Thursday, May 27, 2010

Public v. Private: Pew Research and new Facebook settings

I have written about public v. private issues as they play out in social media in the past, and I have used exchanges with my seventeen-year-old daughter as an example.  She and I had another interesting exchange last night.

She is looking for a bathing suit for the upcoming summer, and she and her mother had a disappointing first try at finding something that a) fit and b) was inexpensive.  So my daughter went on Facebook with a request, asking people for advice about where she could find a bathing suit.  She even listed her price range.

At supper, we started discussing Facebook again (the family is pretty tolerant about these forays).  My daughter and I are not Facebook "friends" - she thinks it would be creepy.  That said, I told her that I saw the posting, and then I corrected her about her price range.  She blew up - "How did you see that?  That is so wrong!"

Of course, I took an inordinate amount of glee in this (what's the use in parenting if you can't tweak your teen-ager every once in a while?), but I couldn't explain to her why I could see this posting without being her "friend."  Is it because I might be a "friend of a friend?"  Then again, isn't everybody?

I think that Facebook's new privacy settings will make it easier to manage the level of privacy, but I doubt that our individual digital footprints will shrink.  Part of what makes Facebook so successful is the massive network (400 million worldwide), maintained on the back of people's personal information and data.  They won't slay the dragon that breathed fire (and $15 BILLION+) into the network.

(Even writing this post makes me a little uncomfortable, writing as I am about my daughter, my spouse.  I know that I can leave them unnamed here, but that that information is probably a search engine, a couple of search terms, and three clicks away for anyone who wants to track it down.  That is unnerving.)

I still maintain that young adults have a different notion of public and private, but that certainly doesn't mean that young adults somehow care less about these boundaries.  In fact, the Pew Internet and American Life Project's new report "Reputation Management and Social Media" (26 May 2010) provides evidence that young adults care deeply about these distinctions, and at least when it comes to social media like Facebook, they are more cautious about their digital footprint than older generations.

I like what  danah boyd wrote in her post "Pew Research Confirms that Youth Care about Their Reputation" (26 May 2010):
Of course, reputation and privacy always come back to audience. And audience is where we continuously misunderstand teenagers. They want to make sure that people they respect or admire think highly of them. But this doesn’t always mean that they care about how YOU think about them. So a teenager may be willing to sully their reputation as their parents see it if it gives them street cred that makes them cool amongst their peers. This is why reputation is so messy. There’s no universal reputation, no universal self-presentation. It’s always about audience.
As a writing instructor, I applaud boyd's observation, since it is true of ALL writing and speaking: audience is everything.  Often, when our communications fail to accomplish what we set out to do, it's because we have misjudged the audience's needs and expectations.

My daughter is "out there" with her friends, and when I see what my younger extended family members are making public on Facebook, some of them are even further "out there."  That said, none of them are especially pleased that an old fuddy-duddy like me can see their "stuff."  They think it is "sick" and "perverted."  My retort is that if I can see it, who else can see it?  "Inside conversations" on social media are rarely "inside":  it is more like having a conversation in a fish bowl or a cage at the zoo - people who wander by can stop and listen, stop and read, at their leisure.

Take a moment to look at the graphics below, courtesy of the "Reputation Management and Social Media" Pew report.   There's more where that came from.  If you are interested in how the different generations approach social media, this is a great report to read. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

I just finished Dave Eggers' Zeitoun (San Francisco: McSweeney's Books, 2009.  335 pages) today, and it's still swirling around in my mind.  Eggers chronicles the lives of the Zeitoun family in the days just prior to and immediately following Hurricane Katrina.  The Zeitoun children - Zachary, Nademah, Aisha, Safiya, and Ahmad - play important cameo roles, but the narrative focuses on the parents Kathy and Abdulrahman.

The Zeitouns own a painting and contracting business in New Orleans.  Abdulrahman immigrated to the US from his native Syria.  Kathy, born and raised in Baton Rouge, converted to Islam before they met and married.

As Katrina bore down on the city, Kathy and the children left New Orleans, first to stay with her family in Baton Rouge but later to stay with friends in Phoenix.  Zeitoun elected to stay.  He wanted to guard his house, his business, his rental properties, and his client's properties.  When the storm hit on Sunday, 28 August 2005, it devastated the city.  What would happen in the days, weeks, and months to come would wreak more havoc on the Zeitoun family than anything that Katrina could muster.

I won't give away any more than this because I want you to read this book for so many different reasons.  Eggers has a mission, and it is to bring to light the wrongs of the world so that readers might act (you might recognize him as the author of What is the What.  Zeitoun makes one appreciate all that one has in life; it should make you angry (or else you probably aren't reading closely enough); it makes one wonder how things could have gone so terribly, inexcusably wrong in New Orleans.  The narrative is told from the perspective of Kathy and Abdulrahman, and their strength in the face of the chaos and madness is inspirational.

