Talk: Be Your Best Offline Self Online [en]

[fr] La conférence que j'ai donnée mercredi à Women in Digital Switzerland à Lausanne.

Kelly invited me to be the guest speaker for the Women in Digital meetup in Lausanne on Wednesday, with a talk titled “Be Your Best Offline Self Online: How your personal online presence helps your business/career“.

It was streamed live on Facebook, which means that even if you weren’t able to attend in person, you can still listen to my talk now. I’ve put it up on YouTube for easier access outside of Facebook.

(Feel free to go “audio only”, the slides aren’t that important.)

There is a lot to write about this topic, and hopefully I will, but for now I’m at least making sure that you have access to the video! This makes me think I should get the various videos of my talks I have collected over the years on YouTube, even if the quality of most of them is not that great, and make a playlist of them.

A big thanks to Kelly who held her iPhone as steady as possible to capture this talk. I’m extremely grateful to have a recording of it.

Disconnection [en]

[fr] Certaines formes d'écriture ne peuvent plus se faire déconnectée, pour moi.

I’m at my chalet. Cats are curled up on the bed and I have a nice cup of tea ready. There is no wifi here. Cellphone reception is extremely patchy — and cellular data, when it works, is excruciatingly slow and unreliable. This is my “disconnected place”.

There is a lovely café in the village which offers free wifi as well as delicious home-made syrups, smoothies, and cakes. And tea for winter, of course. I go there to work and connect with the world.

I use MarsEdit to edit and write blog posts offline. As you can imagine, this is not something I do often. But this time around, I had quite a few to work on for my client, and I figured I could also do some of my work at the chalet.

While I was at it, I updated the settings for my blog (yup, still in server-move limbo) so that I could write an article or two. Everybody knows that being offline is great for productivity, particularly for writing.

Well, it turns out that there are certain types of writing for which it isn’t all that great. A lot of the stuff I write about here is nourished by things I’ve read online somewhere. I want to include links, check sources again to make sure I remember correctly what I have read. Search for more information.

I have become so used to writing/blogging plugged into the internet that I forget how much I rely on this extension of my mind that the network has become for me. (See, I’m sure there is a good piece somewhere to link to about that — but as I’m writing this offline, I can’t dig it out for you.)

I don’t think this is a bad thing. My brain still works. I haven’t lost the ability to write, and more importantly, to think. But I find myself in the situation where I am so used to functioning with a given tool that I forget its absence will prevent me from doing certain things.

The article I wanted to write is about doing what we want versus doing what we have to do. I’ve been through a series of realisations on that topic, and I want to be able to reference them and map them out for — maybe with the same sources, somebody will come to the same realisation, and my article will have been useful. Oh well, I’ll write it another time, when I have access to the internet.

Maybe I just have to remember that blogging/writing is not something I should try do to when offline.

Our Relationship To Technology: Is Your Smartphone In Charge, Or You? [en]

[fr] Une réflexion sur notre relation à la technologie. C'est pas aussi simple que "addiction! addiction! au secours!".

Today’s post, again, brought to you by an article of Loïc Le Meur’s: Why are we checking our smartphones 150x a day? (Remember when Loïc was a blogger?) He links to a video with the catchy title “After I saw this, I put down my phone and didn’t pick it up for the rest of the day”.

I have mixed feelings about this kind of discussion.

  • On the one hand, I think we need to strive to be those in charge of our use of devices, and not victims of the operant conditioning of modern technology.
  • On the other hand, I think that framing the issue of our relationship with technology as addiction is counter-productive, as it puts the blame on technology and removes responsibility from users.

It’s also not a new conversation, and it pops up every now and again as “today’s big problem”. Hey, I was afraid I had “internet addiction” back in 1998. I read Silicon Snake Oil and The Psychology of Cyberspace, headed off to my chalet for a week, and stopped worrying.

As far as I’m concerned, I’m online a lot, both on my computer and on my phone, but I still perceive being on your phone when in human company as “impolite”. I try not to do it too much. So, usually, when I’m with other people, I won’t be on my phone, unless:

  • we’re playing with our phones: taking photos, looking at stuff together, etc.
  • there is something I need to attend to (I apologize and try and be quick)
  • I’m looking something up to help us solve a problem or get information we need
  • we’re spending quite some time together and are both having “phone-time”

I’m aware this doesn’t mean much: with the same description I could be glued to my phone all the time. How do you define “something I need to attend to”?

So, some context.

My phone is in silent mode, and I have very few notifications set (same on my computer). It usually lives at the bottom of my bag. When I’m working, there are chances it’s next to me on my desk. It’s often charging or abandoned in another room when I’m at home.

I’ll check it somewhat compulsively when I’m on the bus, or when I’m using it “as a computer” to hang out online. If I’m with other people, as I said, I don’t take it out too much (though they’ll be the best judges about how much — I do take it out).

