve problems through simulations and collaboration.

Videogames, and the type of learning and thinking they generate, may serve as a cornerstone for education and economies of the future.

In their book, Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology, Allan Collins and Richard Halverson state that "policymakers interested in preparing students for success in the 21st-century economy would do well ... to appreciate how skills developed through navigating virtual environments might pay off in the workplace ... [and how] the new skills and dispositions of the gamer generation will transform the workplace. The gamer generation will push for work environments to incorporate more virtual aspects in fields, such as market analysis, and social and economic modeling. Gamers, for example, have abundant experience making big decisions, coordinating resources, and experimenting with complex strategies in game-based simulations."

Making the most of gaming for your kids

Although videogames have great potential to be powerful vehicles for learning, there is no guarantee this will happen. Just as there is no guarantee that someone will understand the themes and symbols of "The Lord of the Flies" by simply reading it. As a result, kids need parents, teachers and their peers to engage their gaming in thoughtful ways. While there could be a long list of recommended practice, for simplicity sake I've reduced the list to three preliminary suggestions.

  1. Play games. Otherwise how can you have meaningful conversations about them? Not learning how to play games would be akin to talking about "The Lord of the Flies" without having learned to read.
  2. Connect games to books, movies, TV and the world around them. By thinking about games beyond their boundaries we can cultivate pattern recognition across media platforms and parlay the problem-solving of gaming into the real world.
  3. Have your students or kids collaborate with other peers to analyze and interpret games, as well share strategies. There has been a raft of research in recent years that extols the wisdom of the crowd and the logic of the swarm. Through collaboration and networking kids can learn to enhance their own perspectives, ideas and, perhaps, contribute to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Read more in the Kids & Media series on MediaShift.

Photo of kids playing videogames by Sean Dreilinger on Flickr.

Aran Levasseur has an eclectic background that ranges from outdoor education to life coaching, and from habitat restoration to video production. For the last five years he's taught middle school history and science. From the beginning he's been integrating technology into his classes to enhance his teaching and student learning. He recently gave a talk at TEDxSFED on videogames and learning. Currently he's the Academic Technology Coordinator at San Francisco University High School.

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16:30

The Parent Show: Will Augmented Reality Be Our Kids' Reality?

This week on MediaShift, we're running a special series exploring the relationship between kids and media. In that vein, the following video from our partners at PBS Parents looks into augmented reality and what that means for kids.

In this episode of The Parent Show, Angela Santomero (the creator of "Blue's Clues" and "Super Why?"), talks with PBS Kids' Jeremy Roberts about the possibilities of augmented reality.

Watch the full episode. See more The Parent Show.

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August 02 2011

17:20

Special Series: Kids & Media

We've all been there before. Whining kids at a grocery store with their dad, they can't sit still until finally the dad hands over his iPhone, and peace is restored. Kids are growing up with media all around them, from computers to smartphones to tablets to flat-screen TVs. And even in households without as many screens, kids find ways to get their media fix at school, the library or at friends' homes. We decided to do another in-depth special report focused on "Kids & Media" all this week on MediaShift, and likely into next week. We have great expert advice, an interview with a kid, and a live chat coming up on Aug. 3 on Twitter -- so you can join in and share your experience.

All the Kids & Media Posts

> Screen Time for Kids: Balancing Fun, Learning, Media Creation by Tina Barseghian

> How to Control (Or At Least Influence) Children's Media Access

Coming Soon

Wednesday: PBS Parents' webisode on augmented reality in kids' apps
Wednesday: LIVE TWITTER CHAT with special guests, moderated by Mark Glaser and Courtney Lowery Cowgill; 2 pm PT at the #kidsmedia hashtag.

Thursday: Mark Glaser interviews his son Julian about various screens he uses

Friday: Chris Purcell on parental controls for streaming video services

Monday: Courtney Lowery Cowgill on baby photos on Facebook

*****

What do you think about our series? Did we miss anything? Share your thoughts on how your kids use media and what you'd like to see change about it.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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17:00

How to Control (Or At Least Influence) Children's Media Access

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This week, MediaShift will be running a special series on navigating the relationships between kids and media. Stay tuned all week as we explore topics like this one.

Once you have a child old enough to use a remote, the angst begins over how to control access to media. And absent the will to live a technology-free existence, media access is virtually impossible to control.

Still, I have been able to assemble some tips on ways to at least try to influence how children navigate the media landscape. These are some of the conclusions I've reached after talks with friends and family, and a lot of personal experience as a father.

TIP: RESTRICT TV IN THE HOME

Often, the first screen a child will access on his or her own is the TV. In earliest years, it's not too hard to put the remote control out of reach and monitor use closely.

Once they get a bit older, you can turn on whatever parental controls your TV provider or set allows, sometimes even block access to certain channels.

A few friends and family members don't subscribe to cable TV. You can also go without TV, which one friend told me she has done since before the era of video on the web.

HINDRANCE 1: TV? What is this, the 1990s? Most media shown on TV is soon available on some other screen the child has access to. As I said to a friend whose children were issued notebook computers in middle school: "Once they get laptops it's game over."

HINDRANCE 2: Media is pervasive out of the home. Family members in Minneapolis don't have cable. So, their daughter for years has just gone over to the house of a friend who seems to have every channel known to man, as well as a giant plasma screen.

Even at school, your children might watch movies and shows without your explicit permission. I was unhappy, for example, to learn that my child during elementary school recess on rainy days was put in an auditorium to watch entertainment that was anything but educational.

HINDRANCE 3: Parental controls are often based on rating systems that may not match your values. My friends and I, for example, find sometimes startling levels of violence in programming that's considered "safe" for children, while a fleeting bare breast in an innocuous setting will cause a show to be blocked.

TIP: CONTROL NETWORK AND COMPUTER PERMISSIONS

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You can restrict access and set permissions on your wireless router for different computers (via, for example, identifying the computer's "MAC address" -- a unique identifier code for every computer's WiFi antenna). Some routers allow different permission levels for different computers, so you can restrict them from accessing certain web addresses. On some routers, you can also monitor activity on the network.

You can also set yourself up as an administrator on a computer, and make your children simple users, then use browser tools to restrict access to certain web addresses and kinds of content.

HINDRANCE 1: Do you really want to be the admin on your children's computers and have to be called on every time they need to download some little plug-in to access something they may need for homework or to play a legitimate game?

HINDRANCE 2: Your progeny (they are smart, aren't they?) may find a workaround and get the content from some avenue you haven't blocked. If you restrict them at the browser level, for example, they may figure out a way to download through a different browser.

Another friend was able a few years ago to block his daughter's access to AOL Instant Messenger chats by, he said, denying access on his home router. But the means of accessing AIM and other real-time social engines have ballooned to where he knows it would be a losing battle now to even try.

My movie-obsessed 15-year-old nephew knows how to fake proxy servers and make a website think he's coming from a different IP address or country to get around restrictions where he lives.

TIP: CUT OFF WIRELESS ACCESS

Instead of trying to restrict access over a home network, how about doing away with it altogether? One friend told me he and his wife decided to go retro. "We cut off our wireless Internet at home, and instead ran cables through our house" so everyone had to physically plug in to access the web there, he said.

He and his spouse also require their children under the age of 16 use computers in open areas of the house rather than their bedrooms.

HINDRANCE 1: Neighbors. My friend and his wife noticed their children doing homework in a cramped area near the front porch. It turned out they were accessing an unprotected wireless network named "Stevo" emanating from next door.

HINDRANCE 2: Going without wireless can tie your own hands. My friend, who is a busy hospital doctor, found it to be a hassle when he had to get online at home and find a free port while the kids were doing homework.

In a house like mine, where I'm constantly accessing media in all corners for work and pleasure, I have trouble imagining going without wireless.

HINDRANCE 3: Children often have access to smartphones and tablets, on which they can consume media over a cellular network, and sometimes tether to a computer to give it wireless access.

HINDRANCE 4: Laptops can be carried to places with WiFi over which you have no control.

TIP: CONTROL ACCESS TO PAID SERVICES

You can set up a separate log-in or account for your children's access to services like Netflix, and monitor what they're watching.

HINDRANCE: My 14-year-old daughter and nephew are masters at finding whatever they want to watch. They're fans, for example, of the British version of "Skins," which is considerably more frank about sex and drugs than the American knockoff.

If they can't get what they want through Netflix, Hulu, iTunes and other legitimate services, they seem to find it some other way. When they can't get a whole show, someone inevitably posts choice bits to shared sites like Tumblr or YouTube.

I have told my daughter of the agreement reached between content providers and cable companies to limit access to unapproved content, so she can better understand the dangers of downloading material that our ISP finds illicit.


TIP: WATCH TOGETHER

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In our house we encourage media consumption together, as a family. That way, at least, we can ask and answer questions, discuss what we're seeing and hearing, and I can gauge reactions and levels of sophistication. I'd rather have an idea of what's being consumed than believe I can place blanket restrictions.

