Have you seen yourself online through someone else’s eyes?

As regular readers of this blog know, I devote a lot of time to talking about how social networks are shaping our kids and that we, as parents, need to keep ourselves apprised of what’s going on out there in facebook-twitter-flickrland. The assumption tends to be that we need to keep an eye on our kids because they might do (or post) something dumb that might haunt them forever.

Even President Obama, in his back-to-school speech, explicitly warned kids about posting the wrong kind of stuff on facebook.Young people, the thinking goes, don’t have the benefit of life experience nor do they show sufficient discretion in terms of the things they choose to share online.

Perhaps. But I would argue that the real enemy of discretion is complacency. After you’ve spent a little time and you get comfortable on social networks, there is sometimes a tendency to let your guard down. As the economy continues its jobless recovery, did you know that 45% of HR professionals used social networks to research candidates occasionally? (Google, facebook and LinkedIn being the top three resources they checked, surprising no one.)

So if you were sitting in a job interview right now and the HR person asked, “Hey, mind if we pull up your facebook page real quick?” What would you say?

Now, because I’m a “glass half full” kind of guy, I should mention that the converse is also true: HR pros admitted to hiring because of what they saw on a candidate’s profile, citing “a positive look into the individual’s personality” or because the profile was professional, creative or “showed off the candidate’s skills.”

If you’re looking for a job, make sure you’re in that second group. It’s not just kids who post dumb stuff.

Moms, kids and social networking

Summertime seems to be ushering in a drop off in facebook traffic amongst the 18-25 set, although they still remain the dominant demographic. The last 30 days has seen a 3% drop in traffic among the college crowd, but it has also produced a bump of 1.5 million users among those over 35.According to some usage figures, active facebook users in the US now total 70 million, with 60% of them over 26.

When I speak in schools and to education trade groups, one of the biggest things I hear from parents is that they are afraid of what their kids are doing online. But a lot of this fear comes from a lack of knowledge. In other words, the parents themselves have not taken the time to jump on facebook or one of the other social networking services to see what all the fuss is about. Well, that might be changing. The popular parenting site Babycenter recently completed a pretty extensive study about the uptake among moms and they say that moms who use social media is up 462% since 2006. As always, these numbers should be kept in perspective since in 2006, the overall usage numbers of social media was nowhere near where it is today.

The more parents, teachers and administrators educate THEMSELVES about social networking, the better chance we will all have to help our kids become digitally savvy adults. Kids might get bummed out being “friended” by their parents or another adult relative. But it’s worth it if the end result is that we, as adults, learn the facts about living our lives online instead of responding to misinformation and negative hype.

Online reputation management- a growth business?

I’ve been thinking a lot about where we’re all going to be in several years after we have posted to all our blogs, tweeted our way to a fare-thee-well, left comments, posted pictures and done all of the things we think of as commonplace in today’s world. I am around more and more students and I try to think about their futures, even if sometimes they don’t! Job seekers, those coming out of school or those trying to reposition themselves in our slowly recovering world economy, are also in my thoughts.

The trouble with living your life on the internet is that sometimes you wish you could take things back, just like in real life. The mistakes you make, the pictures you take, the things you say- they can become permanent digital artifacts. It’s easy to leave tracks, but tough to cover them. Five or ten years ago, if you did something dumb at a party, it wouldn’t end up on the Internet for all to see. (I’m looking at you, Michael Phelps!)

This is why I think online reputation management will become such a growth industry in the coming years. Social media is so new, we’re all figuring it out in real time. There is no history to guide us and, let’s face it, we don’t always exercise perfect discretion in life. The reputation management business is not new, but it mostly focuses on institutions, brands and larger entities. (Here’s a good link to John Jantsch’s blog.) I see more companies, widgets, programs and other solutions popping up to help individuals as we move forward.

What do you think? Is this a service you would pay for? (You don’t have to get too specific about WHY you might use such a service…) What are your thoughts? Please post a comment.

Where is the real danger online? It might be offline.

I recently finished reading a great book called “Born Digital- Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives” by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser. It is a terrific, and necessary, analysis of those born after 1980 into the digital world, who they are and what the world that they are creating might look like. It is an exhaustively researched book that touches on so many topics that are becoming ever more important in our digital age. Topics such as privacy, identity, gaming, the impact of the internet on how we learn and how we create and, of course, safety.

Many of the long term effects of the issues the authors touch on are unknowable and will only be revealed with the passage of time, but the authors are to be commended for approaching these subjects head on and searching for answers. If you were born BEFORE 1980, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of the book.

Mr. Palfrey is a faculty director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and he chairs the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, which recently released the results of their year-long study about internet safety submitted to the 50 state attorneys general. The results might surprise you and the report is available for download.

Obviously, what resonated with me most was their recommendation that “Parents and caregivers should: educate themselves about the Internet and the ways in which their children use it, as well as about technology in general…”

Responses like this one from Illinois are not helpful, in my opinion. The Internet did not CREATE predators or scam artists or bullies or identity thieves, but it sometimes takes an unwarranted amount of the blame because it’s an easy target.

