1960s, mainframe computers posed a significant technological challenge to common
notions of privacy. That’s when the federal government started putting tax
returns into those giant machines, and consumer credit bureaus began building
databases containing the personal financial information of millions of
Americans. Many people feared that the new computerized databanks would be put
in the service of an intrusive corporate or government Big Brother.
“It really freaked people out,” says Daniel J. Weitzner, a former senior
Internet policy official in the Obama administration. “The people who cared
about privacy were every bit as worried as we are now.”
Along with fueling privacy concerns, of course, the mainframes helped prompt the
growth and innovation that we have come to associate with the computer age.
Today, many experts predict that the next wave will be driven by technologies
that fly under the banner of Big Data — data including Web pages, browsing
habits, sensor signals, smartphone location trails and genomic information,
combined with clever software to make sense of it all.
Proponents of this new technology say it is allowing us to see and measure
things as never before — much as the microscope allowed scientists to examine
the mysteries of life at the cellular level. Big Data, they say, will open the
door to making smarter decisions in every field from business and biology to
public health and energy conservation.
“This data is a new asset,” says Alex Pentland, a computational social scientist
and director of the Human Dynamics Lab at the M.I.T. “You want it to be liquid
and to be used.”
But the latest leaps in data collection are raising new concern about
infringements on privacy — an issue so crucial that it could trump all others
and upset the Big Data bandwagon. Dr. Pentland is a champion of the Big Data
vision and believes the future will be a data-driven society. Yet the
surveillance possibilities of the technology, he acknowledges, could leave
George Orwell in the dust.
The World Economic Forum published a report late last month that offered one
path — one that leans heavily on technology to protect privacy. The report grew
out of a series of workshops on privacy held over the last year, sponsored by
the forum and attended by government officials and privacy advocates, as well as
business executives. The corporate members, more than others, shaped the final
The report, “Unlocking the Value of Personal Data: From Collection to Usage,”
recommends a major shift in the focus of regulation toward restricting the use
of data. Curbs on the use of personal data, combined with new technological
options, can give individuals control of their own information, according to the
report, while permitting important data assets to flow relatively freely.
“There’s no bad data, only bad uses of data,” says Craig Mundie, a senior
adviser at Microsoft, who worked on the position paper.
The report contains echoes of earlier times. The Fair Credit Reporting Act,
passed in 1970, was the main response to the mainframe privacy challenge. The
law permitted the collection of personal financial information by the credit
bureaus, but restricted its use mainly to three areas: credit, insurance and
The forum report suggests a future in which all collected data would be tagged
with software code that included an individual’s preferences for how his or her
data is used. All uses of data would have to be registered, and there would be
penalties for violators. For example, one violation might be a smartphone
application that stored more data than is necessary for a registered service
like a smartphone game or a restaurant finder.
The corporate members of the forum say they recognize the need to address
privacy concerns if useful data is going to keep flowing. George C. Halvorson,
chief executive of Kaiser Permanente, the large health care provider, extols the
benefits of its growing database on nine million patients, tracking treatments
and outcomes to improve care, especially in managing costly chronic and
debilitating conditions like heart disease, diabetes and depression. New
smartphone applications, he says, promise further gains — for example, a person
with a history of depression whose movement patterns slowed sharply would get a
“We’re on the cusp of a golden age of medical science and care delivery,” Mr.
Halvorson says. “But a privacy backlash could cripple progress.”
Corporate executives and privacy experts agree that the best way forward
combines new rules and technology tools. But some privacy professionals say the
approach in the recent forum report puts way too much faith in the tools and too
little emphasis on strong rules, particularly in moving away from curbs on data
“We do need use restrictions, but there is a real problem with getting rid of
data collection restrictions,” says David C. Vladeck, a professor of law at
Georgetown University. “And that’s where they are headed.”
“I don’t buy the argument that all data is innocuous until it’s used
improperly,” adds Mr. Vladeck, former director of the Bureau of Consumer
Protection at the Federal Trade Commission.
HE offers this example: Imagine spending a few hours looking online for
information on deep fat fryers. You could be looking for a gift for a friend or
researching a report for cooking school. But to a data miner, tracking your
click stream, this hunt could be read as a telltale signal of an unhealthy habit
— a data-based prediction that could make its way to a health insurer or
Dr. Pentland, an academic adviser to the World Economic Forum’s initiatives on
Big Data and personal data, agrees that limitations on data collection still
make sense, as long as they are flexible and not a “sledgehammer that risks
damaging the public good.”
He is leading a group at the M.I.T. Media Lab that is at the forefront of a
number of personal data and privacy programs and real-world experiments. He
espouses what he calls “a new deal on data” with three basic tenets: you have
the right to possess your data, to control how it is used, and to destroy or
distribute it as you see fit.
Personal data, Dr. Pentland says, is like modern money — digital packets that
move around the planet, traveling rapidly but needing to be controlled. “You
give it to a bank, but there’s only so many things the bank can do with it,” he
His M.I.T. group is developing tools for controlling, storing and auditing flows
of personal data. Its data store is an open-source version, called openPDS. In
theory, this kind of technology would undermine the role of data brokers and,
perhaps, mitigate privacy risks. In the search for a deep fat fryer, for
example, an audit trail should detect unauthorized use.
Dr. Pentland’s group is also collaborating with law experts, like Scott L. David
of the University of Washington, to develop innovative contract rules for
handling and exchanging data that insures privacy and security and minimizes
The M.I.T. team is also working on living lab projects. One that began recently
is in the region around Trento, Italy, in cooperation with Telecom Italia and
Telefónica, the Spanish mobile carrier. About 100 young families with young
children are participating. The goal is to study how much and what kind of
information they share on smartphones with one another, and with social and
medical services — and their privacy concerns.
“Like anything new,” Dr. Pentland says, “people make up just-so stories about
Big Data, privacy and data sharing,” often based on their existing beliefs and
personal bias. “We’re trying to test and learn,” he says.
The New York Times
By NATASHA SINGER
regulators are about to take the biggest steps in more than a decade to protect
The moves come at a time when major corporations, app developers and data miners
appear to be collecting information about the online activities of millions of
young Internet users without their parents’ awareness, children’s advocates say.
Some sites and apps have also collected details like children’s photographs or
locations of mobile devices; the concern is that the information could be used
to identify or locate individual children.
These data-gathering practices are legal. But the development has so alarmed
officials at the Federal Trade Commission that the agency is moving to overhaul
rules that many experts say have not kept pace with the explosive growth of the
Web and innovations like mobile apps. New rules are expected within weeks.
“Today, almost every child has a computer in his pocket and it’s that much
harder for parents to monitor what their kids are doing online, who they are
interacting with, and what information they are sharing,” says Mary K. Engle,
associate director of the advertising practices division at the F.T.C. “The
concern is that a lot of this may be going on without anybody’s knowledge.”
The proposed changes could greatly increase the need for children’s sites to
obtain parental permission for some practices that are now popular — like using
cookies to track users’ activities around the Web over time. Marketers argue
that the rule should not be changed so extensively, lest it cause companies to
reduce their offerings for children.
“Do we need a broad, wholesale change of the law?” says Mike Zaneis, the general
counsel for the Interactive Advertising Bureau, an industry association. “The
answer is no. It is working very well.”
The current federal rule, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998,
requires operators of children’s Web sites to obtain parental consent before
they collect personal information like phone numbers or physical addresses from
children under 13. But rapid advances in technology have overtaken the rules,
privacy advocates say.
Today, many brand-name companies and analytics firms collect, collate and
analyze information about a wide range of consumer activities and traits. Some
of those techniques could put children at risk, advocates say.
Under the F.T.C.’s proposals, some current online practices, like getting
children under 13 to submit photos of themselves, would require parental
Children who visit McDonald’s HappyMeal.com, for instance, can “get in the
picture with Ronald McDonald” by uploading photos of themselves and combining
them with images of the clown. Children may also “star in a music video” on the
site by uploading photos or webcam images and having it graft their faces onto
dancing cartoon bodies.
But according to children’s advocates, McDonald’s stored these images in
directories that were publicly available. Anyone with an Internet connection
could check out hundreds of photos of young children, a few of whom were
pictured in pajamas in their bedrooms, advocates said.
In a related complaint to the F.T.C. last month, a coalition of advocacy groups
accused McDonald’s and four other corporations of violating the 1998 law by
collecting e-mail addresses without parental consent. HappyMeal.com, the
complaint noted, invites children to share their creations on the site by
providing the first names and e-mail addresses of their friends.
“When we tell parents about this they are appalled, because basically what it’s
doing is going around the parents’ back and taking advantage of kids’ naïveté,”
says Jennifer Harris, the director of marketing initiatives at the Yale Rudd
Center for Food Policy and Obesity, a member of the coalition that filed the
complaint. “It’s a very unfair and deceptive practice that we don’t think
companies should be allowed to do.”
Danya Proud, a spokeswoman for McDonald’s, said in an e-mail that the company
placed a “high importance” on protecting privacy, including children’s online
privacy. She said that McDonald’s had blocked public access to several
directories on the site.
Last year, the F.T.C. filed a complaint against W3 Innovations, a developer of
popular iPhone and iPod Touch apps like Emily’s Dress Up, which invited children
to design outfits and e-mail their comments to a blog. The agency said that the
apps violated the children’s privacy rule by collecting the e-mail addresses of
tens of thousands of children without their parents’ permission and encouraging
those children to post personal information publicly. The company later settled
the case, agreeing to pay a penalty of $50,000 and delete personal data it had
collected about children.
It is often difficult to know what kind of data is being collected and shared.