HINDRANCE: Many children, once they're old enough, will resist watching shows with the family. Friends and I have experienced various excuses and explanations.

Our children will say they've already seen a show we want to watch and don't want to watch that episode again, or that something they want to watch isn't appropriate for younger siblings.

CONCLUSION: TEACH YOUR CHILDREN

Let's be frank: Part of growing up is doing things your parents don't approve of and testing limits.


Rather than resign myself to losing battles, I try to influence media consumption -- and production -- habits by instilling values and judgment. My daughter at this point would have to be pretty dull, for example, to not understand the risks of a) putting embarrassing personal material online or b) interacting with someone she doesn't know.

I try to encourage her to tell me what she's watching and listening to, even if it makes us both squirm a little at times.

An upside for a media professional like me is that children often act as a window into other media worlds. My daughter told me of YouTube sensation "Fred,"":http://www.youtube.com/user/Fred whom I've since researched and now use in lectures to demonstrate the power of the new social ecosystem.

I also believe we can't lord it over children if we're going to let them have rich, interactive lives, while hoping they have gained values and judgment that buffer them from the worst possibilities.

I know my daughter won't share everything with me. Yes, I can see her Tumblog and am her "friend" on Facebook. But I also am well aware that there may be other Tumblogs, social networks and websites where she does things she hides.

I do hope I've helped arm her with values so that in creating and consuming content she shows the good sense I've seen on so many other occasions.

Read more stories in the Kids & Media series on MediaShift.

Photo of family watching TV together by Paul Emerson via Flickr.

An award-winning former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA (with honors), Dorian Benkoil handles marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, and activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk.

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August 01 2011

18:27

Screen Time for Kids: Balancing Fun, Learning, Media Creation

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This week, MediaShift will be running a special series on navigating the relationships between kids and media. Stay tuned all week as we explore topics like this one.

When it comes to videogames and apps, what’s a parent to do? On one hand, we’re bombarded with messages about the perils of letting kids play with computer games and gadgets. On the other, we’re seduced by games and apps marketed to us as “educational.”

It’s a tricky line to navigate. The spectrum of kids’ apps ranges from “baking” cupcakes to crushing war demons. Most of them have some educational aspect — at the very least kids learn what ingredients are used in cupcake baking, and the physics of launching Angry Birds at just the right angle to kill the piggies. That’s learning, isn’t it?

Therein lie the vague boundaries. Not all games are educational, and not all are shallow forms of entertainment. Many are marketed as educational tools, but in fact, most have some elements of both. The trick is to figure out what we want kids to learn and to experience. To clump them all into one category is to miss out on a huge treasure trove of learning opportunities. Real learning apps have a set of criteria that qualifies them as educational, so rather than writing them all off as a waste of time, parents can figure out what their kids are exposed to.

Engagement and Learning

“We don't ever want to separate engagement from the purposes of learning,” said Daniel Edelson, Executive Director and Vice President of Education and Children’s Programs at the National Geographic Society at a cyberlearning conference this spring. “When you're engaged with activities that have learning goals, you can connect the dots between engagement and learning. If you use engagement in its broadest possible sense when people are paying attention because of bright lights and activity, then you don't find that connection.”

Enter the parent. A young child is not necessarily going to figure out if she’s learning or having fun. And in the best cases, that line is blurred without the child even knowing it. She’s collecting information about bugs and plantlife with apps like Project NOAH. She’s creating original stories — complete with exposition and denouement and background music — with digital storytelling apps like Toontastic.

So should parents feel guilty allowing their kids to play games on mobile gadgets?

“Most parents don't understand the need for their participation,” said Dr. Gwenn O’Keeffe, a pediatrician who says she specializes in children’s media use. “It's a small population who gets it.”

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Simply put: “No,” says Dr. Michael Levine of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which recently released a study called Learning: Is There an App For That. “Kids see their parents using mobile phones all the time. It’s only natural for them to want to use them too. And from the data in our study it looks like many parents are letting their children use them responsibly - with restrictions and in moderation. We recommend a balanced media diet that consists of content that is fun, educational, and doesn't take up too much time in a given day.”

Tools to Create Content

That said, Levine cautioned parents to stay vigilant about screen time. “We would be quite concerned if young children, especially pre-schoolers, began to dramatically increase their mobile screen time,” he said.

A screen is not just a screen, though. The one-way interaction between TV and the couch potato is far different than an absorbing Scrabble play-off with a friend on a mobile phone.

“Nobody's saying, ‘Give your kid a Gameboy, so he can be quiet and go sit in the corner,” said Andy Russell, co-creator of Toontastic at a digital media and learning conference. “We're giving them tools to actually help them create content. The new devices allow us to do new things that we haven't ever been able to do. But the world of ‘edutainment’ has dug us into a hole where most people think games only create a solitary experience.”

In fact, many apps invite multiple players, social interaction with peers, and a call to go outdoors, either with specific instructions or with the child’s own imagination. When my daughter and her friend were deciding how to spend their Saturday afternoon last week, their indoor play turned into an outdoor movie that they scripted, and that I filmed and edited for them with my iPhone.

“Most parents don't understand the need for their participation,” said Dr. Gwenn O’Keeffe, a pediatrician who says she specializes in children’s media use. “It's a small population who gets it.”

Russell says game designers should also take responsibility in guiding parents on how to interact with the games and their kids. “The failure is not the technology, but how we communicate to parents,” he said.

BEYOND SCREENS

Regardless of how educational or engaging a screen can be, O’Keeffe says emotional connections are lost without face-to-face contact. “If they’re looking at a screen, they can't see the emotional response,” said O’Keeffe, who believes screens should be kept out of the hands of kids under 5 years old. “It's about empathy and they're having trouble learning that. Do you really need to turn on the DVD in the car? Do kids really need the Gameboy in the grocery store? We all have to use the screen as babysitter sometimes. But to always use a screen that often is a problem.”

But gaming advocates argue that social connections are built into most games. That sharing tactics and strategies help cement the learning experience — and connect players to each other in ways that haven’t been done before.

As researchers dig deeper into the ramifications of games and apps on young minds, parents will have to navigate the gray areas between absent-minded parenting and the smart use of technology.

Photo of boy with iPad by Mark Glaser.

Photo of girl with an iPad by Alec Couros via Flickr.

Read more about how technology wires the learning brain and suprising truths about videogames.

Tina Barseghian is the editor of KQED's MindShift, an NPR website about the future of education. In the past, she's worked as the executive editor of Edutopia, a magazine published by the George Lucas Education Foundation, as well as an editor at O'Reilly Media and CMP Media. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

mindshift-logo-100x100.pngThis post originally appeared on KQED's MindShift, which explores the future of learning, covering cultural and tech trends and innovations in education. Follow MindShift on Twitter @mindshiftKQED and on Facebook.

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July 29 2011

16:47

How Do You Like Watching TV Shows?

It used to be so easy. You'd cozy up on a couch, get your remote control (and popcorn) and turn on the TV for a night of vegetation. But now, you have options. So many options. You can watch shows when you want by recording them on your DVR. You can cancel cable TV and use a Roku box to watch shows through Netflix streaming. Or watch shows on your laptop or desktop computer through the websites of various networks. And then there's your handheld devices, smartphones and tablet computers, which now have such high quality video. So how do you like to watch TV? On the big screen? On time-delay? On computers or handhelds? Let us know your TV show viewing habits in the comments below or by taking our poll.


How do you like watching TV shows?

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July 18 2011

19:05

Social Media Plays Major Role in Motivating Malaysian Protesters

Less than a week after Malaysian police fired teargas and water cannons at thousands of demonstrators seeking reform of the country's electoral system, a Facebook petition calling on Prime Minister Najib Razak to quit has drawn almost 200,000 backers, highlighting the role of social and new media in Malaysia's restrictive free speech environment.

One contributor to the page wrote: "The world is full of multimedia and electronics; the things we so call camera and videocam ... And photos and videos were already being uploaded on the Internet but 'it' still denies the truth and makes stories and lies until today."

Social media such as Facebook and Twitter have played a major role in motivating some of the demonstrators in the run-up to the rally, which went ahead despite a police ban and lockdown imposed on sprawling Kuala Lumpur on the eve of the July 9 protest.

The demonstration organizer, Bersih 2.0 -- a coalition of 63 NGOs (non-government organizations) that wants changes such as updated electoral rolls and a longer election campaign period -- has its own Facebook page, attracting a similar number of "likes" as the page urging Najib to step down, with 190,000+ fans at the time of this posting.

The latest notable update is another petition, requesting 100,000 backers for a Bersih 3.0 -- although organization head Ambiga Sreenavasan has said she does not foresee any similar protests in the immediate future.

Clearing Distorted coverage

Along with online news sites such as Malaysiakini and Free Malaysia Today, social networks have helped get around partisan coverage by newspapers close to the government, where accounts of the rally did not square with what I witnessed.

