Universal Media Coverage & Our Sense of Place

handsThere are two horrible things that happened in the last week.  The first being the tragic events at the Sandy Hook Elementary school, which I will not repeat.  The second being a group of professional trolls who seeks to exploit this tragedy for their own religious-litigious ends in their usual fashion.  I do not name them, because I do not wish to increase their notoriety.

Both of these incidents brought me back to thinking about my November entry about the racist teens on Twitter*.  In that post I talk about how beneficial this new, deeply connected world is, and how ultimately this can lead to the dissolution of racism by popping the bubbles of isolated places.

In light of this last week of events, I can also see the flipside.  Over at Quartz, Lenore Skenazy wrote an excellent piece comparing the abundance of media coverage now to that of an incident that took place in Michigan in 1928.  The salient piece of her article is this:

“In 1928, the odds are that if people in this country read about this tragedy, they read it several days later, in place that was hard to get to,” explains Art Markman, author of “Smart Thinking” (Perigee Books, 2012). “You couldn’t hop on a plane and be there in an hour. Michigan? If you were living in South Carolina, it would be a three-day drive. It’s almost another country. You’d think, ‘Those crazy people in Michigan,’ same as if a school blows up in one of the breakaway Republics.”

Time and space create distance. But today, those have compressed to zero. The Connecticut shooting comes into our homes–even our hands–instantly, no matter where we live. We see the shattered parents in real time. The President can barely maintain composure. This sorrow isn’t far away, it’s local for every single one of us.

For good or ill, she’s right.

On September 11, 2001 I lived in Seattle, Washington.  My mother called me at 6:00 a.m. and me, being a graduate student, had been out till the wee hours at the pub.  I was groggy, and asked her if she remembered the three hour time difference between Washington and Ohio.  She told me to turn on the television, and I did.  Every channel was playing the video.  I don’t even need to tell you what it was, because we all saw it. Every single person who was alive at that moment in the United States remembers that moment.  And for three solid days I couldn’t tear myself away from the coverage.  I was shaken, traumatized, and I was 3,000 miles away.  When Fox finally broke the 24/7 coverage and played a commercial I broke down in tears.  A truck never made me so happy.  Reruns of Friends came back on and I felt like I wasn’t going to die of perpetual grief.

We are becoming more and more deeply interconnected on a global scale.  This amplifies the experience of tragic events to national and international proportions.  With Twitter reports from people at the scene of these events, something will come to you immediately with the cache of personal experience.

In thinking about the trolls, I have been telling people time and again, don’t feed the trolls. The more you try to fight them, the stronger their resolve. And this latest iteration of their trolling made me long for a media blackout.  Such a thing is no longer possible, if it ever really was, because now everyone is the media.  Again, for good or ill.

All this makes me feel that yes, we are one. Your flaws are everyone’s flaws, your pain is everyone’s pain, and your joy is everyone’s joy.  We are one people, on one planet.  Different as snowflakes, but all connected.


* In the wake of the Connecticut event, the President pre-empted Sunday night football coverage to deliver a message to a grieving nation.  Racist jerks responded on Twitter and Deadspin (a sister blog to Jezebel) had that coverage.


Who’s Supporting SOPA? Publishers.

Loads of people have published the list of organizations and businesses who are supporting SOPA.  But not everyone knows what these companies are or what they do.  And looking at that four page list is kind of overwhelming to say the least.  So I’ve put together a little pie chart to help you wrap your brain around where this is coming from.  Take a look.

This chart shows the raw number of supporters per industry type who are listed on the House Judiciary Committee list supporting SOPA*.  I’ve removed all the law firms because damn near every one of them bailed for being misrepresented as supporting the bill.  There were 19 of them in this list. I’ve also removed the Graphic Artists Guild who also dropped the bill.  But everyone else I’ve left in here.

