Following your religion…. the Digital Native way

India is renowned for its exotic tourist attractions, sumptuous cuisine and diverse cultural origins. Even though a majority of the population is Hindu, the country has been lead by a Sikh Prime Minister, a Muslim President and an Italian originated woman, Sonia Gandhi. Thus, India has, to a large extent, shown great tolerance for other religions and proved itself to be a truly multi-cultural state. And religion has always been important – you can’t turn a corner without seeing a temple. But this religious fervor is now being taken to the next level, in ways both traditional and novel, including online.

In many contemporary cultures, the older generation lament straying from the old ways and attempt to incite young people to show more faith, become more spiritual and, of course, stay away from ‘Western Influences’. Ironically, it is some of these ‘western influences’- namely social networking sites and blogs, – which are spreading the religious fervor among youth. People have always advocated for greater tolerance between Hindus and Muslims in India, and this is now also reflected online – online blogs like the Indian Muslims Blog describes itself as a window into the Indian Muslim life and regularly feature bloggers who discuss issues like greater tolerance between the two communities. However, sites such as these are balanced with a larger number of sites solely aiming to spread religious fervor among Digital Natives surfing the net. It seems to be working. Recent polls show that more and more young people (under the age of 25) feel themselves to have greater belief in their religion now. So, how are Digital Natives getting in touch with their religion?

Well, they don’t really have to do anything new – one click on YouTube allows you to listen to multitudes of different bhajans (devotional songs), on Facebook you can join religious groups or even become a ‘fan’ of your religious idol and if you want to check up on a old religious fable all you need to do is Google it or check up on blogs with archives of stories – like the Hindu Blog. So, for a Digital Native, following religion online is actually more convenient, and so easier, than doing so offline. To read, discuss, debate or listen about their respective religion online is much more convenient than it is to actually do so by searching through libraries or even go shopping – and this may be the incentive behind the increase in religious fervor in the country. This would then also explain why now it is easier to criticize other peoples’ religion online than offline.

In the midst of efforts for greater religious tolerance, there is a backlash- Digital Natives now in India are finding it easier to criticize each others religious traditions, whereas in virtual settings they have to face less severe consequences. Thus, now each new video posting on YouTube is accompanied with at least a couple of negative comments and each new Facebook group seem to always be having a heated argument on its comments thread. In fact, many times the debate will even turn to criticisms and comparisons of religions; with Muslims questioning the way in which Hindus worship idols etc.

So, are Digital Natives in India are becoming more religious, or simply more vocal about their religious contemplations?

Good? …. Bad? …Well that’s yet to be seen.

-Kanupriya Tewari

Digital Natives Definitions Redux, Episode n+x

An episode of the local (for Boston) NPR show “On Point” sent around Berkman last week inspired a spirited conversation. The conversation ranged from the definitional – concern that the term Digital Natives was “relying too much on age as the determining factor of Internet and technology savviness” and the riposte that DNs are “not a generation but a population” – to the big-picture theoretical.

Detlev Matthies offered that,

To my understanding the point is the change of the society that framed the personality: the experience of the networked society of the informational age asks for a different understanding of “person” and “identity” than the industrial society did (Even though that was already information based – Manuel Castells gave a good description of this difference in his “The Rise of the networked society / Prologue: the net and the self” )

Digital Natives’ Nikki Leon added,

What I’ve found the most defining factor of Digital Native-dom is that, for Digital Natives, constant and consistent use of technology for both social and work purposes has become mainstream. For many tech-savvy Gen-Xers (some of my DN team members included), their use of the internet for networking and creative work was ahead of the curve and in some cases distanced them from their peers. For Gen-Yers like me, it’s exactly the opposite — “What do you mean you don’t have a facebook?” “I txted you to let you know I wasn’t coming, didn’t you get my msg?” “The syllabus was posted online. Don’t come into my office and tell me you didn’t know what the assignment was.”

Of course, this is a long-ongoing conversation; Henry Jenkins’ thoughts on the matter were referenced -

Talk of “digital natives” helps us to recognize and respect the new kinds of learning and cultural expression which have emerged from a generation that has come of age alongside the personal and networked computer. Yet, talk of “digital natives” may also mask the different degrees access to and comfort with emerging technologies experienced by different youth. Talk of digital natives may make it harder for us to pay attention to the digital divide in terms of who has access to different technical platforms and the participation gap in terms of who has access to certain skills and competencies or for that matter, certain cultural experiences and social identities. Talking about youth as digital natives implies that there is a world which these young people all share and a body of knowledge they have all mastered, rather than seeing the online world as unfamiliar and uncertain for all of us.

