Safe and effective social network site applications

[Summary: Inviting feedback on first public draft of working paper about developing social network site applications for young people that can be effective and engaging, whilst also promoting safety and limiting risk to young people (PDF)]

Update 18th May 2009: Version 1.0 of the paper posted here.

For the Plings project – concerned with promoting positive activities to young people – Social Network Sites (SNS) offer amazing opportunities. One of the main ways people find out about positive activities (the football club, dance group or arts society for example) is through word of mouth. So if you can feed information about positive activities into SNS, and increase the flows of information about positive activities through the networks of young people already active there, you could potentially have a big impact on young people’s awareness of activities they could take part in.

Take a look at the slidecast below to get an idea of how a Social Network Site application could work:

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: sns)

Of course, local authorities and professionals working with young people have a duty not only to make sure young people are aware of the positive activities available to them, but also a duty to keep young people safe from harm – and Social Network Sites can be places of risk as well as of opportunity. Which is why public and third-sector organisations engaging with SNS shouldn’t just copy the ‘viral marketting’ and often aggressive tactics of commercial SNS application builders – but need to develop a clear ethical and risk assessment framework for engaging with Social Network Sites.

I hope that this working paper which I’ve put together for the ISP/Plings project can go some way to starting off that development.

‘Safe and effective SNS applications for young people: considerations in building social networking
applications for under 19s’
aims to build a coherent foundation to support public and third-sector engagement with SNS through application building by:

  1. Unpacking the reasons why we need to treat young people differently;
  2. Exploring the features of Social Network Sites which lead to both amazing opportunities, and potential risks;
  3. Clearly identifying the risks to young people within the Social Network Site space;
  4. Proposing three levels of response that should lead to safe and effective application building;

The document also includes an outline risk assessment framework.

The three responses proposed are:

  • Abiding by ethical principles – and designing applications on the basis of principles derived from law, a respect for young people’s rights, and existing principles from professional practice;
  • Having a clear risk assessment in place for all projects – to make sure potential risks are identified and design decisions or resources put in place to limit potential harm to young people;
  • Building safety in – and creating applications which empower young people and encourage general safe online behavior.

So, if you’re exploring the use of Social Network Sites to engage young people, whether in positive activities or participation opportunities – or if you’ve got experience of e-safety or Social Network Site applications please do take a look at the ‘Safe and Effective SNS for young people’ working paper and share your reflections, questions and feedback.

Exploring further
This first public draft of the paper is hopefully just a starting point of a deeper exploration on building positive SNS applications. In particular:

  • The ISP/Plings project will be seeking to operationalise some of the learning in this paper, so it’s proposals, and the feedback and comments on it should have an opportunitity to be explored in practice over the first half of next year…
  • I’ll be leading an exploration of using applications for youth participation as part of the Local Government Information Unit Action Learning Set on SNS and Youth Participation. (N.B. Application deadline extended until 9th Jan 2009 in case you wanted to come along… but have not yet had chance to register…)
  • If there is enough interest – then I’d love to host a seminar on SNS applications and youth engagement early in 2009 – exploring both this paper, and emerging practice from the field. If you would be interested in taking part do drop me a line (tim at practicalparticipation dot org dot uk) or leave a comment on this blog post.
  • All comments and feedback on the paper are most welcome. Again, e-mail or comment below…

19 thoughts on “Safe and effective social network site applications”

  1. Hi Tim – I think there’s a challenge here in so far as there are obviously already a great deal of applications that are already developed for and targeted at young people and that are marketed aggressively at them – but are also very popular/successful. The challenge being why should youth organisations developing applications not follow successful strategies?

    I’m not saying that should be the case – I agree with the ethical considerations you’ve included which I think are really good – but I wonder if this somehow needs to be more convincing on the basis that you need to win developers over to do the additional work & considerations suggested?

    I like section 4 – think that has some really good stuff that can be related to encouraging forms of social responsibility – maybe more weighted towards this kind of stuff would help with the ‘winning over’? ie. less of a ‘the law says this’, and the ‘Rights of the Child Say this’ and more of a “here’s how to develop a good application for young people based on sound ethics and good practice” .

    The other aspect that maybe needs consideration is that in addition to the law you’re also bound by the guidelines of the networks themselves and should be aware what information you’ll be creating for them as well as for your own purposes.

    Something I’ve wondered before is what consideration is given to data storage? Where are databases based and who has access? Are all developers including third party developers CRB checked & so on and what is the policy for where data is backed up and who has access to it? This might not be so important depending on how personal the data is thats collected but its something thats crossed my mind over the past couple of years.