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Coverage in Utusan, the pro-government Malay-language daily and best-selling print newspaper in Malaysia, was explicitly hostile to the protest and has remained so in the days since. Just this week, the paper came out with an editorial claiming that Jewish groups would use the opposition to infiltrate the Muslim country. The day after the rally, the front page of the English-language New Straits Times (NST) showed a single protestor, face covered with a scarf, looking set to hurl something at someone or something, minus the surrounding street scene.

The photo was headlined "Peaceful?" and was devoid of context, the implication being that Kuala Lumpur was beset by thousands of other would-be anarchists on July 9 and the police acted with heroic restraint in the face of relentless provocation. The NST is linked to Malaysia's main governing party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which has ruled uninterrupted since independence in 1957.

As observed at several locations around the city center, the protest was peaceful, multi-ethnic (Malaysia's demographic breakdown is two-thirds ethnic Malays, a quarter ethnic Chinese, and the remainder mainly Indian/Tamil), though it was impossible to know how many in the gathering were affiliated with the country's opposition political parties versus how many were ordinary, disgruntled Malaysians who were galvanized into action by Bersih's exhortations.

With police roadblocks and checks emptying the usually bustling city by Friday evening, the only other people on the streets on Saturday morning -- before the demonstrators' emergence -- were expectant journalists and lost-looking tourists. When the protestors came onto the streets, the police wasted little time in firing teargas into the crowds gathering at various locations in an attempt to march to the Merdeka (Victory) Stadium, where the country declared its independence from Great Britain.

Despite allegations of police aiming tear gas or water cannons directly at protestors or at a hospital in the city, print newspapers praised the police response, as did the government. That, in turn, has drawn criticism from Malaysia's online news sites.

Laws cast a chill

However, even if individual journalists or publications wanted to take an objective line with this story, Malaysia's press laws act as an effective deterrent.

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Self-censorship is prevalent, said Siew Eng of the Centre for Independent Journalism, who added that "print coverage of the organizers [of the Bersih 2.0 rally] has been demonizing them for weeks now."

The main deterrent seems to be the country's 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), which means that publishers and printing firms need an annual operations permit, with the added stipulation that the prime minister can revoke licenses at any time without judicial review.

Jacqueline Surin is editor of The Nut Graph, one of the online alternatives to the older print news establishments in Malaysia. Getting out from under the government's thumb was a prime motivation for her.

"I worked for more than 10 years in the traditional, government-controlled press. We knew what it was like to have constant government and corporate interference in the newsroom," she said.

Article 10 of Malaysia's constitution upholds freedom of expression, but in effect this right is curtailed by a range of antiquated and Orwellian-sounding laws. The colonial-hangover Sedition Act, the Internal Security Act (ISA) and emergency laws are used regularly to impose restrictions on the press and other critics. One well-known case is that of Raja Petra Kamaruddin, founder of the website Malaysia Today. After allegedly insulting Islam, the majority religion in Malaysia, he was charged under the 1948 Sedition Act, and was accused of defamation, in a case seen as politically motivated.

High Urban Net Usage

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, there are 16.1 million Internet users in Malaysia, out of a population of 27 million. There is a sharp town-country divide, however, with 80 percent of the country's web users being urban-based. That said, the Internet gives Malaysians some freedom of expression, away from the tight controls and implicit intimidation that hampers the older print media outlets. In the days since the Bersih 2.0 rally, many tweets and blogs from Malaysians have said trust in the country's print media has declined, or is now non-existent.

Online media outlets unhindered by the PPPA have helped give Malaysians a fuller and more objective image of what went on July 9. "The police have said that only 6,000 people turned up for the Bersih 2.0 rally and that there was no police aggression," according to Surin. "There are enough pictures and videos already out there, even before the traditional media could report them, that demonstrate that the police/state are clearly misrepresenting the truth."

How long this will last remains to be seen. Siew Eng told me that "there are moves to amend the laws for the Internet and online media in Malaysia," citing a recently established cross-ministry committee set up by the government to look into the issue.

Simon Roughneen is an Irish journalist usually based in southeast Asia. He writes for the Los Angeles Times, Asia Times, The Irrawaddy, ISN, South China Morning Post and others. He is a radio correspondent affiliated with Global Radio News and has reported for RTÉ, BBC, CBS, CBC Canada, Fox News, and Voice of America. He has worked in and reported from over 30 countries.

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July 14 2011

18:11

Social Media and Satire Fuel Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt

Political satire is, historically, a great propeller of social movements. As Srdja Popovic, a leader of Optor, the Serbian resistance movement, said:

Everything we did [had] a dosage of humor. Because I'm joking. You're becoming angry. You're always showing only one face. And I'm always again with another joke, with another action, with another positive message to the wider audience. And that's how we collected the third party in the whole story -- which is very important -- the publicity, the people on the ground.

Nowhere has this been more true that in the pro-democracy movements in Tunisia and Egypt: While humor was potent contraband in the 23 and 30 years, respectively, of dictatorship in those countries, the increased breathing room afforded by their revolutions has allowed it to expand.

SATIRE IS NOTHING NEW

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In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring in many ways began, a satirical comic book series on Facebook is gathering buzz. Called "Captain Khobza," (spelled 5OBZA) it features a masked, Zorro-like character who goes around with a baguette rather than a weapon in order to promote and highlight the importance of non-violent action.

Its creators see the series as an important tool to prevent a backslide on freedom of expression in post-uprising Tunisia. As they told Reuters: "We are complementing the revolution with this comedy because we don't want there to be any retreat in any way on the issue of freedom of expression."

And formerly apolitical comics have also jumped on the bandwagon. The most prominent example of this is Migalo, who started out as a football satirist but has switched topics since the Tunisian uprising.

In some ways, this isn't new. As Behedinne Hajri, a Tunis-based activist, told me, "Tunisians are satirical natives ... and all kind of satirical programs have a lot of fans ... Some are caricatures such as this one, some are radio sketches, and some are inspired by [the American television series] 'South Park.'"

Satire on the radio and on the streets was tolerated to varying degrees under dictatorship. Social media, however, increases the impact of political satire that formerly existed only on radio. As Youssef Cherif, a student in Tunis, put it:

Satirical anecdotes were common to Tunisia, even though not as open [as now]. We always had jokes about the "cop-president and his hairdresser wife," [but] I am not sure if these radio shows had political impact ... The big impact comes from the Facebook pages that disseminate pictures and videos (old or new) and that are touching the population.

While radio is still important, it's the availability of this content on Facebook (and the speed with which it can spread there) that's key.

POST-UPRISING INCREASE IN SATIRICAL MEDIA

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Regardless of medium, there's been a definite uptick in all political comedy since January in Tunisia.

"A lot of people tried to express themselves by making funny critiques of the government," Wael Ben Slimene, another Tunisian activist, said. "It's a way to make sure that freedom of expression will remain."

Similar trends are apparent in Egypt. Take a look around Tahrir Square nowadays in Cairo, and you'll see plenty of caricatures and wordplay. Likewise, a Cairo-based English-language "fake news" website called El Koshary Today, modeled on The Onion, the successful satirical news network in the United States, has attracted a dedicated and growing fan base. Recent fare includes, "How To Become a Political Activist in Egypt" and "Egypt's National Security Agency Helps Former Torturers Find Inner Child."

Humor threaded the 18 days of the Egyptian uprising as well. According to a recent (informal and not statistically significant) survey on media use during the uprising, people were trafficking jokes nearly as much as they were sending logistical information. On Facebook, 35 percent of respondents reported receiving jokes in their news feeds, compared with 42 percent who said they had used the news feeds to get information about where to go and when. Similarly, 20 percent of respondents reported receiving jokes over their mobile phones, which isn't too far below the 32 percent who got coordination instructions over the phone. Humor was likely as important a morale booster and motivator during those 18 days of protest as it is today during the continued revolution.

In political environments marked by citizens struggling to move forward with revolution, people are using satirical media not just to hold onto increased political space but to push for more freedoms.

Cartoon screenshot from this satirical blog.

Susannah Vila is the Director of Content and Outreach at Movements.org. Get in touch with her at susannah.vila@gmail.com.

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June 27 2011

18:00

Silicon Sisters Builds Videogames for Women by Women

The stereotypical videogame player is a young male under age 18, but study after study has shown that the majority of the game-playing population does not fall into that demographic. Only 18 percent of gamers are under age 18, and women over 18 represent a significantly greater proportion of this population (37 percent) than do boys age 17 or younger (13 percent).

With the explosive growth in social gaming, particularly on Facebook, more games are being targeted at women. Games like Farmville and Pet Society, while not explicitly aimed at women, have been embraced by an older, female gaming population.

But what about girls? Videogames are increasingly considered an important tool for learning. And even though plenty of women do play videogames, there is still a sense -- particularly among girls -- that games are a "boy thing."

