Posted in gaming, kids, marketing, online community, tween, web business

GeekDad interview

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My colleague, Bill Shribman over at WGBH, interviewed me for GeekDad.com recently.
Here’s a snippet:

You threw my daughter out of Animal Jam when she was making plans to meet a friend for lunch, which I thought was a pretty impressive catch. She thought she had mistyped “duck.” What other kinds of behaviors or activities have you interrupted?

Thanks – I always love it when we can turn a discipline from the game into a positive parent interaction. As far as other behaviors/activities, where do I start? Obviously, for COPPA compliance, players trying to give out personal information is a very high priority – that’s addresses, emails, and phone numbers – but even Skype and other instant messaging usernames, FaceTime handles, and any other methods where players would be communicating outside of the game and potentially sharing that personal info.

While there is no law around it (which most parents are surprised to learn) we are also very diligent regarding inappropriate behavior and conversations, including cyber dating, drugs/alcohol, violence, vulgar language, cyberbullying and anything else we have deemed inappropriate to be associated with our brand and within the younger demographic we attract.

Read more here: At Least 17 Reasons Why Your Kid May Be Playing Animal Jam

Posted in gaming, kids, web business

New AJ Parent Connection video

Here’s our newest Animal Jam Parent Connection video, detailing some of the ways my staff works to makes sure we are keeping all of our players safe, while encouraging an in-game culture of appropriate behavior.

(Don’t you just love the thumbnails Youtube chooses for you? 😐 )

Posted in kids, virtual worlds, web business

My Commitment to Kids Online Safety & Privacy

I have spent years working for various children’s brands trying to make sure that every community I oversee cultivates a culture that encourages and promotes appropriate behavior online for child audiences, while offering resources for their parents.

I am so lucky to currently work for a brand that supports me in this personal and professional mission.  I am proud to show off our new parents page.  We have a robust vision for our parent outreach and this is just one of our first steps toward that vision.  Check out my second video highlighting some of the many ways we work to do this at Animal Jam.

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Posted in gaming, kids, marketing, mobile, online advertising, online community, Safety/Privacy, trends, virtual worlds, web business

COPPA/FTC- you make it so difficult to help you out

So I have a reputation as somewhat of a COPPA compliance warrior – so much so that my co-workers have been known to groan when I mention registration or database needs.  It’s an odd thing to have attributed to you, especially with no legal experience SLASH a general frustration with legal risk aversion in general.  But when you have been working on kids websites and communities for coming up on 15 years, you kinda get a hang for the ins and outs of the laws that surround it (or at least you SHOULD).

That’s the thing.  COPPA is required. It’s not a choice.  You have to comply.  If you don’t, you get in trouble – like super expensive trouble – in dollars and negative PR.  So you just do it.  I always find it odd when people brag about it or add it as a tagline to their branding.  It’s akin to saying – “My name’s Harry and just so you know, I definitely DON’T punch random strangers in the face.” Duh, Harry, but thanks for letting me know.

But COPPA compliance has become alot like speeding on the highway.  Many people obey the speed limit, but many more edge a bit over the line.  When they see a cop, they pull back and pretend that 55 is totes what they were driving the whole time. But then they inch back up to 65 or 70 the second they are in the clear.  I’ve heard some people actually see a speeding ticket every now and then as a valid cost of driving – a tax they are willing to budget for.

Much the same, companies have started inching over the compliance line on COPPA.  I actually have been in meetings with kids brand execs (NOT my current ones 😉 ) that considered having a slush fund set aside in case their was a sanction levied against them.  But even Pollyanna-well-intentioned brands sometimes find themselves inching toward or even over the COPPA line.  You know why?  Because it’s SUPER hard to comply to in the internet/digital culture that we are in right now.

COPPA was put in place to protect kiddos from nefarious marketers who wanted to sell personal info. It was not for predators or decency or to teach personal accountability in identity protection.  But, with our culture of fear, those are the things that people think it’s in place for.

Is it good that a byproduct of this rather draconian law imposed on site operators so they don’t profit from the sale of kids info, ALSO helps prevent kids from distributing personal details about themselves in public forums?  Maybe – but I’m not sure that that remote and avoidable byproduct outweighs the other hurdles the law imposes.