It’s no surprise really that Music is the largest industry represented here.  Music was the first battleground in internet change in the early 2000’s (see Napster).  Similarly the Movies and Television categories are no surprise either.  Of course Law Enforcement advocacy groups are in favor, because increases in enforcement mean expanding budgets.  And it’s definitely a sign of the times that the second largest group in favor right now are publishing companies.  Further down the chain you start to get into some quirky political action committees and luxury brands who are probably looking to crack down on counterfeiting.

But as I’m a librarian, I’m going to focus on the publishers for now.  Here’s the list as I see it.

Association of American Publishers (AAP)
Cengage Learning
Disney Publishing Worldwide, Inc.
Hachette Book Group
HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide
Marvel Entertainment
McGraw-Hill Education
MPA – The Association of Magazine Media
News Corporation
Penguin Group (USA), Inc.
Random House
Scholastic, Inc.
The Perseus Books Groups
W.W. Norton & Company
Wolters Kluewer Health

A couple of things jump out at me looking at this list.

Academic Publishing

The first being the academic publishing powerhouses that are Elsevier, Gale (via Cengage), W.W. Norton and Wolters Kluewer.  Elsevier owns nearly every academic journal that is published in the world, and they charge a bloody fortune for access to those journals.  Gale/Cengage provide a number of research databases, as does Wolters Kluewer.  And Norton is a publisher of many things, but primarily academic textbooks, as is McGraw Hill.

Publishers with eBook Axes to Grind

Harper Collins was noted earlier this year for changing their eBook access privileges to library eBook vendor Overdrive, where their eBooks will self destruct after 26 checkouts.  Penguin also got into some drama with Overdrive access privileges this November, when, during a dispute with Amazon.com, they chose to pull all of their eBooks from Overdrive.  Access was restored fairly swiftly as negotiations resumed, but that spectre of loss is still kind of looming. Similarly, Hachette Book Group pulled all of its titles from all of the eBook distribution channels in 2009 and even up to August of this year was still trying to sort out what to do with library access.

Hot Properties

Marvel and Disney (though Disney owns Marvel) own a lot of tradmarked characters, and they enforce the shit out of those trademarks.  I remember going to the ICv2 Graphic Novel Conference at New York Comic Con a few years ago.  There was a panel discussion on fan fiction and they had folks from Dark Horse, Marvel and Nickelodeon.  I remember vividly that the folks from Dark Horse were all about fan fiction, and that they mine sites like Deviant Art to scout new talent.  Similarly the guy who produces Avatar: the Last Airbender was really supportive of fan fiction as a way of encouraging children to be creative and tell new stories.  The guy from Marvel, sue the shit out of those fan fiction people (paraphrasing).  The look of aghast horror on the faces of the other panel members was priceless.  But it definitely made the point, and its the point that comic book companies and the Disney corporation have been making for decades.  These properties belong to us, and you can not use them for any reason.  As for Scholastic, I’m sure you’ve heard of Harry Potter.

Now, all of the groups that I’ve listed here are pretty strictly print/ebook publishers or advocacy groups that focus on publishing rights.  There are plenty of other crossover companies like Time Warner, which I classed as a television company, but also produces books and films.  So if you want to quibble with my numbers you can find them here.  Sorry that this is kind of sucky looking, but Scribd kind of breaks the formatting a LOT.

* In my original analysis I had tagged Pearson Education as a publisher, and its identified as such in the Scribd document, but looking closer into them they are more of a web education portal developer, kind of like Blackboard. I’ve removed them from the table on this article, but the number is still in the pie chart. So the pie chart number of publishers should be reduced to 17. Which is still the second largest industry involved in this piece of legislation.

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 Internet As A Human Right

I got some feedback on the post I did last week that the guy who pushed beyond the 250 GB data cap threshold with Comcast basically shouldn’t be playing the human rights card.  The best responses were that it was a white whine or a “first world problem.”  I think that’s a legitimate criticism, but I hadn’t bothered to read the actual report to the U.N. about viewing access to the internet as a human right.  So I looked it up and read it.  So, is there a case within the report of the Special Rapporteur to the U.N. that data capping is a violation of human rights?  Let’s look at it.