Building Games for Women, Girls

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That girl-gamer audience is the focus of the Vancouver, B.C.-based gaming studio Silicon Sisters. The first female-owned and run videogame studio in Canada, Silicon Sisters is committed to building games for women and girls by women and girls.

Founded by former Radical Entertainment executive producer Kristen Forbes and former Deep Fried Entertainment COO Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch, the studio released its very first game, School 26, to critical acclaim back in April. (We featured the game in an April round-up of the best new educational apps of the month.) The studio plans to release its next School 26 game -- Summer of Secrets -- next month.

The School 26 games are geared toward tweens and teens, and the storyline is built around the very complicated social hierarchy of high school. You play the game as a young girl who's a newcomer to a school. She comes from a nomadic family, which has made it difficult for her to maintain long-term friendships. As she enrolls in this, her 26th school, she strikes a bargain with her parents: If she can make friends, they'll stay put.

So the player of School 26 must help the character do just that: build friendships and navigate the sticky, awkward and sometimes awful moral dilemmas of school. These range from power struggles to peer pressure, romance, betrayal, alienation, acceptance -- all real and relevant situations that girls face every day.

The player must select appropriate emotional responses to certain scenarios and answer quizzes that provide insights into players' personalities. The emphasis here is on empathy and networking.

All talk, no action

That's a very different set of goals and behaviors than what most videogames encourage. There isn't swordplay here. No princesses to rescue. No alien invaders to vanquish. There isn't “action.” There's “talk.” The rewards aren't cash or weaponry. The skills honed in School 26 aren't the ability to time your jumps or dodge bullets or land killing blows. Of course, there are plenty of casual games aimed at tweens that aren't action-oriented, and there are lots aimed at girls. But unlike many games that target this girl market, there is no emphasis on shopping, fashion or beauty in School 26.

The Silicon Sisters say all their games will emphasize this sort of “social engineering” — an emphasis on relationships and communication. These are important skills for girls and women to develop, the studio argues, and will allow them to navigate the sometimes treacherous social situations.

As the female gaming population grows, it's likely that more companies will begin to cater to this market. But as it stands, there still aren't a lot of games that meet women and girl gamers' needs. A recent report by the entertainment market research firm Interpret, titled "Games and Girls: Video Gaming's Ignored Audience," argues that the female gaming market is far more nuanced than some of the “casual-centric reputation” suggests. Indeed, 44 percent of those who responded to the survey say that they prefer genres other than exercise, music, and casual games -- the kind that are most often marketed to women and girls.

But making games for girls isn't simply about providing good entertainment. Some of girls' reluctance to play videogames may have other repercussions: a lack of familiarity with or comfort around technology, for example, and a missed opportunity to learn more about science, technology and engineering.

Audrey Watters is an education technology writer, rabble-rouser, and folklorist. She writes for MindShift, O'Reilly Radar, Hack Education, and ReadWriteWeb.

mindshift-logo-100x100.pngThis post originally appeared on KQED's MindShift, which explores the future of learning, covering cultural and tech trends and innovations in education. Follow MindShift on Twitter @mindshiftKQED and on Facebook.

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June 13 2011

22:21

FCC Report on Media Offers Strong Diagnosis, Weak Prescriptions

A consensus has begun to emerge around the Federal Communications Commission report, "The Information Needs of Communities," released Thursday: The diagnosis is sound, but the remedies are lacking.

The 465-page report (see full report, embedded below) is the result of 600-plus interviews, hearings and reams of research conducted over 18 months. It represents the most ambitious attempt yet to come to terms with the consequences of the current media transformation. It's a synthetic and comprehensive look at the entire ecosystem -- commercial, non-commercial and user-generated; across print, broadcast, online and mobile -- making it a tremendous resource for advocates, journalists, entrepreneurs and media educators.

Steven Waldman, journalist, editor and digital news entrepreneur, was lead author for this project and worked with a distinguished team of experts from across the country to compile both capsule histories of each sector and an atlas of current facts and figures. See the gallery of graphs from the report below, assembled by Josh Stearns of the media reform organization Free Press, for a sense of the range and depth of the research. (Overwhelmed? A two-page summary of findings and recommendations is also available here.)

Trouble for Local Reporting

The primary conclusion echoes that of many recent reports: Amid vibrant experimentation by a broad range of news producers, local reporting is in the biggest trouble. There are less ad dollars for newspapers, fewer reporters on the beat for both print and broadcast, fewer enterprise investigations, and more "hamsterized" reporters, all resulting in a gap in the ability to hold governments and corporations to account.

The report also represents an unprecedented effort by the FCC to take stock of the results of previous policy decisions supporting non-commercial and community media. Rather than focusing solely on public broadcasting as the answer to commercial news woes, as many recent analyses have, this report acknowledges the growth and dynamism of a broader non-profit news sector:

More accurate than "public broadcasting," the term "non-profit media" better captures the full range of not-for-profit news and media organizations. Some non-profit media groups are affiliated with public broadcasting, some not; some receive government funds, most do not. But what these groups have in common is this: they plow excess revenue back into the organization, and they have public-interest missions that involve aspirations toward independent journalism.

The report's authors see the growth and vigor in this sector as promising, and even have some kind words to say about public access stations, often dismissed or left entirely out of the local news equation. However, they also confirm that news production by non-commercial outlets is still not sufficient to fill the yawning gap in local reporting that has opened up over the past decade.

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What's more, stable business models for such outlets have not yet emerged, and the federal funding that undergirds the largest swath of non-commercial outlets, public broadcasters, is under political threat. Corporation for Public Broadcasting funds that were supporting digital innovation were slashed this year, as were funds earmarked for buildout of new station infrastructure.

To add insult to injury, Waldman & Co. note, public interest obligations for commercial stations have been defanged, offering no way to ensure diverse or high-quality local public affairs coverage. Those requirements that remain are rarely enforced.

No Bold Solutions

Yet, bafflingly, despite identifying these clear market gaps, the report stops short of offering bold solutions, perhaps in reaction to the currently charged political and funding climate. Instead, as several commentaries -- such as this piece in GigaOm -- note, the resounding message to the media industry is "don't look to us, we can't help you." GigaOm's Matthew Ingram writes:

One of the biggest trends that the FCC flags as important in the report is the loss of what it calls "accountability" journalism, in which news outlets on a local and/or national level cover the government and thereby act as a check on power. As more than one person has noted, this conclusion isn't exactly a news flash that required government funding and two years of research to unearth, but is arguably still worth highlighting, since it's a gap that has yet to be filled. And what does the FCC think can be done to fill it? Not much.

Commissioner Michael J. Copps objected emphatically to this laissez-faire approach at the report's release; he was the first to observe that "the policy recommendations ... don't track the diagnosis."

For some conservatives and the entrepreneurially minded, that's just fine. "I think I'm relieved that, on first scan, the FCC report on journalism recommends little," tweeted CUNY's director of interactive journalism Jeff Jarvis. As Waldman explained at the release event, a primary goal of the report's recommendations was to protect the First Amendment, a priority that sits well with libertarian commentator Adam Thieirer. He blogged his initial reaction at the Technology Liberation Front site:

For those of us who care about the First Amendment, media freedom, and free-market experimentation with new media business models, it feels like we've dodged a major bullet. The report does not recommend sweeping regulatory actions that might have seen Washington inserting itself into the affairs of the press or bailing out dying business models.

Spurring Conversation

So, what kind of remedies should the report have offered? Of course, I have my own ideas about how taxpayer dollars can best support civic engagement and innovation -- many of which I've reported on in the pages of MediaShift. I also have my own stake in this report, which cites research that I've conducted with colleagues at the Center for Social Media and the New America Foundation -- see the annotations in the embedded version of the report below for some highlights.

But, as several observers noted, the report will do its job if it spurs broader conversation about how best to support the evolution of news. That process has already begun.

Read more:

Using Storify, I've compiled reactions currently being shared via Twitter.

[View the story "Reactions to the FCC's Information Needs of Communities Report:" on Storify]

And, you can read the full document here:



Jessica Clark is a Senior Fellow at American University's Center for Social Media, a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation, and is currently consulting with the Association of Independents in Radio on a forthcoming initiative.

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May 12 2011

18:15

Massive Digital Divide for Native Americans is 'A Travesty'

Perhaps nowhere in the United States does the digital divide cut as wide as in Indian Country. More than 90 percent of tribal populations lack high-speed Internet access, and usage rates are as low as 5 percent in some areas, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

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Sascha Meinrath, director of New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative calls it "a travesty."

"You have a community that perhaps treasures media and cultural production more than almost any other constituency in the country, and you have an entire dearth of access to new media production and dissemination technology," Meinrath said.

Since 2009, New America Foundation has worked with Native Public Media, which supports and advocates for Native American media outlets, to help tribal communities take advantage of new media platforms. In January, the organizations formalized their partnership, and this fall, they plan to launch a media literacy pilot project that will train Native radio broadcasters in at least four communities to tell stories using digital tools.


