Desperately Seeking Resources for Teens and Big Data

By JHELyon

As I mentioned briefly in our final class, perhaps big data’s greatest victims are our youngest internet browsers. My own teen years in the aughts saw social media evolve from Xanga(!) to LiveJournal to MySpace to Facebook (allegedly Friendster was in there somewhere too). Nowadays the platforms are too many to list—although Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter merit mentioning—and the modern American teen’s life is drenched in the internet in a way no other generation, mine included, has experienced: according go a 2015 Pew study, a whopping 92% of teens go online daily, aided by these growing platforms and the ubiquity of smartphones.

The difference between adopting social media and living in a world where it has always been the norm cannot be overstated. There’s a not-unfounded assumption that younger generations are inherently savvier with new tech, but without proper education, it would take an unusually paranoid teen to realize just how much information they’re giving away in what’s always been their everyday life. While educating parents and teachers is crucial, especially because big data is gathering information on their children from birth, teens as independent agents must be taught to be safe in ways beyond the easily ignored “because we’re adults and we say so” method.

This is why I appreciate Michael Keller and Josh Neufeld’s Terms of Service: it informs the reader about the dangers of big data through a narrative, and a visual narrative no less, to spread the message beyond the classroom. It may be wordy and dry at times—after all, this is a comic entirely about two men explaining things to themselves and getting things explained by others—but Neufeld’s stylish art design and the character arcs of Keller’s cynic and Neufeld’s optimist makes Terms of Service accessible to a far wider audience than the typical news article or academic paper.

Terms of Service charts the correlation between new internet technology and loss of privacy, beginning with the birth of Gmail in 2004. Former California state senator Liz Figueroa discusses what was then a fear and is now a reality: that Gmail not only mines data from its users, but from non-users communicating with Gmail users. While Google claimed to delete the data after collecting it, Figueroa’s attempt to codify this practice into law failed, largely thanks to the efforts of “good guys” like Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Al Gore. A telling panel sees Figueroa obscuring a crucial word in Google’s bygone motto “Don’t be evil.”

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This theme of feared future outcomes coming to pass resonates throughout the text, and Cassandras like Figueroa are positioned as scrappy underdogs against an unstoppable force. While this narrative’s appeal is universal, it’s particularly potent for the teen audience: the slew of dystopian young adult bestsellers, for instance, relies on an identical power dynamic. Technology is new and exciting, so condemning it is generally seen as an act of the old and out of touch, but positioning big data as a corrupt institution to distrust makes it instantly relatable to the Hunger Games generation.

In an interview with danah boyd, Terms of Service explicitly discusses teens in terms of their use of social media to control their public image. For instance, a teen who wants to be seen as happy-go-lucky may exclusively write humorous posts, while one seeking support might write in a way that elicits sympathy from Facebook friends. Boyd* also notes that teens are as apathetic about privacy as their older counterparts: her research shows that youths will “give up WHATEVER to be able to hang out with their friends.” Facebook and its ilk have become seemingly non-negotiable elements of their lives.

This section accomplishes two important goals for teen readers. First, rather than isolate teens as problematic, Keller and Neufeld connect them with adults to show that apathy is a universal problem. In doing so, the teen reader won’t feel singled out or talked down to, and is more likely to pay attention. Second, after boyd explains the image-maintaining rationale behind many teens’ social media practices, Keller and Neufeld deconstruct the notion by pointing out how corporations can use a teen’s data to construct their own narrative about the user. Social media may appear to give power to teens, but it actually takes it away. While the text as a whole is an excellent primer for young readers, this message in particular is bound to resonate.

Terms of Service is hardly perfect teen reading: beyond the aforementioned bouts with dryness, a major story element is Neufeld’s frequent use of the already-outdated FourSquare, and the app-specific terminology can be confusing to the unfamiliar. All of its principal characters are understandably adults, who aren’t totally foreign to teens, but obviously aren’t as identifiable as their peers. This is forgivable given Keller and Neufeld didn’t create the text specifically for a teen audience, but whatever the reason, this text is not in and of itself the solution to undereducated teens.

The issue of web privacy and security has certainly been addressed in young adult literature before. The most notable example is Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, a near-future dystopia pitting a teen hacker and his friends against a drastic upswing in government surveillance. Doctorow fills the story with real-life tips on safe browsing and primers on peaceful resistance methods (mostly surveillance jamming), and despite being written in 2008 it remains a timely read.

However, corporate invasion of privacy is rarely written about for the audience most vulnerable to it; in fact, I’ve yet to find anything remotely close to Terms of Service in my usual search (using internet, library, and former bookstore sources). So, despite its flaws, the comic remains the best resource I’ve found to introduce teens to big data. We can only hope, for the future’s sake, that others will take Keller and Neufeld’s lead.

 

*While danah boyd doesn’t capitalize her name or personal pronouns midsentence, she does follow capitalization rules for sentence openers.