Industry trade groups say marketers do not knowingly track young children for
advertising purposes. But a study last year of 54 Web sites popular with
children, including Disney.go.com and Nick.com, found that many used tracking
“I was surprised to find that pretty much all of the same technologies used to
track adults are being used on kids’ Web sites,” said Richard M. Smith, an
Internet security expert in Boston who conducted the study at the request of the
Center for Digital Democracy, an advocacy group.
Using a software program called Ghostery, which detects and identifies tracking
entities on Web sites, a New York Times reporter recently identified seven
trackers on Nick.com — including Quantcast, an analytics company that, according
to its own marketing material, helps Web sites “segment out specific audiences
you want to sell” to advertisers.
Ghostery found 13 trackers on a Disney game page for kids, including
AudienceScience, an analytics company that, according to that company’s site,
“pioneered the concept of targeting and audience-based marketing.”
David Bittler, a spokesman for Nickelodeon, which runs Nick.com, says Viacom,
the parent company, does not show targeted ads on Nick.com or other company
sites for children under 13. But the sites and their analytics partners may
collect data anonymously about users for purposes like improving content. Zenia
Mucha, a spokeswoman for Disney, said the company does not show targeted ads to
children and requires its ad partners to do the same.
Another popular children’s site, Webkinz, says openly that its advertising
partners may aim at visitors with ads based on the collection of “anonymous
If the F.T.C. carries out its proposed changes, children’s Web sites would be
required to obtain parents’ permission before tracking children around the Web
for advertising purposes, even with anonymous customer codes.
Some parents say they are trying to teach their children basic online
self-defense. “We don’t give out birth dates to get the free stuff,” said
Patricia Tay-Weiss, a mother of two young children in Venice, Calif., who runs
foreign language classes for elementary school students. “We are teaching our
kids to ask, ‘What is the company getting from you and what are they going to do
with that information?’ ”
The New York Times
By PAUL VITELLO
Zhitomirskiy, a co-founder of the start-up social network Diaspora*, which has
been described as the “anti-Facebook” for its emphasis on personal privacy and
decentralized data collection, died on Saturday at his home in San Francisco. He
The San Francisco police, in confirming his death, did not give the cause.
Friends and associates of Mr. Zhitomirskiy said there were indications of
Mr. Zhitomirskiy was a student at New York University’s Courant Institute of
Mathematical Sciences in 2010 when he and three fellow undergraduates conceived
the idea for a Web-based community that would give users, rather than the Web
site itself, control of the information they shared.
Instead of creating a central database like Facebook’s, where information about
hundreds of millions of members is stored and mined for advertising and
marketing purposes, their idea was to develop freely shared software that would
allow every member of the network to “own” his or her personal information.
Mr. Zhitomirskiy, an impish self-styled radical, unicyclist and competitive
ballroom dancer, was a member of the nascent liberation technology movement,
which views the conglomeration of personal information by large corporate and
government bodies as a threat to civil liberties and human rights.
He and his partners were inspired to start their project after attending a
lecture in February 2010 by Eben Moglen, a Columbia Law School professor and an
advocate of liberation technology, about the threat to privacy and social
justice in Internet commerce.
Professor Moglen, who became acquainted with the Diaspora* founders, said Mr.
Zhitomirskiy was the most idealistic of the group.
“He was an immensely talented and intent young mathematician,” Mr. Moglen said
in an interview on Tuesday. “He had a choice between graduate school and this
project, and he chose to do the project because he wanted to do something with
his time that would make freedom.”
Ilya Alekseevich Zhitomirskiy was born on Oct. 12, 1989, in Moscow to Alexei and
Inna Zhitomirskiy. His father and his grandfather Garri Zhitomirskiy are
mathematicians. After the family moved to the United States in 2000, Mr.
Zhitomirskiy attended public schools in Massachusetts, Louisiana and
Pennsylvania, where his father found work teaching and later in business.
In addition to his parents and grandfather, Mr. Zhitomirskiy is survived by his
grandmother Galina Fillippuk Zhitomirskiy, and a sister, Maria.
He attended college at Tulane University, the University of Maryland and N.Y.U.
He was a semester shy of graduation when he and three friends at N.Y.U. —
Maxwell Salzberg, Daniel Grippi and Raphael Sofaer — floated their idea for what
they called a “personally controlled, do-it-all, open-source social network” on
an Internet fund-raising platform called Kickstarter.
The concept for Diaspora* (the asterisk represents a seed from a dandelion seed
head) struck a chord. Though they had originally intended to raise a modest sum,
the partners received a flood of contributions, eventually totaling $200,000,
from about 6,000 donors.
They moved to San Francisco, starting a prototype of the site
(diasporafoundation.org) in the summer of 2010. The site was scheduled to become
fully operational in the next few weeks.
In a September 2010 interview in New York magazine, Mr. Zhitomirskiy said the
open platform model for Diaspora* would not make him and his partners rich.
“There’s something deeper than making money off stuff,” he said. “Being part of
creating stuff for the universe is awesome.”
The New York Tiimes
By JENNA WORTHAM
Calif. — Chad Hurley and Steve Chen have some experience with turning a small
Web site into Internet gold. In 2006 they sold their scrappy start-up YouTube to
Google for $1.65 billion.
More recently they picked an unlikely candidate to be their next Web sensation:
a Yahoo castoff.
The men are trying to inject new life into Delicious, a social bookmarking
service that, in its time, was popular among the technorati, but failed to catch
on with a broader audience.
“What we plan to do,” Mr. Hurley said in an interview here last week, “is try to
introduce Delicious to the rest of the world.”
Created in 2003, Delicious lets people save links from around the Web and
organize them using a simple tagging system, assigning keywords like
“neuroscience” or “recipes.” It was praised for the way it allowed easy sharing
of those topical links. The site’s early popularity spurred Yahoo to snap it up
in 2005 — but in the years after that Yahoo did little with it.
In December, leaked internal reports from Yahoo hinted that the company was
planning to sell or shut down the service.
At the same time, Mr. Chen and Mr. Hurley, who had recently formed a new company
called Avos and begun renting space a few blocks from the original YouTube
offices in San Mateo, had been brainstorming ideas for their next venture. One
problem they kept circling around was the struggle to keep from drowning in the
flood of news, cool new sites and videos surging through their Twitter accounts
and RSS feeds, a glut that makes it difficult to digest more than a sliver of
that material in a given day.
“Twitter sees something like 200 million tweets a day, but I bet I can’t even
read 1,000 a day,” Mr. Chen said. “There’s a waterfall of content that you’re
missing out on.”
He added, “There are a lot of services trying to solve the information discovery
problem, and no one has got it right yet.”
When the men heard about Yahoo’s plans to close Delicious, their ears perked up,
and they placed a personal call to Jerry Yang, one of the founders of Yahoo, and
made him an offer. (They declined to disclose financial details of the
At heart, they say, the revamped service will still resemble the original
Delicious when it opens to the public, which Mr. Chen and Mr. Hurley said would
happen later this year. But their blueprint involves an overhaul of the site’s
design and the software and the systems used to tag and organize links.
The current home page of Delicious features a simple cascade of blue links, the
most recent pages bookmarked by its users, and it tends to largely be dominated
technology news. But the new Delicious aims to be more of a destination, a place
where users can go to see the most recent links shared around topical events,
like the Texas wildfires or the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, as well as
the gadget reviews and tech tips.
The home page would feature browseable “stacks,” or collections of related
images, videos and links shared around topical events. The site would also make
personalized recommendations for users, based on their sharing habits. “We want
to simplify things visually, mainstream the product and make it easier for
people to understand what they’re doing,” Mr. Hurley said.
Mr. Chen gives the example of trying to find information about how to repair a
vintage car radio or plan an exotic vacation.
“You’re Googling around and have eight to 10 browser tabs of results, links to
forums and message boards, all related to your search,” he said. The new
Delicious, he said, provides “a very easy way to save those links in a
collection that someone else can browse.”
They say they decided to buy Delicious rather than build their own service for a
number of reasons.
“We know how hard it would be to build a brand,” Mr. Hurley said. “Delicious
lets us hit the ground running with its existing footprint.”
A number of sites already have Delicious buttons as an option for sharing
content — right alongside Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, Mr. Hurley said.
But Mr. Chen said the team also “liked the idea of saving one of the original
Web 2.0 companies that started the social sharing movement on the Web.” He
added: “There was some sense of history. We were genuinely sad that it would be
Both founders acknowledge that they were never diehard Delicious users. “I
signed up in 2005 and I didn’t use it again until 2011,” Mr. Chen said with an
But Mr. Chen said it had become clear only in recent years how valuable such
social data is — for personalization and to customize advertisements. Eventually
the men plan to add such sharply focused advertising to the site.
Mr. Hurley and Mr. Chen’s biggest challenge may be persuading already-overloaded
people to start using yet another service. But Susan Etlinger, an industry
analyst at the Altimeter Group, which studies technology and advises companies
on how to use it, said Web users who were tired of wading through silly links
and other noise on Twitter and Facebook might be open to a better solution that
helps them find more personalized and relevant articles, links and videos.
“It feels like there’s still an open opportunity to set a new precedent for
social search,” Ms. Etlinger said.
Caterina Fake, who helped to found Flickr, the photo-sharing service, among
other start-ups, recalled her initial awe of Delicious.
“It opened up the Internet in a way that was not remotely possible before,” she
said. “You couldn’t stop surfing. It was infini-surf. You could be interested in
a really arcane field of biology and find the five other people that shared that
same interest and shared links on that topic.”
Ms. Fake said Delicious might attract a wider audience now that more people are
accustomed to sharing links and information socially — something foreign to most
people eight years ago.
