“It knows you’re here,” a trainer recently told me in front of a group of educators, my name and image now displayed on the massive screen before us.
“And it can hear you,” the trainer added with a creepy emphasis. Of course, he was trying to be creepy. He knew how disturbing it sounded.
We all gave uncomfortable chuckles. “Why not just add an evil genius laugh to go along with it,” someone added from the back of the room.
“Look, I know this sounds weird, but it only works in this classroom,” our fearless trainer trudged on, trying to dull our privacy and security concerns, with limited success.
As I later confirmed with the other educators, we weren’t just concerned for our own privacy, we were concerned for our students.
“Who’s to say someone can’t just get into this system, and get into a student’s device, and share...” another concerned educator asked from the back of the room.
I left off the end of her query on purpose because, quite frankly, it doesn’t matter what content on the “device” a “hacker” would “share.”
“Sounds like the birth of Skynet,” another educator added, referencing the artificial intelligence system that all but destroys humankind in the “Terminator” movie franchise.
These aren’t new fears, of course. Mention these concerns to any tech giant and they’ll simply brush them off as the public relations price of doing business.
Just this past week, fears over Google’s location tracking services surfaced following an in-depth AP investigation.
Here’s what we thought: Don’t want Google to track your every movement? Simply turn off your location data, right?
It so happens that Google is recording your movements even when you tell it not to, even when you whittle down through all of the security protocols on your device to find “location services” and turn it off.
It’s still on.
Well, sort of.
What the AP investigation found was that some services continue to store your locations even after you’ve set the privacy settings to forbid Google and other apps on your device from doing so.
We know when we want Google to track our movements. Google Maps is a good example. If you’ve turned off location services, and then open their Maps app, you’ll be prompted share location data. Google will tell you that Maps simply won’t work as well with location data turned off.
This is a purposeful action we take. We’re telling Google “it’s ok to track my movements.” It’s the stuff Google and other services are tracking without our permission that’s not ok.
We like the ease-of-use these apps provide. But it shouldn’t stop us from being vigilant in protecting our privacy, whether we’re in a classroom or trying to make our way around town.
Who knows? Maybe that vigilance will help us stave off a future Skynet attack.
Growing up in Brackenridge, Pa., in the 1970s, I had a few, close neighborhood friends. Our small steel town sits on the banks of the mighty Allegheny River, just north of Pittsburgh.
Yes, it still has a functioning steel mill. In fact, Brackenridge was, and in many ways still is, bustling with a blue-collar work ethic, a value that was hammered into us by family, friends and our surroundings.
Those few neighborhood friends and I swore we’d be best friends forever. We had so much in common: strangely dysfunctional home lives, fathers who worked in steel mills and related industries, and a fascination for what life must be like in faraway cities – like Pittsburgh.
Like most friends back then, we weren’t best friends forever. We moved on and lost touch, promises of life-long friendships evaporated by time and distance. We wrote letters, but not often, and only when we could find envelopes and money for stamps. We made phone calls, but only when our parents gave the okay to incur long-distance charges.
We valued work and friendship, but we didn’t really know how to work at maintaining those friendships without easily accessible communication tools.
That all changed in the last decade.
The tools we have for staying connected with close friends are built to help us get around those pesky time and distance problems.
So, when I learned a few weeks ago that our good friends would be leaving Youngstown for a parent’s new job in Texas, I panicked, if only for a moment. Our families are closely connected, our daughters linked perfectly in terms of ages and interests.
They’re BFFs (i.e., best friends forever).
Last night was the final play date for a while. Maybe forever. I was prepared with tissues and hugs for what certainly would be an evening of weeping and tears.
But the tears never came.
Sure, I was thinking back to my childhood friendships that vanished over time, reflecting on how sad I was in the moments when friends moved away.
Then I reconsidered how connected we are because of technology. In fact, I argue that my children are probably better connected to their BFFs than I am to my batch of friends.
They connect with distant friends everyday on apps like Amino and Instagram, games like Animal Jam and Roblox, on tablets and smartphones. They talk, collaborate and play. They know how to connect with others, and they put in the work to learn new apps because they value those friendships.
In the ’70s, I learned that staying connected with friends took a lot of work. But today I’m glad to see my kids reap the rewards for the work they do to learn and use those technologies to stay connected to their buddies – their BFFs.
DOYO Live, Youngstown’s digital marketing and interactive design conference, is back for year three, and the lineup of sessions and workshops led by industry professionals from around the country continues to impress.
