Youth Social Networking – myths and realities…

[Summary: Extract from an article exploring how online social networks have become part of the landscape of many young people’s lives]

I was recently asked to write an article for the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI)’s Freedom From Fear magazine on young people’s engagement with social network sites. You can find the full article over here, which outlines some of the history and wider context of social networks, but, following a kind tweet from Noel Hatch, I thought it might be worth reproducing on particular section below: a section inspired by my experience at the 2010 Internet Governance Forum when I heard strong versions of each of the statements in bold below used as core premises in arguments about aspects of Internet policy, rarely countered by more balanced assessments of whether these statements really held up as valid generalisations.

Opportunities and risks: Myths and realities

(Taken from F3 Magazine, Connected Generation: Young People and Social Networks)

The challenge in thinking about the impacts of social networks is to cut through reactions based on unfamiliarity or fear, to identify the risks and opportunities they create and, equally as important, the changes that new technologies make to the background conditions of what constitutes a viable policy response to any concerns that they do give rise to.

So what of the different concerns. Are these myths or reality?

– Young people are wasting time on social networks. Many young people can certainly end up spending a lot of time on social networks, though often this is multi-tasking time, doing other things as well as being online or linked to a network by phone. Some young people do identify that they want to spend less time in front of Facebook, or on a particular network. Howard Rheingold has written of the importance of helping young people develop ‘attention literacy’ to know when to tune out from the flow of conversation in online networks and to focus on other tasks. The Digital Youth report noted that time spent with digital media can be effective informal learning time, and many young people will explain that they were using SNS to get help from friends with projects or homework or even using networks to help them find employment.

– Young people don’t believe in privacy and are over-sharing. The 10 billion photos and thousands of status updates every minute on sites like Facebook show that SNS users share a lot of content about themselves online. Some have argued that this leads to the end of privacy. Whilst most social network sites offer some privacy features, users may leave their content open to anyone to view, and it can appear as if they do not care about privacy at all. danah boyd describes how much of this arises from individuals having an ‘imagined audience’ who they think are reading/engaging with their content – when the real audience may be quite different. However, danah also describes how many young people adopt sophisticated strategies to manage their privacy. There are both risks and benefits to new forms of SNS-enabled online transparency: risks of identity theft or of state surveillance of individuals are, for many, set against benefits of sharing in online communities, or being visible in ways that can bring better job prospects or other opportunities. Privacy isn’t dead; but it is constantly evolving.

– Social networks expose young people to dangerous ideas or groups. Undoubtedly the ability for anyone to publish content through social media spaces means there is a lot of negative and potentially harmful content available – and some young people do come across and engage with this content online. Gangs may use social networks to organise, and the way in which most networks only moderate or check content when it is reported to them as problematic means that a lot of harmful content can exist openly relatively undetected by authorities. But just because content is on YouTube or posted somewhere on Facebook, does not mean it is right in front of everyone – most young people never voyage far on a social network from the spaces where their friends are – but some undoubtedly may end up in more harmful ‘dark alleyways’ of the networks.

– Young people are at risk from sexual predators and abusive adults through SNS. There have been high-profile stories in a number of countries about cases of sexual abuse of young people facilitated by contact on social network sites. In sidelining adult gatekeepers, social networks can facilitate contact between young people and abusive adults – although the absolute number of cases of Internet-mediated harm is small in comparison to the number of young people abused by adults known to them from their family or local community. Research from the Crimes Against Children Research Centre in the United States(11) suggests that those vulnerable to online abuse are often the young people with existing vulnerabilities offline too.

One simple way of understanding SNS is as ‘amplifiers’. They can amplify the opportunities available to young people with existing positive connections and opportunities; but they can also amplify the vulnerabilities of the vulnerable. Offering vulnerable and disadvantaged young people support to develop the skills to get the most out of online social networking may turn out to be an important role for those who work with them.