"It's a very proactive way to address the digital divide, apart from the hardware," said Loris Ann Taylor, president of Native Public Media.

Tribal Digital Village

The organizations plan to work with both digital experts and tribal groups that have pioneered technology adoption. An oft-cited example is the Tribal Digital Village in Southern California, which brought Internet access to libraries, schools and other community buildings across 13 reservations, with grants from Hewlett-Packard and others.

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Native Public Media has itself led the way in digital storytelling, partnering with WGBH in 2009 on We Shall Remain, a multi-platform project on Native history. But its primary goal is expanding local production.

Currently, 10 tribal radio stations stream over the Internet, including KGVA 90.1 FM, serving the Fort Belknap reservation in Montana, and WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation in Wisconsin. The Coeur d'Alene tribe in northern Idaho created RezKast, a YouTube-like video and music sharing site. The Navajo Times, Cherokee Phoenix and other Native newspapers publish online.

As innovative as these projects are, without access, they will only reach a fraction of the Native population.

'The Digital Revolution is Stirring'

Native Americans will be savvy users of new media when connectivity arrives, Meinrath said. A 2009 report [PDF file] he co-authored found that when broadband was available, Native Americans did everything from blog to download podcasts at higher rates than national averages. Although the report noted that it was more exploratory than representative, it concluded: "The digital revolution is stirring in tribal communities."

Still, the revolution is far away for most Native Americans. Broadband infrastructure does not exist in most tribal areas, and where it does, charges are marked up radically, compared with urban centers -- by 13,000 percent, in some cases, Meinrath said. Regulatory frameworks have also contributed to under-servicing, he said.


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Lately, advocacy by Native Public Media and others for government action seems to be paying off. The FCC's National Broadband Plan, unveiled in March 2010, included the goal of increasing broadband access on tribal lands, with involvement from local leaders. The Plan recommended that Congress consider creating a Tribal Broadband Fund. Last August, the FCC established an Office of Native Affairs and Policy to work with the 565 federally recognized tribes on improving access to communications services. One of its first moves, in March 2011, was to invite tribal representatives to a Native Nations Day, where the FCC expanded a "tribal priority" to promote licensing of radio stations serving Native communities.

Recent federal action is a leap forward in focusing attention on a long-ignored issue and producing empirical data for reform, Meinrath said.

Yet, he noted that progress has largely remained rhetorical. "We've run into an FCC and an Obama administration that has not, as a whole, prioritized this issue," he said.

Challenges and Opportunities

When it comes to expanding access, the challenges are steep. Many tribal areas are geographically remote, which can make provision difficult and expensive, according to the National Broadband Plan. Service is unaffordable for many Native Americans, a quarter of whom live at or below the poverty line. At the same time, funding for public media and telecommunications facilities is at risk.

But, physical remoteness and high costs are a familiar excuse for failure to serve Indian Country among decision-makers focused on majority constituents, Meinrath said.

"This is not a technical problem -- this is a remarkable lack of leadership," he said.

The challenge is not only addressing a digital divide, but also a pattern of historical exclusion from media and communication services, Taylor said. Some tribal populations still lack emergency and postal services, and almost a third lack basic telephone service. The rapid pace of technology risks leaving Native populations even further behind.

Despite the challenges, the potential for technology to improve media capacity in tribal areas is tremendous, Taylor said. New media tools will help Native Americans cover issues that are ignored or misrepresented in mainstream media. They can fill extreme gaps in information access and enable cultural preservation. They allow local news and cultural programming to reach tribal members who have left reservations for jobs or military service.

Leaping the Divide

Critically, technology offers a chance to "leap over" the traditional media divide, especially as many tribal newspapers have shut down in the economic downturn, and radio stations, the traditional medium of choice for Native communities, are not feasible in all areas, Taylor said.

Most of all, Taylor's vision is about enabling Native Americans to have a voice on vital issues, from the housing market to the energy crisis.

"In this country, if we leave people out from having access or ownership or control of the technology, then we're really denying them something even larger -- to have participation in a democratic society," she said. "It's really about self-determination at the end of the day."

Katia Savchuk works as an investigator and writes for Ethical Traveler and Polis, a collaborative urbanism blog she co-founded. She previously spent a year and a half documenting the work of slum-dweller federations in India. Her writing has appeared in Let's Go travel guides, Environment & Urbanization and the Palo Alto Weekly.

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May 11 2011

19:02

No Gloom Here: In Latin America, Newspapers Boom

If you spend much time in U.S. newsrooms these days, you might contract a serious case of gloom and doom. Talk is still focused on declining circulations, aging readerships, and the absence of new business models to pay for the production of quality content.

But it would be a mistake to assume that this is the case for the rest of the world. In fact, in many regions, the newspaper business is booming. Some countries' newspapers are pulling in record advertising and those double-digit profit margins that were common in 1990s America.

I recently had the chance to observe this phenomenon firsthand at the Bogota, Colombia, conference of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), where there was little gloom or doom to be found.

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Instead, newspapers were reporting extraordinary growth in advertising sales from 2005 to 2009: 62 percent in Argentina, 70 percent in Brazil, and 57 percent in Colombia itself. (These figures, drawn from a ZenithOptimedia forecast, contrasted with 34 percent drops in the U.S. and the U.K. over the same period.)

Newspaper circulation is growing sharply in Brazil (29 percent), modestly in Argentina and Bolivia, and holding steady in Colombia and Chile. (It was down more than 12 percent in the U.S.)

But what's most striking about the Latin American news industry is the sense of dynamism. The digital revolution is coming to Latin America -- but it's arriving hand-in-hand with the news organizations, and that makes all the difference.

Multi-Platform Success

That point was reinforced with a visit to the newsrooms of El Tiempo, Colombia's leading daily. The newspaper understandably prides itself on the way it has implemented newsroom convergence. Its expansive headquarters are a few decades old, but look freshly minted, refitted top to bottom with new technology. They include the daily paper, two television channels (CityTV and Canal El Tiempo), as well as a vast array of online products.

In El Tiempo's model, information is endlessly produced and recirculated across platforms. Pieces that air on the television channels are recut by a team of young online editors into two- and three-minute pieces that can circulate online. Breaking news goes out on Twitter, leading traffic back to the website and the newspaper. Each platform is carefully monitored for editorial quality.

According to newspaper director Roberto Pombo, "We had to appoint a journalist to be our Twitter editor because we had a report that went out on Twitter that diverged from the story on ElTiempo.com. It was a garden-variety error, but it convinced us we needed editors to be responsible for social networks."

Pombo has shaped the paper's news to be platform neutral. "We're going with everything in every medium, and the audience can stay where they are," he said. Pombo said the newspaper El Tiempo, whose staff create much of the core content, generates about a 9 percent profit, which is augmented by profits from the television and online operations. "Our newspaper readers are not diminishing, our online audience is growing, and the ads are holding," he said.

Online earnings are smaller but are growing more rapidly. The company has no plans to charge for online content, but goes to great lengths to leverage cross-promotion.

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Spanish Ownership

"You can't carry out convergence as a cost-cutting measure -- but you save money in the long run," Pombo said. "All I care about is that if somebody gets a news update on Twitter and somebody asks, 'Where did you get that,' they answer 'Tiempo.' It's all about the brand."

El Tiempo was founded in 1911 and long operated under the leadership of the Santos family. In 2007 the paper was sold to Planeta, a Spanish publishing group, which had to readjust to the Colombian market.

"The owners are living two realities. There's an economic crisis in Spain, but things are fine here, so we have to explain it to them," Pombo said. Spain's newspapers are suffering worse than those in the U.S.

El Tiempo is not alone in its prosperity. Sebastian Hiller, director of La Vanguardia Liberal in the city of Bucaramanga, said, "Most of the major Colombian papers are making 15-20 percent profits, and some of them 30 percent, especially if they've been investing in convergence." (One exception is the venerable Bogota paper El Espectador, which has recently struggled back from the brink of extinction.)

Slow, Steady Economic Growth Good for News

What explains the robust health of these Latin American news organizations?

The first answer is the local market. The Andean nations have largely dodged the 2008 economic downturn, and have been experiencing steady growth in recent years.

Second, this growth has been more evenly distributed than in the past. Many Latin American countries are seeing incomes rise among the urban poor, and with them disposable income. This is a sweet spot for newspaper sales, since there may be discretionary spending for a daily newspaper, but not enough for a computer and an Internet connection.

In Colombia, as in other Latin American countries, there has been a boom in new tabloids and glossy consumer magazines, many of which subsidize quality broadsheets in the same company. Some of these tabloids have reached circulations of 2 million to 3 million within two years of their launch.