I suffer from FOMO like almost everyone who is connected today, I guess. But I don’t feel that I’m a slave to it. I read The Paradox of Choice many years ago and it really opened my eyes: today’s world is so full of possibilities. If you don’t want to succumb to the anxiety of too much choice and too many options, you need to be aware of what’s going on, and accept you’ll miss out. I try to be selective. I still struggle, but I know I’m going to miss out and it’s not the end of the world. (It’s in my social media survival kit, by the way.)

Why do we end up compulsively checking our phones and stuff? I think there are many reasons, and that’s why saying it’s an “addiction” is a way to frame the problem in a way that makes it difficult to address.

  • FOMO: with the internet, we have access to everything that is going on, all the time, everywhere. If we want to be “part of it”, hang out with the cool kids, or share the video that’ll get us 20 likes, we feel a pressure to “not miss” what is going on in the real-time stream. So we overload ourselves on the input side. We think we need to consume everything.
  • Operant conditioning: I’m clicker-training one of my cats, Tounsi. He knows that a click means a reward is coming. When I’m reinforcing a behaviour, I use an intermittent reinforcement schedule: he doesn’t get a reward with each click.
    See how this fits with digital interfaces, and even more strongly, social media? I think Kevin Marks is the first one who first pointed out this phenomenon to me, when I was having trouble taking breaks from my computer even though I had bad RSI.
    Suw Charman-Anderson wrote about how it applies to e-mail back in 2008. We check our mail, there might be some candy in there. We check Facebook, there might be a like or a comment. Nothing? It only makes the urge to check again more compelling: the next time could be rewarded!
    Yeah, dopamine plays a role in there. Understand how your brain works so you’re not a slave to your hormones and neurotransmitters.
  • Validation: we want to be loved and appreciated, and some of what we’re looking for online is just that. Oh, somebody responded to my post. Oh, somebody sent me a nice e-mail. Ooh. But people who thinks that this is the only thing in play round down our issue with technology to an “ego problem” (very fashionable). It doesn’t help. But yeah, if you feel that your drive for franticly checking your phone when you’re having dinner with a friend is just that, maybe it’s worth addressing.
  • Work: the other time when I ran off to my chalet to find some peace was in 2008, and it was not to escape technology. It was to escape work. Our relationships to work and technology are very much entwined. Often, when people say they’re “addicted to their email”, and you take the trouble to dig a bit, you realise the problem is not “email” but “work”. They can’t pull away from work. They work during the week-ends, the evenings, their holidays. This is, I believe, a bigger issue than technology. Our relationship to work, as a society, is unhealthy. (And: Americans, you have a way bigger problem here than us Swissies.)
  • Not engaging: people often look at “not engaging” as a consequence of excessive use of technology. It’s the message conveyed by the video Loïc linked to in his post. I think that’s missing the point that “not engaging” can be the objective here. Relationships are difficult. Being present is difficult. Being with oneself is difficult. Being present to life is difficult. We do many things to avoid doing all this. We veg’ in front of the TV. We talk about unimportant stuff to avoid dealing with what matters in our relationship. And, increasingly, we dive into our phones.
    In the past, I used my camera a lot to “find my place” in social gatherings that would otherwise make me feel awkward. If I’m the person taking photos, I have a place. I have a pretext for interacting with others. I can remove myself from what is going on to be the observer snapping pics. It’s much more difficult to find my place and be with others if I’m just me, with no escape.
    So when we look at somebody who has his nose in his phone during a dinner party, I’d also ask “what is he avoiding by not being present?”

I think I have a reasonably healthy relationship to technology — and work. I have my drinking completely under control 😉

So, a wrap-up:

  • I check my phone in the evening before going to bed, and it sleeps on my bedside table, on but mute, and it never wakes me up (except when I ask Siri to do so).
  • I generally keep my phone muted and in my bag and my notifications off (also on my computer!)
  • I understand how FOMO and operant conditioning work, I’m aware of my need for validation and how I react to the infinity of choices in the world around me.
  • I stop working at the end of the day, and on week-ends, and I take holidays. Real holidays, not work-holidays.
  • I “switch off” a couple of times a year, taking a week or a few days off somewhere with no internet, where I don’t work and use my computer mainly for writing and having fun with my photos. This helps me remember what it is like to live more slowly, and makes me want to bring some of that back into my “normal” life.
  • I try and give priority of my attention to the people I’m with offline, without being religious about it. If I do need to attend to my phone or online stuff when in company, I try not to “disconnect” from the person I’m with offline.
  • I consider that I am the one in charge of my relationship with technology, and strive for a healthy balance between my ability to spend time totally immersed and connected and multitasking, and my ability to be completely (as completely as possible) present to the “offline”, be it a book, a person, an activity, or myself.
  • Like so many things in life, it’s about having healthy boundaries.

When I shared Loïc’s post on Facebook, he commented that we seemed to have similar points of interest these days. For some time, I’ve found what Loïc is writing about much more interesting to me. It’s more personal. Less about business, more about life. Life has always been the thing that interests me the most. My interest for the internet and social media comes from my interest in how people connect and relate to each other.