Case in point: keynote speaker Allen Gannett, CEO of TrackMaven.
I caught up with Gannett this week to learn more about TrackMaven, his new book, and his advice for Youngstown’s DOYO Live audience.
Gannett’s company, TrackMaven, is a marketing insights platform. Think of marketing insights like this: Home Depot needs to reach customers through their ads and other marketing strategies. They do this through social media and other platforms.
TrackMaven steps in and “tracks” those ads and marketing campaigns, offering insights on the success of those strategies.
“A lot of big brands use us to figure out the stories and patterns in their marketing data – what should those companies do more of and less of,” Gannett explained.
In essence, TrackMaven tells those big brands if anyone is listening to those stories.
Telling stories for a company of any size often takes a little (and sometimes a lot) of creativity. While TrackMaven is delivering insights on marketing campaigns, Gannett – in his book “The Creative Curve” – is providing insights on the path to creativity.
Here’s the catch: His advice isn’t just for the creative minds at those big companies.
“Creativity is most valuable in industries that are typically not creative,” Gannett said. “If you’re in financial services or insurance, remember that’s where creativity can be a big differentiator.”
Gannett explained that it’s great to be creative at Google, but everyone’s creative at Google.
“Where it’s valuable to be creative is in insurance or bank marketing,” Gannett said. “There’s a huge delta opportunity there.”
“The Creative Curve” has received high praise from other creative thinkers.
“It’s been cool to see that people from a wide variety of creative fields have had a positive impact from the book,” Gannett added. “Fine artists said [“The Creative Curve”] has really been a way to add some fidelity to their thinking around creativity, but I’ve also had marketers who have said it’s helping them in their campaigns.”
One of the biggest challenges we face is the dreaded creative slump. But Gannett has a solution. Rather than brute forcing your way into productivity, he says to focus on consuming more raw materials.
“Your brain is really good at coming up with new ideas if it has these raw materials to work with,” Gannett explained. “Great creative achievers spend a lot of time consuming materials in their creative niche. They take those materials, gnaw on them and come up with new ideas.”
“You need dots to connect if you’re going to connect the dots.”
DOYO Live workshops were held August 1, and a full slate of sessions – including Gannett’s keynote – were held August 2 at the DeYor Performing Arts Center.
July marks the five-year anniversary of the first use of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, and what many social media critics consider the birth of hashtag activism.
What makes the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag remarkable, beyond serving as a catalyst for both online and offline discussions, is its ability to bring people to Twitter and other platforms to generate more awareness for this and other important issues.
For example, #MeToo, #MAGA and newer campaigns have gained so much attention that they are now part of our everyday vernacular. Mention any of these hashtags in conversation and most people will know what issue you’re referencing.
Online activism doesn’t show any sign of slowing down. Again, consider the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, the hashtag was used nearly 30 million times on Twitter. That’s a bit more than 17 thousand times per day.
“The conversations surrounding this hashtag often center on issues related to race, violence and law enforcement, and its usage periodically surges surrounding real-world events,” the report states.
It seems that Americans are interested in participating in these conversations and, more importantly, they believe online activism is, for the most part, working.
In other words, online activism can lead to changes.
“Majorities of Americans do believe these sites are very or somewhat important for accomplishing a range of political goals, such as getting politicians to pay attention to issues (69 percent of Americans feel these platforms are important for this purpose) or creating sustained movements for social change (67 percent),” the report added.
Social media users who are black believe Twitter and hashtag activism are necessary for their own political engagement.
“Roughly half of black social media users say these platforms are at least somewhat personally important to them as a venue for expressing their political views or for getting involved with issues that are important to them,” the report states.
This falls to about a third for white social media users.
Although some social media users may be more politically active and engaged online, opinions are divided as to whether or not hashtags are useful for improving political discourse.
“Some 64 percent of Americans feel that the statement ‘social media help give a voice to underrepresented groups’ describes these sites (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) very or somewhat well. But a larger share say social networking sites distract people from issues that are truly important (77 percent), and 71 percent agree with the assertion that ‘social media makes people believe they’re making a difference when they really aren’t,’” the report added.
Regardless of race, users also seem divided on the benefits and costs of hashtag activism, but the majority of black Americans say Twitter helps to promote important issues and give voice to underrepresented groups.
So long as access is free and open, hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter will live on to promote social change.
Twitter purged millions of fake accounts from its platform last week.
Most of the stories about the Great Twitter Purge of 2018 focused on the millions of followers lost by celebrities and politicians like Justin Bieber and Barak Obama.