“It didn’t quite get to the mainstream before,” she said, “but I’m optimistic
that it can get there now.”
The ambitions of Delicious’s new owners make it sound as if they want to jump
into the social networking turf war among Facebook, Twitter and Google — a
curious challenge considering Mr. Chen was at Google until 2009 and Mr. Hurley
stayed even longer, giving up his title as chief executive of YouTube in late
But they resist the notion that they are looking to compete with those
“Google is still the utility for quickly finding things, like the capital of
Texas,” Mr. Chen said. “But when people aren’t doing search for a simple
question, we want to capture the results of that idea, that browsing, and
showcase the results for the next guy.”
Before starting YouTube with Jared Kawim, Mr. Hurley and Mr. Chen were among the
early employees at PayPal, which helped shape the way people pay for goods
online. Now they are trying to cast the same spell on Silicon Valley that
YouTube did. But they are remaining true to their start-up roots with a sparsely
outfitted space that houses around 15 employees, mostly engineers.
Computer desks and a few Ikea couches dot the office’s single floor, which is
decorated with a few Street Fighter III and Spinal Tap posters and two slim-neck
guitars — Mr. Chen’s. A flimsy computer-printed sign taped to a window announces
the company’s name. There’s no sign of the bubbly excesses of some young
start-ups — there isn’t even a kitchen or a sink.
“We’re trying to stay focused,” Mr. Hurley said.
Delicious still attracts around half a million visitors a month, according to
comScore. Some of the early users are still fiercely protective of the service.
Mr. Chen and Mr. Hurley said they planned to invite the earliest users to test a
version of the new site and solicit feedback about the designs and features.
“We didn’t buy it so we can kill it,” Mr. Hurley said. “Hopefully people will
FRANCISCO | Tue Jun 28, 2011
By Alexei Oreskovic
FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Google Inc, frustrated by a string of failed attempts to
crack social networking, is taking another stab at fending off Facebook and
other hot social sites with a new service called Google Plus.
Google designed the service, unveiled on Tuesday, to tie together all of its
online properties, laying the foundation for a full-fledged social network. It
is the company's biggest foray into social networking since co-founder Larry
Page took over as chief executive in April.
Page has made social networking a top priority at the world's No. 1 Internet
search engine, whose position as the main gateway to online information could be
at risk as people spend more time on sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Google Plus, now available for testing, is structured in remarkably similar
fashion to Facebook, with profile pictures and newsfeeds forming a central core.
However, a user's friends or contacts are grouped into very specific circles of
their choosing, versus the common pool of friends typical on Facebook.
Enticing consumers to join another social networking service will not be easy,
said Rory Maher, an analyst with Hudson Square Research.
"They're going to have an uphill battle due to Facebook's network effects," said
Maher, citing the 700 million users that some research firms say are currently
on Facebook's service.
"The more users they (Facebook) get, the harder it gets for Google to steal
those," he said. But he added that Google's popularity in Web search and email
could help it gain a following.
To set its service apart from Facebook, Google is betting on what it says is a
better approach to privacy -- a hot-button issue that has burned Facebook, as
well as Google, in the past.
Central to Google Plus are the so-called "circles" of friends and acquaintances.
Users can organize contacts into different customized circles -- family members,
co-workers or college friends, say -- and share photos, videos or other
information only within those groups.
"In the online world there's this 'share box' and you type into it and you have
no idea who is going to get that, or where it's going to land, or how it's going
to embarrass you six months from now," said Google Vice President of Product
Management Bradley Horowitz.
"For us, privacy isn't buried six panels deep," he added.
Facebook, which has been criticized for confusing privacy controls, introduced a
feature last year that lets users create smaller groups of friends. Google,
without mentioning Facebook by name, said other social networking services'
attempts to create groups have been "bolt-on" efforts that do not work as well.
Google Plus will be rolled out to a limited number of users in what the company
is calling a field trial. Only those invited to join will initially be able to
use the service. Google did not say when it would be more widely available.
The service does not currently feature advertising.
Google's stock has been pressured by concerns about rising spending within the
company and increasing regulatory scrutiny -- not to mention its struggles with
social networking. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission, among others, is currently
reviewing its business practices.
Its shares are down almost 20 percent this year after underperforming the market
To create Google Plus, the company went back to the drawing board in the wake of
several notable failures, including Google Wave and Google Buzz, a microblogging
service whose launch was marred by privacy snafus.
"We learned a lot in Buzz, and one of the things we learned is that there's a
real market opportunity for a product that addresses people's concerns around
privacy and how their information is shared," said Horowitz.
Google, with $29 billion in revenue last year, drew more than 1 billion visitors
worldwide to its websites in May, more than any other company, according to Web
analytics firm comScore. But people are spending more time on Facebook: The
average U.S. visitor spent 375 minutes on Facebook in May, compared with 231
minutes for Google.
Google Plus seems designed to make its online properties a pervasive part of the
daily online experience, rather than being spots where Web surfers occasionally
check in to search for a website or check email.
As with Facebook's service, Google Plus has a central Web page that displays an
ever-updating stream of the comments, photos and links being shared by friends
A toolbar across the top of most of Google's sites -- such as its main search
page, its Gmail site and its Maps site -- allows users to access their
personalized data feed. They can then contribute their own information to the
Google Plus will also offer a special video chat feature, in which up to 10
people can jump on a conference call. And Google will automatically store photos
taken on cell phones on its Internet servers, allowing a Google Plus user to
access the photos from any computer and share them.
When asked whether he expected people to switch from Facebook to Google Plus,
Google Senior Vice President of Engineering Vic Gundotra said people may decide
to use both.
"People today use multiple tools. I think what we're offering here offers some
very distinct advantages around some basic needs," he said.
Wasn’t it just the other day that teachers confiscated
cellphones and principals warned about oversharing on MySpace?
Now, Erin Olson, an English teacher in Sioux Rapids, Iowa, is among a small but
growing cadre of educators trying to exploit Twitter-like technology to enhance
classroom discussion. Last Friday, as some of her 11th graders read aloud from a
poem called “To the Lady,” which ponders why bystanders do not intervene to stop
injustice, others kept up a running commentary on their laptops.
The poet “says that people cried out and tried but nothing was done,” one
student typed, her words posted in cyberspace.
“She is giving raw proof,” another student offered, “that we are slaves to our
Instead of being a distraction — an electronic version of note-passing — the
chatter echoed and fed into the main discourse, said Mrs. Olson, who monitored
the stream and tried to absorb it into the lesson. She and others say social
media, once kept outside the school door, can entice students who rarely raise a
hand to express themselves via a medium they find as natural as breathing.
“When we have class discussions, I don’t really feel the need to speak up or
anything,” said one of her students, Justin Lansink, 17. “When you type
something down, it’s a lot easier to say what I feel.”
With Twitter and other microblogging platforms, teachers from elementary schools
to universities are setting up what is known as a “backchannel” in their
classes. The real-time digital streams allow students to comment, pose questions
(answered either by one another or the teacher) and shed inhibitions about
voicing opinions. Perhaps most importantly, if they are texting on-task, they
are less likely to be texting about something else.
Nicholas Provenzano, an English teacher at Grosse Pointe South High School,
outside Detroit, said that in a class of 30, only about 12 usually carried the
conversation, but that eight more might pipe up on a backchannel. “Another eight
kids entering a discussion is huge,” he noted.
Skeptics — and at this stage they far outnumber enthusiasts — fear introducing
backchannels into classrooms will distract students and teachers, and lead to
off-topic, inappropriate or even bullying remarks. A national survey released
last month found that 2 percent of college faculty members had used Twitter in
class, and nearly half thought that doing so would negatively affect learning.
When Derek Bruff, a math lecturer and assistant director of the Center for
Teaching at Vanderbilt University, suggests fellow professors try backchannels,
“Most look at me like I’m coming from another planet,” he said.
“The word on the street about laptops in class,” Dr. Bruff added, is that
students use them to tune out, checking e-mail or shopping. He said professors
could reduce such activity by giving students something class-related to do on
their mobile devices.
Besides Twitter, teachers have turned to other platforms for backchannels, some
with more structure and privacy. Most are free on the Web and — so far — free of
advertising. Google Moderator lets a class type questions and vote for the ones
they would most like answered. Today’s Meet, used by Mrs. Olson, sets up a
Purdue University, in Indiana, developed its own backchannel system, Hot Seat,
two years ago, at a cost of $84,000. It lets students post comments and
questions, which can be read on laptops or smartphones or projected on a large
screen. Sugato Chakravarty, who lectures about personal finance, pauses to
answer those that have been “voted up” by his audience.
Before Hot Seat, “I could never get people to speak up,” Professor Chakravarty
said. “Everybody’s intimidated.”
“It’s clear to me,” he added, “that absent this kind of social media
interaction, there are things students think about that normally they’d never
But the technology has been slow to win over faculty. It was used in just 12
courses this spring. Sandra Sydnor-Bousso, a professor of hospitality and
tourism management, said Hot Seat did not mesh well with her style of walking
around class to encourage a dialogue. “The last thing I want to do is to give
them yet another way to distract themselves.”
In high schools and elementary schools, teachers try to exercise tight control
over backchannels, often reviewing a transcript after class for inappropriate
remarks. Even schools that encourage students to use mobile devices prohibit
gossip during class.
In Exira, Iowa, Kate Weber uses the technology for short periods almost daily
with her fourth graders. “You’d think there’s a lot of distraction, but it’s
actually the opposite,” she said. “Kids are much quicker at stuff than we are.
They can really multitask. They have hypertext minds.”