Interestingly, this is also the kind of stuff I’ve decided to shift my work focus to. Labelling myself as a “social media” person doesn’t fit with what I really do and want to do, specially in the Swiss context where “social media = digital marketing”, something I have very little interest in and want to stay the hell away of. So I’m moving towards “I help you use technology better”. Helping people have a healthy relationship with tech, use it to do their work or whatever it is they need to get done better. Some of social media fits in there too, of course. But also stuff like (yes, still in 2013), learning to use and manage email properly. (I’m actually preparing a training proposal for a client on just that these very days.)

So, how’s your relationship to technology? Who is in charge, you or the compulsion to check if there is something more exciting going on?

Note: I wrote this article in one sitting, getting up once to go to the loo (!) and checking my phone’s lock screen on the way back (it’s charging in another room) to see if I had a message from my neighbour, as we had been exchanging messages earlier and made a vague plan yesterday to maybe hang out together and look at cat photos this morning.

L'invitée du mois chez Lise Cardinal [fr]

[en] Lise Cardinal invited me to be her guest writer this month -- hence an article (in French) on how and when one can negociate online, as opposed to face-to-face.

Je suis l’invitée du mois chez Lise Cardinal, avec un article intitulé “Mener et clore une négociation en ligne“.

Si vous ne connaissez pas cette grande dame du réseautage responsable francophone, avec qui j’ai eu la chance de partager une croque le mois passé lors de mon séjour à Montréal, je vous invite à y remédier de ce pas!

Twitter Stops Sending SMS in Europe [en]

[fr] Twitter n'envoie dès à présent plus de SMS aux utilisateurs basés hors des Etats-Unis, du Canada, et de l'Inde: trop cher. Oui, ça veut dire que même vos DM ne vous parviennent plus sur votre téléphone. Très déçue et embêtée par ce changement assez important dans l'intégration de mes communications online et offline.

This is a sad day. Twitter has just lost some of its value for me. One very precious feature of Twitter is direct messages. They allow a user to send a private message to another user.

I used to get these messages on my phone, directly by SMS. So, basically, this is giving the nearly 1’500 people following me the possibility to send me a text message without having to know my phone number of have it handy. All they need to know is my username, which is easy: stephtara.

Oh well, we had it coming. Sending out all these text messages was costing Twitter a lot of money, we know that. It couldn’t go on like that. They’ve just stopped sending out text messages from the UK number we non-US people use (via The Next Web blog). You can still send messages by SMS, though.

However, this means that as of today, DM is not an immediate and secure way to reach me anymore.

This is a big crack in my online/offline integration. Twitter allowed my online world to reel me back in or contact me if necessary by reaching me on my phone. This is pretty disruptive and saddening for me.

Twitter tell us they’ll be working on partnerships with phone companies in various countries. You bet Switzerland won’t be high on their list, given the small market here.

And using data? Well, for one, it isn’t “push”, and for two, it’s still mighty expensive here. We don’t all have the data penetration the US has.

Losing “track” was already sad for me, as it allowed me to receive my @replies on my phone, ensuring I didn’t miss any. Now I won’t even be getting my DMs anymore.

And Twitter didn’t even send me a text to let me know — I could be offline in the mountains waiting for a DM that’d never come.

There is a conversation over on Get Satisfaction if you want to join in.

This is the first time a Twitter problem could make me consider switching to another service. The SMS integration was a huge selling point.

Update: I’m not complaining about the fact we can’t get/send SMS for free anymore. I think we were lucky to get all we did, and for so long (I’m amazed this didn’t happen sooner). What I’m really unhappy about though is that this announcement comes without any alternative. I’d pay. See this blog post for an example I would go with. I’m not saying either that I’m going to switch to another service. But the thought crossed my mind, for the first time.

Back Online [en]

[fr] Journal. Retour en ligne.

Maybe I’ll get back in the groove of writing at the end of each day. For years, actually, I wrote journals (paper and pen when I was a teenager, then on the computer when I was older). Not these last years, though.

So, since my last message (blog post, actually — funny for me to find myself suddenly having a spurt of journal-like blogging) I checked my e-mail, blog comments, twitter, friendfeed, etc. E-mail contained a few sources of stress (ie, “bad news”) which I’m still not sure what to do about. I noticed that as I was going down to the see the movie (X-Files première!) I was preoccupied. My mind was back on the “worry, solve problems” track.

Back from the movie, I went online again, and chatted a bit with an old friend who happened to be online and want my advice.

Writing offline is different from writing online. Online, I’m in the network, I have access to everything. Offline, I’m alone. Just like when I was a teacher, every now and again I would go and prepare classes or grade tests in my empty classroom rather than the staff room. I like talking, and honestly, given the choice between just about anything and having a chat, I’ll have a chat. So, I guess it’s normal that every now and again I need to isolate myself to do certain things. Nothing bad about that.