 

References:

Michael Keller and Josh Neufeld, “Terms of Service”

Amanda Lenhart, “Teens, Social Media & Technology Overview 2015”

Stephanie Simon, “The big biz of spying on little kids”

LIU versus the Information Labor Union

By JHELyon

On October 12th, I attended an illuminating (if depressing) talk from Emily Drabinski, the Coordinator of Library Instruction at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus, on the ongoing struggle between LIU’s administration and faculty, particularly in the library department. Facing one of the few unionized faculties in private higher education, LIU has systematically sought to bust unions and cut employees to save money.

With the arrival of new president Kimberly Cline in 2013, LIU’s focus has narrowed to cutting costs and expanding the endowment by any means necessary. Two unionized campus organizations (its security and janitorial staffs) were removed and replaced by private firms, followed by widespread firing of non-union staff (including an employee with over fifty years at LIU who was fired during her vacation). Funds were transferred from the operating budget to the endowment, shifting the cost of vital resources to the faculty and slowing basic infrastructure projects.

LIU’s faculty union is the Long Island University Faculty Federation (LIUFF) which operates under the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). After negotiations with the administration fell through, LIUFF’s contract ended in August, leaving the faculty’s future uncertain. Over Labor Day weekend, the union faculty learned that they were being locked out, their syllabi taken and used by makeshift non-union replacements as classes began. Drabinski noted that on top of the wildly unethical informational theft this action entailed, it showed a deep disrespect for LIU’s students in assuming they wouldn’t notice such a radical change in courses.

While the lockout left librarians and professors without work and pay, it came with one benefit: locked out employees cannot legally be fired, allowing them to speak out without fear of immediate retaliation. With the support of students and AFT, LIU’s faculty vehemently fought back against the administration’s actions.

One of many LIU protests.

One of many LIU protests.

Letters were sent to the American Library Association and the Department of Education, each of which has the power to pull LIU’s library school accreditation; with help from the State Department, the administration eventually caved. The lockout ended on September 14th, weeks into the semester.

This solution is temporary, with a contract lasting only until May 31st, 2017. Lost pay is still being negotiated, with the administration offering uneven compensation among departments (librarians, for instance, were docked pay at a higher level than fellow faculty). These unequal wages evoke one of LIUFF’s many issues with LIU: its Brooklyn campus employees are, for no visible reason, paid less than their Long Island counterparts for the same work. Drabinski sees this as a tactic to divide the faculty, as those paid more might fear lowered salaries if they demand equal pay for those paid less.

Drabinski also noted, with some frustration, that individual power is limited, with actual negotiations dominated by ruling classes (LIU’s administration on one side, and AFT top brass on the other). Power can only be found in larger organizations, and a case like this in a smaller school than LIU, in an area with less press coverage than New York, would likely see the union forced to cave with little fanfare.

While Drabinski obviously presented this information from the perspective of herself and the union, further research more or less confirms her version of events. LIU’s story has been featured in the New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Nation, and continues to draw attention on campus and across unionized bodies. Since Drabinski’s talk, 14 union faculties in Pennsylvania state universities went on a three-day strike ending on October 21st; dissatisfaction between administrations and faculties is hardly an isolated incident.

 

While professors at a private institution don’t fit perfectly in Lipsky’s definition of a street-level bureaucrat (they aren’t government employees, which is a basic requirement), they fill an similar role to public school counterparts in function. LIU’s faculty certainly shares Lipsky’s dreary description of the job environment: resources are limited, their authority is routinely challenged, and job expectations are unattainably high. However, the faculty’s issues are not the direct fault of the government, but a private administration that severely underappreciates information laborers.

Note that information itself remains valuable to the administration: the library wasn’t shut down, and the course syllabi were stolen taken to maintain the flow of information to students. Even in lockout, LIU was ostensibly committed to an information-based service, one that is neither free nor inexpensive for its information-seeking patrons.

The discrepancy in respect given to information compared to information laborers could be a simple matter of pragmatism: information itself doesn’t demand equal wages or benefits, and seems cheaper than ever in the internet age. But it highlights a fundamental misunderstanding of information labor, lumping everyday acts of gathering information (as described by Downey) with professionals who make their living by keeping the wheel of information turning. If working in information is something that everybody does these days, what makes a school faculty so special? What makes the students—who are information laborers as well—worthy of well-paid librarians and professors?

Right now, the best case scenario for LIU’s faculty is that after the end of this school year, they get to keep working for an administration that frankly treats them like garbage. Information labor is routinely exploited, from capitalizing on unpaid labor (such as Facebook Likes or shared tweets) to content moderators paid below the poverty line, and as LIU shows, the mindset that information labor has minimal worth has ramifications even in ivory towers. The long-term solution is a shift in values, placing prestige in information labor itself in all its forms; until then, LIUFF’s struggle, and the struggle of their counterparts around the world, is bound to continue.

References:

Michael Lipsky, “Toward a theory of street-level bureaucracy”

Gregory Downey, “Making media work: time, space, identity, and labor in the analysis of information and communication infrastructures”

Observation of Metis Cataloging System

By JHELyon

For this post, I observed elementary school students in the Berkeley Carroll Primary School library, where I work as an assistant librarian, interacting with the Metis cataloging system. This is in response to our Week 3 discussion of categorization, particularly Drabinski’s assertion that classification and subject language are inherently broken. While I’m inclined to agree that there will always be flaws in cataloging, I was interested in examining how a user-driven, specialized system might take steps in the right direction.