As long as we divide the world into digital natives and immigrants, we won’t be able to talk meaningfully about the kinds of sharing that occurs between adults and children and we won’t be able to imagine other ways that adults can interact with youth outside of these cultural divides.

And John Palfrey recalled his reply to Jenkins:

In [Born Digital], we argue in favor of greater connectivity. That connectivity might be between parents or teachers or lawmakers who don’t live any part of their lives online and our kids who do. That connectivity might be between those in industry who are threatened by what these kids and others (us) are up to online and the culture that we represent. That connectivity might be between technology companies and their users, whose identities they seek otherwise to control. That connectivity might be between those of us in the rich world and those in less rich parts of the world, as [Global Voices] makes possible.

I’ll throw in my US$0.02 as the last word here. We all greet the world as it comes, and the world is always changing. What one might call Digital Natives are those who are and have been coming of age in a world where increasing amounts information relating to all of our existence is continually coded and transmitted in 1s and 0s, stored and collated, swapped and correlated. The world that their children come into will by turns make this one seem clunky and primitive, but neither that nor this world is in itself a better or worse thing. Technology does not have a moral component: it is the people who use it. Technology does not do the work: it is the people who use it. Today or yesterday or tomorrow, everything is mediated through technologies – it’s different technologies, but the same humans mediating.

We should be be neither Utopian nor dystopian in our vision of today or tomorrow, but meet the world as it comes and work with our fellow humans to make it a better today and tomorrow. The most important technology for that end is communication, and while wafers of silicon do make it easier for use to communicate with more people than ever, faster than ever, we should never lose sight of the fact that the most important part of those communications are the humans on the other end of them. And to that end, we hope you will continue to participate in this conversation – these communications – with us.

-Jacob Kramer-Duffield

I CAN HAS POLITICAL PWERZ?

According to the web-comic he posted online , Sean Travis Tevis was fed up with his anti-abortion, censorship promoting, anti-gay marriage, pro-intelligent design state representative, Arlen Siegfreid. Sean decided to run against him. He only needed 151 signatures to get on the ballot, but needed to raise $26,000 to run a decent campaign. So, like so many established and aspiring politicians today before him, he turned to the Internet.

But this plea for donations was different. Sean did not tap the “netroots,” (the left-leaning political blogosphere). Instead, he posted a simple website containing a web-comic telling his story. Using an Internet meme archetype to illustrate his absurd hometown political reality, he hit a nerve. Self-consciously designed utilizing simple xkcd-style stick-figures, and making a few quasi-insider-but-not-too-elitist geek references, he managed to simultaneously solicit outrage, empathy, and, most importantly, lots of donations.

Sean Travis 1

P.J. Huffstutter reported Sean’s story yesterday in the LA Times Huffstutter mentions Sean’s jokes about “down-modding” and “trolling.”, The story also identifies the stick-figure style as being based on the stick-figure illustrations found in xkcd, a popular web-comic by Randall Monroe (…an web-comic author who has somehow managed to earn a stylistic monopoly on stick figure drawings.) While Huffstutter describes the details accurately, I don’t think he realizes how significant these cultural touchstones are.

Sean is an insider of a growing internet sub-culture. By making quips about “down-modding” Arlen Siegfreid’s conservative ranting “below the thresh-hold” in the first frame of the comic, Sean is consciously proving himself to be an insider in a particular slice of a rich semantic web 2.0 / 3.0, social bookmaking, viral meme-generating online cultural space. Sean obviously lives in this space, as does his audience of donors. (Huffstutter’s style indicates that he is wading through at least somewhat unfamiliar territory in his LA Times article.) (Hang wrote this great post last week about masquerading as an insider not just by knowing a few facts, but by knowing the jokes and therefore demonstrating knowledge of the professional culture.)