During a reading lesson, she recalled, a story included the word “queue.” Using
a school-issued Macbook, “one student asked, ‘What is a queue?’ ” Mrs. Weber
said. “If they’d have read that individually they wouldn’t have been brave
enough to raise their hands. They would have just read over it. But another
student answered, ‘It’s a ponytail.’ The whole class on the backchannel had an
“I am in awe at how independent they’ve become using that as a means of
comprehension,” she added.
The 11th graders in Mrs. Olson’s class said the backchannel had widened their
appreciation of one another. “Everybody is heard in our class,” said Leah
Janae Smith, also 17, said, “It’s made me see my peers as more intelligent,
seeing their thought process and begin to understand them on a deeper level.”
On Friday, their teacher continued to develop a semester-long theme: how free
the individual is in society. Students watched a YouTube video that compares how
much humanitarian aid could be bought for the $150,000 cost of a slick music
Earlier in the week, students had staged a rally to support American troops in
response to picketing they had seen on the news by the fringe Westboro Baptist
Church of Kansas at a funeral for an Iowa soldier killed in Afghanistan.
Mrs. Olson asked her students to connect “the argument” of the poem they read
and the video with their own rally. As the discussion swirled in class, one
student typed on the backchannel: “We tend to have the attitude that someone
else will do it. But what happens when everyone thinks the same as you?”
“It only takes one individual to change,” another typed. “If you want something
to change you have to be willing to be that voice.”
“It really shows the impact one change can make,” a third student wrote.
“I agree with Katie!” someone added. “This class has given us a voice!”
May 10, 2011
The New York Times
By JOSHUA BRUSTEIN
Companies have started adding the ability to communicate wirelessly to an
increasing range of devices, like tablet computers, cars and refrigerators.
Now they are doing it with cigarettes.
Blu, the maker of electronic cigarettes that release a nicotine-laden vapor
instead of smoke, has developed packs of e-cigarettes with sensors that will let
users know when other e-smokers are nearby.
Think of it as social smoking for the social networking era.
“You’ll meet more people than ever, just because of the wow factor,” said Jason
Healy, the founder of Blu, who did not appear to be making friends as he exhaled
the odorless vapor of an e-cigarette at a coffee shop in Midtown Manhattan
recently. “It’s like with any new technology.”
E-cigarettes have several obvious advantages to their traditional counterparts.
They allow users to avoid bans on smoking in public places because they release
only water vapor. Mr. Healy and other e-cigarette manufacturers also claim that
they have practically no negative health effects — an assertion that draws
skepticism in many quarters. But the devices are also, in their own way,
The new “smart packs,” which will go on sale next month for $80 for five
e-cigarettes, are equipped with devices that emit and search for the radio
signals of other packs. When they get within 50 feet of one another, the packs
vibrate and flash a blue light.
The reusable packs, which serve as a charger for the cigarettes, can be set to
exchange information about their owners, like contact information on social
networking sites, that can be downloaded onto personal computers.
The packs also conveniently vibrate when a smoker nears a retail outlet that
sells Blu cigarettes.
Later versions will be tethered to a smartphone through an app, allowing more
options for real-time communication, Mr. Healy said. The company also plans to
develop a system through which the packs will monitor how much people are
smoking and report back to them — or to their doctors.
Marketers think people want more devices to link to each other. More than 105
million adult Americans have at least two types of connected devices, and 37
million have five or more, according to Forrester Research.
Nintendo’s new hand-held gaming systems, the 3DS, communicate with one another
when brought into close proximity. A smartphone app called Color allows users to
take photographs that are then automatically shared with anyone nearby who has
also downloaded the app. It recently raised $41 million from venture
But Charles S. Golvin, an analyst at Forrester Research who has studied
connected devices, said that ideas like Blu’s connected cigarettes or Color show
that digital connections can get ahead of the reasons for doing so.
“The way that groups of affinity are conferred just by physical proximity makes
a bit of sense,” he said. “If someone walks by with a Nintendo, great, I share a
common interest. The fact that I walk by a smoker? Seems like a weak link.”
Mr. Healy says he thinks the connected packs would be most useful in nightclubs,
where people are interested in striking up conversations and want to smoke
without being forced outside.
Adam Alfandary, 24, a Brooklyn resident who works for a technology start-up, was
skeptical. He said that the social aspects of smoking were a part of the reason
he continued to light up, but he scoffed at the idea of a cigarette that would
do the social part for him. “I think that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in
my life,” he said.
“And I’m saying that in full acknowledgment that smoking is one of the dumbest
things I can do.”
May 9, 2011
The New York Times
By JENNA WORTHAM and CLAIRE CAIN MILLER
There are times when you just have to tell your friends about
something — but not necessarily your Facebook friends.
Just ask Becca Akroyd. When Ms. Akroyd, a 29-year-old lawyer in Sacramento,
Calif., wanted to share a picture of her new vegetable garden, she didn’t turn
to Facebook. Instead she posted it on Path, a service that lets people share
pictures, videos and messages with a small group.
“The people I have on my Path are the people who are going to care about the
day-to-day random events in my life, or if my dog does something funny,” Ms.
Akroyd said. “On Facebook, I have colleagues or family members who wouldn’t
necessarily be interested in those things — and also that I wouldn’t necessarily
want to have view those things.”
Path, which limits friend groups to 50, is among a new crop of Web services that
allow people to connect with a handful of friends in a private group. Users get
the benefits of sharing without the strangeness that can result when social
worlds collide on Facebook. Other start-ups in this anti-oversharing crowd
include GroupMe, Frenzy, Rally Up, Shizzlr, Huddl and Bubbla.
Even Facebook recognizes that people don’t want to share everything with every
“friend.” It has privacy settings that control who can see what, but many people
find these challenging to set up. So last fall, Facebook introduced Groups, for
sharing with subsets of Facebook friends. And in March, it acquired Beluga, a
start-up that allows sharing photos and messages with small groups privately.
Last month, Facebook said its users had created 50 million groups with a median
of just eight members. It also introduced the Send button, which Web sites can
use to let people share things with Facebook groups.
“We realized there wasn’t a way to share with these groups of people that were
already established in your real life — family, book club members, a sports
team,” said Peter Deng, director of product for Facebook Groups. “It’s one of
the fastest-growing products within Facebook. Usage has been pretty phenomenal.”
Google is also working on tools for sharing with limited groups of people,
according to a person briefed on the company’s plans who was not authorized to
speak publicly. Slide, a maker of social networking apps that was bought by
Google, recently released an iPhone app called Disco, for texting with small
Google may discuss its plans in this area at a conference for developers this
week. A spokeswoman, Katie Watson, declined to comment.
No one expects the start-ups in this field — most of which are new and have
relatively few users — to replace Facebook or Twitter. Instead, their creators
say that they do a better job of mimicking offline social relationships, and
that they represent a new wave of social networking that revolves around
specific tasks, like sharing photos or coordinating plans for the evening.
Shizzlr, for example, was created by two graduate business students at the
University of Connecticut after they realized it was impossible to organize
plans on Facebook.
“You put out a status about weekend plans and, all of a sudden, you get your
uncle commenting that he wants to go hiking with you and your friends,” said
Nick Jaensch, who created Shizzlr with Keith Bessette.
After users invite a few friends into a group on Shizzlr, the service grabs a
list of coming events from Yelp, Google and Facebook and lets members discuss
their options. The groups reach capacity at 20 people.
In the last three months, about 3,600 people have downloaded the application — a
tiny number compared with Facebook’s 600 million members. But Mr. Jaensch says
he is not interested in competing with Facebook.
“The people that you’ve called in the past two to three weeks are the people you
actually do stuff with,” he said.
Shizzlr is just getting off the ground, but some of the other services in this
field have attracted the attention of prominent investors. Path has raised $11
million from venture capitalists, including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and
Index Ventures. GroupMe, which says it is handling 100 million messages a month,
raised $10.6 million from Khosla Ventures, General Catalyst and First Sound, and
others. AOL acquired Rally Up late last summer.
Dave Morin, Path’s founder, was an early Facebook employee, but thought the
social network had grown too large and impersonal for sharing certain things.
Hundreds of thousands of users have agreed and signed up for Path, sharing more
than five million photos and videos so far, Mr. Morin said. Most of their groups
include far fewer than the 50 friends they are allowed, he said.
“People pull out their phone and show their photos and start telling a story
about their life — ‘Last week I was on vacation,’ or ‘here’s my cat,’ or ‘here’s
what I ate for dinner last night’ — but when we ask if they put those photos
anywhere, people would say, ‘Oh, no, no, no, it’s way too personal,’ ” Mr. Morin
Those photos might also be too boring for the full lineup of one’s Facebook
friends. And, of course there are other photos that your cubicle neighbors and
former flames might find to be ... too interesting.
“The larger social networks have certainly become more loose-tie networks of
acquaintances,” said Mo Koyfman, an investor at Spark Capital who follows social
media trends. “But the way we communicate with acquaintances is very different
from how we communicate with friends.”
Spark recently invested in Kik, a mobile group messaging app.
Mr. Koyfman said most of these start-up applications centered on cellphones
because they were inherently more personal than Web sites used at a computer.
Mr. Deng at Facebook said that his company was working on more tools for
small-group sharing. But some Internet users and entrepreneurs maintain that the
big social networks will always be too big for people to share comfortably.
John Winter, a developer in New Zealand, cobbled together Frenzy, an application
that lets friends share links, photos, songs and other items in an
invitation-only folder on the Web storage service Dropbox, effectively turning
it into a private social feed.
“Twitter is public and Facebook is basically public,” he said. “What else are
you going to use?”