Time to sleep now. And try to wake up in my “holiday” mood, even though I have a day of work ahead of me.

A couple more days offline [en]

[fr] Encore quelques jours à la montagne, et une réflexion sur l'e-mail.

Oh well — the text I wrote this morning was wiped by a computer crash. Maybe I should use a text editor with autosave.

So, back at the chalet after another day walking. About 4 hours today. 5 yesterday. The day before: raking, sawing, chopping, cutting, carrying branches — in short, transforming the jungle around the chalet into something resembling a garden. So, I’m physically exhausted, but I feel great. My brain on drugs. It must be all those endorphins.

I want to come here more, go walking in the mountains more, spend more time out of the city. I almost found myself wondering what kind of seasonly job I could find here — but it was just idle wondering, I don’t really want to do that. What I have done, though, is opened up iCal and blocked 3-5 days here every month. I wanted to do it before I left, because when I’m here I always want to come back more, but as soon as I go back to “regular life” all the “important things” get in the way.

I’ve been so busy doing physical stuff that my brain has been on hold these last days, which is a really good thing. I’ve tired myself out (went to bed and actually turned the light off before 10pm last night — something I hadn’t done in ages).

My time, when I haven’t been walking or cutting down trees, has been eating, looking at the view, chatting (a little) with the friend who came up here with me, reading, writing (this) and… sorting photos.

I’ve been taking photographs again. I think that one of the reasons I almost completely stopped taking photographs these last six months is that it had started to feel like work. Completely goal-driven, get the photos online, publish fast, sort, title, tag, sets, collections… I’ve known for a long time that one of my problems in life is that I’m too goal-driven. I don’t put enough energy into enjoying the process. Singing and judo are two process-driven activities I enjoy. But maybe I need more. And maybe I need to move most of my activities towards “less goal, more process”. Hmmm, maybe painting.

Being without e-mail has turned out to be easy. I had not decided beforehand if I would use my phone to access e-mail, chat and tweet while I was up here. I told everybody I would be completely offline, but I knew I had the possibility to “break the fast” if I wanted to. I think the first step was the most difficult one: the first evening here, I was tempted to check my e-mail, and almost did, actually. I think what kept me from doing it was that I had company. I could feel that the short moments when I was alone, I would reach for my phone and think about having a peek at my e-mail. But I didn’t. And right now, there’s no point. I mean, there is a pile of it anyway, and I’ll have to sift through it anyway.

I’m quite happy with how things have gone. In final, I’ve succeeded in taking my mind almost completely off my professional and personal worries, and when I think of them right now, typing away on the balcony with the mountains in front if me, they seem much more bearable. I guess that’s what holidays are for.

On the topic of e-mail, I have a theory about why it’s the first step that costs, and once you’ve gone without e-mail for a day, it’s easier with each day that passes (well, more or less). One book that I’ve been reading during my idle moments up here is Fooled by Randomness. At one point, Taleb explains how checking stock prices many times a day exposes one to the many ups and downs of random fluctuations. Lots of ups and lots of downs.

He also notes the psychological impact: if one is happy when the stock price goes up, one is unhappy when it goes down — but more unhappy. This is something I read about in The Paradox of Choice: losing 20$ makes you more unhappy than winning 20$ makes you happy. What this means, in Taleb’s example of constant exposure to random fluctuations, is that if the stock price at the end of the day is roughly the same as at the beginning, one’s psychological state, however, will not. All those “downs” take their toll, and the whole experience ends up making one more depressed or anxious.

Now, back to e-mail. For me, clearly, there is a “reward” factor in checking e-mail. We’re all familiar (I hope) with the intermittent reward reinforcement phenomenon which plays a part in how we train ourselves to check our e-mail more and more often. Good news, exciting news, a message from a friend we haven’t heard of in some time, a prospective client… all those are “reward” e-mails, “ups”. And then the downs: problems or simply… no interesting news.

So, imagine you check your e-mail 50 times a day, but you get about 10 “exciting” e-mails. That’s 10 ups for 40 downs. Now, imagine you check your e-mail 5 times a day. Even if your exciting e-mails aren’t spread out evenly during the day, there is a chance you might only experience one “down” (no news) e-mail check.

Should this argument be used to support the “check your e-mail twice a day” technique? I have a problem with that. E-mail is a rather high priority communication channel. Less than the phone or IM, though. I tend to deal with most e-mail either immediately (if it doesn’t require much processing or action), or within a few days. So… I’m not sure.

I do, however, think that this explains why it’s not very difficult to go another day without checking e-mail: I know that the next time I check it, there will be exciting news in it. And I don’t have the pressure of hoping to compensate for a series of “downs” due to checking it every five minutes on my cellphone for the last hour (particularly on a Sunday).