This sub-culture is far larger and far more accessible than it ever was. The behaviors (and values?) of this space are going slightly more mainstream as a new generation of Digital Natives comes to occupy the space. Conversations and ideas that seem outlandish in suburbs across the nation have taken root online and drawn in new audiences through computer screens. These conversations have even leaked off the web into our newspapers, helping to make Al Gore a hero and Richard Dawkins culturally relevant.

By demonstrating that he is a cultural insider with this particular slice of internet-meme generating culture, Sean strikes a nerve that garners support on an emotional level. Sure, it helps that his politics agree with mine– but the cultural references in this comic signal more. Sean socializes the way I do, and derives pleasure from the things I derive pleasure from. Sean lives the way I do. The details of Sean’s politics aren’t important; Sean is -like me-, and therefore… of course Sean will fight for the things I would fight for.

2.jpg

This tactic, this emotional connection stemming from a feeling of likeness, has always been a powerful tool in politics. “That politician is a [religious group here], like me.” “That politician is a family man, like me.” “That politicians daddy was a coal-miner, and therefore worked as hard as my dad did.” “That politician speaks with a southern accent, like me.”

As a sub-culture becomes less insular and community grows, they realize that they actually have the power to create change.

Sean’s online culture has been testing the waters for a while now. In what has seemed like online mischief, they have used social networking sites to swarm news sites with precision timing to alter the results of online polls. In December, the whale adopted by Greenpeace was officially named Mr. Spashy Pants, the name that beat the runners up Humphrey, Aiko, Libertad, Mira, Kaimana, Aurora, Shanti, Amal and Manami with almost 80% of the vote. This particular community is also responsible for swarming countless MSNBC, ABC, and CNN online polls to express their support for Ron Paul, and swarming many other online polls to express a lack of religious belief. It was only a matter of time before the sub-culture graduated into real politics.

Perhaps Sean Travis embodies the next step in this sub-culture reaching for political power. By insinuating that anything is possible because “THIS IS THE INTERNET!” he is cracking open a new political reality. Unlike Jello Biafra, Sean might actually win.

Sean Travis 1

-John Randall

A Day at Sub/Urban Justice

I had the good fortune to be able to spend half a day last week with the participants and staff of Sub/Urban Justice, a group of individuals and organizations “committed to transforming suburban and urban communities by supporting youth to develop a social justice perspective”, thus endowing them with leadership skills that will allow them to make positive changes in their respective school and communities. The Sub/urban justice summer program which takes place three times a week for three weeks, aims to break down the barriers that separate community like class, race and gender, and so create an equitable society.

The summer program works by discussing three topics (class, race and gender) individually for one week each and holding a number of activities that revolve around those issues. Coming from a country like Egypt, which is predominantly Muslim, sexual harassment and gender discrimination are day to day issues that women have to deal with. Thus, activism in relation to gender was a perfect place to start my experience in the program. The day started off with a simple discussion of terms relating to gender which may be difficult to define. I was suddenly swept into a gust of terms and definitions like ‘androgynous’, the difference between sex and gender and gender mutual pronouns like ‘zie’ (in place of he/she) and ‘hir’ (in place of him/her). Usage of these pronouns on a daily basis is a good place to start ones quest of becoming a more gender tolerant person because – as one participant pointed out – many cultures and languages (like Spanish or French) instill the use of addressing a whole group as male even if only one male is present.

The first activity was a process where participants, including myself, were asked to analyze where they perceive they fit into in categories like gender expression, biological sex, gender identity and sexual orientation. This led onto a discussion of where those issues could overlap and an interesting story of a man who believed he was a lesbian arose – thus depicting a complicated overlap in his gender expression and sexual orientation. The group then broke up into three different affinity groups based on how they perceive their gender- as male, female or androgynous. I joined the female group where the conversation was very similar to that of a group of friends sitting together to share their thoughts.

Recollections and experiences, where women have had to always think twice about their attire and the way they express their gender so as not to compromise their safety, were brought up. Topics – like sexual harassment, the way males use disrespectful terms towards women without a second thought, why women put each other down – which we all think about and are acquainted with but never discuss, were brought to light. I was deeply impressed – never had I witnessed anyone discuss such intimate topics with the ease and comfort of these women. And not just discussing, but tackling – the participants came up with solutions and requests that they would put out to men they know so as to improve the way with which women are perceived and also treated. Upon regrouping for feedback, I realized that this comfort extended to the others as well. While the males affinity group voiced their unease regarding the way males are always expected to take certain steps first (like ask a girl out on a date) and so are at times given responsibility they do not feel comfortable with, the androgynous affinity group discussed the issue of unisex bathrooms and other such day to day issues they have to deal with – all issues which we witness but never speak about.