February 9, 2011
The New York Times
By JENNIFER PRESTON
The Syrian government began allowing its citizens Wednesday to
openly use Facebook and YouTube, three years after blocking access to Facebook
and other sites as part of a crackdown on political activism. Human rights
advocates greeted the news guardedly, warning that the government might have
lifted the ban to more closely monitor people and activity on social networking
The move comes just weeks after human rights activists in Egypt used Facebook
and other social media tools to help mobilize tens of thousands of people for
antigovernment protests. Activists in Tunisia used the Internet in December and
January to help amass support for the protests and revolt that toppled the
government of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
After the mass demonstrations began in Egypt, opposition groups in Syria created
a Facebook page called the Syrian Revolution and started a Twitter campaign
calling on people to join “day of rage” rallies last week against President
Bashar Assad. But the effort, which has generated more than 16,000 Facebook
members, did not produce the street protesters that organizers had hoped for.
Despite the ban, many Syrians had been able to use Facebook and other aspects of
the Web restricted by the government through proxy servers that allowed people
to circumvent the Syrian government’s firewall, which also blocks Wikipedia,
Amazon, Blogspot and Israeli newspapers, among other sites.
Posts on the wall on Wednesday reflected a variety of opinions, including
reminders for people to be careful about what they post to bold proclamations
that the page would help spur change. “We’re going to launch a fearless attack,”
one user wrote on the Syrian Revolution Facebook page wall. “Link to us on all
pages so that all Syrians can see this. Think. Initiate. Decide, do and have
faith in God.”
Syria’s decision was welcomed by officials from the State Department with a note
of caution, given the country’s restrictions on the freedom of speech and
freedom to assemble.
“We welcome any positive steps taken to create a more open Internet, but absent
the freedoms of expression and association, citizens should understand the
risks,” said Alec J. Ross, senior adviser for innovation to Secretary of State
Hillary Rodham Clinton, who helped organize a delegation of business leaders
from technology companies to meet with Mr. Assad in Syria last year. In those
meetings, the business leaders said that opening the Web would be important to
Susannah Vila, director of content and outreach for Movements.org, said she
believed that the government in Syria, in releasing controls on the Internet,
was trying to make it appear as if it were making democratic concessions after
the tumult in Egypt and Tunisia.
“While access to social media sites presents an opportunity for Syrians to
better mobilize one another, it also makes it easier for the government to
identify activists and quash protests,” said Ms. Vila, of the New York
City-based organization that began in 2008 with the mission to help support
advocates and activists using technology. Ms. Vila said there was growing
concern that the government of Sudan was closely monitoring Facebook users there
after lifting restrictions.
Abdulsalam Haykal, a leading Syrian technology entrepreneur, praised the Syrian
government’s decision as a reflection of a commitment to build confidence with
the country’s young people. “The power of social media is an important tool for
increasing participation, especially by engaging young people,” he said.
Under Facebook’s terms of service, users are required to use their real
identities and not hide behind false or anonymous accounts, a violation that can
lead to Facebook’s closing an account.
Debbie Frost, a spokeswoman for Facebook, said Wednesday that the company was
not considering changing or re-examining its terms of service in those countries
where some users were concerned about revealing their full identity for security
“Facebook has always been based on a real-name culture,” she said. “This leads
to greater accountability and a safer and more trusted environment for our
users. It’s a violation of our policies to use a fake name or operate under a
false identity.” Ms. Frost said the company provided multiple options for users
to communicate privately through groups and to read updates on a Facebook page
without having to sign up for it.
Ms. Frost said that the company had always seen some traffic for Syria, but not
the number of Facebook users typical in a country, like Syria, with high
Internet usage. She said the company did not see significant changes in traffic
Wednesday. Syrian technology companies reported that it could take hours or days
for people to get full access.
A spokesperson for YouTube declined to comment on the lifting of the ban, but
pointed to Google’s Transparency report, which shows a jump in traffic to
YouTube.com from Syria.
According to D-Press, a pro-government Syrian Web site, there are about 200,000
Syrians currently using Facebook.
February 7, 2011
The New York Times
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
and JENNIFER PRESTON
CAIRO — In a tearful, riveting live television interview only
two hours after his release from an Egyptian prison, the Google executive Wael
Ghonim acknowledged Monday that he was one of the people behind the anonymous
Facebook and YouTube campaign that helped galvanize the protest that has shaken
Egypt for the last two weeks.
Since he disappeared on Jan. 28, Mr. Ghonim, 30, has emerged as a symbol for the
protest movement’s young, digital-savvy organizers. During the interview on a
popular television show, he said he had been kidnapped and held blindfolded by
Afterward, hundreds of Egyptians took to Twitter and the Internet, calling on
him to become one of their new leaders.
“Please do not make me a hero,” Mr. Ghonim said in a voice trembling with
emotion, and later completely breaking down when told of the hundreds of people
who have died in clashes since the Jan. 25 protests began. “I want to express my
condolences for all the Egyptians who died.”
“We were all down there for peaceful demonstrations,” he added. “The heroes were
the ones on the street.”
Mr. Ghonim rejected the government’s assertions that the protests had been
instigated by foreigners or the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned Islamist
opposition group. “There was no Muslim Brotherhood presence in organizing these
protests,” he said. “It was all spontaneous, voluntary. Even when the Muslim
Brotherhood decided to take part it was their choice to do so. This belongs to
the Egyptian youth.”
The release of Mr. Ghonim, who oversees marketing efforts for Google in the
Middle East and North Africa, comes as the government is trying to portray Egypt
as returning to business as usual. But in the interview, Mr. Ghonim described
the experience of what he called his extralegal “kidnapping” and imprisonment to
rally the public to continue their protests. “It is a crime,” he said, “This is
what we are fighting.”
Ending the mystery over who helped begin the social media campaign that inspired
the protests, Mr. Ghonim said that he was a creator of the We are All Khaled
Said Facebook page. That page and multiple videos uploaded on YouTube about Mr.
Said, a 28-year-old Egyptian man beaten to death by the police in Alexandria on
June 6, 2010, helped to connect human rights organizers with average Egyptians
and to raise awareness about police abuse and torture.
Mr. Ghonim, an Egyptian who lives in Dubai with his wife and two children, was
not well known outside of technology and business circles in Egypt. But his
disappearance, followed by his interview Monday night on the same program where
the Nobel laureate and diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei plunged into Egyptian politics
a year ago, appeared to have quickly turned him into a national celebrity.
Mr. Ghonim, who came across as both humble and fearless, said he was grabbed by
security police officers while getting into a taxi and then taken to a location
where he was detained for 12 days, blindfolded the entire time. He said that he
was deeply worried that his family did not know where he was. He said he was not
The first word of his release came when he posted this sentence in English on
his Twitter account at 7:05 p.m.:
“Freedom is a bless that deserves fighting for it.”
Google then confirmed the news. “It is a huge relief that Wael Ghonim has been
released,” the company said in a message posted on Twitter and then released in
an e-mail. “We send our best wishes to him and his family.”
Since last June, the Khaled Said Facebook page has attracted more than 473,000
members and has become a tool not only for organizing the protests but also for
providing regular updates about other cases of police abuse. But the page’s
creator remained a mystery.
“We did not know who he was,” said Aida Seif el-Dawla, a human rights advocate
and professor of psychiatry who works with El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation
of Victims of Violence and Torture in Cairo. The center became involved in Mr.
Said’s case last June after police officials presented autopsy reports saying
that he died of asphyxiation from swallowing drugs rather than the brutal
beating witnessed by several people.
She said many young people identified with Mr. Said and were outraged by his
death and how the police had handled it. She said that there were many Facebook
pages, but that it was the page that Mr. Ghonim started that gained momentum.
“It was the most popular,” she said. “It gave a space for the young people to
interact with each other and to plan together.”
The Facebook page published cellphone photographs from the morgue showing the
horrific injuries Mr. Said had suffered, YouTube videos contrasting his smiling
face with the morgue photos and witness accounts that disputed the initial
Egyptian police version of his death. The information helped lead to prosecutors
arresting two police officers in connection with Mr. Said’s death. It also
prompted Facebook members to attend both street and silent protests several
times since last June.
In addition to his work at Google, Mr. Ghonim had served as a technology
consultant for Mr. ElBaradei’s pro-democracy campaign.
Before his family lost contact with him, Mr. Ghonim had posted an ominous
message on Twitter that troubled friends and family, raising concerns about his
whereabouts: “Pray for #Egypt. Very worried as it seems that government is
planning a war crime tomorrow against people. We are all ready to die #Jan25.”
While friends and family searched hospitals in the area for him, several human
rights activists became convinced that he was being held by the authorities for
his role in the social media efforts and for inspiring some of the young protest
organizers to use those media to help promote the protests.
Last Friday, members of the April 6 Youth Movement Facebook page, a group of
young advocates who began using Facebook in early 2008 to raise awareness about
labor strikes and human rights abuses, announced that they had designated Mr.
Ghonim their spokesman.
Habib Haddad, a Boston-based businessman and a friend of Mr. Ghonim’s, said he
spoke to Mr. Ghonim’s wife after her husband’s release on Monday. “Not sure I
ever heard someone that happy and emotional,” Mr. Haddad posted on his Twitter
Mr. Ghonim was among many in Egypt who have disappeared during the revolt.
“At this point, Wael has become a symbolic figure,” said Mr. Haddad. “Moving
forward, it is going to be his personal decision if he were to embrace this
symbolic figure or not. As a friend, I care mostly about his personal safety and
his family’s safety.”
December 19, 2010
The New York Times
By STEPHANIE STROM
Over the last year or so, there has been an explosion of online
intermediaries promising to help nonprofit groups raise money and awareness.
