Circle of friendsDeveloping an adolescent network of friends

Being a teenager, for me, was largely a trial-and-error process of figuring out how to be an adult. I wanted autonomy, I wanted to succeed, and I wanted to be able to ask for help — but only on my terms. I created a “family” of friends, relying on them for the moral support and frames of reference that I had previously looked to my relatives for. We muddled our way through adolescence, as I imagine most teens do, trying to work out together how to handle our uncertain futures, new relationships and the stress of achieving good grades. We learned together.

Underneath that bonding and grouping, I distinctly remember not just drifting from my family but actively setting up blocks. “I want to do this my way, by myself!” was a big mantra of those years. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in the 1890s that the US Constitution guarantees “the right to be let alone—the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men”. I was pretty positive Brandeis was writing right to me; as a (self-declared) civilised almost-adult, I thought that right was sacrosanct. I wanted to be let alone with my friends.

Social Networking – the online models of our groups of friends

Feet of friendsSocial networking platforms like Facebook, Myspace and Bebo allow teenagers to intensify their relationships with members of their group. In creating a profile or home page, they can create and re-create their own identities, experimenting with who they are and how they want to be seen. They get to identify themselves with social groups, be seen as belonging (through displaying their friends) and discover who else belongs with whom. And best of all — the parents aren’t invited. This is a world of their own, ideally suited to the adolescent’s social development.

The tension: Protecting the kids or invading their privacy?

If we can extrapolate my experience to a majority of Internet-using teenagers, social networking sites are supporting them in the social development they’re already doing. The challenge comes in building new relationships, where the lack of context can make it easy for someone with a nefarious agenda to mislead the unsuspecting. (See previous post.) The quick intimacy teenagers build can mask the fact that they don’t actually know who is on the other end of the conversation.

Recent US legislation has attempted to minimise the risks to kids. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) prohibits site operators from collecting personal data from kids under 13 without verifiable parental consent, and removes their liability for disclosing information to the parent about the child. In a previous post, I have discussed the proposed Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006, and this week the Georgia Senate has begun to consider a bill that would raise the age of parental consent to 18. No minors in Georgia would be allowed to engage in social networks without their parents having full access.

At the same time, the chief privacy officer for Facebook, Chris Kelly, maintains that they are restricted from sharing activity and profile content with parents by federal law. “Under the Federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act, we cannot give anyone access to or control of an individual’s profile on Facebook”, Kelly said. In addition to the overhead if they were required to open up all that data and verify which parent belongs to which kid, the inevitable response would be diminished site activity. If kids knew that Mom and Dad could listen in, they would find somewhere else to talk.

(Facebook of course has an interest in keeping activity levels high and therefore maintaining its revenue stream, which appears to be advertising-based. But it would fall short of its goal of “helping people better understand the world around them” if everyone restrained their contributions to each other’s world views because they felt they were being spied on.)

How do we sort this out?

Biking - shadowsIf we go back to my assertion that social networking is modelling interactions and social development that we all do anyway, then the dangers aren’t actually that new. As an offline teenager, I was certainly taught not to give my address to anyone I didn’t know, and not to talk to strangers. I knew to look both ways before crossing the street. I knew how to listen for conversational cues that I was talking to someone with bad motives, and to recognise that friends of friends aren’t necessarily okay just because they come with a “reference” from somebody I know. All these messages kept me safe in the big bad real world, and I knew them because I was taught.

Teenagers need to form groups, to share information and to grow with their friends. And to establish a bit of independence from their families. Social networking can support this growth, but someone needs to make sure that online safety is included with the “surviving in the real world” lessons every kid gets either at home or at school. Particularly because parents are less involved in the conversation than they were when the children were younger, teenagers must be well prepared to make good decisions on their own. Unfortunately, legislation restricting access or allowing parents to “eavesdrop” won’t teach good judgment. Nor will applying privacy legislation — many kids wouldn’t figure this out on their own. Parents, teachers and role models are still ultimately responsible for these almost-adults, and it should be up to these adults to prepare them properly.