And it is this relaxed, comfortable and welcoming atmosphere that is the real highlight of the Sub/Urban Justice program. My initial intention when going in had been to find areas in the curriculum where Berkman could help integrate digital tools. However, to the contrary, when going in and experiencing the program for myself I actually felt that a computer would simply ‘spoil’ the purity the program currently maintains.

Surprised? Well, so was I.

-Kanupriya Tewari

What is Facebook for?

Alice Marwick directed me to an interesting analysis on Facebook’s redesign, which posits that,

Facebook’s new design, as many of us have been noting since the company began testing it months ago, seems to emphasis features also seen in trendy new web services favored by us self-styled “early adopter” types.

Mark Slee of Facebook, in talking about the redesign, says:

The profile is very personal; it’s important to us that everyone have control over their own profile. Along those lines, once you’ve published stories or posted content, you can adjust the size to promote the things you care about most, and demote the stories you don’t find as interesting.

And in discussing the redesign with my friend BC yesterday, he noted that the redesign eliminated clutter, and that the news update had eaten the rest of Facebook: no more static pages. Taken together, it’s a clear change in stance for Facebook. Just as they’d re-adjusted to saturation within college campuses by opening it to everyone, they’re now positioning themselves in response to the rise of micro-blogging services like Twitter by centralizing the News Feed in its presentation – trying to corral those users they see spending more time and energy elsewhere.

I think this may be a key misstep by Facebook – because as “hot” as Twitter and similar services are, their actual user bases are still very, very small (a few percent of Facebook’s, even with explosive growth), if amplified by disproportionate representation in early-adopter communities like bloggers. But it’s not a shock that Facebook would be looking for a solution to some problem, at this point in its history: as my colleague Fred Stutzman noted last November, Facebook’s blessing is also its curse:

Ego-centric social network sites all suffer from the “what’s next” problem. You log in, you find your friends, you connect, and then…what? Social networks solve this problem by being situationally relevant. On a college campus, where student real-world social networks are in unprecedented flux, Facebook is a social utility; the sheer amount of social information a student needs to manage as they mature their social networks makes Facebook invaluable.

… What happens when a social network is no longer situationally relevant? Use drops off.

…Try as they might, once ego-centric social networks lose situational relevance, its pretty much impossible for them to retain their status.

…The coolest tools, the best exclusive media – these are only “fingers in the dam” to keep users in non-situationally relevant spaces.

This clarifies the problem. Facebook’s situational relevance for many users after the initial high-use, friend-finding phase – as an ego-centric social network, based on one’s connections to other individuals – either at college or in the post-college working world is not primarily about finding out what your friends are doing. Rather, it’s a low-involvement way of tracking where they are and where they go, and how to keep in touch with them. Ongoing research that Fred and I are conducting shows that even among current college students, the intensity of Facebook use and identification follows the familiar pattern of decline over time, even if it’s not abandoned entirely.

And Facebook is caught in a bind, because, having both accepted venture capital infusions and sold off a sliver to Microsoft, they now have a very particular interest to keep chasing: increased profit growth. For them, this means, exclusively, increased advertising revenues. synedochic has a long, detailed analysis of why this is a bad/hopeless place to be for social media enterprises (which are slightly different than social networking sites, but similar lessons apply here), but long story short: you can’t squeeze blood out of a rock, and chasing increased ad revenue with a user base whose use is already declining is a very self-defeating proposition.

The vast majority of Facebook users are still Digital Natives who’ve never had (high school or) college without also having Facebook. For them, it’s not simply a case of Facebook becoming passé – it’s a matter of their changing social needs, of shifting situational relevance. As they move into different social contexts – college, work, new cities – there may be bursts of activity where they add and approve new friendships, but it won’t be a “place” to spend time in the same way. Having a new Facebook where they can “adjust the size [of items] to promote the things you care about most, and demote the stories you don’t find as interesting” is beside the point if your relevant social reality is mostly taking place elsewhere – indeed, it’s just more things to ignore.