The document outlines the following areas of concern in regards to people’s access to the internet in light of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other U.N. treaties.

  1. Arbitrary blocking or filtering of content on the Internet
  2. Criminalization of legitimate expression
  3. Imposition of intermediary liability
  4. Disconnecting users from Internet access, including on the basis of intellectual property rights law
  5. Cyber attacks
  6. Inadequate protection of the right to privacy and data protection
  7. Access to the Internet and the necessary infrastructure

Each of these elements is explained by a page or two, but here is the nutshell version.

  1. i.e. the great firewall of China.
  2. Silencing dissent and dissidents.
  3. Finding third parties culpable for facilitating illegal activities, or requiring their participation in extra-judicial censorship.
  4. France’s three strikes law and ACTA
  5. DDoS of any sort, especially when used to silence political opposition
  6. Facebook, as well as warrantless search of people’s online information
  7. Allowing systems to be in place as well as to make them cost-effective for general use.

Data capping is not explicitly addressed in the Special Rapporteur’s report.  But there are two elements here that one could construct a case against the practice of data capping, the first being point 4 (actually A-4 in the report).  While the report focuses on supposed violations of intellectual property law (a point driven by media corporations such as MPAA and RIAA), it merely does so as an example.  The point of this section of the report is that disconnection from the internet prohibits one from exercising his/her freedom of expression.  Whatever the reason put forth, disconnection from the internet is a violation of a person’s right to engage in contemporary society.

The second element to bear in mind is #3, imposition of intermediary liability.  Paragraph 45 engages the private sector actors and businesses to recognize their responsibility to respect human rights, and that the state should actively protect its citizens against private violations.

The framework rests on three pillars: (a) the duty of the State to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business enterprises, through appropriate policies, regulation and adjudications; (b) the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, which means that business enterpreises should act with due diligence to avoid infringing the rights of others and to address adverse impacts with which they are involved; and (c) the need for greater access by victims to effective remedy, both judicial and non-judicial.

This framework for social responsibility to safeguard against human rights violations has the State check the corporation, the corporation check itself, and that there be legal recourse for the victims to redress their grievances.  This means that the ISP needs to be regulated by the government against abuses of its users, that the ISP should be respectful of its users in the establishment of its policies and the execution of its actions, and that if all else fails the victims can take the ISP to court over the violation.  Currently there is little the FCC is doing to regulate this kind of behavior from American ISPs, and if the so-called net neutrality compromises that have been bandied about are any indication, the agency is not terribly interested in regulating on behalf of the consumer.  As it stands ISPs can engage in data capping, bandwidth throttling, exorbitantly priced service tiers and absolute shutoffs with little to no repercussions.  And given that the user signs a terms of service agreement with whichever ISP s/he uses there is little in the way of legal recourse to retaliate against an ISP lockout if one does wind up violating the ToS, for whatever reason.

So, can the case be made that the 250 GB data cap is a violation of the author’s human rights?  Yes.  I believe so.  Is it as grievous a practice as the great firewall, or complete lack of access?  No.  But qualitative distinctions aside the facts remain.  Someone was cut off from the Internet.  The action was carried out by the ISP.  The government has not regulated the industry such that it could prevent or reverse such a decision.  While the user could seek legal recourse, this requires the capital to engage in the legal battle against a massive corporation (here Comcast) who can afford corporate attorneys.  Few people would be willing to step up to that kind of challenge and hope to win.  Only in a class action lawsuit would much be likely to happen, and common cause for a class action has been tougher to prove these days.

Is this all just justification for my own self to engage in massive amounts of downloads/uploads?  Maybe, but why shouldn’t everyone have that option?

Kids, Truth, and Lies

Kids lie. Any parent will tell you that.
“Did you eat the cookies?”
“Did you break the lamp?”
“Did you sign up for a Facebook account?”

Yes you did. Yes, you ate the cookies, broke the lamp and lied about your age to get onto Facebook. Children want to get online, because their older siblings are getting online, their friends are doing it, their parents are doing it and they want to be a part of that.