Present tag

I was in Piccadilly last night and happened to pass the Itsu sushi bar that former Russian spy Alexander Litvenenko visited prior to his death of polonium-210 poisoning. (Full timeline of the story and investigation are available here from the BBC.)

Given that the exact mechanism of poison delivery (and the scene of the crime) are still unknown, Itsu faced a potential PR nightmare in defending their Health and Safety compliance, the quality of their sushi and the security of their clientele.

Rather than hide and hope this would blow over, Itsu has stepped up to their own role in the drama. As they’ve closed this restaurant for decontamination, the board across the front says:

Itsu, centre of international espionage
Itsu, Piccadilly (London W1J) closed for the investigation of the poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko

An interesting approach, capitalising on such a bizarre, James-Bond style set of events. (Do note the black swirly background.) By boosting their own “casual bystander” role in this affair, Itsu is painting themselves as just close enough to the the events to enjoy the romance of it all, but also excusing themselves (probably accurately, it appears) from any blame.

Their flamboyant sign should ensure that people talk, spreading their message of innocence. I was amused enough by their efforts to help them in their viral marketing (by this posting) and will be interested to see how their sales turn out.

Itsu’s website (which has no signs of the cloak-and-dagger theme of their Piccadilly boards) indicates that they expect to reopen in early 2007.

Itsu Piccadilly

The messages we broadcast

As I wander through my day, I’m reasonably conscious of the messages I’m broadcasting: I try to dress well to present an image of being competent, I phrase my comments in such a way that my colleagues will feel good about working with me, I’m conscious of editing out any commentary about the wine from last night or having burned breakfast this morning. I’m not obsessive about it, I just try to put my best foot forward.

I think we all do this, to one extent or another. We show certain sides of ourselves to whoever the audience happens to be, some of which is selective and some of which is situational (for example, it may be that I don’t mention the breakfast mess to my colleagues because I’m too busy to remember that it happened). We try to balance the messages we’re sending deliberately (for example, the words I choose) with the back channel information we project (like the fact that I smell like burned toast or that they overheard me telling someone else about my head ringing from the smoke alarm).

We therefore end up with each person/group seeing a distinct part of us, some of which we control and some of which we don’t.

What they see of me
What they see of me

We play to that, trying to make the best impression possible with the information we’re sending out to each specific audience. It’s nice to be well-liked, and having allies facilitates getting things done when you need help. In the business world it’s called marketing, self-promotion and networking; in psychology it’s situationally responsive behaviour and relationship-building.

Who we are online

Now let’s take it to the virtual world. Part of the success of chat rooms, avatars, role playing games and online communities comes from the fact that you get to create and control everything that makes up others’ opinions about you.

Me online - what they see
Someone online can project the appearance of anyone they want. This picture shows that the ‘me’ hiding on the inside has nothing to do with the shape that the online contacts think they’re seeing on the outside.

As my father’s favourite New Yorker cartoon spells out, once you get to create and control the messages that go out, you can be anybody. You won’t be betrayed by any back channel information, so no one will notice that you’re having a bad hair day or are too tired to speak at the meeting or aren’t, in fact, of the same species (see below).

On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog
Cartoon by Peter Steiner. The New Yorker, July 5, 1993 issue (Vol.69 (LXIX) no. 20) page 61.

This is, unfortunately, not just an opportunity for reinventing yourself to hide your insecurities; it’s also an easy mark for fraud. The US House of Representatives passed the Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006 in response to concerns about paedophiliacs posing as children on social networking sites to build trust and arrange meetings with their prey. The controversially-worded bill was intended to protect kids from people who were misrepresenting themselves, which is evidence of how much potential we have for being anyone we like online. (The bill is currently awaiting debate in the Senate.)

Why we bother to be real

Most of us actually live in the real world. We meet the majority of our work contacts face-to-face (or at the very least, exchange phone calls). We hug our families and share a sofa when having coffee with a friend. Physical presence — and it’s associated accountability — are priorities for us. It’s how we are used to relating to each other, and the best scenario for us to communicate the most information, accurately and efficiently.

