What You Say Online – Minors Edition

Dude, why did you say that?

Over at my LJ I spent some time recounting this story of post-election bursts of racism, and talking about my own experiences growing up in one of these similar types of towns where it’s 99.999% white people and racism continues to rear its ugly head.  The quick version: Barack Obama wins the national election.  A bunch of racist people take to the internet to voice their racist opinions.  Some of these people saying these racist things were teens.

And that’s where things got interesting.

The folks over at Jezebel recognized that a bunch of these tweets were coming from teenagers, who posted a ton of their personal information online.  Their full legal name.  Their school.  Pictures of themselves in their school uniforms, or team uniforms. Details about potential recruiting for colleges, etc.  So, they started calling up the schools, and pointing out that these students were in pretty much every case violating the code of behavior for their student body, and not serving as a positive role model or representative of the school.  And then they wrote an article about it.  They named their names, their schools, and more.

Today, Read Write Web called out Jezebel for violating journalistic ethics by engaging in public harassment of minors. The argument from RWW is that traditional journalism respects that minors who commit criminal actions or who engage in inappropriate behavior would not normally be named in an article or on a news broadcast.  Juvenile court records can be sealed, and often are, to allow for the mistakes of a young person to not tarnish the potential for a normal adult life.  The salient component from the RWW article:

When a minor commits a crime in the real world, the cops know who the kid is, as do the neighbors and everyone in the community. The journalist covering the crime knows the kid’s name, and if anyone wanted to, they could find out the minor’s name just by pulling up the public police report.

And this is where the internet is different, and it’s a point that I addressed in my personal blog.  Writing something on the internet doesn’t stay in your little town.  It is something that is PUBLISHED.  By putting your name, your location, and your words out there for anyone in the public to see, you are inviting the criticism of the world, and engaging in the very same game that publishers and journalists have been playing in for years.  The internet pierces the bubble of the local domain and expands your influence to the entire world.

This is why a viral video can spark an embassy attack.

What you do online means something, and it has consequences.  Some people are being visited by the Secret Service because they made threats against the President on Twitter.  It’s gravely serious.

So, the question is, should this news outlet publicly state the names of these teens who posted racist tweets?  I am standing by Jezebel on this one.  These teens already put themselves out there.  They may not have realized what they were doing would have such a profound impact, or even be picked up as national news.  And that is a failure of educating kids about how the internet works.  These kids probably thought that nobody read their stuff, and that they were just writing for their friends.  When in reality, what they are saying, however inane it might be, is viewable by anyone.  And that is the wake up call that they all just received.

This is core information literacy stuff right here.  Developing an online reputation, managing your personal information, exercising care and caution in what you say and how you say it to people.  All of these things are important, and kids don’t get it.  And with caching, and archiving, they will be subjected to the words they put out when they were at their most vulnerable.

I recall reading an article about a high school that developed an internal social network for their students.  The purpose of this social network was to give the students a kind of internet training-wheels so that they could experiment in a controlled environment before they went and swam in the deep end of the pool (Facebook, Twitter, etc.)  The student would spend the year in that environment, play around in it, get comfortable with it, and then slowly they would start to slip up, and then have a consultation with one of the faculty members or the principal.  The purpose of this exercise was to develop an understanding of what you say online, and how this can negatively affect you.  This absolutely needs to be incorporated into early education, and I’m talking like children 10 years old or less.  This is not intended to scare the kids, but to teach the kids about the lasting impact they will leave on the world, and the trail of information that may be used against them, even from when they are very, very young.

At the library we see kids on the internet pretty much all day long.  Some of these very young kids are on facebook and they are sharing pictures with each other. I will guarantee you that probably not a single one of them understands the privacy settings.  Hell, most adults don’t understand them.  And beyond that, they’re not thinking about what these pictures may say 10, 20, 30 years down the road.  And they absolutely need to learn that.  Being online isn’t a game.  It’s real.  And the consequences can haunt you forever.


Information Literacy’s Role in the Penn State Story

Everyone has been talking about the Penn State pedophilia/rape story, and it is absolutely horrifying.  But there was something in this story that jumped out at me that I wanted to highlight.  It was a just an offhanded comment in the NY Daily News piece about “victim 1.”

The victim’s mother tells Stephanopolous how she gradually became aware of the abuse, saying he would act out violently to intentionally become grounded and avoid seeing Sandusky, at one point telling her he wanted to know how to look up information on sex offenders.

That’s right.  This victim was savvy enough to know that he could look up information about people who were sexual predators online, but he didn’t know how.

In a recent episode of the Sex Is Fun podcast the crew interviewed Amy Lang who runs the website Birds + Bees + Kids, which explores how parents can talk to their children about sex in a world that is overloaded with explicit sexual information online.  One of the shocking statistics that comes out in that two part interview is that children today have typically encountered a pornographic website by the age of 11. Now, there are dozens of ways that this information can be taken.  But let’s look at it in the context of the situation at hand.

Here, a victim of childhood sexual abuse, at the hands of a trusted adult, understood that something was horribly wrong.  He knew that there were adults who hurt children sexually, and that this was a crime.  He knew that there is a lot of information about sex on the internet.  He also knew that there were places online where someone could go and find out who these people are who sexually abuse children.  Perhaps he went online so that he could compare his experience against the experiences of other people who were hurt like he was, or look at pictures of other molesters and see if they looked like his molester.