You see, the whole thing is predicated on parents being super engaged in their children’s online lives.  Ask a parent about this and they will undoubtedly say:

“YES! Of course, I want to know what is going on with my child online AND to help them make good decisions accordingly!  I am an amazing parent!”

This is evidenced in tons of surveys.  But do those surveys follow up with the parent (and I mean REALLY follow up – not just ask the parent in another survey) with a

“Ok, parent, but do you REALLY? Are you ACTUALLY the super engaged parent you painted yourself to be?”

Chances are, if that followup actually happened, the answer  would be dodged with an excuse about lack of time or understanding, lament of the speed of tech advancements or a bold faced lie.

Truth is that, anecdotally (albeit with my use-cases in the thousands), parents don’t know about COPPA and their assumed required involvement.  So we can demand verified parental consent til the cows come home, but if the parents don’t understand that is something that is needed, all the FTC is protecting is a child’s ingenuity to lie about their age, while simultaneously making it harder for an an ethical site operators to pay their staff while providing good content for kids.

Unless these impositions on the site operators are coupled with a robust (and effective) campaign to explain to parents WHY and HOW they need to be involved, COPPA is simply discouraging smaller brands away from quality content from kids, encouraging children and parents to learn truth-dodging techniques in registrations and forcing the nefarious operators deeper into the shadows to avoid detection.  Only bigger brands can afford the legal counsel needed to check that they are in the right.  The ones who can’t afford will simply not offer the content, or worse, slap a “over 13” stamp on it and skirt their responsibility.

The internet is based on communication channels – especially in the age of social media that is now the norm.  By starting from the false axiom of parental involvement and prohibiting use of the now standard means of communication until this involvement is verified, you are setting up either a web of lies OR limiting our next generations ability to learn how to use these channels correctly.  Both are horrible choices.

And don’t even get me started on how most of the mobile rules don’t even have a path to compliance…

Instead, we should flip the paradigm:

  • For the operators – we make the compliance voluntary and, therefore, honestly brag worthy.  Make it like shopping on a secure site – you get the security so that your customers feel safe.  If you don’t have that seal or badge or OK from the FTC, parents/kids would think twice before using their site.
  • For parents – we give them back their parenting responsibilities.  If they think their child shouldn’t be giving out info online, the parents should be punishing the children for breaking their house rules, not blaming the sites for making it too easy for their child to give out info.  And we should be helping parents understand this and how to do this – not assuming they are already there.
  • For kids – we teach them media awareness, basic stranger/danger skills and critical thinking.  If they aren’t ready for it – their parents shouldn’t be letting them use those sites – whether they are 8, 12, 15 or 17 years old.

I am not naive, I know this isn’t going to happen this year or even next.  But I am optimistic as to this happening at some point.  Until then, I will remain the compliance warrior, marching and marching on.  But I have 10 million+ kids and parents on my compliant site – so you better believe I’m gonna start the first steps toward a more rational model now.

Posted in gaming, kids, marketing, mobile, online community, Safety/Privacy, trends, virtual worlds, web business

Digital Kids and 2013 Predictions

I am excited to be involved in this years Digital Kids Conference as an emcee for the first day’s talks.  It’s collocated with Toy Fair again in NYC, so we should have a nice crowd.  Tonda, Chris and crew are promoting on the regular social channels – Facebook, Twitter, etc.

There is also an affiliated Digital Kids Safety Summit as well – you know I’ll be THERE too.

In prep for the conference, I was interviewed about my predictions for our industry in 2013.  Here’s a snippet:

“The new COPPA articulations have changed the digital climate. COPPA requires a level of parental engagement and involvement that many families don’t realize. Parents don’t understand how much parental consent they have to give, and new online safety and privacy articulations are going play an important role in online parenting,”

You can see the whole interview here.

Hope to see you all there!

 

Posted in marketing, online community, Safety/Privacy, virtual worlds, web business

Network makers responsibility

I think a great deal about my responsibility as a kids community producer in establishing and maintaining a healthy and safe culture in the communities I manage.  This has been the case since I began in 2000 and is a constant driving force in my career.