When I began this blog, I thought carefully about whether I would use my real name. There are legitimate privacy concerns around exposing any personal information that is available to the 1.076 billion people who have internet access. But ultimately, I’m out to share my views, spark discussions and create contacts who will be useful to me in my real life. I want any benefits of this ‘virtual’ work to be connected to who I am in reality. So I’ve made that link.

Similarly, the news has been busy in the past few months with stories of how online worlds can grow to successfully parallel reality. The hype surrounding Digimask‘s technology, which takes a 3D image of the user and puts you literally into the multi-player game, reflects this trend. (See today’s BBC News video rundown of Digimask). Apparently if we’re going to go to the trouble of blasting bad guys in Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Vegas on your Xbox 360, we want the credit for our real selves.

The most common example of this keeping-it-real trend comes from multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs), like Entropia Universe and Second Life. Entropia Universe (formerly Project Entropia) calls itself a ‘massive online virtual universe’ and maintains a (real) cash economy. In May the developers sold a ‘virtual space resort’ to one of its users for $100,000. The purchaser bought it to establish an online night club, a marketplace through which the (real-life) entertainment industry can sell their wares to other members of the Universe. When you’re looking for cash, keeping ties to reality (and credit cards) are the only way to go. (For more information, see this article on BBC News.)

Second Life is another online world that has caught the attention of significant corporations out to encourage spending by actual people bringing their real wallets. In just the past day, ABN-AMRO has announced that it is opening a branch of its bank inside the virtual world, while IBM have hosted a Virtual Worlds European Media & Influencer Event. (They’re also proud of having replicated this year’s Wimbledon inside Second Life.) This continuation of big-business commerce on the virtual site is only possible because the users maintain links to their real-people bank accounts and come to the site with their banking or marketing needs in tow. Users don’t divorce Second Life from their first lives.

Keeping it real
I’ll repeat what I usually say: technology is most useful when it is supporting something we want to do anyway. And whether that’s sparking conversations through my blog to further my professional growth, finding new routes to market for existing commerce, or knowing that the world reveres me because I slaughtered more bad guys than my buddies could — we can only collect on the real-world rewards when the online contacts know who we are.

Happy teamWhen I was in fifth grade, our math teacher introduced us to tessellations. Here’s the brief rundown:

A tessellation is a repeated pattern of 1 closed shape, arrayed one after the next, with no gaps or overlaps. At their simplist, a grid of squares or a pattern of hexagon tiles on a bathroom floor are tessellations.

We were taught that if you start with a tessellating shape (like a square) and remove a section of it from one edge but add that same section to another edge, the shape will still tessellate. (This preserves the surface area of the shape. See diagrams below for examples.) We cut these tiles out of construction paper and glued 4×4 squares of them of them to a black background, learning from the 20-some examples in our class that this process always works.

Recently, this memory has been tapping me on the shoulder and it’s taken me a few days to figure out why. In constructing a project team, I’ve been conscious of allowing space for conflicting personalities and filling skills gaps. But the team members need go grow together: for the team to successfully accomplish its goals, each member should be adaptable, ready to interact with any of the other members at any time. They need to allow for personality differences and varieties of skills across the group. Tessellations make an interesting metaphor for this adaptation. (Each shape represents one person)

Tessellating squares
A group of colleagues working in the same space, but on different projects. (Can you see the outlines of cubicles forming?)

Rough edged team
A close team, as you might find in a small company. Each team member is adapting for the others, compensating for gaps and allowing for preferences. This team doesn’t necessarily work much with other teams, so it’s allowed to have “rough edges”.

smooth edged team
A close team within a larger company of other teams. Each team then has to tessellate with the other teams. Smooth outside edges make this easier (on the assumption that the other teams will also have smooth outside edges, to collaborate with whomever they need).