I spent some time in New Orleans last fall visiting my daughter and son-in-law, who live in the Marigny district.  Despite a tough time of it as a teacher in the Recovery School District, it's clear that my daughter loves New Orleans (see this posting for her departing-New-Orleans elegy).  While there, we spent time on Bourbon Street and  Jackson Square, and we spent some time visiting my son-in-law's sister in the Holy Cross neighborhood of the lower Ninth Ward.  It is a remarkable city, unlike any other I have seen in the US (or anywhere else, for that matter).  Architecture-wise, cuisine-wise, culture-wise, it's a  national treasure. 

That said, it's seems a messed-up city.  Institutional racism seems impenetrable.  Corruption seems endemic.

Yeah, yeah, I'm a Northerner with all of the naivete and distance that comes with that label.  Still, it's hard to argue with Eggers' description.

What happened in New Orleans?  What broke?  Why?

More importantly, how do we make sure that what happened never happens again?

Read Zeitoun.

Zeitoun jacket cover                                                                                   
McSweeney's Books

All other New Orleans photographs courtesy of the posting's author

Monday, May 24, 2010

danah boyd strikes again: "Quitting Facebook is Pointless"

danah boyd is a researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society.  Her blog is called apophenia, and I just discovered it a few weeks ago.  If you use a news aggregator, then you really ought to aggregate apophenia - it's great stuff.  She's in the middle of a series of article critiquing Facebook and in particular its new privacy settings.

danah's writing is smart and humorous, and her research is top-notched.  As I noted in a previous blog, her writings about the public v. private tension in Facebook is really what I would have liked to have written.

The current post - "Quitting Facebook is Pointless" -  is provocative (and if you take the time to read the comments, you'll get a clearer sense of why it is provocative).  She's suggesting that, even after one critiques the myriad of problems with Facebook, it is pointless to quit Facebook, that those who quit are just the techno-elites - the digerati as she calls them - who were never the primary users of Facebook anyway.  Many who have commented disagree and argue that quitting is effective.

Having just started my Facebook page, I don't anticipate quitting anytime soon.  Nor do I plan, after having read boyd and others, to use Facebook as a classroom tool (a site for classroom examination, yes; a tool where I ask everyone in class to use Facebook, no).  For now, at least, this is where the juice is, for better or worse (and the "for worse" category seems to be growing).

boyd's recent posting is fairly long - I learned a new abbreviation last week, "tl;dr," which stands for "too long; didn't read," a response I am afraid I elicit too frequently with my lengthy posts - but it is worth it for so many reasons.  I encourage you to take a peek at it.

Update (25 May 2010)
Jenna Wortham's article in the 24 May (Monday) edition of the New York Times is titled "Rivals Seize on Troubles of Facebook."  Wortham highlights a number of start-ups that could become alternatives to Facebook.  These in Appleseed, One Social Web, Crabgrass, Elgg, Collegiate Nation (a subscription-based service), and UmeNow (sorry - no link yet)

The article is a nice compliment to boyd's blog posting.  There are many alternatives to Facebook, but none of them can compete with Facebook's "more than 400 million members and a $15 billion valuation" (B1).  For instance, if you follow the link to, it is a very pleasant, welcoming screen, frankly more aesthetically pleasing to me than Facebook's login screen.  That said, Wortham notes that "has just 20,000 registered members" (B1).  It's tough to compete with the Facebook monster.       

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Facebook and Privacy . . . I don't think so.

Yes, I am fixating on Facebook. 

I saw this graphic in the New York Times last week, but I was reminded of it again when I read danah boyd's posting, "Facebook and Radical Transparency (a rant)"  Of course, in the incestuous blogosphere world, I came to danah's posting via another posting from Will Richardson titled, "Teach.  Facebook.  Now." 

Take a moment to follow the link to the graphic from the New York Times, and then tell me that you can make  sense of it.  The beauty of this, of course, is that the creators of the graphic are striving to explain (and in the process simplify) Facebook's new privacy settings. 

This is discouraging and a bit overwhelming for me.  I have modified my privacy settings, but I am also trying to remind myself why I got on Facebook in the first place: to be out there with the 400 million others who are out there.  Facebook is a private enterprise, but like bars and bowling alleys and stadiums and, yes, even most religious institutions, it is a private enterprise where the public is meeting.  Unlike the bars where my father's generation met or the bowling alley of my youth, however, the scale (the volume, the profits) are definitely not the same.  Of course, the privacy issues are significantly different, too.  My father's generation didn't even have to share their name with someone at the local watering hole.  I think I paid cash at the local bowling alley while flirting with the girls in the lane next to us (or, more accurately, trying to flirt:().  Gutter ball.   My father's footprint was literal, as was mine as a youth.  My daughter's digital footprint, by comparison, is Sasquatch-like.  