Capturing Digital Sales

Third, and perhaps most intriguing, digital is arriving in Latin America, but more slowly than in the U.S. and Europe. This has allowed news organizations to learn from other markets' mistakes, and claim larger shares of the online advertising space before the search engines and aggregators can dominate it. The managers don't care whether the advertising ends up on paper or online -- as long as it ends up with them.

One of the side benefits of this development is a dramatic rise in quality. A number of papers in the region have expanded their foreign coverage and investigative journalism, and have won the prizes to prove it. (For a striking example, look to Costa Rica's La Nacion, where exemplary reporting in 2004 landed two past presidents in jail.)

This is not to say that everything's rosy south of the border. Mexican newspapers are under attack from narco traffickers and corrupt government officials, while Argentina's leading newspaper, Clarin, is locked in a bitter contest with the government. On the other hand, news media are playing a stronger role in Latin American society than ever before, and their business models may buy them precious time to forge a path into the future.

Anne Nelson is an educator, consultant and author in the field of international media strategy. She created and teaches New Media and Development Communications at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and teaches an international teleconference course at Bard College. She is a senior consultant on media, education and philanthropy for Anthony Knerr & Associates. She is on Twitter as @anelsona, was a 2005 Guggenheim Fellow, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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February 11 2011

22:05

WSJ Series Inspires 'Do Not Track' Bill from Rep. Jackie Speier



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We didn't plan it this way, but the timing was perfect. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) introduced a bill today in Congress that would give the FTC the power to create a "Do Not Track" database so people could opt out of online tracking. And her bill comes right during our special series about online privacy, which included a roundtable discussion (and debate) about the "Do Not Track" database and its feasibility. And Speier told me one of the inspirations for the bill was her outrage from reading the Wall Street Journal's What They Know series.

On one side is privacy groups such as Consumer Watchdog and the Electronic Frontier Foundation who worked with Speier on the bill. On the other side are behavioral ad firms and publishers who would prefer that massive numbers of people don't opt out from tracking, which helps them serve targeted ads. In the 5Across roundtable discussion, Yahoo's chief trust officer Anne Toth put it this way: "I think it's critical that people realize that collecting data about consumers online gives enormous benefits. Right now, advertising makes the Internet free. And people want a free Internet. And information leads to innovation and ideas. What I'm worried about most is that with 'Do Not Track' and government regulation, we throw out the baby with the bathwater and stifle innovation."

I talked with Rep. Speier today by phone and she wasn't buying that argument. She believes that the technology exists to create a one-button "Do Not Track" solution so people can opt out of tracking. Her bill is far from alone in the online privacy debate, as a flurry of bills are expected in Congress this year. Plus, she does not have a GOP co-sponsor on the bill nor is she a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. She still remains confident that the overwhelming public support for "Do Not Track" will give her bill momentum and she is "cautiously optimistic" she can get a GOP member to sign on.

The following is the entire audio of my interview with Speier this morning, and below is a transcript from that call.

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Q&A

Why did you decide the time was right to introduce this bill now?

Rep. Jackie Speier: I think there was a growing clamor for privacy protection by the public. For the longest time, we have operated with the ignorance of bliss, I guess, that nothing was going on. There have been a number of recent exposes that have made it clear that there's a lot of tracking going on. And I must tell you that until I read it in the Wall Street Journal, and their 13-part series, I didn't know that Dictionary.com was just a means by which tracking takes place. And they're using something like the dictionary to identify you and then to track you. I was pretty outraged when I read that.

What about self-regulation. A lot of companies in Silicon Valley would prefer to do it themselves. What do you think about those efforts?

Speier: I have a long history on the financial privacy side of this issue. We've had lots of efforts by the industry to offer up pseudo financial privacy protections in California when I was working on that legislation. I'm happy to see the industry step up, but I'm not interested in fig leaf solutions. I want it to be simple and straightforward for consumers to click on one button and not be tracked. I want the FTC to develop the mechanism, and a simple format so the consumer does not have to read 20 pages of legalese.

How would you define tracking? Because it's not as simple as the Do Not Call registry. There's tracking online that people see as being bad, using their information in bad ways, and there's tracking that's just analytics for a website and not really harmful.

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Speier: I think tracking is much more insidious than "Do Not Call." [Those telemarketing calls] were interrupting your dinner hour. Tracking is an activity that often times you don't even know it's going on. They're creating a secret dossier about who you are, they're making assumptions about you and then they're selling that information to third parties that then will market to you products or not, and then the information is then transferred from one source to another.

It starts to impact fundamental things like whether you can access health insurance, life insurance, what premium you're going to pay, based on assumptions they make. The example I used in the press conference today was I'm the chair of the refreshment committee of my church's bazaar so I go out and pay for 15 cases of wine and charge it to my credit card online. That information is then sold thousands of different ways to thousands of different data companies, and then it's sold again.

So let's say a life insurance company that I'd like to get life insurance from has that information and believes I'm an alcoholic. Either they don't sell me life insurance or charges me a higher premium. Or let's say I'm a prospective employee at a new company and they access this information and decide I'm an alcoholic and they don't want me as an employee. It becomes insidious.

I understand the worst-case scenarios, but what about the tracking that's done to give you recommendations on a site or you get ads that are served up that align with your interests? Some of those things aren't insidious or bad.

Speier: That's why you should have a choice. If you're going online to buy a new barbecue, you should be able to click to opt-in to see other barbecues. That's fine. That's your choice. But if you click on the target site, you know you want that barbecue and you don't want to be bothered and don't want to be tracked -- you can buy that barbecue and move on.

You talk about having one button to opt-out, but is that solution going to work or will people end up opting out of things they don't want to opt out of? Should there be more layers to this idea?

Speier: You'll still have advertisers seek you to opt in. The presumption is that somehow everyone is going to opt out. That's not necessarily the case. It's a choice.

What do you think about the solutions that the browsers have offered, from Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome? Do you think what they're doing is a good start?

Speier: I think it's a good start, but I think we need something uniform. I've been told Mozilla's approach [with Firefox] is one that's not enforcing [Do Not Track] so what does that mean? It's more of a fig leaf at that point.

So it's more of a suggestion. "Don't track me... please."

Speier: [laughs] What is that? What it looks like to me is that they're trying to give the appearance that they're doing something, when they're not. I've been down this road before with the financial institutions in California with the financial privacy law. A placebo isn't going to work here.

I've heard from someone at Yahoo that the "Do Not Track" list could stifle innovation and the way they do behavioral advertising. And it could hurt not just Yahoo but startups as well.

Speier: I'm not persuaded by those arguments. That argument was used with the financial privacy law in California, that it would somehow stifle innovation of financial products. It didn't stifle innovation. Credit default swaps were out there for many to engage in. I'm just not buying it.

How will your bill differ from others that are being introduced? Are you coordinating with them in some way?

Speier: I'm hoping that we will coordinate. The bill from Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) is similar, though his would be site-specific. So every time you went to a site, you'd have to click, instead of a one-stop shop for purposes of opting out. My bill is more simplified and universal.

How will the bill dovetail with what's coming out from the FTC? They are in a comment period now, and they'll come out with a final report soon. Are you working with them?

Speier: First, I want to applaud the action they have taken, but we need to give them authority so they can move forward in a meaningful way in this area. They don't presently have the authority to do what we want them to do.

Part of your bill is giving them that authority?

Speier: Yes.

Did they ask for that?

Speier: No. They realize they need it in order to be effective in this area.

How long do you think it would take to implement what you're asking for in this bill?

Speier: I think the technology is already there. I think it should be as instantaneous as the Egyptian freedom. [laughs]

Within 18 days?

Speier: Yes, within 18 days. [laughing]

*****

What do you think about the "Do Not Track Me Online" bill? Would you sign up for such a database? Do you think the FTC should have the power to set up such a database? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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February 07 2011

19:12

Special Series: Online Privacy

"All the world's a stage," and even moreso with the rise of the Internet, online advertising and social networking. While there is no American "right to privacy" in the Constitution, there are limits to what we want companies, publishers and advertisers to do with our personal information. Do we want advertisers to serve ads based on our web surfing habits? Should we be able to opt out from that kind of tracking? How would that work? The U.S. government -- including the FTC, Commerce Department and Congress -- is considering more regulation, while the industry tries self-regulation...again. While MediaShift gave a nice guide to online privacy a couple years back, the time is right to give an in-depth look at online privacy in the age of the always-on social web.

All the Online Privacy Posts

> Will U.S. Government Crack the Whip on Online Privacy? by Jonathan Peters

Coming Soon

> Facebook privacy issue timeline by Corbin Hiar

> A lively 5Across roundtable discussion with Yahoo's Anne Toth, EFF's Lee Tien, California Office of Privacy Protection's Joanne McNabb, CNET's Declan McCullagh and Stanford's Ryan Calo. Hosted by Mark Glaser.

> Privacy issues around advertising and marketing by Mya Frazier

> How can publishers protect data of users? by Dorian Benkoil

*****

What do you think about our series? Did we miss anything? Share your thoughts on how you protect your privacy online and whether you think there should be more laws to protect your privacy.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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18:49

Will U.S. Government Crack the Whip on Online Privacy?