Returning to the earlier metaphor of SNS as new public squares (or, to extend the metaphor, whole towns with public and private spaces), they do present some particular policy challenges. Most social networks services are privately owned by companies with commercial goals for the networks – they are ‘privatized public space’. They are also global spaces, making it difficult for national norms of regulations to be applied to them. That is why innovations in governance remain a pressing issue, and a topic that has been discussed at The Internet Governance Forum over recent years, including by the Youth Coalition on Internet Governance.

What do you think about these suggested myths and realities? Do they match with your experience or insights? What other common perceptions about social networks need to be explored in more depth?

Linked Open Data & Development at ICTD2010

[Summary: Short paper and presentations exploring linked open data in International Development]

Yesterday, Tim Berners-Lee gave the keynote speech at the 2010 ICT & International Development conference in London, including talk of the potential role of open data in development (I was following via Twitter). The details of how open and linked data might impact development were the key theme in the recent IKM workshop I blogged about a few weeks ago, and as a follow up to that workshop, a short discussion paper was available at ICTD, alongside a range of fantastic touchscreen kiosks produced  by Ralph Borland.

Last week, I rather rapidly put together the interface for one of those kiosks, focussed on offering users an introduction to open data, linked data, data visualisation, and the IKM questions being asked about how the development of standards, norms and practices in the creation, sharing and linking of datasets might impact upon development at local levels.

You can find the IKM discussion paper on linked open information for Development for download here and if you want to explore the TouchScreen interface, albeit with some bits that might not work 100% in browsers other than Firefox and which might not make sense on a standard machine rather than touchscreen, you can launch it below.

I’ve also noticed that the draft of Keish Taylor and Ginette Law’s fantastic (and very comprehensive) write-up of the IKM Linked Information Workshop is also available for download on the IKM site.

Youth Work Online: Month of Action?

[Reposted from the Youth Work Online Network which I help run]

The Youth Work Online network was set up out of our first unConference gathering of people interested in online work with young people. Since then, the youth work online community has grown massively, and across the country (and Europe, and the rest of the world) practice in using social media and the web to engage with young people has really moved on.

But, there are still challenges. Digital & social media skills are rarely part of standard training for practitioners working with young people; policies still often focus on blocking access, rather than promoting positive use of technology; yhe technologies young people use are constantly developing, and it’s hard to keep up.

So, in 2011 lets do something different: let’s really move youth work online forward.

With some seed funding from UnLtd Better Net Awards, we’ve got the opportunity to hold a Youth Work Online ‘Month of Action’. Here’s the basic idea:

Over the four weeks between 14th March and 8th April 2011 members of Youth Work Online are invited to set up local events and activities to promote understanding of digital work with young people, building up to a national unConference on/around the 8th April.

Through an organising group (volunteers wanted!) we’ll provide resources to support those local meetings and events – and we’ll organise a series of thematic workshops to focus on:

  • Mapping what’s out there – updating our shared knowledge base on existing digital youth engagement practice;
  • Updating education – working with training providers to explore how digital skills can be better part of the core training for professionals working with young people
  • Digital futures – looking at the cutting edge of technologies just emerging – and asking how we should be responding
  • Building the community – exploring sustainable ways to keep supporting practitioners doing digital work with young people.

And of course, will help convene the big unConference at the end of the Month. Throughout the month, we’ll be encouraging everyone to contribute shared learning to the Youth Work Online website – and we will look to set up some new ways of collecting lists of key resources and support – making it easier for practitioners to find the information they really need.

How can you get involved?

Youth Work Online is made by it’s members – so this month will only happen with your help:

  1. Add a comment to share your thoughts on the idea. Should we do this? How could we make it really useful to practitioners?
  2. Get involved in the planning groupDrop me an e-mail if you think you could spare some time for a planning meeting in January (in person or by Skype), and could help get this idea off the ground.
  3. Host an event! Interested in being part of a national month of action on digital youth work? What event(s) would you want to hold locally. Add a comment with your ideas.
  4. Help with sponsorship / venues / logistical support. The sponsorship from UnLtd will just about cover expenses to organise this month – but we’re going to need extra support to host meetings, organise the unConference and more. Think you could help out? Drop me a line.I’m hoping this can be a collaborative process – and very keen to get any local and national agencies exploring youth sector provision, training and other work on board with the process.