Singer Katy Perry took one of the biggest hits, losing more than 2.8 million followers in one day.
If you were here, you’d see a small tear rolling down my left cheek as I type this.
News organizations weren’t immune. CNN dropped 1 million followers, the New York Times lost a little more than 700,000.
Ironically, it was The New York Times who published an expose of a Florida-based firm that sold fake followers, likes and retweets, and other services to boost the social media profiles. It’s probably no surprise that those who purchased these fake accounts were celebrities and politicians.
By their own accounts, it was probably that New York Times investigation that got the purge ball rolling at Twitter, prompting calls for action from Congress and the Federal Trade Commission.
“Over the years, we’ve locked accounts when we detected sudden changes in account behavior,” said Vijaya Gadde, safety lead and Twitter’s director of legal, public policy and trust.
“In these situations, we reach out to the owners of the accounts and unless they validate the account and reset their passwords, we keep them locked with no ability to log in.”
For normal, noncelebrity-types like you and me, the hit was nominal, like a blip on the social media radar. In fact, most users lost an average of four followers.
Four. That’s it.
“We understand this may be hard for some, but we believe accuracy and transparency make Twitter a more trusted service for public conversation,” Gadde added.
And therein lies the real reason why this purge matters, the reason that gets buried in these stories about the millions of fake followers lost to people who didn’t need them anyway (i.e., Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian, etc.).
The real reason: improved conversations, or more specifically, the steps Twitter is taking to improve our public conversations. It starts with dumping fake, locked accounts.
Your Twitter conversations are public. Anything Twitter does to make those conversations more civil and genuine should be viewed as a win.
“Our ongoing work to improve the health of conversations on Twitter encompasses all aspects of our service,” Gadde added.
Sure, the purge focused on followers, and not likes and retweets, because follower count is likely the most visible feature on Twitter, the feature most associated with credibility.
In other words, see someone with a million followers, and boom – instant credibility.
This is not to suggest that Bieber and Obama are any more or less credible now, only that the story is less about their loss of followers and more about our improved discourse on Twitter and, hopefully, elsewhere.
I keep returning to 2014, when I first started struggling with the amount of time my kids were spending on screens.
It was also around this time that I found a study that I still talk about today to anyone who will listen. I talk about it in my classrooms, in my research, in this column and at home.
It was published in one of my favorite journals, Computers In Human Behavior. If you do a quick search of past columns, you’ll see that I reference it often.
As researchers, it’s a requirement to read studies like these. We do this so that we know:
Unfortunately, it’s rare to find journals filled with these questions and answers so clearly laid out in the actual studies, let alone in the titles of the articles.
But that’s what I found – in 2014: “Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues.”
Every title should be so clear, so full of detail in 15 words.
Such was the case with the title and study from the team at UCLA, led by psychologist Yalda Uhls.
Maybe it was because I was struggling with my own kids’ screentime. Maybe it simply reaffirmed what I and most other parents already knew – that balancing time spent on- and off-screens was becoming exceedingly difficult to manage.
It was good to see it in print, to have something to refer my colleagues and friends to when discussing and debating screen time.
It’s bad that I’m still referencing it today, four years later.
How Uhls’ team found its answers is just as important as what they found.
First, they looked specifically at tweens who spent time at a nature camp, far from the screens and other technology. They tested the tweens – before camp and after camp – on their abilities to pick up on nonverbal emotional cues.
These cues are the expressions we use when we’re happy, sad, excited, and so on.
Not surprisingly, tweens who spent time away from screens improved their ability to recognize emotional cues. Increasing face-to-face, social interactions (i.e., hiking with friends in the woods, singing songs around the camp fire) clearly had something to do with learning those emotional cues.
It’s 2018, and yes, I’m still referencing that article, still having screen time debates with friends and battles with my kids.
But I haven’t given up.
Sure, we don’t have to send our kids away to overnight camp, but the next time we tell them to ditch the screens and go outside, it might be up to us parents to mix in an occasional play date with time spent away from tech.
We have a simple, easy-to-remember rule in the Earnheardt home for capturing video on our mobile devices. We call it the AFV Rule, named for the long-running ABC show, “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”
When recording our exploding watermelons or obnoxious cats, we hold our recording devices horizontally, not vertically, to capture the best shots. We want those trampoline goofs and hilarious Wiffle ball bat swings to look spectacular and in proper format for future AFV submissions.
I’m kidding, of course. We’ve never submitted anything to AFV.