I'll end my giving a shoutout to Will Richardson's blog, Weblogg-ed.  Will writes about Web 2.0 issues for the K12 crowd, and his stuff is consistently solid and provocative. 

I know less about danah boyd's blog, but if this posting that I have read is any indication, it needs to become part of my RSS aggregator.  Actually, this posting is the posting that I would have loved to have been able to write - ahh, so it goes.  AND, to top it off, she ends with lyrics from Ani Difranco - how cool is that?  Seriously, those of you reading this and who are interested in the way that Facebook shakes up our understandings and practices of public and private must read boyd's posting (and you won't be disappointed if you follow all of the links).

Friday, May 14, 2010

Facebook, Teachers, and Students

 Allie Shah wrote a nice piece in Friday, 14 May's StarTribune titled "Why Can't We Be Facebook Friends?" Her description of the muddled boundaries returns me, once again, to some of the questions that I wrote about in a previous post regarding the challenging ways that social media forces us to think about the public and private dimensions of our lives.  This news article shapes the conversation in a very concrete light: should teachers have their students as Facebook friends?  Check it out and let other readers here know what you think.

If you are looking for some wonderful irritation in your life, by all means read the Readers' Comments at the end of the article.  That's probably fodder for another posting - the role of Readers' Comments in today's journalism - for another day, but I have been thinking about interactive journalism for awhile.

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

College, Inc.

Colleagues Shannon Gibney and Lois Bollman directed me to this fascinating Frontline episode titled "College, Inc."    Other blogs have addressed "College, Inc." - check out, for instance, the 10 May Brainstorm posting from the Chronicle of Higher Education.  That won't keep me, however, from adding my thoughts to the conversation.  The documentary does have a bias (don't all documentaries have a bias?), which becomes clear only minutes into the 55-minute program.  That said, it is pretty engaging, and it got me thinking.  Here are some of the nuggets:

  • John Sperling, a graduate of Cambridge, left traditional academe, moved to Phoenix, developed the University of Phoenix, and is now a billionaire.  Some of the key differences between UoP and traditional colleges and universities include non-tenured faculty (instead, faculty work on short-term contracts; they are essentially independent contractors), courses and programs are developed in a matter of days rather than months or years, and funding comes from a combination of investors (UoP went public as the Apollo Group, Inc.) and Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) dollars.  In other words, while a for-profit endeavor, UoP draws significantly from taxpayer-funded federal dollars.
  • According to Martin Smith, the "College, Inc." correspondent, for-profit colleges typically cost 5-6X more than public community colleges and 2-4X more than public four-year institutions.
  • According to Mark DeFusco, a former UoP director, UoP budgets 25% of its profits for marketing, while faculty are paid somewhere between 10% and 20% of the budget. 
  • Although for-profits account for 10% of all higher education students, for-profit students account for 25% of all FAFSA dollars. 
  • An astonishing figure - one that I need to research - is $750 Billion in outstanding student debt.  Someone in the documentary commented that this debt has the potential to undermine the economy in ways comparable to the sub-prime lending fiasco that we are still experiencing.
There are many interesting characters portrayed in the documentary including Michael Clifford, the former rock-and-roller/drug addict turned born-again for-profit education entrepreneur, the aforementioned Mark DeFusco, and the nervous, defensive Harris Miller, one of the for-profits' chief lobbyists. The person who fascinates me is the documentary's voice of reason Barmak Nassirian, who is associate executive director for external relations and a lobbyist with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO).  He is a paid lobbyist like Harris Miller, but their personas and ethos are remarkably different.  Where Miller seems incredibly uncomfortable (like a sophist arguing what he knows is his weakest argument), Nassirian comes off as well-informed and direct.  I understand that documentaries create sympathetic and unsympathetic characters, and that Nassirian is clearly the sympathetic character that the producers want to present.  I get that.  That said, I found Nassirian's arguments compelling and in the end persuasive.  Miller, on the other hand, seems a bit slimy and unprepared.  (To be fair to him, a quick search of his name led me to some really interesting articles.  For instance, there's a respectful posting written by one of Miller's frequent opponents at the Center for Immigration Studies blog.) 