These are ideals for a team, and generally take quite a while to build. In my experience, when you initially bring a team together, it looks something like this:

New team
A newly-formed team

The “team-building process” is one of learning to identify the shape of your colleagues and adapt yours to accommodate them (and vice versa). With a bit of work, you can end up a bit more like this:

Adapting team
The newly-formed team is adapting.

This is a model (and I admit I like the uniformity of a tessellation) and I’ll acknowledge its limitations. For the sake of argument, we should note that each team member doesn’t generally tessellate to the roles of their counterparts in the team. (Because each person brings differing experiences and personalities to the situation, they may each end up with a shape of their own, as opposed to being one repeating uniform shape labelled “team member”.) But there is one benefit to approaching the metaphor with the concept of uniformity:

When you remove one team member and replace them with someone outside, the clearer that tessellating shape is (ie., what it means to be a member of this team), the easier it will be for that new person to adapt.

Take these two teams as examples. The first is tessellating, each member has adopted a uniform method of interacting and set of expectations for their team members. (Therefore each has the same shape.) Along comes the new person, who can learn from any of the original members how to fit in and what is expected of them.

Coherent team with newbie
A well-organised team with clear ways of working together and expectations for each other. While the new person, in black, will have to adapt to fit into the team, they should have a fairly easy time of it due to the clarity in the existing team.

In contrast, this picture below shows a chaotic team with no coherence. The new person has no idea how the members are working together, let alone how to join them. The best he/she can do is to pick an outside edge (anybody’s!) and start there, try to connect with everyone in due course and build up a shape of their own to fit the odd structure already there. If you’re the new person, it’s a much less fun scenario.

Crazy team with newbie
A team with no coherence or organisation, attempting to incorporate a new person. This scenario is hard for the newcomer, as the team’s ways of working are unclear and even communication between the existing members doesn’t appear to be guaranteed. How should the newcomer adapt themselves?

These visual images provide a model for the ways team members work together. Though I’ve found that the shape of each tessellation changes from team to team (and even changes when a new person joins a team), it’s important to have a fundamental model. Every team member I’ve worked with has indicated that they are happier and more productive when they see the whole of which they are a part. Understanding the shape (or role) they are to take is a big step towards seeing the bigger picture — the entire team, the company, or even the entire industry.

Happy team

Blog holiday

Closed sign

Work on this blog has been temporarily halted due to my holiday. Please feel free to browse and do leave comments, requests, concerns and suggestions. I will be happy to respond to them when we re-open on the 22nd of November. Thank you for your custom.

I didn’t intend for this blog to be quite so adult in its themes, but this was just too funny to pass up. (And I swear, I found it legimitately, searching for social networking resources!)

The porn community, one of the largest online group of content sharers and *ahem* common-interest enthusiasts, have taken up the banner of social bookmarking.

PornCabi.net (yeah, don’t open this at work) describes itself as “a lot like del.icio.us, but it’s strictly for adults, which means if you want an endless stream of constantly updated free porn sites all in one place, sorted by popularity among other users, this is absolutely the best place to be!” Just like del.icio.us, when you find a site that intrigues you, you bookmark it to PornCabi.net, tagging it with the keywords you find relevant. The more tags a site gets, the higher up it goes in the rankings, so that when another user searches for that particular word they’re likely to find what they’re looking for. (Probably more so than through Google, which can be manipulated by creating lots of extraneous links to a site and embedding keywords in it that boost its PageRanking.)

To make this a truly effective knowledge-sharing method, it seems that they even allow their users to form organised subnetworks around a particular topic or shared interest. This is particularly important because I’d bet that one man’s great porn isn’t necessarily also another man’s (or woman’s, to be fair), which means that the popularity rankings are only so useful across the entire population.

Kudos to them for the creative URL. And it’s almost a pity that they couldn’t take “del.icio.us”!

Many thanks to Julie for playing research assistant and filling in some of the details.

[This post deliberately has no pictures. Images of bookmarks were too innocent, and everything else… Well, it’s out there already and far more graphic than I’m willing to post in my blog!]