At least, not yet.
But that last part, “proper format,” is something we take seriously when capturing silly moments.
You’ve probably witnessed the problem with vertical videos on YouTube and other streaming services, and on TV shows such as AFV. Washed-out-gray or pixelated bars that border the space to the left and right of the video on our rectangular, 16:9 frames on mobile devices, computer screens and TVs.
Maybe it’s my inner Spielberg speaking, but I think it looks bad. So do my wife and kids. I’ve appropriately conditioned our future movie directors to capture and edit their masterpieces in horizontal mode.
“How hard is it flip your dang phone?” is a common rhetorical question my kids use when they see vertical videos.
Well, they did, until last week, when we started watching videos on IGTV, Instagram’s new long-form video platform.
IGTV is a bit different from Instagram’s short videos and Facebook’s episodic-like push into video content.
First, IGTV has its own stand-alone app, but we’re also able to watch videos directly in the Instagram app (for the record, Instagram is currently the only app we allow our tween daughters to use, but that’s a discussion for a future column).
Second, IGTV is different from other video sharing services like Facebook in one very important way, and here’s where our AFV rule was suspended. IGTV is built for how we actually use our mobile devices – full screen vertical.
“I’m shook,” was my oldest daughter’s reply.
Instagram’s been in the video business for a while, but those clips were limited to one minute. IGTV videos can be up to an hour long.
“We’ve made it simple, too. Just like turning on the TV, IGTV starts playing as soon as you open the app,” said Kevin Systrom, Instagram co-founder and CEO. “You don’t have to search to start watching content from people you already follow on Instagram and others you might like based on your interests. You can swipe up to discover more.”
Think of swiping as switching TV channels, or watching from your DVR, with content in sections entitled “For You,” “Following,” “Popular” and “Continue Watching.”
The Earnheardt’s AFV Rule may have to be amended, but that’s okay. When we have more options for capturing and sharing videos on different platforms, even in vertical mode, the sky’s the limit.
Facebook launched Messenger Kids in December to rave reviews, mostly from parents.
The new app was created for safe, secure and fun family communication.
Those positive parent reactions actually make sense. After all, Facebook spent considerable time with experts, educators and parenting groups to be sure they were crafting a product parents would use and kids would like.
Getting kids to like it (and use it) is the trick, of course. They are a fickle bunch, always hot to try the next big piece of tech or shiny new app.
“After talking to thousands of parents, associations like National PTA, and parenting experts in the U.S., we found that there’s a need for a messaging app that lets kids connect with people they love but also has the level of control parents want,” said Loren Cheng, Facebook’s product management director for Messenger Kids.
Initially available only on Apple’s App Store, Facebook released a version on Amazon for Fire Tablets in January and on the Google Play Store in February. Messenger Kids has been steadily moving up the list of app store popularity charts.
“In addition to our research with thousands of parents, we’ve engaged with over a dozen expert advisers in the areas of child development, online safety and children’s media and technology who’ve helped inform our approach to building our first app for kids,” Cheng added.
This included conversations related to topics of responsible online communication, parental controls and other issues important to organizations like Blue Star Families.
Messenger Kids is similar to Facebook’s popular Messenger app. However, it wasn’t created to simply sit on the Messenger backbone, even if it has some of the same features.
If you’re not familiar with Messenger, according to Statista.com, it ranks second among the world’s most popular messaging apps behind WhatsApp, and ahead of WeChat, QQ Mobile and Skype, respectively.
Like other messaging apps, users can connect with anyone else who uses the app, including international contacts. Messages can include different types of media, from traditional text messages to photos and video chats.
Once you create the account for your kids, they can start one-on-one or group video chats with parent-approved contacts.
“Parents fully control the contact list and kids can’t connect with contacts that their parent does not approve,” Cheng added. The home screen shows your kids who they’re approved to talk to, and when those contacts are online.
My kids love the tools for creating expressions through emojis, stickers, kid-appropriate GIFs, and adding masks and other effects to live video chats.
You won’t find annoying ads in Messenger Kids and Facebook claims your child’s information won’t be used for ads.
It’s free to download, and has one of my favorite features – no in-app purchases.
The Earnheardt house is full of “Stranger Things” fans.
Up until last week, I was a Twitter follower of “Stranger Things” star Millie Bobby Brown, who plays the role of Eleven, a young girl with a shaved-head and supernatural powers.
Okay. Eleven’s shaved head was season one. I’ll get back to that in a minute.