One of the biggest mental hurdles that victims of childhood sexual abuse encounter is thinking that either this is only happening to them, or that what they’re going through is somehow supposed to be happening.  It has been a problem of isolation, where victims feel alone in their circumstances. Clearly that is changing.

With broader access to online information about the world, about life, sex, and traumatic experiences, children like this young boy can quickly find information about what is happening to him.  Clearly he knew it was wrong, and he turned to a place where he thought he could find an answer. The internet.

It wasn’t the law, or McQueary, or Paterno, or Penn State that brought down this wall of silence. It was a kid looking up sex offender information on the internet.

That is the world we live in.

The New Information Literacy

As a public librarian I am often in the position to help newcomers to using computers for the very first time.  Many of them have never sat in front of a computer before, have no idea how a mouse works, or even rudimentary typing skills.  Given the outrageously bad literacy rates in the District, the fact that they have never used a computer before seems unsurprising.  But now nearly everything is online, and people are constantly being confronted with the necessity of information literacy.  Even the lowest paying cleaning jobs and cashiers are required to submit resumes and applications online.  Vast amounts of government services require that their recipients file their claims online.  750 million people are on Facebook.  That’s a big chunk of the entire planet.  To not be connected online today is to be cut off the world.

But the unconnected users are only a fraction of information literacy needs in the public library.  There is a spectrum of information literacy needs that needs to be met by the public librarian and the skill set required to meet those needs is evolving and changing as we speak.  The spectrum, as I see it, runs from zero connectivity to immersed.  Here’s a little graphic.

Let’s talk about these users, because these are the people we work with every day and their needs are different.


This is the person who has no knowledge of computer skills whatsoever.  They have, through the nature of our information economy, finally been confronted with learning new technology and they are starting from zero.  This is the person to whom you need to teach how to use the mouse, what email is and how it works, and the basics of using an internet browser.  These are the people to whom most of the introductory computer classes in libraries are geared.  Public Libraries are the necessary waystation in learning how to become a computer user to accomplish the few things that they need to get that one step forward.  These are also in many respects the most challenging patrons, because they have no background the amount of material required to get them started can be overwhelming.

Light User

This is the individual who has mastered the fundamentals of using the physical parts of the computer but for whom understanding some of the complexities of software and web functions is still confusing.  This is the user from whom we get questions about how to properly space things in MS Word, how to attach something to an email, why Outlook doesn’t work when they try to auto-email a document, why a web page freezes up on them, etc.  These users need someone with a deeper understanding of the functionality of the software they’re using and how web pages function.


These users have gotten to the point that they know how to function online, and they are using social media to connect to their friends, family and coworkers.  They are mostly self-reliant, but they have begun to explore new technologies and software to integrate into their social experience.  They’re are getting to the point that they are creating original content online, but slowly.  These are the users who want to learn how to create and edit digital photos and possibly videos for their Facebook, Google+, Twitter and YouTube personae. Here the librarian serves as a consultant regarding the software used to create original content.


The gadgeteer is the user who has acquired a new device (digital camera, smart phone, iPod, ebook reader) and either a) has no idea how to use it or b) is trying to engage in some kind of file transfer maneuver that they cannot navigate.  Those are really the only two scenarios I have seen take place in the library, though I’m sure there are more.  The unsure new user may bring their device to the librarian to help demonstrate to them how to use the device itself or an application on the device.  The file transfer user just want to desperately figure out how to migrate data from point a to point b, and the librarian’s role is to educate the user in the file structure system underlying their devices. The gadgeteer may also fall at earlier points in the spectrum, but it is usually seen (in my experience) when they have at least mastered the light user phase.


This is the user who has grown to become savvy with social media and often times devices, and they are looking to build a bigger presence for themselves online.  These are the users who are exploring creating original public content on a website, blog, photo site, video site.  They are often self-reliant because they have learned to navigate the internet and they understand internet content well enough that they are ready to become content creators themselves. These are the people who want to learn about content management systems, search engine optimization, using social media for marketing, and how to power-use web technologies.


This is the person who wants to begin tinkering with electronics to make something physical, and not just digital creation.  These are the hackers who make things with arduinos and LEDs for fun.  They are the makers who want to play with 3-D printers and CAD programs.  These users are going to want to learn programming languages so that they can make smart phone apps or design new electronics.  They are the ones who want to make the next big thing, or at least the next cool thing.

Traditional library service has been able to help people up to the gadgeteer phase.  When we get into complex issues of web design and programming, these often fall far outside of the body of knowledge of the average librarian.  Though we don’t see much in the way of reference questions from these users now, we may begin seeing this sooner than any of us would think.  One of the speakers at the TEDxLibrariansTO conference, Eric Boyd, spoke about programming as a literacy skill and the hope for libraries to incorporate hacker spaces into their domain.  I wholly agree with this sentiment.

When I was in library school (10 years ago) Information Literacy was about navigating the user interface and how to verify and compare information on the internet.  We just basically changed the words “bibliographic instruction” to something else.  Today’s information literacy is much deeper than that.  It’s about understanding the complex interconnections between software and hardware; people’s interaction engagement with content (as user and creator); the sociology, politics and ethics of software; and right down to the fundamental building blocks of understanding how software operates so that you can see why it does what it does as well as what it does to us.  The scope of what a librarian needs to know has grown, and we need to have a very real conversation about that.  Does every librarian need to be a programmer?  No.  But we can’t remain ignorant of programming and electronics, or we become information illiterate ourselves.