For all the worries about Digital Natives’ social lives moving to endless hours in front of the computer screen, preliminary research is showing very different effects: “a strong association between use of Facebook and… social capital.” Facebook, and social media generally, are a way to connect with friends, but not the place to connect with friends: that still happens mostly IRL, and ultimately it may be the case that after a “Facebook phase” of socially connecting, offline socialization may increase in aggregate over time (though that’s pure speculation on my part, for now). But the bottom line is that already-experienced Facebook users aren’t going to take on the characteristics of techie “early adopters,” and they aren’t going to go back to “hanging out” on Facebook. Redesigning layout to foreground the News Feed won’t change that.

Why are these issues worth such thorough examination? I believe that as especially Digital Natives come of age in a world of networked publics, where increasingly even offline actions are archived or accessible online, it’s important to follow the shape that the infrastructures of these publics take. While ultimately I do not believe that this redesign of Facebook will achieve the desired goal of restoring high usage levels among long-time users, it will, without a doubt, create a very different experience for newer users of Facebook (which has and will retain a central role in the social lives of millions of young people). For them, Facebook will become mostly about watching other people, and seeing what they do. Will they like it? Will it turn them into voyeurs, or make them more susceptible to suggestion and peer pressure? Will they identify more naturally in groups rather than as individuals? As always – more questions on which only time will tell.

-Jacob Kramer-Duffield

Web-less Woes

February 2nd 10:00 AM: In my hotel room in Amsterdam – I’m here with a school trip to an MUN (Model United Nations) Conference – and packing my bags for our return flight to Cairo in the evening.

10:15 AM: Suddenly, my room mate bursts in:

- You are not going to believe this!
- What?
-There’s no Internet in Egypt!!
-You have got to be kidding me…….

My initial reaction, on hearing this not-so-spectacular piece of news, was evident disbelief; I really thought my friends were collectively playing a joke on me. Unfortunately, once they provided the evidence – headline news on all the major news sites on the web (all sanity had not been lost, and Internet was still available in Holland it seemed) – I had no choice but to face the music.

No Internet? The idea seemed ridiculous. And what more incredulous reason than because an underwater cable had been damaged?

News reports showed that a cable underwater off the coast of Dubai was cut at 05:59 GMT on Friday and that this was following a cable cut in the Mediterranean on Wednesday. Reports highlighted:

Damage triggered wide Internet outages, hampering businesses and private usage across the Mideast and Asia

With this news in my head, I grabbed the closest computer to me in the hotel lobby and initiated ticking off things one needs to do before going web-less:
- Check email inbox, and send last emails to loved ones, tick;
- Check MSN and tell everyone online about what has happened, tick;
- Check Facebook, MySpace and leave my status to explain my disappearance (so no-body gets worried), tick;
- Check weather, news, and essential entertainment gossip online, tick; and
- Finally kiss the Internet Explorer interface goodbye, tick.

I had ceremoniously parted with the Internet and ensured that I would survive the tremulous days ahead. But, being the naïve little Digital Native I am, I did not stop and think that if this was bad for me, it would definitely be much worse for others, especially those in commercial businesses. And it was.

Wireless Internet providers in Egypt were forced to give all customers a month of free Internet for the inconvenience caused – a substantial loss in revenue. Telecommunications companies were bombarded with complaints and inadvertently lost significant customer goodwill. Businessmen in general lost money; a friend’s father who was waiting for some documents to be sent via email for a crucial meeting with a client never got them and so lost out on big deal. The phrase ‘the end of the world’ no longer seemed as farfetched when I found Digital Natives, Internet consumers and providers all in utter chaos.

On a more personal level, after stepping off the plane and into my home, I noticed the hollow look my laptop had without the green ‘online’ icon. In school, sitting in the ICT (Internet and Computer Technology) room was a mockery, where my hand kept itching to check my email but which I knew would be futile.

On a more positive note, I can say that this incident afforded a rare opportunity for my friends and me to engage in greater “real-life” social interaction, as we now suddenly found ourselves spending more time discussing the latest gossip face to face (no more Facebook for that, remember?).

So, the incident was…I wouldn’t go as far as to say refreshing….but different, nonetheless.

Thursday July 17th 4:00 PM – In the Berkman Center’s kitchen, writing this blog post. Four months since The Incident, and still thankful that we have Internet!