Crowdrise, Jumo, Causecast, Causes on Facebook and others try to use social
networking and crowdsourcing to build interest in charities and causes, and to
help them attract donations.
“2010 has really been the year of the social network for social good,” said
Katya Andresen, chief operating officer at Network for Good, a nonprofit that
handles processing and other administrative chores for many of the new sites.
In a recent study of online giving, Network for Good found that the experience
when donating online is important to people. “I think many of these new sites
are trying to make online giving, which is rather transactional in nature, an
experience of greater intimacy, and that’s valuable,” Ms. Andresen said.
But to many in the nonprofit world, the value of the sites remains to be seen.
For one thing, they hand partial control over charity brand names and trademarks
to users who are often unknown to the nonprofit groups they support. And
virtually all of them ask users to pay to donate.
“I think of them as disintermediaries because they stand between a nonprofit and
its supporters, and what most of our clients’ value is establishing that direct
connection,” said Gene Austin, chief executive of Convio, a company that
provides technology to help nonprofits manage relations. “It’s especially
concerning if they’re taking a cut.”
To Mr. Austin and others, the new sites operate on a model that evokes memories
of the United Way a decade ago. It began to lose ground when donors questioned
why they should make donations through United Way — and give it a percentage of
the money — when they could give directly to a charity.
“Moving toward a more donor-driven, pass-through model didn’t raise more money,”
said Brian Gallagher, chief executive of the United Way of America.
Now, the United Way raises money around three core issues, which it addresses
with proprietary programs. Its “pass-through” business, Mr. Gallagher said, has
remained stagnant for the last five or six years.
“What we learned is that folks will pay you if they think they’re getting more
value for what you’re offering,” he said.
The young entrepreneurs behind the new sites say their organizations are more
than middlemen. “Saying the people can donate on an organization’s Web site
misses the fact that nonprofits have to advertise to get people there, do
marketing in various places to convince them to donate, cover credit card fees
and pay for technology associated with their Web site and payment processing,”
said Matthew Mahan, a representative of Causes.
Chris Hughes, the founder of Jumo, said his site was primarily about helping
people connect with one another and with organizations around social missions,
not about fund-raising.
“Jumo makes it easier for people to find an organization and stay in touch with
it,” said Mr. Hughes, who is also a founder of Facebook. “That has a value.”
Crowdrise pitches itself as a tool to improve an individual’s fund-raising
campaign, whether that is a celebrity like Barbra Streisand, who is raising
money for the Cedars-Sinai Women’s Heart Center, or a person like Christine
(Crowdrise users usually use only their given name), who is using the site to
raise $60,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
“To us, Crowdrise is a complement or additive to whatever users are already
doing,” said Robert Wolfe, a founder. “We don’t see this as a place for a
charity to raise money for operational funds. It’s more for projects.”
Several online intermediaries serve as conduits to projects that cannot
otherwise be supported directly. For example, United States Artists, a nonprofit
that works to raise awareness of artists and their work, recently turned part of
its Web site into a social network that allows everyday donors to support
specific arts projects. It charges an 18 percent fee, but there is no other
simple way to contribute as directly to those projects.
Similarly, GiveLocally, a new donation service started by Andrew Young III, who
goes by Bo and whose father is the civil rights leader Andrew Young, allows
donors to support people in need by providing money to pay for things like
someone’s overdue electric bill.
The business — it is not a nonprofit — does not just transfer money to the
recipients featured on its Web site. Rather, it makes payments or purchases
using the money that donors offer, taking an 18 percent cut of each donation for
what Mr. Young calls “a keep-the-lights-on fee.”
He said none of the company’s executive team receive a salary. “What we’re doing
is a lot more personal than what other sites are offering,” he said. “We’re
linking individual donors to individual recipients and providing all the
Virtually all of the new intermediaries charge 4.75 percent of a donation’s
value to cover Network for Good’s administrative charges. The Web site for
Causes says that the 4.75 percent fee is “equal to or greater than” what
nonprofits pay themselves in credit card processing fees and compares its
cost-effectiveness to that of direct mail solicitation.
Experts say, however, that comparisons to direct mail are unfair and that, on
average, nonprofits pay 3 percent to 3.5 percent in credit card fees.
Most of the new sites also suggest leaving a “tip” and preselect an amount,
though donors can opt out. Jumo, for instance, proposes tipping 15 percent.
Thus, a $25 gift would be whittled down to $20.06 once a 15 percent tip and
processing charge were deducted, unless the donor decided to add the tip onto
the $25. (The donor could still claim a tax deduction for the full amount,
however, because Jumo and Network for Good are charities, too.)
Donors to Crowdrise are also asked for a tip, and even if they opt out, fees to
cover Network for Good’s charges and Web maintenance would reduce a gift of $100
Causes also has its hand out, saying, “We’re a small team that relies on the
support of generous donors like you to keep the lights on.”
In fact, Causes is a profit-making business, and it recently received $9 million
in venture capital financing, bringing its total financing to $16 million. Mr.
Mahan of Causes, said, “The purpose of our recent funding round and other
revenue streams — including tipping — is to help us deliver more innovative
solutions at a faster pace in order to grow activism online, incite more giving
and deliver scale efficiently and effectively.”
Mr. Hughes of Jumo said, “I think there’s probably a good conversation to be had
about how these sites self-fund.”
Min Liu, a 21-year-old liberal arts student at the New School in New York
City, got a Facebook account at 17 and chronicled her college life in detail,
from rooftop drinks with friends to dancing at a downtown club. Recently,
though, she has had second thoughts.
Concerned about her career prospects, she asked a friend to take down a
photograph of her drinking and wearing a tight dress. When the woman overseeing
her internship asked to join her Facebook circle, Ms. Liu agreed, but limited
access to her Facebook page. “I want people to take me seriously,” she said.
The conventional wisdom suggests that everyone under 30 is comfortable revealing
every facet of their lives online, from their favorite pizza to most frequent
sexual partners. But many members of the tell-all generation are rethinking what
it means to live out loud.
While participation in social networks is still strong, a survey released last
month by the University of California, Berkeley, found that more than half the
young adults questioned had become more concerned about privacy than they were
five years ago — mirroring the number of people their parent’s age or older with
They are more diligent than older adults, however, in trying to protect
themselves. In a new study to be released this month, the Pew Internet Project
has found that people in their 20s exert more control over their digital
reputations than older adults, more vigorously deleting unwanted posts and
limiting information about themselves. “Social networking requires vigilance,
not only in what you post, but what your friends post about you,” said Mary
Madden, a senior research specialist who oversaw the study by Pew, which
examines online behavior. “Now you are responsible for everything.”
The erosion of privacy has become a pressing issue among active users of social
networks. Last week, Facebook scrambled to fix a security breach that allowed
users to see their friends’ supposedly private information, including personal
Sam Jackson, a junior at Yale who started a blog when he was 15 and who has been
an intern at Google, said he had learned not to trust any social network to keep
his information private. “If I go back and look, there are things four years ago
I would not say today,” he said. “I am much more self-censoring. I’ll try to be
honest and forthright, but I am conscious now who I am talking to.”
He has learned to live out loud mostly by trial and error and has come up with
his own theory: concentric layers of sharing.
His Facebook account, which he has had since 2005, is strictly personal. “I
don’t want people to know what my movie rentals are,” he said. “If I am sharing
something, I want to know what’s being shared with others.”
Mistrust of the intentions of social sites appears to be pervasive. In its
telephone survey of 1,000 people, the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology at
the University of California found that 88 percent of the 18- to 24-year-olds it
surveyed last July said there should be a law that requires Web sites to delete
stored information. And 62 percent said they wanted a law that gave people the
right to know everything a Web site knows about them.
That mistrust is translating into action. In the Pew study, to be released
shortly, researchers interviewed 2,253 adults late last summer and found that
people ages 18 to 29 were more apt to monitor privacy settings than older adults
are, and they more often delete comments or remove their names from photos so
they cannot be identified. Younger teenagers were not included in these studies,
and they may not have the same privacy concerns. But anecdotal evidence suggests
that many of them have not had enough experience to understand the downside to
Elliot Schrage, who oversees Facebook’s global communications and public policy
strategy, said it was a good thing that young people are thinking about what
they put online. “We are not forcing anyone to use it,” he said of Facebook. But
at the same time, companies like Facebook have a financial incentive to get
friends to share as much as possible. That’s because the more personal the
information that Facebook collects, the more valuable the site is to
advertisers, who can mine it to serve up more targeted ads.
Two weeks ago, Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, petitioned the
Federal Trade Commission to review the privacy policies of social networks to
make sure consumers are not being deliberately confused or misled. The action
was sparked by a recent change to Facebook’s settings that forced its more than
400 million users to choose to “opt out” of sharing private information with
third-party Web sites instead of “opt in,” a move which confounded many of them.
Mr. Schrage of Facebook said, “We try diligently to get people to understand the
But in many cases, young adults are teaching one another about privacy.
Ms. Liu is not just policing her own behavior, but her sister’s, too. Ms. Liu
sent a text message to her 17-year-old sibling warning her to take down a photo
of a guy sitting on her sister’s lap. Why? Her sister wants to audition for
“Glee” and Ms. Liu didn’t want the show’s producers to see it. Besides, what if
her sister became a celebrity? “It conjures up an image where if you became
famous anyone could pull up a picture and send it to TMZ,” Ms. Liu said.
Andrew Klemperer, a 20-year-old at Georgetown University, said it was a
classmate who warned him about the implications of the recent Facebook change —
through a status update on (where else?) Facebook. Now he is more diligent in
monitoring privacy settings and apt to warn others, too.