  2. Re: mainstream applications

    The argument here is not that all developers should abide by these considerations – but that public sector bodies have a responsibility to abide by them and so to pick up the extra burden of work that they may require (which I hope turns out to be relatively little).

    Re: CRB

    Very good points – and one we’ve not covered here. I’ll look into it for a future draft.

  3. Hi Tim – yeah I got that but what I meant was that I think you still need to overcome that in the minds of some there may be a “well so what – we’ll just get on & do it anyway because so many others do” and overlook the ethical stuff. I guess thats unavoidable anyway but the bit I really liked was the step by step ‘here’s a good approach to developing an application with best practice’ part – so maybe if it was all along those lines it could encourage more to do so?

    I think too theres no harm in that by encouraging the public sector to adapt this as good practice it could possibly put pressure on others to do so too?

  4. Hey Ross

    I’ve just mailed your a copy of the PDF. If anyone else is having trouble reading it let me know and I’ll check what’s going on…

    __Abiding by guidelines__
    *There is no legal obligation on anyone to use the guidelines in this draft working paper.

    *Public bodies within the UK all have specific obligations to the safety and wellbeing of young people – and so should on those grounds take into account considerations of safety and wellbeing when looking at online provision for and engagement with young people.

    *I believe the exact legal form of those obligations will vary between the devolved authorities.

    The focus of this working paper is not on adding burdens to authorities, but on trying to show that considerations of safety can be dealt with and integrated effectively into proactive engagement with online social networks.

  5. Tim,

    This is a really helpful resource, particularly because it really explores the risk aspects and identifies methods of managing that risk. The only comment I would make is that I think the ‘risks’ need to balanced with the ‘opportunities’.

    At the moment I think if I was less aware of the potential ‘opportunities’ that applications/widgets for social networking sites provide I would be less inclined to begin to explore them after reading this because I would be so concerned with the risks. Although you identify how the risks can be managed I think it is a lot for your typical public sector employee to process. This is still a brand new world for many!!! Obviously I understand that this paper has been prepared for Substance who are no doubt aware of the potential opportunities but this paper would be a great resource for public sector employees too. It could provide that little bit of reassurance regarding the risks that many need whilst also motivating them about the opportunities.

    To solve this I would just emphasise the ‘Using applications to promote positive activities’ section with a few case studies maybe? I would be happy to provide one re our plans for the Facebook application. Obviously we have not got any feedback yet as we haven’t launched it but it might be useful. Also Harry could provide some re the two widgets he has developed for Bebo on behalf of Channel 4. I’m sure other people are thinking about it too? You could even include what Substance have been dreaming up…

    That said I was also particularly impressed with the risk assessment, very comprehensive. I have noted some tips for our Facebook application particularly regarding displaying links to reporting abuse and highlighting privacy settings.

    I will also explore the ‘Open Social’ option for our next widget/application.



  6. Hey Tom – many thanks for the comments…

    I’ve just updated the post to include a SlideCast I’d originally been trying to put in (SlideShare seemed to be having some trouble over the weekend…) which gives a worked example of the opportunities – but I would definitely welcome case studies and examples for a future draft…

    I’m thinking that this paper probably fits alongside some of the wider opportunity stuff – and is definitely right now aimed at an audience who are already keen to engage with SNS applications.

  7. Hi Tim

    Great to see this paper getting out there for people to read and discuss

    As I have mentioned before – I think there is a real gem in the paper about how we should see the sharing of these social objects as “organic” or “rhizomatic” rather than “viral”. I think this is an important chance to grab the language for ourselves, which may in turn go someway to addressing the points made by Mike around who and how this is taken up…

    Also – the point about access to data , CRB etc. Is there something in such measures as the ISO in information management – – coupled with data protection laws? Perhaps…

    I agree with Tom too – about some positive examples and ways forward – look forward to seeing them, whilst we dream them up 😉

  8. Great stuff, Tim. Really resonates.

    Our project for Channel 4 started with an exploration of online self-expression. On the way to “project-live” we made a specific decision not to use aggressive ‘viral push’ techniques. We want a large user-base – but we want it because we’re offering a compelling user experience, not because we’re pushing the apps. on to people. That decision was part of the balance between use of social graph and platform independence – in the end, we’re closer to the second.