In any other case it would seem weird, maybe even creepy, for me to follow a then 13-year-old girl (Brown is now 14). But when that girl is the star of your family’s favorite TV show, it feels less, well, strange.
This is, in part, because we had a brief exchange on Twitter over a year ago.
Again, I’m well aware this sounds super creepy. I promise, it’s not.
Around the same time we were watching season one, we shaved our son’s head. He was having a bout with lice, and shaving his head helped speed the cure.
When we shaved his head, everyone in our home took notice of his uncanny resemblance to Brown (aka, Eleven with a shaved head).
I took a quick snap and posted a side-by-side comparison picture with my son and Brown, and a quip on the likeness:
“Pretty sure my Ozzie could play Eleven’s (aka @milliebbrown) long lost bro in @Stranger_Things season 3. Spitting image in a hospital gown.”
She responded with a:
Of course, her account is now deleted, and her "so cute" tweet no longer exists.
It doesn’t sound like much, but that quick tweet turned into thousands of “favorites” and only strengthened our family’s Stranger-Things-fandom resolve. Over the last year, I’ve continued to share Brown’s posts and update with our kids for no other reason than it was fun to connect over our family’s favorite show.
That was until last week, when Brown was forced to quit Twitter in the wake of harassment by cyberbullies who distorted her image, pegging her as someone violently homophobic (Brown is actually a champion of the LGBTQ community).
For me, it begs the bigger question of the appropriate age for social media use, let alone Twitter, even when that user is a celebrity.
I was complicit in the use of Twitter by a celebrity teen who I’m no longer convinced was the right age to handle the nuances of social media. Now I’m even more concerned about how non-celebrity kids are faring in such a hostile environment.
Instagram and Snapchat have their problems, but Twitter really requires an entirely different level of maturity.
Most platforms won’t allow users under the age of 13. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) dictates this age for U.S.-based accounts.
Celebrity or not, most teens aren’t mature enough to handle the complexities of being social media mass communicators, and they probably won’t learn it in middle school or on the set of a popular TV show.
Maybe it’s time for COPPA to rethink that minimum age.
Jerry Springer said, “Because of social media, everyone is a politician. Everyone is a columnist.”
Springer said this in his remarks to newspaper columnists and writers at this past weekend’s National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference in Cincinnati.
It reminded me of a favorite saying I often use (and my wife is sick of hearing), “Because of social media, everyone is a mass communicator.”
Springer and I are both referring to the abundance of social media posts that resemble candidate stump speeches or “deep” critical analyses of some issue, and that because of social media, we all have a megaphone to share and react to that content.
The problem is, of course, that some of these posts include content from the misinformed, the un- or undereducated, and the conspiracy theorists.
The bigger problem is that these posts are drowning out the informed, educated, rational discussions from some rather smart writers.
David Lieber, “Watchdog” columnist for the Dallas Morning News, sees this problem first-hand.
“I kill in print, but I get killed online,” he said, referring to the number of “hits” or views (of lack thereof) his column gets on the newspaper’s website.
His most loyal followers are those who like ink on their fingers, those who still walk to the corner newspaper box to get their daily news fix.
It’s no secret to Lieber and other columnists who attended the conference that, unfortunately, it’s hard to attract new online readers.
Four decades into his news career, 30 years of that as a columnist, Lieber isn’t giving up, even if he openly admits that his days may be numbered.
“Look at this guy,” he said. “How can anyone compete with that,” Lieber asked with a wry grin when showing a picture of his fellow columnist standing next to Stormy Daniels.
His colleague, Lieber admits, “kills online” because he’s able to attract readers who use social media to reach readers who devour these kinds of stories and opinions.
So, rather than fade away, Lieber fights on — online.
“I know what I have to do to build my online fan base,” Lieber said before laying out his strategies, step-by-step, for finding readers and those all-important page views. “But it’s not easy to do it.”
Getting people to follow him on various social media platforms is part of it, but it still is about good, genuine storytelling.
Good stories, according to Lieber, still include foreshadowing (telling the reader what they’re going to get) and good editing. He also suggests using self-deprecation, humor and vulnerability to let your readers know you’re human.
There’s something to be learned from Lieber’s list of strategies for nurturing a fan base. Regardless of what great social media tactics you use to find those fans, telling a good story should always be at the top of that list.
Dr. Adam C. Earnheardt is professor and chair of the department of communication at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, USA. He researches and writes about communication and relationships, parenting and sports. He writes a weekly column for The Vindicator newspaper on social media and society.