Thursday, July 23, 2009

Twitter Warnings

Twitter is a great networking tool. It truly creates a global conversation, where anyone can provide and receive advice and input from others around the globe. It provides a mechanism for people to brand themselves or their company, and make the world just a bit smaller.

There are some dangers with Twitter, however. Here are three specific warnings that I would pass along to anyone entering the Twitter conversation:

- Shortened URLs. Each Tweet must be no longer than 140 characters. In order to provide more information, people either need to send multiple Tweets, or they need to send a link to something on the web (like this blog post). However, many web addresses are too long, and leave little or no space for the actual tweet. To solve this problem, Twitter users make use of URL-shortening sites. These sites act as a proxy for the “real” site, but with a much shorter name. The name itself has nothing to do with the actual content.

The danger here is that we have no indication of where we are being taken, other than the text of the tweet. So, one could receive a tweet that simply says “Check this out!” with a URL pointing to someplace on “” or “”. Clicking on the link could result in pornography, phishing schemes, malware or any other unseemly or dangerous site. As with email, be very wary of clicking on links in Tweets that are from people you don’t know well.

- Twitter Spammers. In my last blog post, I explained that Twitter is a much more open environment than Facebook. The intent is to “put yourself out there”, and to make it easy for those who may have similar interests to find you and follow your tweets. You post some tweets, and those who like what you are saying will find you and follow you. You don’t seek out followers – they naturally find you based on what you are discussing.

There are many, however, who turn this paradigm on its head. They follow anyone and everyone – not because they want to receive updates from these people, but because they want to make these people aware of their existence. Since Twitter includes images with each Tweet, many of these Twitter spammers will use pornographic images – thus spamming you with an image that you neither requested nor sought out.

Unfortunately, there is not much we can do about these types of Twitter users. The best we can do is to use the Twitter “block” feature, and block them from following us. Unfortunately, that means we need to: 1. Know about them, 2. Know what they represent, and 3. Decide we don’t want their influence on our Twitter page. and 4. Specifically "block" them from following us.

- Relationship of trust. Every con artist will first attempt to build a relationship of trust before scamming you. A common problem with all social networks is the relationship of trust that is inherent in these networks. If a scammer can leverage that existing relationship, it makes their job much easier.

Remember that at any time anyone can have their account compromised – it only takes someone discovering the username/password combination and they can start posting as if they were that individual. If any of your online friends ask for personal information, be wary of providing it online. Their account could have been compromised, and you may be handing your information over to a complete stranger.

These are just a few of the unique areas of concern for the open social networks such as Twitter. Don’t let these warnings prevent you from entering the global conversation, but when you do decide to join in, please do so with your eyes open to the dangers, and be vigilant in protecting your digital footprint. Be sure you are not associating with those that would do harm to your online reputation.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Not All Social Networks are Created Equal

The popularity of micro-blogging sites is bringing a new wave of changes to how the Internet is used to disperse information. People are communicating in 140 characters at a time – sharing how they are feeling, issues they are pondering, problems they are facing – and doing so succinctly in just a few words at a time.

Sites like Twitter, Facebook and MySpace started out by simply providing a place where one could post a few words to describe their mood, interests or current activities. But as people starting using these mediums, they changed the usage to create a “global conversation” where questions are posed, advice is offered, and brainstorming occurs.

With this new communication mechanism comes some new dangers that parents need to be aware of. Not all social-networking sites are created equal, and each site serves not only a different audience, but a different intent as well. For example, although often mentioned together, Facebook and Twitter serve almost completely opposite purposes. Facebook is intended to help you keep in touch, or get back in touch, with people you already know in the physical world. In order to read each others updates, you need to acknowledge that you know the other person. While nothing posted on the Internet is ever private, there is a certain (albeit extremely small) expectation of privacy – only those to whom you grant access can read your updates.

Twitter, on the other hand, is intended to make new friends and associates. Every ‘tweet’ sent to twitter is available for anyone else to read – whether you know them or not. Anyone can respond to your tweet, and can strike up a conversation with anyone else. You don’t have to know the other person in the physical world in order to interact. People search all tweets for certain words or phrases, and may begin “following” anyone who uses those terms.

The good news is that teens today understand this, and most of them are avoiding Twitter for that very reason. Many of them find Twitter “creepy”, and prefer to stick with Facebook, MySpace and the other “connect with people I already know” type sites.

However, as we know, the dangers of the Internet are not limited to children – adults can quickly find themselves involved in things they didn’t expect. Twitter is finding it necessary to actively search out twitter spammers as people figure out ways to leverage this open environment in a self-serving way.

In future blog posts we will explore some of the unique dangers that accompany participating in the “meet new people” type sites, such as Twitter.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Technology and Smoking Reduction among Teens

I just heard two stories on the radio that cause me to wonder whether technology can take credit for actually making kids healthier. If so, could it also help reduce teen pregnancy, teen vandalism, and other innapropriate activities? Interesting thought...

One recently-released study indicates that kids as young as 2 years old are spending more time online - and the number is growing. The other story indicated that smoking is down among young people (I couldn't find that link, but here is a similar story from a few months ago indicating that marijuana smoking is down by double-digits among teens).

In the report on the decline in pot smoking, they surmise that the decline is due to the fact that kids are not going out at night as much as they used to - and they guess that this is because kids are engaged in on-line activities. So, playing online games and participating in social networks may actually have played a part in reducing smoking among teens. Very cool.

I have blogged in the past about the lack of "natural bounds" when participating in digital activities - that is, kids spend more time online because their bodies don't get tired like they would if they were playing outside, or they don't recognize the time passing like they would if they were outside and the sun went down, etc. Now there is actually scientific evidence that participating in digital activies may actually have a positive "natural bounds" effect - allowing kids to participate in online activities instead of going out at night may keep them more healthy.

Of course, we still need to ensure they are using technology safely - there are plenty of things they can get involved in online that would be just as detrimental to their health as smoking. But the good news is that we have much more control over the technology in our home than we do once our kids leave the house to "hang out" with their friends. Of course, we don't want to swing the pendulum too far to the other side either - kids need peer interaction, and they need some freedom to associate with their friends in the real world.

The bottom line is that we, as parents, should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. No need to unplug the cord and keep our kids away from technology - just be sure we help them understand how to use technology responsibly - and it may just help us reduce some of the difficulties of the "old days" when kids would just hang around outside with their friends in the real world - and would quickly find ways to get into trouble.