Helen Nissenbaum, a professor of culture, media and communication at New York
University and author of “Privacy in Context,” a book about information sharing
in the digital age, said teenagers were naturally protective of their privacy as
they navigate the path to adulthood, and the frequency with which companies
change privacy rules has taught them to be wary.
That was the experience of Kanupriya Tewari, a 19-year-old pre-med student at
Tufts University. Recently she sought to limit the information a friend could
see on Facebook but found the process cumbersome. “I spent like an hour trying
to figure out how to limit my profile, and I couldn’t,” she said. She gave up
because she had chemistry homework to do, but vowed to figure it out after
“I don’t think they would look out for me,” she said. “I have to look out for
It is the online version of the bathroom wall in school, the place to scrawl
raw, anonymous gossip.
Formspring.me, a relatively new social networking site, has become a magnet for
comments, many of them nasty and sexual, among the Facebook generation.
While Formspring is still under the radar of many parents and guidance
counselors, over the last two months it has become an obsession for thousands of
teenagers nationwide, a place to trade comments and questions like: Are you
still friends with julia? Why wasn’t sam invited to lauren’s party? You’re not
as hot as u think u are. Do you wear a d cup? You talk too much. You look stupid
when you laugh.
By setting up a free Formspring account and linking it to their Tumblr or
Twitter or Facebook accounts, young people invite their hundreds of online
friends to ask questions or post comments, without having to identify
In part, Formspring is just the latest place to hang out and exchange gossip, as
teenagers have always done. But because of the anonymity, the banter is
Comments and questions go into a private mailbox, where the user can ignore,
delete or answer them. Only the answered ones are posted publicly — leading
parents and guidance counselors to wonder why so many young people make public
so many nasty comments about their looks, friends and sexual habits.
“I’d never heard of Formspring until yesterday, but when I started asking kids,
every seventh and eighth grader I asked said they used it,” said Christine Ruth,
a middle school counselor in Linwood, N.J. “In seventh grade, especially, it’s a
lot of ‘Everyone knows you’re a slut,’ or ‘You’re ugly.’ It seems like even when
it’s inappropriate and vicious, the kids want the attention, so they post it.
And who knows what they’re getting that’s so devastating that they don’t post
Users can choose not to accept anonymous questions, but most young people seem
to ignore that option. And some Formspring users say it is precisely the
negative comments that interest them.
“Nice stuff is not why you get it,” said Ariane Barrie-Stern, a freshman at
Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School in New York City. “I think it’s interesting to
find out what people really think that they don’t have the guts to say to you.
If it’s hurtful, you have to remind yourself that it doesn’t really mean
Ariane, who has more than 100 posts on her site, said she had not been terribly
bothered by anything she has read so far, but she acknowledged that after one
comment about a certain pair of leggings, she stopped wearing them.
Her father, Larry Stern, who like most other parents interviewed had never heard
of Formspring until a reporter’s call, was aghast.
“It’s just shocking that kids have access to all these things on the Internet
and we don’t even know about it,” Mr. Stern said. “And it’s disturbing that what
goes on there will influence how somebody behaves. How do you block it? How do
you monitor it?”
Even teenagers who do not set up Formspring accounts can peruse their friends’
accounts to see if they are mentioned.
Many families on Long Island became aware of Formspring after the March suicide
of Alexis Pilkington, a 17-year-old West Islip soccer player who had received
many nasty messages.
Since it began in late November, Formspring has caught on rapidly. More than 28
million people visit the site each month, 14 million of them in the United
States, according to Quantcast, a service that analyzes Web traffic.
The company, started in Indianapolis by John Wechsler and Ade Olonoh, recently
raised $2.5 million from a group of Silicon Valley investors and moved to San
According to Formspring, more than three million questions have been asked and
answered on the site. Mr. Olonoh said in an e-mail message that the company did
not know what percentage of users were teenagers.
Formspring is not the first site to allow anonymous comments. Some schools say
students have been demoralized by comments on Honesty Box, a Facebook add-on.
And Juicy Campus, a college gossip site, caused so much grief that some colleges
blocked it, and some state attorneys general began consumer-protection
investigations. The site shut down last year.
Formspring is one of many question-and-answer Internet sites that are widely
used to find, say, the calorie count of avocados. But Formspring spread like
wildfire among young people, who used it to for more intimate topics — or
Many schools say they have seen students crushed by criticism of their breasts,
their body odor or their behavior at the last party.
“There’s nothing positive on there, absolutely nothing, but the kids don’t seem
to be able to stop reading, even if people are saying terrible things about
them,” said Maggie Dock, a middle school counselor in Kinnelon, N.J. “I asked
one girl, ‘If someone was throwing rocks at you, what would you do?’ She said
she’d run, she’d move away. But she won’t stop reading what people say about
In some schools, the Formspring craze may already be burning out.
“We all got Formspring about two months ago, when it began showing in people’s
Facebook status,” said a 14-year-old from a New York City private school. “It’s
actually gone down a little bit in the past few weeks, at least in my grade,
because a lot of people realized it wasn’t a good thing, that people were
getting hurt, or posting awful comments.”
Some young Formspring users say they strive for a light touch in answering
questions about their relationships (hookups, that is, or “hu” in online
parlance). Several said they admired friends’ skills at deflecting the
often-asked question about how far they had gone, with answers like, “I’ve been
One mother in Westchester County, N.Y., discovered Formspring when her daughter
came to her, sobbing, after reading putdowns of her breasts and her teeth.
“She was very, very upset,” the woman said. “She’s always been self-conscious,
and in a way this just flushed out what people might been thinking all along.
She worked very hard on figuring out how to answer. But there’s a kind of
obsessiveness to it. She still wants to read everything.”
Unknown to her daughter, the woman has learned her password, and occasionally
checks her Facebook and Formspring accounts.
“The comments are all gross and sexual,” the mother said. “And yet, of course,
this is coming from her friends. I wish I could just erase it, but all of her
friends are online, and so much of their social interaction is online that I
don’t think I could just take away her Internet access. But I do think this
whole online social media thing is a huge experiment on our children.”
The New York Times
By JENNIFER STEINHAUER
— A federal jury here issued what legal experts said was the country’s first
cyberbullying verdict Wednesday, convicting a Missouri woman of three
misdemeanor charges of computer fraud for her involvement in creating a phony
account on MySpace to trick a teenager, who later committed suicide.
The jury deadlocked on a fourth count of conspiracy against the woman, Lori
Drew, 49, and the judge, George H. Wu of Federal District Court, declared a
mistrial on that charge.
Although it was unclear how severely Ms. Drew would be punished — the jury
reduced the charges to misdemeanors from felonies, and no sentencing date was
set — the conviction was highly significant, computer fraud experts said,
because it was the first time that a federal statute designed to combat computer
crimes was used to prosecute what were essentially abuses of a user agreement on
a social networking site.
Under federal sentencing guidelines, Ms. Drew could face up to three years in
prison and $300,000 in fines, though she has no previous criminal record. Her
lawyer has asked for a new trial.
In a highly unusual move, Thomas P. O’Brien, the United States attorney in Los
Angeles, prosecuted the case himself with two subordinates after law enforcement
officials in Missouri determined Ms. Drew had broken no local laws.
Mr. O’Brien, who asserted jurisdiction on the ground that MySpace is based in
Los Angeles, where its servers are housed, said the verdict sent an
“overwhelming message” to users of the Internet.
“If you are going to attempt to annoy or go after a little girl and you’re going
to use the Internet to do so,” he said, “this office and others across the
country will hold you responsible.”
During the five-day trial, prosecutors portrayed Ms. Drew as working in concert
with her daughter, Sarah, who was then 13, and Ashley Grills, a family friend
and employee of Ms. Drew’s magazine coupon business in Dardenne Prairie, Mo.
Testimony showed that they created a teenage boy, “Josh Evans,” as an identity
on MySpace to communicate with Sarah’s nemesis, Megan Meier, who was 13 and had
a history of depression and suicidal impulses.
After weeks of online courtship with “Josh,” Megan was distressed one afternoon
in October 2006, according to testimony at the trial, when she received an
e-mail message from him that said, “The world would be a better place without
Ms. Grills, who is now 20, testified under an immunity agreement that shortly
after that message was sent, Megan wrote back, “You’re the kind of boy a girl
would kill herself over.” Megan hanged herself that same afternoon in her
Although the jury appeared to reject the government’s contention that Ms. Drew
had intended to harm Megan — a notion underlying the felony charges — the
convictions signaled the 12 members’ belief that she had nonetheless violated
federal laws that prohibit gaining access to a computer without authorization.
Specifically, the jury found Ms. Drew guilty of accessing a computer without
authorization on three occasions, a reference to the fraudulent postings on
MySpace in the name of Josh Evans.
Legal and computer fraud experts said the application of the federal Computer
Fraud and Abuse Act, passed in 1986 and amended several times, appeared to be
expanding with technology and the growth of social networking on the Internet.
More typically, prosecutions under the act have involved people who hack into
“Keep in mind that social networking sites like MySpace did not exist until
recently,” said Nick Akerman, a New York lawyer who has written and lectured
extensively on the act. “This case will be simply another important step in the
expanded use of this statute to protect the public from computer crime.”
Other computer fraud experts said they found the verdict chilling.
“As a result of the prosecutor’s highly aggressive, if not unlawful, legal
theory,” said Matthew L. Levine, a former federal prosecutor who is a defense
lawyer in New York, “it is now a crime to ‘obtain information’ from a Web site
in violation of its terms of service. This cannot be what Congress meant when it
enacted the law, but now you have it.”
Ms. Drew, who showed little emotion during the trial, sat stone-faced as the
clerk read the jury’s verdict and left the courtroom quickly, her face red and
twisted with rage.