This week MediaShift will be running an in-depth special report on Online Privacy, including a timeline of Facebook privacy issues, a look at how political campaigns retain data, and a 5Across video discussion. Stay tuned all week for more stories on privacy issues.

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Online privacy is the new openness.

After years of telling all on the Internet, of tweeting about armpit rashes and tantric sex, we may have gone too far, shared too much. We may have lost control of the information that we reveal about ourselves and of the way others use that information. Which is a bad thing.

That's the thinking, at least, behind two government reports released at the end of 2010. The first one, produced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), outlines a plan to regulate the "commercial use of consumer data." The second one, produced by the Commerce Department, recommends that the federal government "articulate certain core privacy principles" for the Internet. Together they show that online privacy is very much on the public agenda.

FTC ENDORSES "DO NOT TRACK"

The FTC report, titled Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change, begins by noting that "consumer information is more important than ever" and that "some companies appear to treat it in an irresponsible or even reckless manner." It says data about consumer online activity and browsing habits are "collected, analyzed, combined, used, and shared, often instantaneously and invisibly."

google optout.JPGFor example, if I browse online for a product, which I often do, then advertisers could collect and share information about me, including my search history, the websites I visit and the kind of content I view. Likewise, if I participate in a social networking site, which I do, then third-party applications could access the stuff I post on my profile. Today my only lines of defense would be to adjust the privacy controls on my browser, to download a plug-in, or to click the opt-out icon that sometimes appears near an ad.

That's not good enough, according to the FTC report, which is intended to be a roadmap for lawmakers and companies as they develop policies and practices to protect consumer privacy. To that end, the FTC made three proposals.

First, companies should build "privacy protections into their everyday business practices." More specifically, they should provide "reasonable security for consumer data," they should collect "only the data needed for a specific business purpose," they should retain "data only as long as necessary to fulfill that purpose," they should safely "dispose of data no longer being used," and they should create "reasonable procedures to promote data accuracy." In addition, they should implement "procedurally sound privacy practices throughout their organizations."

Although it's unclear what would constitute a "specific business purpose," those suggestions to a great degree reflect existing law. Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair or deceptive practices, can be used to nail companies that fail to secure consumer information. Similarly, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act requires financial institutions to take certain steps to secure their information, and the Fair Credit Reporting Act requires consumer agencies to ensure that the entities receiving their information have a permissible reason to receive it. The latter also imposes "safe disposal" obligations on those entities.

Second, companies should "provide choices to consumers about their data practices in a simpler, more streamlined way." This would allow consumers in some transactions to choose the kind and amount of information they reveal about themselves. I say "in some transactions" because companies would have to distinguish between "commonly accepted data practices" and those "of greater concern."

The former includes ordinary transactions in which consumer consent is implied, e.g., I buy a book through Amazon, and I give the company my shipping address. No big deal, says the FTC. The latter, however, includes activities and transactions in which consent is not implied, e.g., an online publisher allows a third party to collect data about my use of the publisher's website. Big deal, says the FTC.

consumers_choice.jpgWhere consent is not implied, consumers "should be able to make informed and meaningful choices," and those choices should be "clearly and concisely described." In the context of online advertising, that means I would be able to choose whether to allow websites to collect and share information about me. The most practical way to give me that choice, according to the FTC, is to place a persistent setting on my browser to signal whether I consent to be tracked and to receive targeted ads. This "do not track" mechanism could give consumers the type of control online that they have offline with the "do not call" list for telemarketers.

Third, companies should "make their data practices more transparent to consumers." They should ensure that their privacy policies are "clear, concise and easy-to-read," and in some circumstances they should allow consumers to check out the data kept about them. Those circumstances remain unclear, but the report says if a company maintains consumer data that are used for decision-making purposes, then it could be required to allow consumers to review that data, essentially to give them the chance to correct any errors.

It's a good thing for the FTC to encourage companies to revisit their privacy policies. Most of them are long and dense and monuments to legalese, and some companies seem to notify me every week about changes to their terms and conditions. Nowhere is their ineffectiveness more apparent than in the world of mobile devices, which often spread privacy policies across dozens of screens, 50 words at a time. On the Internet, meanwhile, it would take consumers hundreds of hours [PDF file] to read the privacy policies they typically encounter in one year. That's hardly helpful to the consumer.

All in all, the FTC report has received mixed reviews. Some say its recommendations won't stop the information free-for-all, while others say it's promising and a step in the right direction. In any case, the commission will need the help of Congress to implement the plan, and that help isn't a sure thing.

COMMERCE DEPT. CALLS FOR PRIVACY CODES

The Commerce Department report, very sexily titled Commercial Data Privacy and Innovation in the Internet Economy: A Dynamic Policy Framework [PDF file], begins by noting that consumer privacy must address "a continuum of risks," such as minor nuisances and unfair surprises, as well as the disclosure of sensitive information in violation of individual rights. The report's purpose is to stimulate discussion among policymakers, and it includes recommendations in four areas.

First, the government should "revitalize" the FTC's Fair Information Practice Principles, a code that addresses how organizations collect and use personal information and the reasonableness of those practices. The amended code should "emphasize substantive privacy protection rather than simply creating procedural hurdles." The specifics are similar to those in the first section of the FTC report: the code should call on companies to be more transparent, it should articulate clear purposes for data collection, it should limit the use of data to those purposes, and it should encourage company audits to enhance accountability.

Screenshot-code.pngSecond, the government should "enlist the expertise and knowledge of the private sector" to develop voluntary codes for specific industries that promote the safeguarding of personal information. To make that happen, the Commerce Department should create a Privacy Policy Office to bring the necessary stakeholders together, and the FTC would enforce the codes once they've been voluntarily adopted.

Well, this makes me think of the old saw that socialism is good in theory but doesn't work. Whether or not that's true, too often the same can be said (truthfully) of voluntary codes. To make this scheme work, at the very least, the FTC should be given rulemaking authority to develop binding codes in the event the private sector doesn't act. Alternatively, as the report suggests, the FTC could ramp up its enforcement of existing privacy laws, to encourage companies to buy in to the voluntary codes, on the theory that the buy-in would entitle them to a legal safe harbor. In other words, complying with a voluntary code would create a presumption of compliance with any privacy legislation based on the amended Fair Information Practice Principles.

Third, the government should be mindful of its global status as a leader in privacy policy. On the one hand, it should develop a regulatory framework for Internet privacy that "enhances trust and encourages innovation," and on the other hand, it should work with the European Union and other trading partners to bridge the differences, in form and substance, between their laws and U.S. law. As the report notes, although privacy laws vary from country to country, many of them are based on similar values.

Fourth, Congress should pass a law to standardize the notification that companies are required to give consumers when data-security breaches occur. Lawmakers also should address "how to reconcile inconsistent state laws," because the differences among them have created undue costs for businesses and have made it more difficult for consumers to understand how their information is protected throughout the country.

In the privacy world my sympathies are chiefly with the consumer, but the patchwork of state security breach notification (SBN) laws is a very real challenge for businesses. Not long ago, I worked with a company that had offices in a number of states, and as a result, it had to comply with a number of different state SBN laws. They were variations on the same theme, of course, but the differences had to be accommodated. The devil was in the details, and from that work it became obvious to me that the compliance costs were high and the benefits low: Some people get better notification than others. That's neither fair for the consumers nor ideal for the company.

The reaction to the Commerce Department report, like the one to the FTC report, has been mixed. Privacy advocates have been critical of it, especially the sections that support self-regulation, but other groups and government officials have commended the Department for taking on a tough issue. For its part, the Department said it plans to incorporate the feedback into its final report, to be released later this year.

NEW COMMITTEE TO CARRY THE PRIVACY FLAG

It's also worth mentioning that in late October, the National Science and Technology Council launched a Subcommittee on Privacy and Internet Policy. Chaired by Cameron Kerry, general counsel of the Commerce Department, and Christopher Schroeder, assistant U.S. attorney general, the subcommittee's job is to monitor global privacy-policy challenges and to address how to meet those challenges.

The charter [PDF file] says the subcommittee will do three things: 1) it will produce a white paper on information privacy in the digital age, building on the work of the FTC and the Commerce Department; 2) it will develop a set of general principles that define a regulatory framework for Internet privacy, one that would apply in the U.S. and globally; and 3) it will coordinate White House statements on privacy and Internet policy, striking a balance between the expectations of consumers and the needs of industry and law enforcement.

LOOKING AHEAD

Online privacy is on the government's brain, no doubt, but it's hard to say what effect, if any, the reports will have. They strike a chord with privacy advocates concerned about the way companies use the information that consumers reveal about themselves. They show sensitivity to the needs of both consumers and businesses. And they don't contain, possibly with the exception of the "do not track" mechanism, any kind of poison pill that would make the reports in their entirety look undesirable to major stakeholders.