I also know that since I turned off Google Notifier for my e-mail, and put Gmail in a separate OSX Space, I’ve been checking my e-mail way less often (when I think of it, rather than when it thinks of me) and I’m much happier like that. I guess that if people send me an e-mail they need me to look at now, they can send me a tweet or an IM to tell me. (Assuming they’re Twitter- and IM-enabled, of course. But then, the people who aren’t probably don’t expect me to respond to their e-mail within an hour.)

This entry was back-posted upon my return online.

Second day offline [en]

[fr] Deuxième jour de vacances à la montagne hors-ligne.

My legs hurt. So do my feet. And my bum. We walked about 4.5 hours today. Not bad for two out-of-shape girls. The first bit was the steepest (quite steep actually) — about 45 minutes to the top of Chaux Ronde (I understood yesterday that there are two mountains around here called that, so this was the one with the cross). We sat at the top and just looked at all the mountains around us. A few yellow butterflies kept hovering around us and I got some photographs.

Bagha is settling down, after an encounter with his local “twin” (I got a photo with both the cats last time I came up here, about a year ago — even I mistake the other one for Bagha if I’m not careful). He’s not very enthusiastic about going out — quite out of character for him. But then, this isn’t his territory.

I’ve been completely offline today, except for a few TwitPics (wanting to make my offline friends jealous). A work phone came in and almost got me “worrying” about how to deal with it, but I quickly decided to put it out of my mind and deal with it when I came back to work.

It’s hard keeping my mind in “holiday-mood”. Well, not very hard actually, but every now and again I think about all I haven’t done for Going Solo and feel a surge of panic. Oh well. What’s not done isn’t done, and it will work out even so. I’ll be late for certain things, but hey, worse things have happened.

What’s important is that I’m realising how much I love being up in the mountains and the woods (we had both today). I’ve been in town way too long. I’ve been spending too much time in cities. I grew up in a house bordering the forest. After school fun was outdoors, playing with a few kids in the neighbourhood, but also flying my kite in the fields, howling like a dog wearing my home-made yellow cape at the top of our drive (and listening in delight at all the dogs answering me), running in the forest and building (rather unsuccessful) tree-houses.

Family week-ends and holidays were skiing in winter, of course, and in summer, walking in the mountains, sailing, or camping all over Europe (well, not always camping, and not quite all over Europe, but that kind of holidays — not hotels on the beach or city-life).

I spent an important part of my late teens with the scouts, making fires in the woods, camping, walking — again.

I love living in town. When I left my parents’ home at 22, I wanted to live in the city, near the centre. To be close to everything, instead of 15 minutes on foot from the closest bus stop. To be able to invite people over easily. It was great to be so close to everything, and I still love it, though when I came back from India, I moved to a more quiet and green part of town (still just 5 minutes from the centre by bus).

But somewhere along the way, I stopped going out of town. Once I had my own life (and wasn’t just following around my parents’) all my activities became more and more city-centric.

Over the last years, I’ve felt a need to get out a bit more. I ask my Dad to go sailing a few times a year. I keep telling myself I want to find some friends to go walking with in the mountains, like I used to do when I was a kid. And most of all, I remember that I own part of this chalet I’m staying in now, and that I hardly ever go there.

There are some family-luggage issues around it, of course. But my excuse is usually that it’s “too complicated”, specially now that I don’t have a car. Actually, as I experienced this time, it isn’t too bad. First of all, it’s one of the rare places I can take Bagha with me. Leaving Bagha behind when I travel is always difficult, particularly now that his health isn’t as good as it used to be, between FIV and old age. It’s 90 minutes by train from Lausanne, and with a taxi to the station it honestly isn’t much of a hassle.

There is also the fact that as I don’t come regularly, the chalet itself is not practical for me. If I came more often, I’d leave stuff here (or acquire it) to make coming here easier. Stuff as stupid as bedsheets (I have plenty at home) so I don’t need to bring back the “common” ones, wash them, and worry about how they are going to get back up to the chalet.

We’re hiring somebody to come and cut the grass (the garden is a real jungle, and it’s our turn this year to deal with the grass) and my brother is coming up tomorrow, so we’ll be spending the day armed with various tools to reduce the amount of greenery which is literally swallowing up the chalet. I looked at the garden with an owners eye for the first time, maybe (OK, co-owner). “If it was up to me, I’d knock some of those trees down.”

As we were walking down from Taveyanne to Villars, and I was realising I needed “more of this”, I made up a plan: come to the chalet for an extended week-end (3-5 days) every three weeks or so. Book in advance. Find a friend to come with me and go walking. I’ve half a mind to come back on the 9th of August: they’re calling out for voluntary help to remove bushes and saplings from Taveyanne on that day, to keep the forest from taking over the “pâturage” (no clue what that’s called in English).

A day of physical work, completely away from what my professional life is.