Her lawyer, H. Dean Steward, said outside the courthouse that he believed the
trial was grandstanding by Mr. O’Brien in an effort to keep his job, with the
coming change in the White House.
“I don’t have any satisfaction at all,” Mr. Steward said of the verdict.
Judge Wu scheduled a hearing on the request for a new trial for late December.
Since the story surrounding the suicide became public last year, Mr. O’Brien has
discussed with his staff how his feelings as a parent motivated him to bring the
charges against Ms. Drew. He alluded to those feelings on Wednesday at a news
“This was obviously a case that means a lot to me,” he said.
The case has been a collection of anomalies. Judge Wu appeared ambivalent
regarding some key issues at the trial, like whether any testimony about Megan’s
suicide would be allowed (he did allow it) and how to rule on a defense motion
to throw out the charges (he had not ruled as of Wednesday).
Judge Wu was appointed to the federal bench less than two years ago, and it is
difficult to establish his sentencing record. But Mr. Akerman, the computer
fraud expert, said jail time was common even for first-time offenders in
computer fraud cases.
“If I were her,” he said of Ms. Drew, “I would not be celebrating over the
Tina Meier, Megan’s mother, said in a news conference after the verdict that she
hoped Ms. Drew would serve jail time, and that she felt satisfied.
“This day is not any harder than the day when I found Megan,” Ms. Meier said.
“This has never been about vengeance. This is about justice. For me it’s
absolutely worth it every single day sitting in that court hoping there was
Filed at 12:48 p.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
deep in cyberspace, where reality blurs into fiction and the living greet the
dead, there are ghosts.
They live in a virtual graveyard without tombstones or flowers. They drift among
the shadows of the people they used to be, and the pieces they left behind.
Allison Bauer left rainbows: Reds, yellows and blues, festooned across her
MySpace profile in a collage of color. Before her corpse was pulled from the
depths of an Oregon gorge on May 9, where police say she leapt to her death, she
unwittingly wrote her own epitaph.
''I love color, Pure Color in rainbow form, And I love My friends,'' the
20-year-old wrote under ''Interests'' on her profile. ''And I love to Love, I
care about everyone so much you have no idea.''
Now her page fills a plot on www.MyDeathSpace.com, a Web site that archives the
pages of deceased MySpace members.
Behold a community spawned from twin American obsessions: Memorializing the dead
and peering into strangers' lives. Anyone with Internet access can submit a
death to the site, which currently lists nearly 2,700 deaths and receives more
than 100,000 hits per day.
The tales are mostly those of the very young who died prematurely. Here, death
roams cyberspace in all its spectral forms: senseless and indiscriminate,
sometimes premeditated, often brutally graphic. It's also a place where the
living -- those who knew the deceased and those who didn't -- discuss this world
and the next.
There's a boy, 16, who passed out in the shower and drowned. There's a
20-year-old whose body was discovered burned to death on a hiking trail; and
woman, 21, who overdosed on drugs and was found dead in a portable toilet,
Their fates have been sealed, but their spirits remain very much alive -- frozen
in time, for all the world to see.
Scrolling down a dead person's MySpace profile wall is like journeying into the
past. The pages were abandoned hastily, without warning. Most telling is the
date of each person's last log-in.
For 16-year-old Stephanie Wagner, it was Sept. 29, 2006 -- a month before she
was strangled and stabbed on Halloween night. Her frivolous teenage profile
pales against the terrible facts of her murder.
''This site does kind of let you look into the heart of darkness,'' says Bob
Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.
''We see those kinds of things that we try not to think about, which is how we
are all dancing on the edge -- how quickly mortality can come in and claim us.''
The human bits scattered carelessly across each profile form a vivid clip of
life in motion. It's a final resting place for the various ''selves'' people
project online: the ironic self, the joyful self, the bitter self, the
''I do not fear what the future holds for me,'' Navy Hospitalman Geovani
Padilla-Aleman, 20, blogged months before he was killed in Iraq. ''I will stand
and fight. I am not afraid to die.''
Weeks before she stood in the path of a commuter train, Cheryl Lynn Duca
pondered mortality in a poem: ''over my life i've watched people die in front of
me. wondering why this happens.''
Many families of the deceased leave the profiles up as memorials. Each profile
''wall'' -- a feature MySpace members typically use to post messages to each
other -- becomes a conduit for one-way communications with the departed. Days
are marked by post-mortem birthday wishes or life updates.
''I made that B in Statistics. and I certainly missed you sittin next to me
during the final,'' a friend wrote to Casey Hastings, 19, a cheerleader who was
killed in a traffic accident.
Some profiles are used as digital billboards to publicize a little-known
atrocity. One profile is dedicated to a 3-year-old murder victim.
MyDeathSpace grew out of one person's morbid curiosity in December 2005, when
two teenage daughters were slain by their father. Mike Patterson, 26, a
paralegal from San Francisco, tracked down their MySpace pages one day when he
was bored. His voyeurism grew into a live journal that later became
''I'd come across these stories where teens would be ending up dead or killing
themselves, or killing others,'' he says. ''And more often than not, when I
looked them up on MySpace, they had profiles.''
Permission to use the profiles is not requested from MySpace, which is not
affiliated with the site and did not respond to requests for comment on it.
MySpace said in a statement it handles deceased members' pages on a
''case-by-case basis'' and does not ''allow anyone to assume control of a
deceased user's profile.'' Profiles can be deleted if that's requested by family
MyDeathSpace matter-of-factly catalogs each death in headline format: ''Belford
Ramirez (19) died after being stabbed in the neck outside of a Burger King.''
Click on the link and you'll find a detailed description of the fatal attack --
an element usually pulled from a news article or blog -- his photograph, and a
link to his MySpace profile.
The site even charts death geographically on a digital ''death map'' of the
continental U.S., using black skulls to signify victims.
In a digital twist on vigilante justice, MyDeathSpace also posts the profiles of
homicide victims alongside those of their alleged killers, whose faces loom on
the screen like wanted posters.
A 23-year-old accused of pushing a homeless woman into a river appears as a
muscular young man in a sleeveless gray shirt, staring coldly into the camera. A
16-year-old girl charged in the shooting death of a 9-year-old shows up striking
a sexy bikini-clad pose in her MySpace photo.
Patterson says the alleged killers generate the most discussion threads on the
site. ''If they're accused, we'll put accused,'' he says. ''We're not gonna
label somebody a murderer who isn't one.''
But some death submissions slip through the cracks.
There was the case of Christine Hutchinson, a woman from Pittsburgh who was
accused of hiding her miscarried fetus in her freezer. She happened to bear the
same name as a high school student from Philadelphia -- and the latter's MySpace
profile was mistakenly attached to the creepy news story on MyDeathSpace.
Ugly names began filling her inbox: Baby killer, they called her. Murderer. Then
''They were telling me they hope I die and get stuffed in a freezer, rot in
jail, stuff like that,'' says the misidentified Hutchinson.
Patterson removed her profile when he was notified of the case of mistaken
identity hours later.
But the damage was done. Hutchinson's face was already out there. She has no
plans to sue Patterson, but says she rarely leaves her house alone now, afraid
of being attacked.
''It's got legal liability written all over it, this type of a Web site,'' says
Internet lawyer John Dozier. Patterson says he has a team to slog through the
entries, but he did not elaborate on the process used to verify deaths.
He also refused to disclose profit figures. Ads pop up as you move through the
site, and there are fees for certain extras, such as creating personal image
galleries in the site's discussion forums.
In those, paying tribute to the deceased sometimes falls by the wayside, as
self-described ''death hags'' swap whodunit theories, speculate on how victims'
families might feel and muse about the mechanics of violence.
''I've never shot a shotgun before, so I don't understand the physics of it,''
writes a user named ''wickedly--curious'' about a teenage murder-suicide.
''Anyone with any insight tell me if it would be possible for 2 people to shoot
each other in the heads at the same time?''
MyDeathSpace veers into the dark underbelly of memorializing, says Lisa Takeuchi
Cullen, author of ''Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of
''Some people rejoice in steamy details,'' Cullen says. ''The unpleasant thing
is that it's not fictional, it's not like watching CSI. These aren't concocted
by some scriptwriters in Hollywood who wanted to get a thrill of seeing
prostitutes get murdered on the strip.''
For some users, death is just a starting point for discussions of their own
''I just enjoy talking with other members,'' Brittany Oliver, 18, of Tucson,
Ariz., writes in an e-mail. ''I occasionally still read about the deaths, but
more so, I enjoy chatting with fellow MDSers about life.''
A subset of newspaper readers who turn first to the obituary page has long
existed, explains Thompson, but sites like MyDeathSpace allow such people to
interact with each other.
The Internet hosts a garden of other morbid online families. On
www.FindADeath.com, users can pore over the latest celebrities who've met their
Maker. The mortality-conscious can calculate when they might die -- based on age
and body fat -- thanks to www.deathclock.com.
As the traditionally private rites of death and grieving go public, what do
families of the dead on sites like MyDeathSpace think?
Army Cpl. Matthew Creed was killed in Baghdad Oct. 22. His MySpace profile keeps
watch without him, counting down the time -- days, hours, minutes -- until he
would've returned home.
His father, Rick, visits the page from time to time, but he was unaware that it
had been archived on MyDeathSpace.
''What MyDeathSpace is doing seems respectful, though at this time I'm not sure
what I think about it,'' he wrote in an e-mail. What's most important, he
believes, is that the link between his son and this world be preserved.
''We all say, you're never gone as long as you're remembered,'' Creed says.
''And he's still remembered by everybody.''