Earlier this month a post went around the internet about a woman who established a Gmail account for her eight year old son, and two years later (now) he got a Google+ invitation. Due to age restrictions on the internet he was required to put in his age, and since his parents raised him to be a truthful person he entered his actual age of ten. This led to the child being not only blocked from Google+ but also from his Gmail account where he talks to his grandparents.  The mother blogged about it and got completely inundated with comments both for and against.

The reason why her son got banned is because Google is taking the easy way out on COPPA enforcement.  The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act basically limits children under the age of 13 from engaging in basically any activity on the internet without their parent’s consent.  If the service doesn’t provide any options for parental consent (as Google and Facebook do not) then the child just has to wait.

Or they can lie.  And a lot of them lie.

It happens all the time.  Anyone can enter any age they want into the Facebook, and kids who want to do something they’re not supposed to do will find a way to do it.  And that means that they will lie to get online and do things they probably shouldn’t do.  But some, as this woman’s child was, are simply online because they are learning to be an active part of the information culture that we all share.

I totally respect that parents have and desire different levels of control over what their children do and do not see online.  I also think it’s a Sisyphean challenge on their behalf, but that’s not what I’m writing about today.  No.  Rather I would like to look at the values that this legislation is trying to instill and how flawed it is in implementation and enforcement. There are several factors that merit consideration.

Lack of Parental Options

The primary problem in this situation is that Google is not providing a method by which a parent could be involved in the child’s online presence.  This parent clearly values teaching the child how to be a responsible internet user, and that’s something that she should have the right to exercise on whatever site she wishes. By not providing a parental consent option Google does a disservice to responsible parents.

Ease of the Lie

The amount of verification that is required in order to get a Google or Facebook account is paper thin.  They’re basically just taking your word for it.  And for the majority of adults that’s awesome, because any of these age verification methods is just one more frustrating bullshit roadblock to have to deal with.  But if you’re talking about legal compliance, it’s the least amount of age compliance that anyone bothers with.  If you say you’re 14, we’ll just believe you.

The Value of the Lie

Children get a lot of use out of the internet, just as much as adults do.  They get to talk to their friends, share photos, play games together, listen to music, watch videos.  It’s awesome.  And if they have to lie to get to do something awesome, they will totally do it.  And there are basically no repercussions for doing so except for getting blocked if you get caught.

I Learned It By Watching You

Adults are on the internet constantly.  I’m a librarian and a blogger who’s married to a programmer, it’s like I’m mainlining the internet on a daily basis.  Make no mistake that kids want to be on these sites because their friends are, you are, everyone they know is but them.  They want to play with the big kids.  And why shouldn’t they?

Let’s have a real conversation about this.

This legislation, all the legislation that came before it, and all the legislation that will probably ever come after it is only going to work as far as kids can get around it and as far as companies are willing to put up with it.  The problem is not that eight-year-olds are signing up for Gmail, it’s that some parents want to legislate proper parenting for everyone else.  Different parents have different values.  My parents raised me to watch R rated films and when they didn’t want to see the movie my mother would buy my ticket for me and drop me off at the theater.  She wasn’t happy about it.  She’d rather I was allowed to buy my own tickets, but she did it.  If I was a child today I would ask my mom to sign me up for email and any other site on the internet.  And parents should have that right.

But you can’t petition a company for redress the same way you can petition the government.  You just get what you get.  And with the way things are set up now, you get lies from children.  And you know what lying about who you are on the internet leads to?  Gay girl in Damascus and Lez Get Real.  That’s all I’m saying.

More and more often the internet is placing a greater value on your true identity.  And we should value truth.  If a child wants to sign up for an internet service they should be encouraged to be truthful.  They should be educated about making safe choices on the internet, being honest with people, and knowing how to protect themselves, and yes there absolutely should be parental involvement.  Will kids still lie online?  Probably.  But the more we talk to them about what they could experience online the more prepared they will be to deal with those situations when they arise, and they will be stronger people online because of it.

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.