This is not a blog dedicated to book reviews, but every now and then I come across one that I want to share.

More information about the Digital Natives project can be found here.

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Is “sexting” the problem?

Parents of teenaged kids have always faced multiple challenges, and things are no different today.

When I speak about social networking to school audiences, I try and hit a few key topics. Among them are the intersection of online and offline behavior, parental involvement and the application of common sense.

Sexting, or the practice of sending nude or semi-nude photos across wireless networks, is a new phenomenon enabled by ubiquitous cell phone cameras. A December 2008 survey of nearly 1300 teens and young adults found that 20% of teenagers and 33% of 20-26-year olds said they had done it. The consequences can be devastating.

I am not defending sexting as a wise thing to do. But some of the responses to it have been draconian and unproductive, in my opinion. The most high profile case comes from northeastern Pennsylvania where District Attorney George Skumanick threatened to bring sexual abuse charges against the girls who were discovered to have sent pictures of themselves in partial states of undress unless they attended a 10-hour class about pornography and sexual violence. If they declined to take the class and were convicted of the charges, they could serve prison time and might have to register as sex offenders. Oh, did I mention that the girls in question are 15?

Three of the girls and their parents, out of the 20 to whom the D.A. offered this deal, have filed a suit in Federal court asking the court to drop the charges. The three families assert that the deal was unfair, illegal and “retaliation” against the families for asserting their First and Fourth Amendment rights to oppose the deal. (The Fourth Amendment covers unreasonable searches and seizures.)

Again, I am not defending the kids’ behavior. But it does fall into the category of ill-advised, some would say stupid, behavior that every single one of us was guilty of during our teenage years. The difference is, before the internet, our stupid behavior did not become a digital  artifact left behind forever. THAT is the lesson that needs to be imparted to kids today, not bringing them up on felony charges for raging hormones and dumb behavior.

Before you engage in some questionable digital behavior, think about whether or not you would do it in the “real world.” An analogy in this case might be, would you lift up your shirt in the middle of math class? Use common sense and realize that there should be no difference between your online and offline behavior.

Parents, for their part, need to remain involved and engaged. This does not mean spying or snooping. But it DOES mean talking to your kids about the implications of our “always on” digital world. Once you send a text, e-mail or a photo, it’s out of your control forever. It’s not always easy for teenagers to think beyond 5 minutes from now. That’s where we come in, as parents, faculty, administrators and concerned adults.

In some cases, a good talking to is the sensible alternative to jail time, don’t you think?

UPDATE: A federal judge on Monday, March 30 temporarily blocked the prosecutor from filing child pornography charges against the three teens. See the updated story here.

SECOND UPDATE: On March 17, 2010 a 3 judge Federal appellate ruling came down deciding that parents could block the prosecution of their children on child pornography charges. Read more here.

More on educating kids and parents about social media

I have been getting a lot of requests from parents and educators for more information about the content of the presentation I do for middle schools, high schools and universities about social networking and the intersection of online and offline behavior. Here is a short video (under 2-minutes) that should give you a good idea of what the key takeaways are.

I have had some really fascinating conversations in recent days with parents, faculty and administrators, all of whom have shown a lot of enthusiasm about the program I deliver. It has been enlightening to me to hear some of their concerns as they relate to a host of issues like admissions, reputation management, bullying, the implications of "friending" and so many other relevant topics, and my presentation covers most of them.

If you want more information about bringing me to your school or your child's school, send me an e-mail. (There's an "Email me" tab located on the right hand column of the blog.) In the coming weeks, I will be launching a dedicated website to handle requests, but I wanted to get this video out as soon as possible since a lot of you had asked me about it. Thanks to all of you for your interest.

Social networking is here to stay. The tools, such as Facebook, MySpace, etc., may not be around forever, but this new method of communication is not going anywhere. We owe it to our kids to really make an effort to understand what's going on in the space, so we can help them understand it, and raise digitally savvy young adults.

Secrets of Social Media Seminar

I will be speaking at the “Secrets of Social Media” seminar being held in Jacksonville, FL on Thursday, March 26. I will be sharing the stage with four wonderful speakers, all of whom bring a valuable perspective to social media and its myriad applications for your business.

Here’s the link for more information. Hope to see you there.

Something kind of cool happened last week that I wanted to share. The post I wrote about Tropicana’s decision to change back to its original “straw in the orange” logo generated a lot of traffic. Evidently, someone at the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism is among my readers and noticed my analysis. They  cited me and the blog on their weekly index. Who knew people would get so exorcised over an orange juice carton, huh?

Educating kids about social media

I recently returned from the Boston area where I gave a speech at St. Mark’s School, the boarding school I attended back before computers were as common as cell phones. The school’s administration had decided to stop trying to fight the losing battle of trying to keep the kids off of social networking sites via the school’s network and, instead, try and educate the kids on how to use these sites, and the internet in general, more responsibly.

My talk focused on a lot on what I discuss here on the blog, e.g. the intersection of online and offline behavior, and I also tried to get them to take the long view of the internet as a way to build their own reputations. (Not sure how successful I was on that score.)