With the addition of Social Media to the landscape and the mass market adoption of the online world, I often feel the personal responsibility to act as a steward to this Digital Citizenship/Netizen culture with those I interact with online – be it on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or whatever new site anyone is jumping into at the moment.

So danah boyd’s article on online networks and their role in our society was very exciting for me to stumble upon this week.  It’s a couple months old now, but the concepts are textbook caliber and really made me reflect on the more conceptual aspects of my day to day work.  I am proud that her final statement in the article is one that I remind myself of on a regular basis.

One thing’s clear: it’s high time we examined the values that are propagated through our tools. We all need to think critically about the information we create, consume and share. We all need to take responsibility for helping shape the world around us. – danah boyd

Definitely worth the read for anyone interested in the shift our collective societies are taking and the unique concerns that apply to the digital space, as well as the ones from the offline space that have followed us online.

Posted in marketing, web business

Justify your existence, contractor

It’s a joyous time of year, that’s right, TAX SEASON.  Those of you close to me (and even some of you not so close) know that I am a huge math geek.  I love me some numbers.  I even got me a purdy degree from a party school to prove it… But I digress.

Tax season is less about numbers for me and more about another passion, organizing things.  Mainly receipts, forms, etc.  My mom was meticulous at organizing her tax recepts and I have picked up that gauntlet to carry on.

This time of year always brings up the 1099 versus w2 conundrum, too.  As an employer, I am super familiar with the difference between the 2.   But as a long time helper of other companies (aka contractor or consultant), I thought I would share my checklist that I make sure that I maintain, so that I am sure I am on the up and up as a 1099 receiver.

Contract it up – I always make sure I have a contract when I am doing work for someone.  This is my assurance that the talked about terms are in writing, but also a good piece of evidence to legitimacy.

Business licence or sole proprietor – This is a big one for some companies.  It’s much easier to show someone is a contractor if they have a business license.  You can get one through your state and it comes with your very own Federal ID Number to boot!  I personally go the route of sole proprietor, tax wise, and therefore do not have a FIN.  This just means I have to have cross my t’s and dot i’s in a couple more places to justify my existence.

Advertising – This could be as explicit as an ad in a trade mag advertising your services or as implicit as listing all the ways people find out about you.  For example, if you want to know about my skill set, you can read this blog, my LinkedIn, see my thoughts in clubs or listservs or see me at a speaking engagement.  Since most of my stuff in the past has been on the side and via word of mouth, it’s important that I maintain these if I ever get contract work.  Having business cards helps too.

Master of my own schedule – Another big point is scheduling.  If you are scheduled to the hours you work, that leans more in the direction of employee – not a deal breaker, but just more on that side of the list.  If you decide when you work, you are more of a contractor.  Of course, meetings need to be scheduled as we are not in an anarchy (at least I am not).  But with the advent of asynchronous communication (IMs, emails, etc) it’s easier and easier to have less face to face time.

Expertise included – People want to hire me for my expertise in whatever area.  Many times, we hire people for their instincts and their ability to react how we would in certain scenarios.  Now that doesn’t mean that if they have to know how to use all of the software we use when they start – of course we can train them on that.  But there has to be a baseline of ability expected as a contractor.

And we can also give them feedback if their work isn’t what were thinking about.  Think of a decorator or painter redoing a room in your house.  It’s your house, therefore if they design or paint something that is not to your liking, you don’t have to just accept it.  And if there are special instructions to different areas of the room or previous methods used, you will need to explain that too.  But they are still a contractor for you.

My precious (tech) – I have all the technology I need, hardware wise.  If I have to buy tablets, apps, software, printer ink, paper, etc – that’s on me.  Incurring expenses is just part of the contract work lifestyle – but you also get to write it all off at the end of the year, so it works out.

There are other areas on the differences sheet, but as each person’s situation is different, it’s all case by case.  And you will probably never have to justify your existence to anyone.  I am just a prepared sort of person, so I like to know I am on the up and up & I am a community person, so I thought I would share. 😉