-Kanupriya Tewari

Going Loca: Privacy in a digital world

As more and more of our lives become enmeshed in the digital world, more and more of our lives are detected, stored, and compiled by the digital systems that serve us. As we call friends on cell phones, navigate streets with GPS systems, login to Facebook from our notebooks, and swipe our employer IDs at cafeteria cashiers, bits of data are collected about us, stored, and compiled in various databases, owned by diverse entities. This collection of digital tracks that we leave behind add up to form our digital dossier.

Compiled all together, this data can say a lot about us. But who has access to this data? How is it collected, and how is it stored? And what rights do you have over your own data? These are important questions to ask – especially for Digital Natives, who are leaving digital tracks from birth, compiling a digital dossier vaster and more detailed than any generation that has come before.

What does this mean for Digital Natives? What does this mean for the future?

Our research indicates that Digital Natives are often unaware of the data that is being collected about them, and what this means for their privacy. The young people we talked to that were aware of privacy concerns often became so after a “learning moment” – something happened to them that made them uncomfortable, and think twice about their privacy online.

Learning by error can work, but it can also be costly. How do we teach youth (and adults, for that matter) to be aware of the data that is being collected about them, to be wary of privacy issues, and to become informed actors in the debate over the ever growing market of information in our new digital world? This is a question we grapple with here at the Digital Natives project, and at the Berkman Center more widely.

A group of designers – John Evans, Drew Hemment, Theo Humphries, and Mike Raento – have come up with one interesting way. They’ve designed a grass roots surveillance system called Loca.

Loca aims to enable people to question the networks they populate, and to expose the disconnect between people and the trails of digital identities they leave behind.

The creators of Loca used old mobile phones to create a monitoring system that tracks all mobile phone users in the vicinity that have their Bluetooth set to discoverable. The system collects data on individuals’ whereabouts, tracking users’ movements, and sending users messages in response to knowledge of their whereabouts. Individuals in the area with mobile phones, without doing anything, receive messages such as:

We have seen you here five times in the last three days.

Or

You spent 30 minutes in the park and then walked past the flower stall. Are you in love?

After such a message spooks a user, it then challenges people to think. Users also receive a message indicating the whereabouts of the Loca headquarters, where they can scan their mobile phone and receive a printout of the every time and location where the system detected them, providing a physical manifestation of the surveillance of their movements.

As the Loca video below explains,

Messages sent to users make the presence of the network know, and illustrate the types of data that can be gathered, and the inferences that can be drawn from it…[Loca] aims to raise awareness of the networks we inhabit, and provoke people to questioning them.

Loca brings up interesting questions for users who were tracked in San Jose, California at ISEA2006. But what about those of us who will never encounter this provocative system? Reading privacy agreements is boring, and can be very confusing. How can we bring awareness to the privacy issues raised by our ever growing digital dossier – and encourage people to think critically – in fun and educational ways?

Living in a digital world makes many things more convenient, available, and even simply possible to achieve. But often, the very tool that makes something good – like mobile activism – possible, also raises concerns in other areas, like privacy. Privacy laws need to safeguard the individuals whose data is being collected. But individuals – especially Digital Natives, who are growing up in a digital world, and will come to lead us into our digital future – need to take an active role in the formation of a society that deals with information and privacy in a responsible and human-centered way. The first step in addressing the issues of information collection, retention, and sharing – and the concern for the future of privacy – is by raising awareness.

- Miriam Simun

Unveiling the Veil – on the web

The veil?

And that’s where many of us would simply end the discussion.

The issue of the veil is one that raises a red flag for many; it has on innumerable occasions lead to heightened emotions that at times culminate in drastic acts of violence. Many now approach the topic as a ‘danger-zone’ of sorts; afraid that it may spiral into debate rather than discussion. But there are signs that new modes of communication and Digital Natives may be changing this.

Women’s battles for or against the veil are long-standing, but it seems that recently the battle field has been moved to the Internet, through the mediums of blogs and social networking sites (SNS). Most of these discussions have not been Muslim vs. Non-Muslim, but rather between Muslims. Bloggers like Lisam have started to create online spaces simply entitled ‘Head Coverings’ where anyone and everyone is able to freely express their views- a phenomenon which has only been brought about with the turn of this decade.