    I rather like “rhizomatic”…

  9. Many interesting and valuable points raised here in the paper tim. Unfortunately I am totlally blind, and therefore my screen reader was unable to read the pdf file. But although there were many interesting points raised, there seems to be one that is constantly missed out in all discussions I have been involved in, or have heard to do with sns, and that is the impact on inter-physical relationships. it has become more and more aparant to me that I can observe those who spend a large amount of their time on sns, and how they then struggle to relate in a physical capacity to family, friends, and those in a physical environment. This I think also has a large impact upon our society today, as people close themselves off into virtual worlds, and therefore become unable to relate properly, civilly, emotionally, intemately, with those people around them. I have written more about this and posted it strangely on my facebook page, and also on my website under youthworkers network, it is available on the website for all to read, called it facebook or faceless, as I suggest that sns takes away from the physical relationship. would be interested to read more and connect further on this issue.

  10. Mike, sorry, yes, the website is and look under youthworkers forum i think it is, or youthworkers network, the article is there for all to read, slightly basic at the moment, because I wrote for my own interest and observation, and becasue I am wanting to write more.

    Any thoughts on it mike would be appreciated. thanks.

  11. @Andy: Hey Andy

    I’m not convinced by the thesis that online environments significantly negatively impact people’s ability to interact socially. And I certainly think statements to the effect that virtual environments have “a large impact upon our society today, as people close themselves off into virtual worlds, and therefore become unable to relate properly, civilly, emotionally, intemately, with those people around them” are over-generalisations without solid basis.

    I think in many cases they can help people to develop social skills. In the absence of certain critical literacy people can end up spending disproportionate amounts of time on online environments, in the same way some people can spend disproportionate amounts of time engaged in sports, shopping, or immersed within closed faith communities.

    I will say neither that the technology is to blame, nor that it can be absolved of all responsibility for this – as we do need a nuanced approach – recognizing that the design of online environments is often intentionally trying to increase the amount of time people spend in them (which is in the commercial interests of the platform providers after all) at the same time as recognizing the immense amount of positive, and blended (i.e. crossing over between face-to-face and virtual) communication, collaboration and personal development that can take place in virtual spaces.

    Broadly my argument though is that we need to take a community development approach to online environments – which may involve encouraging people to step from online environments into face to face environments, or equipping people with skills and critical literacy to make the most of the immense opportunities that online plays.

    I would certainly recommend taking a look at the Digital Youth Research here for more on the positive aspects of online interaction:

    BTW: I’ll drop you a copy of the original Safe Social Neworking and Youth Work and Social Networking paper by e-mail. Appologies that the PDF was not accessible – I’ll look into the software I’m using to create PDFs to see if I can improve their accessibility in the future.

  12. Sadly I couldn’t find Andys document. With regard to the general statement though my thoughts would be pretty much the same as Tims. I think currently theres maybe a bit too much “learn to use the web”, when there needs to be a lot more “how can the web benefit your life” and I’m working towards trying to shift the emphasis a little in that direction at the moment.

    Very importantly though I’d also say that the web and all the other various technology now available has significantly changed the way most people in this country interact and function, and its very important that we equip young people to thrive in this environment and do so in a way that benefits society at large. That does of course include their ability to form effective relationships offline…….. complemented by the huge array of communication tools available to them.

  13. Thanks Tim and Mike for your comments. Tim I can agree totally, that spending too much time doing anythng can be dmaging in so many different ways, fromm spending time in a closed faith community, to sports, I would totally agree, and Maybe you are right that there is not much research, and foundational basis for my comments, but my comments are based upon the wide circle, and variety of cirles of friends that I have. And it is clear, although subjectively amongst the people that I socialise and spend time with, that those who spend large quantities of time on sns, and communicate through chat processes that these give, do struggle to relate in the physical orld. I can accept many of the arguments that have been put here, both by yourself tim, and by mike, but the manner that people relate on sns, does not, from my own observations, and i would like to research this more, enable people to relate in a meaningful, and indepth mannr in the physical world. Of course sns, providers and other online community based providers are wanting people to use their facility as much as possible, and I accept that in a world of pushiness, and yes, again, i am sure the sns providers are not wishing to damage society, but the technological age is something we live with, but I am not yet convinced that it doesn’t have a detramental impact upon our physical society.

  14. @ Andy – Even assuming your observation is universally true – which I’d challenge – I think there’s an issue of causation to consider. An observed correlation between “those who spend time on sns” and those who “struggle to reate in the physical world” doesn’t necessariy mean that spending more time on sns leads to an individual struggling to relate in the physical world any more than it means strugging to relate in the real world leads to spending more time on sns.

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