The Project:Connect Hackathon co-sponsored by Facebook, the MacArthur Foundation, and Mozilla yesterday in New York City, was an unholy alliance of the cool and the deeply uncool.
- Cool: The hackable open web.
- Cool (if slightly shark-jumpy): Hackathons.
- Kinda Cool: Cynthia Germanotta, head of the Born this Way Foundation, hackathon judge and Lady Gaga's mom.
- Getting lukewarm: Facebook.
- Unbelievably uncool: The cosponsor, Family Online Safety Institute, whose mission in life is basically to help your dad take your cell phone away if you don't follow their rules.
Project:Connect is a $150,000 initiative of the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning Initiative, and it kicked off with this hackathon in support of "healthy online experiences so young people can more easily make smart and responsible choices on the Internet."
Healthy? Smart? Responsible? You guys, this is the Internet we're talking about.
In all seriousness, Connie Yowell, Director of Education at the MacArthur Foundation, points out that the greatest threats to kids online don't come from shadowy adult predators, but from their interactions with each other: cyberbullying, sexting, identity theft (where one kid impersonates another on a social network). "Our research makes clear the web is an extraordinary place for kids to learn, to become makers and producers," she says. "And at the same time learning happens in communities, and in communities we treat each other well."
The idea is to enlist young people, parents, educators, and communities in promoting positive, creative, and safe interactions online, while discouraging negative ones—"to help kids understand their rights and take control of their privacy."
I ask Yowell if Facebook makes strange bedfellows for an initiative that's supposed to promote control over one's own data, since there's a strong thread of criticism about Facebook's changing terms of service, privacy holes, and the way they profit off their users' growing digital footprints. She replied that MacArthur has to work with young people where they are on the web, and 90% of those over 13 are on Facebook.
For Facebook, the initiative is obviously good corporate relations. But there's a potential political element too, since Project:Connect is promoting voluntary solutions to digital citizenship issues over regulatory ones.
"One of the things that's so interesting about the time we’re in around the Internet is that risks and opportunities are intermingled," says Yowell.
"We are shifting towards overprotection. When we shut the Internet down in schools, kids don’t have access to all the possibilities." It's a nuanced, balanced approach that is fundamentally cool.