Such a multitude of Muslim women’s voices, especially of those living in the Middle East, is a genuinely new thing. And it seems the initiative, for this fight for freedom of speech, has been taken up by the younger generation, namely Digital Natives. Perhaps most surprising is the increase in males online who support the removal of the veil – a clear signal of progress in the minds of many Muslim women.

Political and social issues are often taken up by Digital Natives on social networking sites but now more and more groups on Facebook and on other sites like MySpace are being dedicated to the cause of discussing the veil. What is important to note is how this once unapproachable topic has literally unveiled itself to the world with the help of Digital Natives and the tools and mediums available on the Internet. The Internet, with its lessened degree of intimacy as opposed to face to face conversations, has allowed many to gain enough confidence to say what they really think, without the fear of being hunted down or physically attacked. Thus, the Internet has bridged the gap between Muslims, especially women, all around the world – living up to its promise of global connection and mediation.

But this young uprising has not gone unnoticed, especially in countries in the Middle East with Iran having banned high-speed Internet in 2006 so as to “cut the West’s influence” and Egypt contemplating a total ban on Facebook. Nevertheless, the voices haven’t been stifled completely.

Muslims living abroad are taking up the initiative and increasingly using blogs and social networking sites as microphones for their thoughts. With the introduction of “Fullah”– the veiled version of Barbie – have come calls for avatar based sites like Second Life to provide more options of veiled avatars.

Fullah- Veiled Barbie Doll

Whether this call is attended to is yet to be seen, but what we can acknowledge is the extent to which this topic has been realised and opened up on the web; it signifies not only an improvement for society as a whole but also provides a positive notion in the midst of so many negatives that are attached to our exponentially growing digital world.

The veil?

Well, now it’s no longer a question that needs to be avoided.

-Kanupriya Tewari

Digital Natives in Egypt

The term ‘Digital Native’ has only just become familiar to me – before joining the Berkman Center as an intern I had no true conception of what being a Digital Native really meant. And I believe that a lot of people my age in Egypt (where I live) or in the Middle East don’t realize that the term even exists. This is my experience of Digital Natives in Egypt – they don’t even know they are one!

As many of you will be aware, the rising food prices and consequential rise in cost of living in Egypt has caused a great deal of unrest, especially in the lower strata of society. Interestingly, though, it is the middle and upper classes which have been using the Internet (namely social networking sites) and other digital goods as a medium to organise protests and strikes comprising of over 80,000 people. Despite the class divide that is apparent in the Egyptian social structure, it seems that their mutual dislike of the governing system has united them, and thus instilled the use of Facebook and other social networking sites as a means to ‘spread the word.’

This then leads onto what exactly differentiates Digital Natives in Egypt from the ones in the rest of the world. In a country with 75.5 million people, only around 15% own a computer. However, a substantial percentage of the population are Internet users because of the huge commercial Internet business presence, available to the public through many Internet cafes. The class divide is more apparent than ever when concerning digital goods; in my own school (The British International School Egypt) I have witnessed a five-year-old talking on a mobile phone and a Grade 6 child boasting three iPods, but then also observed multitudes of child labourers across the country. Nevertheless, in comparison to the United States, there are evidently fewer Digital Natives.

From my own personal witnessing, most Digital Natives in Egypt use the social networking system (SNS) they find to be ‘in.’ For me, the process began with Hi5, which was quickly replaced with MySpace and now more recently with Facebook. Unlike other Middle Eastern countries Egypt has no local SNS and so Facebook has taken the younger generation in the country by storm (there are some others like Zorpia but only supporting a minority of people) – and with it has come the exponential growth in Digital Natives in the country; as one person gets hooked onto Facebook or MySpace so do at least another five, and so the chain increases. Even though Arabic is predominantly the local language in Egypt, Digital Natives will most likely be better if not totally fluent in English; established through their regular use of networks like Facebook rather than any local ones.

A mobile phone in Egypt, especially for Digital Natives, is crucial; you are nothing without one. In fact, when walking into a restaurant it is typical to lay out mobile phones onto table tops and it is not uncommon to see four or five phone lying on a table with only three people. Recently blogging has also become a major aspect of digital life in Egypt; bloggers have made their presence felt, some of them emerging as a force of political opposition. In 2006, media freedom organization ‘Reporters Without Borders’ added Egypt to its list of “Internet enemies” over the arrests of bloggers during pro-democracy demonstrations.