On the way up here, the friend who came with me was telling me she’d taken up cross-stitch (she started doing it to keep herself busy during the ads while watching TV). I thought of Suw and her lace and jewellery again, and the penny dropped. I need some kind of creative activity that does not involve words. Painting, maybe. I’m crap at it, of course, but I always enjoyed painting when we had to do it at school during art class. Mixing colours, putting them on paper. I wanted to buy a box of paint when we went grocery shopping, but unfortunately they didn’t have any.

Gosh, that’s a lot of writing for a day offline. I took lots of close-up photos of flowers — I’m looking forward to seeing them on the computer screen. But not today: I’m dead, and the grass guy is showing up tomorrow at 8am.

This entry was back-posted upon my return online.

First day offline [en]

[fr] Premier jour de vacances hors-ligne.

It’s not exactly a first day, because I was online this morning until 10am while I got ready. It was hard leaving and getting ready, because I was behind on a lot of things I wanted to get going before I left. But, oh well, the world will just have to continue without that.

I sent a couple of photographs through TwitPic. Been tempted to tweet another thing or two: for example, the idea that in the future, one will marvel not so much at what is possible — application-wise — online, in a web-based environment for example, but at what is possible with a computer disconnected from the network; a computer will be primarily defined by its connection to the network. This is a follow-up on my ongoing thought these days that the important invention/revolution is less the home computer than the internet. Yes, the home computer is important because it allowed the internet we know today — but the real revolution is the internet.

I’ve been tempted to check my e-mail tonight a couple of times, but thankfully my friend came back to the table fast enough to stop me short. I’ve decided not to check it tonight, so that I sleep without the excitement of good or bad news that my mail might contain. I haven’t decided yet if I would abstain completely from e-mail, chat and Twitter (which all work on my phone). I guess I will, mostly. It’s kind of fun.

This entry was back-posted upon my return online.

Reading the Ofcon Report on Social Networking: Stats, Stranger Danger, Perceived Risk [en]

[fr] Le Daily Mail remet ça aujourd'hui, abasourdi de découvrir que les adolescents rencontrent "offline" des étrangers d'internet. Il va donc falloir que j'écrive le fameux billet auquel j'ai fait allusion dernièrement, mais avant cela, je suis en train de lire le rapport sur lequel se basent ces articles alarmés et bien-pensants.

Ce billet contient quelques commentaires sur la situation en général, ainsi que mes notes de lecture -- citations et commentaires -- du début de ce rapport de l'Ofcon.

I don’t know if I’ll get around to writing about the teen cleavage scare before the story goes completely cold, but in my endeavour to offer a balanced criticism of what’s going on here, I’m currently reading the Ofcon Social Networking Report which was released on April 2 and prompted this new wave of “think of the children” media coverage. The Daily Mail is at it today again, with the stunning and alarming news that teenagers are meeting “strangers” from the internet offline (big surprise). I find it heartening, though, that the five reader comments to this article as of writing are completely sensible in playing down the “dangers” regularly touted by the press and the authorities.

Here are the running notes of my reading of this report. I might as well publish them as I’m reading. Clearly, the report seems way more balanced than the Daily Mail coverage (are we surprised?) which contains lots of figures taken out of context. However, there is still stuff that bothers me — less the actual results of the research (which are facts, so they’re good) than the way some of them are presented and the interpretations a superficial look at them might lead one to make (like, sorry to say, much of the mainstream press).

Here we go.

Social networking sites also have
some potential pitfalls to negotiate, such as the unintended consequences of publicly posting
sensitive personal information, confusion over privacy settings, and contact with people one
doesn’t know.

Ofcon SN Report, page 1

Good start, I think that the issues raise here make sense. However, I would put “contact with people one doesn’t know” in “potential pitfalls”. (More about this lower down.)

Ofcom research shows that just over one fifth (22%) of adult internet users aged 16+ and
almost half (49%) of children aged 8-17 who use the internet have set up their own profile on
a social networking site. For adults, the likelihood of setting up a profile is highest among
16-24 year olds (54%) and decreases with age.

Ofcon SN Report, page 5

This is to show that SNs are more popular amongst younger age groups. It makes sense to say that half of 8-17 year olds have a profile on SN site to compare it with the 22% of 16+ internet users or the 54% of 16-24 year olds. Bear in mind that these are percentages of internet users — they do not include those who do not go online.

However, saying “OMG one out of two 8-17 year olds has a profile on a SN site” in the context of “being at risk from paedophiles” is really not very interesting. Behaviour of 8 year olds and 17 year olds online cannot be compared at all in that respect. You can imagine a 16 year old voluntarily meeting up to have sex with an older love interest met on the internet. Not an 8 year old. In most statistics, however, both fall into the category of “paedophilia” when the law gets involved.

27% of 8-11 year olds who are aware of social networking sites say that they have a profile on a site

Ofcon SN Report, page 5

I’d like to draw you attention on the fact that this is 27% of 8-11 year olds who are aware of social networking sites.

Unless otherwise stated, this report uses the term ‘children’ to include all young people aged 8-17.