Still, many companies already do what the reports recommend, and many of the recommendations to a great degree reflect existing law. So it's fair to wonder how much would change even if lawmakers used the reports to draft legislation. Lots of macro-micro questions remain unanswered, too.

Would all types of businesses be subject to the new framework? What about one that collects only non-sensitive consumer data? How long would businesses be required to retain consumer data? Is there a principled way to come up with a time period? Should companies be allowed to charge a fee to consumers for them to access information that the company maintains about them? If so, how much?

That's just a small sample of the questions that the FTC and Commerce Department need to answer before moving ahead, and they've requested help from interested parties. Readers should feel free to weigh in by contacting the agencies directly; otherwise, drop a comment in the box below.

Jonathan Peters is a lawyer and the Frank Martin Fellow at the Missouri School of Journalism, where he's working on his Ph.D. and specializing in the First Amendment. An award-winning freelancer, he has written on legal issues for a variety of newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at jonathan.w.peters@gmail.com.

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January 28 2011

18:10

5 Key Truths About Mobile News Consumers

Smartphones are ushering in the next wave of news consumption. These devices present an exciting opportunity for the news media to go mobile, putting endless information and the possibility of engagement in the palm of every consumer's hand.

But what characterizes the new mobile news consumer? How does he or she interact with news? And how can that shape the still-forming mobile news medium? I've laid out several key characteristics of mobile news consumers below. News organizations need to keep these basic truths in mind when developing apps and mobile sites.

Key Characteristics of Mobile News Consumers

1. They are impulse users.
Smartphone owners actively seek out bits of news throughout the day. Whether they are at the office, in a crowded bar, or in the comfort of their own home, the impulsive user wants to quickly open an app or browser on their mobile phone and, within seconds, have up-to-the-minute news. While some users are willing to spend time on longer reads, the majority are still looking for the latest, bite-sized chunks of news.

2. They're demanding.
Mobile news consumers invested in their devices as well as their monthly phone and data plans. They have paid good money for up-to-the-minute pulse.pngaccess, and that's what they expect the news media to deliver. The emergence of this on-the-go, impulsive, and demanding user means mobile news applications and websites need to adopt clean interfaces and offer powerful search functionality. The demanding nature of mobile news consumers also helps explain the growing popularity of news aggregator apps like the Pulse News Reader. These aggregators pull together top stories from users' favorite sites and offer the option to read a clean text summary of the story or go to the original article. Considering the mobile users' need for speed, news aggregator apps save consumers not only the time it takes to visit each site separately, but also the time it takes to read full articles.

3. They consume and contribute.
The next step in mobile news will be less about consumption and more about contribution and collaboration. Smartphones give users the opportunity to post video, images, and text to the Internet in seconds. Mobile apps like Qik and CNN's iReport currently provide some of the most visible venues for mobile users to post news as it happens. Plus, citizen-documented news is appearing on blogs, social networking sites, and YouTube. The ability for anyone to report breaking news means news organizations need to evolve further, shifting from working for the news consumer to working with the news consumer.

4. They are on multiple platforms.
The lack of a cross-platform app strategy is a stumbling block for some news outlets. News outlets and app creators need to make certain their news apps are available on all major platforms. Android is still not a priority for many news outlets, despite the fact it has more than 300,000 new activations daily and has now overtaken rivals such as RIM and Apple in U.S. smartphone market share. Similarly, Nokia's Symbian platform must stay on app makers' radar, given its massive installed base and large international penetration, with more than 450 million active devices.

5. They don't mind a little push
Traditional news outlets like CNN have catered to the new expectations of smartphone users by integrating push notifications into their apps. When major breaking news hits, CNN can push the story to a user's home screen, regardless of whether the app is open. The key is to use the push feature wisely. Many smartphone users will uninstall your app if you push too often for the wrong reasons. This is a balancing act that news organizations must pay attention to.

Patrick Mork is chief marketing officer of GetJar, the world's largest open mobile platform. He heads the company's overall marketing, branding, content and communications strategy. Prior to joining GetJar, he was marketing director EMEA at glu, where he built up the company's marketing team and helped establish glu as one of the top 3 games publishers in Europe. A former marketer at PepsiCo, Patrick has worked in venture-backed start-ups in marketing, sales and general management for the past 10 years. He holds an MBA from INSEAD and a Bachelor of Science from Georgetown University.

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January 21 2011

17:30

Teens Turn to Social Coding to Protect Privacy on Social Nets

In certain teen social circles, it's considered a subtle act of arrogance, a signifier of the loner, to use a solo photo of yourself for your Facebook profile. Digital natives may have earned their reputation as the "entitlement generation," but apparently there are some social limits to their unabashed self-regard.

In fact, there's compelling evidence the up-and-coming cohort of young Americans has grown increasingly sophisticated in navigating the public-by-default scene of social networks. Researchers say they are evolving forms of social coding to signal to each other while at the same time keeping their thoughts, activities and personal communications masked from older generations.

For example, profile photos that include friends may have originated as a safety mechanism, according to danah boyd, a researcher that specializes in the intersections between technology and society at Harvard's Center for Internet and Society, but now are a "social signal that you are sociable."

Though social media has expanded well beyond the youth demographic -- 20 percent of Facebook users are aged 45 or older -- the front lines of cultural-technological change are predominately filled by the young. This is, ultimately, their world. The rest of us are just visiting.

Given their numbers -- 82 million Americans were born between 1980 and 2000 -- and their reputation for strong opinions, the buying clout of Gen Y consumers could surpass all previous generations.

The Badge of Brands

Screen shot 2011-01-17 at 10.10.32 AM.png

The Gen Y relationship to brands is part of a broader shift in social norms ushered in by digital communications. When young people choose to "like" a brand on Facebook, they're essentially putting on a badge that helps define them among their peers. Online brand fandom can be viewed as a performance, part of a carefully calibrated process to craft and project a personal identity that transcends public and private selves.


"Even when people really lock down their privacy settings on Facebook, one of the things they don't hide is what brands they like," explained Peter Swanson, a college-aged intern at our ad agency, Engauge, whom we regularly interrogate on Gen Y social protocols. "I know it sounds superficial, but if I see a girl likes three or four brands, I pretty much know who she is -- or at least, I can tell if we're going to click, if we've got a chance. If she likes J. Crew, right? Or, like, Old Navy? That says a lot."

Coded Messages

Conscious brand identification can be exercised online by more mature demographics, but the critical difference is that teens appear more naturally attuned to the subtlest of social signals online.

Having been raised in the digital slipstream, they're highly sensitive to its shifting currents. That's both good news and bad news for marketers. On one hand, positive and public brand associations can generate significant value for brands.

But, on the other hand, as the industry moves inexorably toward more sophisticated behavioral marketing, there are signals that teens are adopting practices to remain unknowable and inscrutable.

One of the ways that teenagers have adapted to the open social architecture of online networks is by increasingly coding their public messages in private language -- song lyrics, personal jokes -- that's decipherable only to those friends who are the intended recipients of the message.

This "social coding" can effectively keep nosy parents, college admissions officers and future employers in the dark. This doesn't mean they're scrubbing every detail from their public personas.

"Teens turn to private messages or texting or other forms of communication for intimate interactions, but they don't care enough about certain information to put the effort into locking it down," said boyd, the Harvard researcher, when addressing the international convention on privacy and data protection last October. "But this isn't because they don't care about privacy. This is because they don't think that what they're saying really matters all that much to anyone."

The average teen sends or receives 50 text messages daily, according to Pew Internet. Over 30 percent of teens send more than 100 texts, and 15 percent send more than 200. (The average adult sends 10.)

Interestingly, Twitter is now emerging as a favored channel for private communication among the most popular and tech-sophisticated teens in high-income American communities. In contrast to Facebook, boyd has observed, these teens tend to protect their Twitter accounts, making them accessible only to a subset of friends. This also relieves them from too much traffic on Facebook. "Facebook is like shouting in a crowd, Twitter is like talking in a room," one teen she studied said.

This all seems counter-intuitive to the older Twitter demographic, which is steeped in the traditions of mass media and eager to broadcast messages to the widest possible audience.

As digital natives mature, their public presence and behavior on social networks will evolve, impacting broader social norms. The expansion of these new social codes may require a rewrite of the prevailing narrative of digital natives as self-absorbed narcissists unconcerned about privacy. And wouldn't that be a nice surprise.

Mya Frazier is director of trends and insights at Engauge, one of the nation's largest independent advertising agencies. This article is adapted from the Engauge 2011 Digital Outlook, a comprehensive report on the future of marketing in the digital era.
As the advertising correspondent for MediaShift, she chronicles the impact of digital, mobile and social marketing trends on content, culture and commerce. A former business journalist, she has been a staff writer at Advertising Age, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and American City Business Journals. You can follow her on Twitter.

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