You may have concluded thus far that Digital Natives in Egypt are really not that different from those around the world. And at least for me the greatest difference in not in the Digital Natives themselves but the way freedom regarding Internet and privacy is implemented towards them. I personally was puzzled the first time I discovered that downloading copyrighted music from peer-to-peer software like Limewire was illegal in the United States- in Egypt it is quite the norm and not condemned by the government as heavily. In the same way, here the US government is able to allow freedom of speech on blogs and social networking sites. In Egypt, however, Facebook and other social networking activists are being targeted by government-based media campaigns defaming the website and the youth activists who use it. In fact, Egypt has the highest number of Facebook users of non-US countries, after Canada – but this has not gone unnoticed, and presently the Egyptian government is considering blocking the site altogether.

It is my opinion that not that much separates Digital Natives in Egypt from those in the United States or anywhere else in the world, except for maybe the types of sites they frequent, or their habits regarding their use of digital goods. After all, ultimately Digital Natives will eternally be linked by their common affinity towards and recognition of the digital world.

- Kanupriya Tewari

Are you a Digital Native?

I thought I was. I was born January 9th, 1980. I missed the 70s by just nine days.

I love technology. I was luckiest 6 year-old kid in he world when my uncle gave the family a Commodore 64 for Xmas. I programmed in BASIC. I was in chat-rooms on Prodigy and CompuServe. I played in Multi-User Doors (MUDs) on local direct dial-up bulletin board systems before I even knew what the Internet was.

I thought that I was a Digital Native.

I’m an active participant in “online culture”. I can name every YouTube reference in Weezer’s “Pork and Beans” video. I get ALL of my news online and I own a television almost exclusively for the purposes of watch media that comes to me across the Internet. I conduct 80% of my professional life online and maintain only the fuzziest of boundaries between my work and play time. I multi-task. I transition between IM, SMS, email, telephone, and face-to-face seamlessly. I Facebook. I Myspace. I Flickr. I LinkedIn. I Wiki. I YouTube. I twitter (sort-of). I code a little.

I thought that I was a Digital Native, but I am not.

When I twitter, I often do it alone. (I’m more enamored with the concept than the practical application.) Although IM has become an indispensable tool for getting work done and telecommuting, most of my friends and family are not usually logged in. Aside from email, most forms of online communications never gained enough a critical mass in my age bracket to endure past our extended adolescence. My Skype window sits idle, displaying a grey-out contacts displaying ghostly reminders of my fleeting online social life.

With much enthusiasm and the best of intentions, I try to co-ordinate social events and camping trips with friends using online calendars, forums, social networks, or email lists. But more often than I think is reasonable, I need to resort to the phone to really make things happen. Most of my people just don’t live online.

I am not a Digital Native, but I would like to be.

I’ve had a lifelong love affair with technology and it’s potential for creating change. My age bracket, generally speaking, has not shared this interest with me. True Digital Natives have a mainstream culture of online connectivity. My interest in digital technology has been exploratory and forward thinking, and placed parts of my life-style on the geeky fringes of American culture.

I’m probably more tech-savy than most Digital Natives today, yet I am not one of them. The Digital Natives around me have been shaped by a totally mainstream digital lifestyle, a norm that enables allows them to digitally communicate and collaborate with their peers with ease. Their habits have been formed by their lifetimes of digital communication and complete immersion in digital spaces.

In contrast, my lifetime has been a lifetime of waiting. Waiting for the digital spaces held in the collective imagination to come online. Now that the early, early alphas of the meta-verse are here, I am shocked that my peers aren’t rushing in to them as I always imagined. It’s too late for me. I missed the 70s by nine days. I just realized that I missed the life-style I’ve always imagined would come by about a decade.

I adore the Internet. The possibilities that are provided for by massive digital collaboration and open access to information are the single biggest factor in my having any hope of a brighter future for the human species. (Clay Shirky’s talk on excess cognitive capacity gives me chills.) I wish that my generation was going to play a major role in that imagined future. …But sadly, I will have to go it mostly alone because their embrace of life-changing technological innovation seems to have stopped at Tivo.

-John Randall

UPDATE 2008.08.04: More on the term “Digital Native” here.