Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Self-expression, Surveillance, and BarbieGirls.com

The BarbieGirls MMOG is starting to get some critical attention from youth blogs around the web, with focus being placed on the "safety" features (that the site promotes to parents) and how these work to hinder girls' sense of privacy and freedom to express themselves online. At issue is the following statement in the site's "Message to Parents" section:

"We also monitor chat to help ensure it stays safe and appropriate. Barbie Girls™ administrators frequently review reports of chatting in the environment and adjust the word filters as needed to block or allow new words or phrases. This monitoring is strictly for the purpose of maintaining a safe chat environment — chat reports are not used in any other way, and we do not save or store any private information."

Annalee Newitz at The Underwire writes ("MySpace + SecondLife / Ponies!1 = BarbieGirls"): "This feels a little creepy, since girls are told they can engage in "private" chat with "best friends only" in their rooms, and yet somebody is probably reading and editing what they're saying. I want to get more girls online as much as the next female geek, but there has to be a more privacy-respecting way to do it."

Similarily, Danah Boyd asks: "What does it mean that an entire generation is growing up to believe that the only way to be safe is to be constantly surveilled? ::shudder:: I'm rather concerned about the longterm implications of all of this monitoring and control. Aren't we supposed to be raising a generation of creatives? Le sigh."

When it comes to designing "safe" or "educational" technologies for kids, many companies adopt a dual-target approach that tries to appease parents' fears while appealing to kids' sense of fun (and desire to be cool). Like the Disney PC and many of the "child-friendly" mobile phones to come out in recent years, what seems to result is a streamlined version of the technology that has removed many of its most potentially empowering features, whilst maintaining high degrees of commercialization and marketing exploitation (through ongoing market research and/or corporate IP claims over kids' ideas and content). I see many of these issues boiling down to the media-constructed irreconcilability of parents' and children's, conflicting and converging, hopes and fears for these new technological forms.

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