danah boyd speaks at the Personal Democracy Forum about “The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online”
For decades, we’ve assumed that inequality in relation to technology has everything to do with “access” and that if we fix the access problem, all will be fine. This is the grand narrative of concepts like the “digital divide.” Yet, increasingly, we’re seeing people with similar levels of access engage in fundamentally different ways. And we’re seeing a social media landscape where participation “choice” leads to a digital reproduction of social divisions. This is most salient in the States which is intentionally the focus of my talk here today.
I suggest you read it all, it’s not terribly long, but if you’re part of the tl;dr generation, the salient point for libraries is this
If you are trying to connect with the public, where you go online matters. If you choose to make Facebook your platform for civic activity, you are implicitly suggesting that a specific class of people is more worth your time and attention than others. Of course, splitting your attention can also be costly and doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be reaching everyone anyhow. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The key to developing a social media strategy is to understand who you’re reaching and who you’re not and make certain that your perspective is accounting for said choices. Understand your biases and work to counter them.
I work occasionally as a fill-in librarian at a local public library that serves a community of about 5,000 people. This is the community I am moving to next month, up the road from where I live now, and while technically it puts me out of the “rural” designation, it’s still pretty rural. Last week and the week before there was a horrible tragedy that rocked the whole community. Short form: a local girl Brooke Bennett, went missing and her body was discovered a few days ago. The most likely suspect at this point is an uncle who is on the state sex offender list.
First off let me say that I’m quoting from news stories only. Our official staff position is “no comment” and I’m sticking to that. Here is why this is a library issue.
- The initial reports, when the girl was simply missing, was that she had met a sexual predator online via her MySpace page. That garnered the predictable media outcry as well as some very good stories about safety online.
- It also resulted in law enforcement coming to the library to take the public PCs. You can read the library director’s statements about this in this article in the Burlington Free Press. The librarians waited for a court order, and gave the computers to the police once they received one. The computers have since been returned. The library had an internet policy in place to guide their actions in this situation.
- As more details emerged it became clear that the MySpace angle was not just untrue, it was the opposite of what people had thought. The person who abducted Brooke had actually logged in to her MySpace page to try to create a fake scenario where she was meeting a “predator” when in reality she was meeting him. IP addresses from these interactions were given to law enforcement by MySpace and were, as near as I can tell, instrumental in helping them determine the sequence of events of this crime and narrow down the suspect list considerably. The older articles still reflect the “internet predator” angle when, like most abductions, the criminal was someone from the victim’s own family.
- And as far as data goes, danah boyd has a very good article about MySpace when DOPA was more on the table in 2006. One of her useful facts “Statistically speaking, kids are more at risk at a church picnic or a boy scout outing than they are when they go on MySpace. Less than .01% of all youth abductions nationwide are stranger abductions and as far as we know, no stranger abduction has occurred because of social network services.”
- The accused man is being charged, as of this writing, with kidnaping. This is because kidnaping at a federal level carries a possible death penalty sentence and is, I assume, a bargaining chip. The law regarding this is one that I wasn’t totally aware of “the 2006 Adam Walsh law — named for another abducted child — allowed federal prosecution of such crimes when they are facilitated by the Internet.” Worth knowing for any of us who provide Internet access to the public, I think.
- The library has set up a book display dealing with this very difficult topic — books on MySpace, the death of a child, dealing with grief — and encouraging conversations.
So, this is all incredibly upsetting and destabilizing to the community here. While I hope that you never have to deal with something like this at your library, there may be some instructive or useful pieces of information here that I felt might be worthwhile to pass on.
So, I think I’ve solved my “I dislike WordPress” problem by using ScribeFire which I got working after a lot of back and forth with my techie people at ibiblio and some help from Ask MetaFilter. Can you imagine your librarian helping you get your blog software working?
Speaking of, I’ve been reading an old but great paper about social networking stuff and how its used differently in rural communities. This is science stuff not just “here’s what we think people are doing on facebook…” and I think you’ll like it. It’s called The Network in the Garden: An Empirical Analysis of Social Media in Rural Life and it’s a numbers analysis of how people are using MySpace in urban versus rural areas. You can also see it as slides prepared for the CHI conference. The slides are quite good at getting some basic points across.
The conclusions are a little surprising to me and I live in a rural area [interesting side note, when I move up the street next month I will no longer be living in a rural area because Randolph has a slightly higher population than Bethel] and social media is still not on the radar of a lot of novice computers users. I think this information will help me help people understand what it’s all about.
Rural and urban people use social media very differently: four of our five hypotheses were confirmed. Rural people articulate far fewer friends, and those friends are located much closer to home. Women occupy a much greater segment of the rural user base than the urban user base. Rural users, particularly rural women, also set their profiles to private at higher rates than urban users. However, both rural and urban users seem to communicate with roughly the same proportions of strong and weak ties.
Side note: I’m going to talk to the principal of the high school today to talk about the dissolution of my job for next year. Not expecting any big changes but maybe at least a little more understanding about what happened and focus on what to do next.
I did a short tour of some New Hampshire libraries over the past few days. I did a little talk called MyWhat? Decoding social technologies.. It’s only about five slides but most of it was doing a tour of some of the more popular social networks [Facebook, MySpace, Flickr] and showing how they worked, how kids were using them and what parents and librarians should know.
Remember that a lot of the digital divide that we deal with now isn’t that people don’t have computers per se, it’s that they’re not in networks and groups of people that understand them and can answer complex questions about them. The library is often an integral link in this equation. A lot of my time at these talks is spent answering questions about how these social tools work, how I use them, how librarians might use them, and how kids and teens can use them safely and effectively. A lot of the print materials I’ve come across err on the side of caution which is not a bad idea but often there’s no “Hey you really SHOULD try this” couterpoint. I hope I was able to offer that somewhat.
I have had to lobby this week to have the IT people that manage the computer filtering at the school I work with to give adults access to MySpace. In fact, I don’t even know if any of the adults that come to computer drop-in time at the hich school ever even try to access MySpace, but I know if they try, they can’t.
The larger problem is that the filtering software they use to keep kids off of a ton of different sites during the school day (Surf Control, if it matters) behaves … erratically. I have computer logins specifically for my adult students and every now and again I go to help them do something and find that Google is blocked. Not Gmail, just plain old Google.com. So I call the IT people and ask them to fix it and they usually do. However, since I actually need to be able to access sites like Google during my evening classes, we’ve reached a compromise where they turn the filter off between 3 (after school) and 8 pm. However, they also track all the traffic that goes through the network during this time. They noticed, they said, that people were accessing MySpace. The implication was that 1) MySpace is against the rules and 2) MySpace has no value whatsoever and 3) even adults don’t have the right to use the computer networks to access social software sites.
So, I went to work and explained that the adults who come to drop-in time shoudl pretty much have the right to look at whatever they want, that MySpace is fine — I hadn’t been looking at MySpace but I had a page on MySpace that I might want to look at — and that the reports of MySpace’s dangers have bee greatly overrated. Read the article. Fewer teens are receiving unwanted online solicitations than they were in 1999. Despite this, we get laws like DOPA. That’s lousy.