Monday, August 2, 2010

The Future of L

My original title for this post was 'Ruminations From the Parent of a TechnoKid'. Awful title - glad I changed it. The 'TechnoKid', or L, is my preteen. She's been asking for Facebook and Twitter since before she was 'double dij'. That's right - double digits. She spent the whole day dancing happily because she had  finally reached a double digit birthday.  :-)

On a separate note, I (CathrynLouis on Twitter) briefly tweeted with AuthorWilliam, and jbeemills (fellow writers on Twitter) regarding a particular music release - Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill. It was startling to remember that it had been recorded fifteen years ago. Blew our minds. Where did the time go? If that's not shocking enough - fifteen years ago was last century.

What has JLP to do with my TechnoKid? Tweeting about it reminded me of what internet communication was like back then. Yes, I said it - back then. When JLP was recorded, the cool thing in personal computing, was email. Woohoo! Not much later, Internet based email was born. What's the cool thing now? Not just Facebook alone, or Twitter alone; but those and all the other applications that enable online personal expression and communication - the social media cloud.

My TechnoKid (soon to be a TechnoTeen) is a member of Generation 21C (twenty-first century). Her knowledge of rotary telephones, phonographs, cassettes, Sony Beta, and VHS comes from museums, old movies, and the rants of her parents (as in "When I was a kid..."). She is amused that we have home phones, tolerates the CD and DVD players, and wonders why we don't use the wide screen TV as yet another computer monitor. As for email - she has it, but barely uses it for more than managing her social media accounts. Most of her friends have Internet enabled PDAs. They interact in the cloud.

Admittedly, I'm more of a geek than a lot of parents. Even so, my L was late to the party. Since technology is my career, I'm extremely sensitive to privacy issues. I also know how easy it is to unintentionally expose her to potential threats. So I had a dilemma. I could either sequester her, trying to keep her from all harm, or allow her to participate while teaching her to keep herself safe. After much discussion with my better half, we opted for the latter. Our rationale? If we isolate her, she'll go out into the world after high school, loaded with the pent up desire to participate, no knowledge of the danger, and no sense of self preservation. Could there be a worse recipe for disaster?

Decision made, I walked her through creating her Facebook account, explaining the reason for each privacy setting I chose. Within hours of creating the account, her virtual world exploded.  She acquired over a hundred and fifty friends! It was eerie to watch. How did it happen? Most of her middle school classmates have accounts. As soon as she friended her closest friends, the news that she 'finally' had an account rippled through and the friend requests keep coming in. She is now connected to virtually all of her classmates.

We created her Twitter account in much the same way. She and her closest friends use it to communicate by DM'ing each other and tweeting in their small circle of protected accounts. Though she is allowed to surf YouTube, I continue to prevent her from having her own account. Even so, some of her friends have accounts and PDAs that can record video, so she is most likely pictured there anyway - and would have been even if we prevented her from participating in any social media. This just illustrates that preventing all exposure is practically impossible for many of us; and underscores how important it is to educate our children about the dangers and show them how to keep themselves safe.

At the mall a few weeks ago, L and a friend were trying to 'hook up' or find each other, and were madly tweeting their whereabouts. Naive, old-school parent that I am, I asked "Why don't you just call her?" L looked appalled. "Mommy you are so-o-o last century. Nobody calls any more. Besides, I don't know her number and she doesn't Skype yet." It struck me at the time that social media has progressed to the point that phone numbers may soon be rendered useless for humans; used only as tools for the technology. L is connected to her peeps and tweeps via the mobile apps for Facebook, Twitter, the online community sites that she is allowed to be a member of and the cell apps that she's been allowed to have. Why would she ever need to make a phone call? Except to old school mom...

Over the years, my L's sizeable social circle can only get larger. The number of friends she will accumulate in high school as two other middle schools worth of students join them, and then later in college is potentially huge - possibly in the thousands of Facebook 'friends' and a smaller but still large number of Twitter tweeps. I'm not even going to try to imagine the friends she can accumulate from her community sites. What if Johnny Doe from middle school shows up when she's in her twenties, having pursued a life of crime? Will she think he's alright just because he's in her social media cloud? I'm trying to teach her the general rules of social etiquette and self preservation that those in my generation learned, and thankfully they still apply to L's virtual world. In the case of Johnny, she has to suspect his sudden appearance until he's proven to be okay - just as if she bumped into him unexpectedly on the street.

Generation 21C'ers expect that one - maybe two - devices cover many of their non-physical leisure activities - reading, listening to music, communicating with friends, watching movies, playing games; and the list goes on. There is no learning curve for them to accept the social media cloud as a digital representation of their publicly expressed experiences; and as another means of associating and interacting with their peers. It gives them freedom of movement; but there is also an increased level of exposure that earlier generations never had to worry about. It's for that reason that I'm hoping that social media communities such as Facebook keep advancing their privacy filters so that L can more accurately duplicate her 'real world' associations and have a better measure of who among her vast social circle she really knows and who she is merely 'linked' to. Having the ability to model 'degrees of communication'; and then set privacy filters based on that model would be just about perfect. It's not an original idea - remember Kevin Bacon and six degrees of separation? A social media application could define a discrete number of communication circles, from innermost to outermost; each with it's own privacy settings. L would be able to keep her connections, and have control over the access that each circle has to her information. I'm sure there are other approaches that would work just as well.

Another thing we're trying to make sure L understands is that in social media, there are - potentially - millions of people either observing, participating in; or in the case of protected accounts, in reach of her conversations. In a matter of seconds, remarks can ignite the social mediasphere and spread through it like wildfire. The upside is that the social media cloud makes it easy for us to connect and find each other. The down side is that the openness potentially attracts cyber criminals as reported by Gizmag. Their article reports that current technology makes it possible for locations to be gleaned from uploaded pictures and videos. It's only a matter of time before vulnerabilities in other public aspects of the cloud are discovered. Though that is true, I believe that learning caution, rather than being overcome by paranoia, is the better solution for our Gen 21C'ers - just as getting an alarm system is a better solution than staying awake every night in fear of a robbery. What are your thoughts on Gen 21C'ers? Please leave your comments. I'd love to see what you think.


  1. Thanks for the mention! I'm still reeling from the Alanis-15-year-ago thing. I don't even think I had email then.

    My son is 3 and until reading this, I've been in total denial for what I'm in for in the coming years. He needs to be educated in technology, but I need to protect him too.

    We're in for a challenge. It's a jagged little pill to swallow.

  2. I agree it's a challenge to strike the right balance. I liked the JLP tie in.


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