Metis was developed by librarians in fellow New York independent school Fieldston as a cataloging system tested and honed by children to focus on the needs of young browsers; everything from simple category names (like “Making Stuff” or “Scary”) to the categories themselves (“Animals” and “Pets” are separate sections) has the child audience in mind. There are twenty-six categories, each given a letter of the alphabet and a distinct icon, but the arrangement of these categories varies by school: for instance, while the Graphic Novel section’s suggested placement is between U (Scary) and W (Memoir), Berkeley Carroll assigns this popular section down in Z to prevent its large reader base from crowding away prose readers. Subcategories are also at local discretion, allowing students and librarians to further cater to the interest of its specific audience; this is why Berkeley Carroll, which has a major unit on ocean life in third grade, has a specialized “Marine Animals” subcategory that fills a full half of the “Animals” category.

The library I observed is the size of a small classroom, and contains roughly six thousand books. It’s one of two “hubs” in the primary school building: the “Red Hub” one floor below is largely for first- and second-graders, while my “Yellow Hub” covers third and fourth, but any student is free to use any hub. Here’s a visual of how the Metis system labels book spines: students can see the assigned letter, section, and subsection, with authors not necessarily given focus.

My observation consisted of three hour-long periods of peak usage (11:45 through 12:45) over three days in the Yellow Hub. The most notable trend is the marked distinction between third- and fourth-grade browsers: third-graders are generally new to the Yellow Hub and more often ask for help locating books, while fourth-graders easily find their sections of interest. The Metis system still requires some instruction to interact with, but I take the ease with which fourth-graders search and third-graders learn as a sign of its effectiveness.

More specifically, my assessment of Metis’s intuitive nature was bolstered when two third-graders who asked for help finding books on day one were searching independently by day two or three. A fourth-grader, in recommending a book to her friend, showed her where it was in the Fantasy section, then brought her to Tales (containing mythology) and Sci-Fi to suggest further reading. When students ask for recommendation, they virtually always use the same language as Metis, specifying that they want a “scary book” or a “realistic book.” There’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum here, particularly for students more accustomed to the system: is Metis’s language capturing how these children self-categorize, or have they merely adapted to the jargon? I’m inclined to go with the latter, but regardless, it’s clear that they navigate Metis far more easily than I did in my elementary school’s Dewey Decimal library.

While Metis’s positive qualities above hold true, it’s clear even in this basic observation that its localized customization not a cure-all salve. Many students of both grades still consistently ask where certain books are located without attempting to search; while this may say more about the convenience of a librarian than the difficulty of searching Metis, it still proves that the system remains inferior to a human search engine. That much is obvious, as categories are artificial constructs that users must learn, and even a universal, simply-taught cataloging system—among its myriad problems (read: Drabinski)—can’t take something as basic as room structure into account. There’s bound to be a learning curve in every library, and the fastest option for finding books will practically always be a librarian.

My most relevant observation about the failings of Metis was in a student’s comment that Redwall, a series about warring woodland creatures, is located in T (Adventure), while Warriors, a series about warring cats, is in V (Animal Fiction). While Redwall’s animals are far more anthropomorphic than their Warriors counterparts, wearing clothes and bearing weapons and standing on two legs, this did not convince the student that the two should be separate. I’d like to say that the student-based Metis system called for a change, or a larger inquiry into the matter with more students weighing in, but the hassle of such a shift (Redwall is a physically massive series) prohibited any section changes. The ideal behind Metis is noble, but in reality it’s impossible to fulfill every demand, even understandable ones like this with little argument to be had. Perhaps if a browser’s only option for locating a book was independent searching, there would be more of an effort to further perfect cataloging, but again, a librarian on location mitigates the problem.

Still, the appeal of a specialized catalog is self-evident; students who do opt to browse can easily find what they’re looking for when the system speaks in their language, and issues like the Redwall/Warriors incident are hardly limited to Metis. There will never be a complete solution to the intrinsic flaws of cataloging, but ditching a universal standard like Dewey for a library-by-library approach, using categories and language tailored to the population of local readers, seems to be a step in the right direction.

Stray observations:

  • The population I observed is obviously limited to Berkeley Carroll students, which is an deeply imperfect sample of children their age. Its small student population and a focus on independent learning (students, for instance, use a self-checkout service) is hardly the norm in American or global schools, nor is the price tag; even in an observation this basic, we should take the results with a grain of salt.
  • As mentioned earlier, graphic novels are easily the most browsed section on the library, to the point where checkouts are limited to one graphic novel at a time (the book limit is normally two per day, and five total books checked out at a time). With the gradual acceptance of the medium’s value and the explosion of talent being published by imprints like First Second and Papercutz, I can imagine a future where they’re integrated with works of prose due to the sheer size a Graphics section would take up.
  • Redwall is so much better than Warriors it’s not even funny.

References:

Emily Drabinksi, “Queering the catalog: queer theory and the politics of correction”

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