All of us, both young and old, are figuring out the ramifications of all this social media stuff as we go along. There is no road map towards the future and there is no history to guide us. I think we all owe our young people our full attention to these important issues, and we must do away with the attitude that social networking is “stupid” or “just for kids” or a “waste of time” or any other of the dismissive characterizations that I sometimes hear. One cannot educate from a position of fear and even just a few minutes spent on Flickr, Facebook, Ning or Twitter  will go a long way to opening up one’s eyes to the possibilities and opportunities that social networking can offer. (OK, maybe not Twitter! It really IS hard to explain unless you’ve tried it.)

It’s not necessary to spend hours and hours a day updating your status and checking on your friends. But we do owe it to our kids to at least educate OURSELVES as to what all this stuff is about if we want to raise digitally savvy kids who are ready to thrive and compete in the years to come. Technology marches on with or without you: none of us watch black and white TVs or dial rotary phones anymore. As kids, maybe we drove our parents nuts blabbing to our friends on the phone all day and night. Now kids text and use Facebook and other digital ways to communicate with each other. Our job is not to learn how to eavesdrop. It’s to understand how to use today’s version of the telephone.

I am looking forward to getting out to more schools and talking to more kids, parents, teachers and administrators. And a special thanks to my new St. Mark’s Twitter followers. They help me stay connected and informed, and I hope I can do the same.

Have you had trouble seeing eye to eye with your kids about social networking? Do you think your kid’s school does enough to prepare them for a life lived online?

Is offline and online behavior really that different?

I am very excited about two different speaking engagements I have coming up: one in Miami to a group of bank compliance officers sponsored by World Compliance, Inc. on Wednesday, February 18 and another at St. Mark’s School in Southborough, MA on March 2. During both talks, I will try and shed some light on what all this social media stuff means but, clearly, they are geared to two very different audiences. One is a group of compliance officers from banks all over the world and the other is group of high school students at a Boston-area prep school who are getting ready to head to college and into the real world. (Full disclosure- I graduated from St. Mark’s in the 80s.)

It got me thinking, though, that in some ways the message will be exactly the same: online behavior. While many people attempt to segregate their online personas from their offline ones, it’s a losing battle. Life is life and everything is interconnected. This is even more true on the web, isn’t it? You are in control of how your appear online, but only to a certain degree. For example, you might not want to post pictures of your kids online. But you cannot really stop another parent from posting pictures from last weekend’s birthday party on their Facebook page, and tagging your kids. I’m not one of those who sees evil lurking around every corner. On the contrary- I have made many powerful connections and learned of many opportunities because of my presence online. But I would like to offer up a couple of suggestions to avoiding problems down the road because, as has been noted elsewhere, there is no “delete” button on the internet.

  1. Be nice. Words have power, so choose them carefully. The written word can be more easily misunderstood than the spoken one. Sarcasm and irony don’t often translate well. Especially in the truncated and often context-free world of Facebook updates and Twitter “tweets.”
  2. You never know where something you say might turn up. Gossip can spread fast through your offline social circle, but it can spread in the blink of an eye online. And maybe even to people you barely know. Always put your best foot forward- just like your mother tried to teach you. (Wearing clean underwear is less important online. To my knowledge, no one has ever been hit by a bus while blogging but, hey, it COULD happen, I guess.)
  3. You don’t know who might be following you via Twitter, your blog or other outward facing communications tool you might be employing. I choose to see this as a good thing, as I said, since I know I have received lots of great opportunities and made good connnections. But here’s an example of things going wrong. James Andrews, an executive at Ketchum New York posted the following tweet on his way to a client meeting with FedEx: “True confession but I’m in one of those towns where I scratch my head and say ‘I would die if I had to live here'” Read what happened next.

The point I HOPE I’m making is that there is very little difference between the things you do and say offline versus online, so the same rules of the road ought to apply. The Washington, D.C. advice about “never put something in an e-mail that you would not want to see on the front page of the Post” is still true as we move beyond e-mail. Save yourself the embarrassment- speak the way you would like to be spoken to.

Have you ever had anything misinterpreted on the web? Have you ever said or posted something you wish you could take back? I hope this doesn’t come off as too negative or scary. It’s just something I’ve noticed a lot lately and I wanted to address it. Let me know what you think in the comments section.

TED Talks

TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is an annual convention that began back in 1984. It is
an exclusive gathering and it sells out a year in advance. They realize that most of us will not be attending anytime soon, so they graciously make the content available on their website or in iTunes. “Free knowledge and inspiration,” as they call it.

I have featured a couple of TED Talks here on the blog, and I encourage you to poke around. The topics are wide ranging, they do not exceed 18 minutes and just about any topic you can imagine is covered. I urge you to subscribe.

To get you started, here are a couple of my favorites. Have a nice weekend.

Sir Ken Robinson on how schools kill creativity.

Arthur Benjamin does “Mathemagic.”

Benjamin Zander and our untapped love for new possibilities.