Head over to the original post to add your comments or join the discussion.

Young people, activism & the web: Speaking Out in a Connected World

[Summary: Sharing slides and notes from a children’s sector conference presentation]

I was speaking earlier today at the Children England & NCVYS ‘Speaking Out’ conference on the topic of ‘young people, activism and the web’. The conference was predominantly attended by staff from third-sector organisations providing frontline services for children, young people and families, so I tried (not entirely successfully in a short slot…) to cover a mix of examples of youth-led use of the web in campaigning at the national level, and some practical steps that organisations, who may not be campaigning organisations, can take to make the most of the web to engage with young people and get their voices heard.

A slightly adapted version of the slides can be seen via slideshare below, and I’ve tried to write up some notes with links to relevant resources as well.

Notes and Links

I started planning the presentation by posing the question “How can young people use the web in activism?”, which pretty quickly, as I turned to watch a Twitter stream full of tweeting from the University College London students occupying their University, making extensive use of different digital media challenges to get their message out, and with members of UK Youth Climate Coalition celebrating their success keeping Chris Hune at the climate negotiations in Cancun by mobilising hundreds of people by e-mail, Facebook and Twitter to flood the Number 10 switchboard with calls, that the question was really “How can they not?”. The web is right at the heart of much modern youth action – and yet so many organisations still struggle to engage with online spaces.

As I put together the next slides, however, I was quickly reminded that the web alone doth not change create. Earlier this year I came across a Facebook group set up by young people campaigning against the use of Mosquito sonic weapons against young people in Barnsley, and I fired up Facebook to grab a screenshot of this today’s presentation – hoping I would see stacks of campaign updates. Yet the Facebook group, which when launched had quickly accelerated to over 700 members, was standing stagnant, the top updates as spam, and apparently no real action having been taken further engage and mobilise the young members of the group. So whilst young people may turn to social media tools when they’ve causes to campaign on, and they may have the know-how to set up Facebook groups and YouTube channels, the skills, support and connections needed to campaign effectively remain as vital as ever. As the Young Foundation put it, many young people are plugged in, but with their digital skills untapped.

Resources like Act by Right (and the great Act by Right on Climate Change remix by Alex Farrow), the Battlefront campaign toolkit, and a wealth of web pages about campaigning with the web, can provide some of those skills through the web itself – but there is also a need for youth organisations to work directly with young people to support the development of critical campaigning skills. Just before I spoke today, John Not, General Secretary of the Woodcraft folk, gave a last-minute presentation and shared the inspiring work they are doing to offer support to young people who are passionately campaigning right now on the issue of University Fees, demonstrating some great leadership on how organisations can provide responsible backing to youth-led action.

Helping young people to make connections with decision makers, through sites like and, with the press, through the leverage that organisations might have, and with other campaigners, through spaces like TakingItGlobal and Battlefront is also a key role that adults can play in supporting young people to use the web for positive activism. There is also a need for organisations to think about how they support young people to make safe and effective use of the web in campaigning.

Many organisations, however, might not see their role as supporting general youth-led activism, but there are still many ways digital tools can support the delivery of participative practice. Online spaces can help organisations to engage young people, to communicate and co-ordinate, and to amplify their practice; and to ensure that young people’s views and insights on key aspects of a service, or key local issues, are heard and valued in decision making.

In thinking about how to engage with young people online it’s important to understand the different ways young people use the web and to think about whether a project is trying to engage young people who are already into an issue, or whether it’s trying to attract attention of those who are predominantly ‘hanging out’ online – spending time with friends and paying little attention to organisations and issues in the digital space. Good engagement also starts by listening (I mentioned Google Alerts as one handy digital listening tool, but there are many more), and starts from where young people are, whilst seeking to support young people to move beyond their starting point (a theme I initially developed in talking about youth work values and social media in the Youth Work & Social Networking report (PDF)).