Ofcon SN Report, page 5

I don’t like this at all, because as stated above, particularly when it comes to concerns about safety one cannot simply lump that agegroup into a practical “children”, which plays well with “child abuse”. In the US, cases of “statutory rape” which might very well have been consensual end up inflating the statistics on “children falling victim to sexual predators online”.

Although contact lists on sites talk about ’friends’, social networking sites stretch the
traditional meaning of ‘friends’ to mean anyone with whom a user has an online connection.
Therefore the term can include people who the user has never actually met or spoken to.
Unlike offline (or ‘real world’) friendship, online friendships and connections are also
displayed in a public and visible way via friend lists.
The public display of friend lists means that users often share their personal details online
with people they may not know at all well. These details include religion, political views,
sexuality and date of birth that in the offline world a person might only share only with close
While communication with known contacts was the most popular social
networking activity, 17 % of adults used their profile to communicate with
people they do not know. This increases among younger adults.

Ofcon SN Report, page 7

Right. This is problematic too. And it’s not just the report’s fault. The use of “friend” to signify contact contributes to making the whole issue of “online friendship” totally inpenetrable to those who are not immersed in online culture. The use of “know” is also very problematic, as it tends to be understood that you can only “know” somebody offline. Let’s try to clarify.

First, it’s possible to build relationships and friendships (even loves!) online. Just like in pre-internet days you could develop a friendship with a pen-pal, or kindle a nascent romance through letters, you can get to know somebody through text messages, IM, blog postings, presence streams, Skype chats and calls, or even mailing-list and newsgroup postings. I hope that it will soon be obvious to everybody that it is possible to “know” somebody without actually having met them offline.

So, there is a difference between “friends” that “you know” and “SN friends aka contacts” which you might in truth not really know. But you can see how the vocabulary can be misleading here.

I’d like to take the occasion to point out one other thing that bothers me here: the idea that contact with “strangers” or “people one does not know” is a thing worth pointing out. So, OK, 17% of adults in the survey, communicated with people they “didn’t know”. I imagine that this is “didn’t know” in the “offline person”‘s worldview, meaning somebody that had never been met physically (maybe the study gives more details about that). But even if it is “didn’t know” as in “complete stranger” — still, why does it have to be pointed out? Do we have statistics on how many “strangers” we communicate with offline each week?

It seems to me that because this is on the internet, strangers are perceived as a potential threat, in comparison to people we already know. As far as abuse goes, in the huge, overwhelming, undisputed majority of cases, the abuser was known (and even well known) to the victim. Most child sexual abuse is commited by people in the family or very close social circle.

I had hoped that in support of what I’m writing just now, I would be able to state that “stranger danger” was behind us. Sadly, a quick search on Google shows that I’m wrong — it’s still very much present. I did, however, find this column which offers a very critical view of how much danger strangers actually do represent for kids and the harmful effects of “stranger danger”. Another nice find was this Families for Freedom Child Safety Bulletin, by a group who seems to share the same concerns I do over the general scaremongering around children.

Among those who reported talking to people they didn’t know, there were significant
variations in age, but those who talked to people they didn’t know were significantly more
likely to be aged 16-24 (22% of those with a social networking page or profile) than 25-34
(7% of those with a profile). In our qualitative sample, several people reported using sites in
this way to look for romantic interests.

Ofcon SN Report, page 7

Meeting “online people” offline is more common amongst the younger age group, which is honestly not a surprise. At 34, I sometimes feel kind of like a dinosaur when it comes to internet use, in the sense that many of my offline friends (younger than me) would never dream of meeting somebody from “The Internets”. 16-24s are clearly digital natives, and as such, I would expect them to be living in a world where “online” and “offline” are distinctions which do not mean much anymore (as they do not mean much to me and many of the other “online people” of my generation or older).

The majority of comments in our qualitative sample were positive about social networking. A
few users did mention negative aspects to social networking, and these included annoyance
at others using sites for self-promotion, parties organised online getting out of hand, and
online bullying.

Ofcon SN Report, page 7

This is interesting! Real life experience from real people with social networks. Spam, party-crashing and bullying (I’ll have much more to say about this last point later on, but in summary, address the bullying problem at the source and offline, and don’t blame the tool) are mentioned as problems. Unwanted sexual sollicitations or roaming sexual predators do not seem to be part of the online experience of the people interviewed in this study. Strangely, this fits with my experience of the internet, and that of almost everybody I know. (Just like major annoyances in life for most people, thankfully, are not sexual harrassment — though it might be for some, and that really sucks.)

The people who use social networking sites see them as a fun and easy leisure activity.
Although the subject of much discussion in the media, in Ofcom’s qualitative research
privacy and safety issues on social networking sites did not emerge as ‘top of mind’ for most
users. In discussion, and after prompting, some users in the qualitative study did think of
some privacy and safety issues, although on the whole they were unconcerned about them.
In addition, our qualitative study found that all users, even those who were confident with
ICT found the settings on most of the major social networking sites difficult to understand
and manipulate.