There's so much in this documentary to unpack, and an already-too-long blog posting is probably not the place to do this.  As a public community college instructor, I have watched as more and more for-profits have been enrolling students that in the past probably would have appeared in my classes.  I've had a number of former for-profit college students complain about their for-profit college experiences.  I have always been suspicious about education-as-business (we have a different bottom line than 3M or Microsoft or the pizza shop in my neighborhood).  None of those concerns disappeared while watching "College, Inc.," but none of them increased either.

Instead, I am left still thinking about a telling exchange four minutes into the show between Martin Smith and the education venture capitalist Michael Clifford.  Smith asks Clifford, who never attended college, if he has the "credibility, the bona fides" to transform higher education.  Clifford answers honestly: "No, I don't, but I'm doing it."

I hear Clifford's words, and I am left thinking, yes, he's doing it.  We who work in not-for-profit higher education can and should continue to critique the for-profit efforts, but it is incredibly important that we recognize that for-profit higher ed. efforts are happening, they are incredibly profitable, they have 10% of the higher ed. student population and that percentage will continue to grow, and - this is most important - they are changing the college landscape, primarily through their online education efforts.  We will never, ever go back to the face-to-face classroom in the same ways that we did before the online revolution, nor should we

How we respond to this changing landscape will determine whether or not not-for-profit higher education will be relevant in the years to come.

If you have 55 minutes to spare (and even if you don't), watch "College, Inc."  It is definitely worth your while.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Accidental Billionaires and the Public/Private Dimensions of Facebook

Yesterday, I finished reading Ben Mezrich's The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, a Tale of Sex, Money, Genuis, and Betrayal  (New York: Doubleday, 2009.  260 pages.)  To be honest, I was a bit disappointed.  It is more like Entertainment Tonight than it is, say, a probing Frontline episode.  There is considerable emphasis on personalities (Eduardo Saverin, Mark Zuckerberg, Sean Parker) and how frequently they were able to get drunk and have sex (often at the same time) because of their genius and success.  The backcover blurb really does declare the focus of the book:  "They just wanted to meet some girls . . . ."  Plus, the book doesn't really conclude as much as it just ends.  If you want to know more about Sean Parker (one of the people behind Napster), Eduardo Saverin (the initial money behind Facebook), or Mark Zuckerberg (the computing genius behind Facebook), I suppose Accidental Billionaires might interest you.  If you are looking for something a bit more insightful about Facebook and its impact on society, this isn't the book (nor, to be fair, does it purport to be).

However, it did prompt me to reflect about my own nascent efforts in online social networking.

I started a Facebook page recently - go ahead, invite me - after putting it off for some time.  I had (and still have) reservations about privacy, and not just about how Facebook would have access to some of my private data, which they would use to their benefit (I have purchased enough things online that I am pretty sure that I am well-known as a consumer to those who wish to sell me their goods).  I am concerned about that, but in the end I was also interested in the way that Facebook forces (or should force) its users to think about the difference between public and private.

My distinction between public and private comes from my experiences in and reading about community organizing.  There is, for instance, a great chapter in Edward Chambers Roots for Radicals (New York: Continuum, 2003) that essays the distinctions.  It's a useful distinction, recognizing how our expectations are different in these two spheres and how we live our lives in both realms: it is not an either/or proposition.

The example I like to use when discussing this regards my now-seventeen year old daughter.  We negotiated terms when she asked to have a Facebook page.  Three weeks after she started her page, her older sister contacted me with concerns about the photographs.  I looked at them with my seventeen-year old, and we started to delete them.  They were innocent enough: just a few teen-agers at a beach in bikinis.  Safely ensconced in a family photo album, they would not have garnered a second thought.  On Facebook, however, there was no control over who would see the photos.  For me, it was a clear case of those public v. private lines being crossed.  For my seventeen-year old, however, it was more traumatic.  She was clearly upset with me, and when I asked why, she declared that the photos were "her," that they were a key tool in the way that she represented herself to the world.

I thought about this for some time.  I do think that the net generation does have a different sense of public v. private (as well as a different sense about many things related to technology).  As an instructor working with the net generation, I figured it was time to launch that Facebook page and see what happens. 

So here is what I can see so far.  Much of my extended family is now part of my online social network (for better or worse:)).  That's nice.  I have nieces and nephews and cousins with families of their own, and I can keep in touch with them via Facebook.  I have a few people from Azerbaijan who are part of the network, relationships I made on a recent trip to the Caucacus region.  Finally, there are a few of my work colleagues in my network.  Most of the action is, to date, family related.

I can see how Facebook can help shape movements and facilitate organizing.  I just haven't experienced that aspect yet.  I am also curious about others' experiences with Facebook beyond the familial or a circle of friends.  That's where I am at now.  If things change, I'll let you know.

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