Using online spaces to communicate involves finding the right tools for each job, and, finding out the right ways to use them. For example, Facebook profiles, groups and pages look very similar – but offer nuanced different ways of communicating with young people and creating online community. Quite a few of the practicalities of using different social media tools for youth engagement, including issues around organisational policy and safety concerns are covered in the ‘Social Media Youth Participation in Local Democracy’ report and in posts on Youth Work Online.

I ended today’s presentation by taking a look at three big policy agendas which have a digital edge to them, and trying to relate each to a critical question for organisations working with young people – but the full articulation of each of those I think will have to wait for a future blog post…

Further links
For those who were at the conference, and have made it reading this far without being overwhelmed by lots of links (and for anyone interested), a few more bits that might be of interest:

Reflections on Oxford Open Data Day

[Summary: creations and learning from Oxford Open Data Day]

Yesterday around 30 people got together in Oxford to take part in the first international Open Data Day, an initiative sparked off by David Eaves to get groups around the world exploring what they could create with public data. For many of the assembled Oxford crowd it was their first experience of both exploring public data, and taking part in a hack-day event, so, having started at 10am, it was fantastic that by 4.30pm we:

Thanks to everyone who took part in the day, and particularly to Ed, Kevin, Ed & Dave at White October for hosting the event, and to Incuna for sponsoring the lunch. Many thanks also to Sywia for blogging the event: you can find photos and video clips sharing the story here.

Quick Learning Notes

Skill building: I also took advantage of the Open Data Day to start exploring some of the ideas that might go into an Open Data Cook Book of ‘recipes’ for creating and working with open data. There are big challenges when it comes to building the capacity of both technical developers and non-developers alike to discover and then work with open data.

I’ve been reflecting on the discovery and design processes we could make use of at the start of any open data focussed workshops – whether with developers, civil servants, community groups or campaigners to provide the right level of context on what open data is, the potential and limitations of different datasets, and to provide a general awareness of where data can be discovered. At Open Data Day in Oxford we perhaps struggled to generate ideas for projects in the first half of the day – but understandably so given it takes a while to get familiar with the datasets available.

I wonder if for hack-day style events with people new to open data, some sort of training & team-building exercises for the first hour might be useful?

Data-led or problem-led: Most of the groups working were broadly data-led. They found some data of interest, and then explored what could be done with it. One group (the visualisations of impacts of tax changes for the Robin Hood Tax campaign) was more ‘problem led’ – starting with an issue to explore and then seeking data to work with. Both have their challenges: with the first, projects can struggle to find a focus; with the latter, it’s easy to get stuck because the data you imagine might be available turns out not to be. Finding the data you need isn’t available can provide a good spark for more open data campaigning (why, for example, are the details of prices in the Retail Price Index basket of goods not being published, and FOI requests for them being turned down on the basis of ‘personal information’ exemptions?), but when you can’t get that campaigning to produce results during the course of a single day, it can be pretty frustrating as well.

On the day or in advance?:
We held a pre-meeting for the Oxford Open Data Day – and it was useful in getting people to know each other and to discover some ideas and sources of data – but we perhaps didn’t carry through the ideas from that meeting into the hack-day very strongly. Encouraging a few more people to act as project leaders in advance may have been useful to for enabling those who came wanting to help on projects rather than create their own to get involved.

Data not just for developers:
My mantra. Yet still hard to plan for and make work. Perhaps trying to include a greater training element into a hack day would help here, or encouraging some technically-inclined folk to take on a role of data-facilitators – helping non-developers get the data into a shape they need for working with it in non-technical ways. Hopefully some of the open data cook book recipes might be useful here.

Sharing learning rather than simply products:
David Eaves set out three shared goals for the Open Data Day events:

1. Have fun

2. Help foster local supportive and diverse communities of people who advocate for open data

3. Help raise awareness of open data, why it matters, by building sites and applications

emphasising the importance of producing tangible things to demonstrate the potential of open data. This is definitely important – but I think we probably missed a trick by focussing on the products of the hack-day in presentations at the end of the day, rather than the learning and new skills people had picked up and could tell others about.