What “Togetherville.com” can teach grownups !

I am pretty excited about the launch of Togetherville.com – the new online community for kids under 10.    As any of you who are parents of young kids know the technologies of today have created a whole new set of challenges for those of us trying to raise children in a safe and healthy environment.  While technology opens up a range of amazing opportunities for children it does pose daunting challenges around keeping kids safe online and exposing them to age appropriate content.

I am a strong believer in the benefits of social media, but have found that the privacy challenges of sites like Facebook  provide an uncomfortable level of security for children. With Togetherville you can create in essence a private community of children and adults that know each other and can therefore interact with peace of mind. Congratulations to the founders Mandeep Singh Dhillon and Raj Singh Tut for a great idea. Ofcourse yet again my friend Reid Hoffman has managed to support another potential killer app !

As I looked at Togetherville I was led to explore what this new venture could teach us grownups as we explore the future of technology.  My thoughts led to two insights that build on the approach followed by Togetherville.

First, I think online privacy violations are reaching unsuitable levels.  My challenge is not with situations where you knowingly give up information if asked.  My challenge is that more often than not privacy settings are opaque and difficult to understand and across sites there is no standard way to set a desired level of privacy. 

I think a partial answer to this lies in setting up a “universal online privacy standard” – same setting choices, same levels, same implications on privacy across all websites. Is this likely to happen, probably not, but it should.  Maybe even have a unique privacy setting attributed to you as a person that carries along with you as you surf the web and dynamically adjusts the settings of a website as you visit it.

Second, there is no effective way to manage age appropriate content exposure.  Online filtering programs work to some degree and have gotten better over time, but are far from be 100% effective.  I dont think you can or should control what people put online, but we need to find better ways to manage its exposure – this is especially true for video content (either user generated or professional).

So my solution to this challenge lies in open source and the movie rating system.  We clearly dont want a central authority telling us what we can and cannot watch and we also dont want them to a central authority to rate online content as they do for films (eg. PG13, R etc.).  However, I believe it would be interesting to explore an approach that provided “crowd sourced content rating”.  So for example, each website or piece of video content could have a tag that a user could provide input on (eg. 20 people rate a video as PG13, 600 at R – which would then provide some guidance to users and a better filer mechanism).  ultimately parents and kids make personal choices on what to watch, but at least such a system would provide a universal guide and benchmark to make informed decisions.

I believe by better addressing the issues related to online privacy and content the benefits of the internet can be more effectively consumed by both children and adults.  The problems will never be solved to our complete satisfaction (as they are not in the real world either), but more tangible progress can and should be made.

As usual, I welcome your comments and insights.

Zia.

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8 Responses

  1. Hi, Zia.

    I like the concept of Togetherville and think it might work at the target age (6-10). Much beyond that, the “I don’t want my parents mixing with my friends” factor would play too big a role, I suspect. Some aspects remind me of Club Penguin, which was a community in which I always felt my children were relatively “safe” and that their privacy was being respected. Partially due to the fact that it was a pay site, I suppose, thus the role of their personal information as a monetization vehicle was minimized.

    That said, there are still some onerous clauses in the Togetherville privacy policy (yes, I actually took the time to read them!). Notably:

    “In the event Togetherville, Inc. goes through a business transition, such as a merger, acquisition by another company, or sale of all or a portion of its assets, your personally identifiable information will likely be among the assets transferred. You will be notified via email or prominent notice on our Web site for 30 days of any such change in ownership or control of your personal information.”

    This pretty much states that we respect your privacy, but whoever buys us might not, and we make no promises once the business changes hands. I think that is VERY problematic unless there is a specific committment and assurance of full, timely and complete “digital erasure” of any and all personal information and historical activity upon user request.

    Let’s face it, the monetization model for all too many new web properties is advertising, and the whole premise of effective online advertising is based on a *lack* of privacy.

    I think most of these service providers should offer some type of “privacy enhanced” model, at a premium price (applying Chris Anderson’s “freemium” concepts), which buys you an ad-free experience, enhanced functionality, and certain additional guarantees as to your digital privacy.

    I feel that *all* sites should be required to offer a “digital erasure” service to any and all subscribers at the request of the subscriber/user. Ideally this could be achieved by industry initiative, but if not, regulation might be required.

    In any case, I like the concept of Togetherville in general and would encourage the team there to consider some of my suggestions, so as to take a leadership role in *real* privacy protection and to strike a fair balance between “you get what you pay for” and being a good net citizen.

    Best,

    Rick

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Gaganpreet Singh, Rick Bullotta. Rick Bullotta said: @ZiaYusuf my comments on privacy and "digital erasure" in response to your Togetherville topic… http://bit.ly/96Vac0 […]

  3. Hi Zia,

    Thanks for the insightful post. At Togetherville, we love the perspective of kids. Interesting enough “Crowd sourced content rating” is something that kids engage in everyday. They thrive as they gather more information from those around. Truly a lesson we can learn from them.

    Raj

  4. As the dad of a 5 year old who knows how to use youtube on a laptop, I keep worrying about this all the time. At some point, the thought of crowdsourcing a rating system crossed my mind too – and then as I thought through it, it did not feel right.

    What services do I rate? the ones that I realy like, or the ones that I really hate. I have no interest in rating something in between. Even if I hate some thing, I do not have a strong urge to explain it to fellow netizens, except in a handful of cases. I some how got the impression that if most people see it like I do, then we will have an extremely skewed rating system. A central authority on the other hand, can be biased too. However, it is readily apparent that they have a consistent bias and I can figure out how to interpret their rating system.

    This is a concious decision that we make – as adults and as parents, on what sites we can visit and what sites children can visit. It comes with its risks. However, I seriously don’t understand what is the harm in monitoring and blocking facebook and any other site I don’t feel comfortable with, till my kid is old enough to judge for herself. I don’t think it will negatively affect her intellectual or social growth. There are plenty of safe sites out there. Of course I am sure she will try out the sites from places where I cannot monitor, but then at least I can make an honest effort to minimize the impact.

    For adults – I am not a fan of blaming facebook for its privacy settings. No one is pushing us to join and use this free service. So if you are not very happy – get out of there and find something else to post gossip. Or don’t post things that you don’t want the world to know. People know that they should not write inappropriate emails from their office email – so why can’t they adjust their social media behavior as well? If it is a paid service – yes, I can understand the frustration of compromising security.

    Sorry – that was a lengthy rant

    • Vijay,

      Thanks for the comments. You are correct simply stopping access to a site will solve the problem, but these days with broad access to computing devices this is not always possible.

      I am an active user of Facebook and accept what I am getting into. My issue is that it would be better to have a mechanism across all website if there was a standard way for me to set up my privacy settings. This was my point. This is why the movie rating system was set up. To provide people a standard way to judge a movie. Same with privacy setting, I think there should be a standard privacy setting dashboard that you can set that then applies to all the sites you visit.

      Thx,
      Zia.

  5. A crowd sourced content rating system is an excellent idea. We already have experience with tagging and rating from Amazon, Rotten Tomatoes and so many other websites. Even including ‘junk’ ratings, the overall score should be useful to children as well as adults.

    The other side of the privacy coin is to take responsibility for what we reveal. It’s hard for young children to navigate the obscure and winding path between being open and honest, and being sophisticated about privacy, but I would urge Togetherville and other companies in that sector, parents, and the society at large to help children understand and adopt best practices to protect not only their own privacy, but those of their associates.

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