Ofcon SN Report, page 7-8

This is really interesting too. But how do you understand it? I read: “It’s not that dangerous, actually, if those people use SN sites regularly without being too concerned, and the media are making a lot of fuss for nothing.” (Ask people about what comes to mind about driving a car — one of our regular dangerous activities — and I bet you more people than in that study will come up with safety issues; chances are we’ve all been involved in a car crash at some point, or know somebody who has.) Another way of reading it could be “OMG, even with all the effort the media are putting into raising awareness about these problems, people are still as naive and ignorant! They are in danger!”. What will the media choose to understand?

The study points out the fact that privacy settings are hard to understand and manipulate, and I find this very true. In doubt or ignorance, most people will “not touch” the defaults, which are generally too open. I say “too open” with respect to privacy in the wide sense, not in the “keep us safe from creeps” sense.

This brings me to a comment I left earlier on an article on ComMetrics about what makes campaigns against online pedophiles fail. It’s an interesting article, but as I explain in the comment, I think it misses an important point:

There is a bigger issue here — which I try to explain each time I get a chance, to the point I’m starting to feel hoarse.

Maybe the message is not the right one? The campaign, as well as your article, takes as a starting point that “adults posing as kids” are the threat that chatrooms pose to our children.

Research shows that this is not a widespread risk. It also shows that there is no correlation between handing out personal information online and the risk of falling victim to a sexual predator. Yet our campaigns continue to be built on the false assumptions that not handing out personal information will keep a kid “safe”, and that there is danger in the shape of people lying about their identity, in the first place.

There is a disconnect between the language the campaigns speak and what they advocate (you point that out well in your article, I think), and the experience kids and teenagers have of life online (“they talk to strangers all the time, and nothing bad happens; they meet people from online, and they are exactly who they said they were; hence, all this “safety” information is BS”). But there is also a larger disconnect, which is that the danger these campaigns claim to address is not well understood. Check out the 5th quote in the long article I wrote on the subject at the time of the MySpace PR stunt about deleting “sex offenders'” profiles.

I will blog more about this, but wanted to point this out here first.

Yes, I will blog more about this. I think this post of notes and thoughts is long enough, and it’s time for me to think about sleeping or putting a new bandage on my scraped knee. Before I see you in a few days for the next bout of Ofcon Report reading and commentating, however, I’ll leave you with the quote I reference in the comment above (it can’t hurt to publish it again):

Now, on the case of internet sex crimes against kids, I’m concerned
that we’re already off to a bad start here. The public and the
professional impression about what’s going on in these kinds of
crimes is not in sync with the reality, at least so far as we can
ascertain it on the basis of research that we’ve done. And this
research has really been based on some large national studies of
cases coming to the attention of law enforcement as well as to large
national surveys of youth.

If you think about what the public impression is about this crime,
it’s really that we have these internet pedophiles who’ve moved
from the playground into your living room through the internet
connection, who are targeting young children by pretending to be
other children who are lying about their ages and their identities and
their motives, who are tricking kids into disclosing personal
information about themselves or harvesting that information from
blogs or websites or social networking sites. Then armed with this
information, these criminals stalk children. They abduct them.
They rape them, or even worse.

But actually, the research in the cases that we’ve gleaned from
actual law enforcement files, for example, suggests a different
reality for these crimes. So first fact is that the predominant online
sex crime victims are not young children. They are teenagers.
There’s almost no victims in the sample that we collected from – a
representative sample of law enforcement cases that involved the
child under the age of 13.

In the predominant sex crime scenario, doesn’t involve violence,
stranger molesters posing online as other children in order to set up
an abduction or assault. Only five percent of these cases actually
involved violence. Only three percent involved an abduction. It’s
also interesting that deception does not seem to be a major factor.
Only five percent of the offenders concealed the fact that they were
adults from their victims. Eighty percent were quite explicit about
their sexual intentions with the youth that they were communicating

So these are not mostly violence sex crimes, but they are criminal
seductions that take advantage of teenage, common teenage
vulnerabilities. The offenders lure teens after weeks of
conversations with them, they play on teens’ desires for romance,
adventure, sexual information, understanding, and they lure them to
encounters that the teams know are sexual in nature with people who
are considerably older than themselves.

So for example, Jenna – this is a pretty typical case – 13-year-old
girl from a divorced family, frequented sex-oriented chat rooms, had
the screen name “Evil Girl.” There she met a guy who, after a
number of conversations, admitted he was 45. He flattered her, gave
– sent her gifts, jewelry. They talked about intimate things. And
eventually, he drove across several states to meet her for sex on
several occasions in motel rooms. When he was arrested in her
company, she was reluctant to cooperate with the law enforcement

David Finkelhor, in panel Just The Facts About Online Youth Victimization: Researchers Present the Facts and Debunk Myths, May 2007