Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Through hell, high water or Web filters


Wednesday May 31, 2006

Through hell, high water or Web filters
* As Congress mulls action, some schools already limit MySpace access. But it hasn't kept teens off the site.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Excuse me, Congress? You know that bill you're thinking about passing, the one that would prevent kids from accessing social networking websites like at schools and libraries? Kris Sosa, a junior at West Ottawa High School in Holland, Mich., has something to tell you:

"Anything that youth attaches themselves to, the public gets scared about," he says. "And with this, just like with anything else -- underage drinking, for example -- youth is going to find a way to get what they want. It's inevitable. Even if this law passes, even if it goes into effect, there's going to be a way around it. It's just a matter of time."

Sosa is sure that he'll beat such a prohibition because he and many of his teenage compatriots already have. Like a growing number of schools and libraries nationwide, West Ottawa blocks students from social networking websites. But instead of glumly relinquishing access, Sosa and "a majority of the other kids at my school," he says, use technological workarounds to access whatever they darn well feel like. When administrators block one route, kids find another.

Which suggests that the mess of politicians, teachers, parents and other adults engaged in a feisty debate over the bill recently proposed by Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), the Deleting Online Predators Act, are perhaps asking the wrong question. It's not whether lawmakers should bar kids from accessing social networking websites but whether they can.

"There's no question that kids have become savvier," says Michele Shannon, senior director of product management for San Diego-based WebSense, a maker of Web filtering software. "If anyone's going to figure out a way through, it's them. We try and stay a step ahead."

In this arms race, Team Youth has an important adult ally. Bennett Haselton, a Seattle-based computer programmer who works on contract with the U.S. government to fight Internet censorship in places like China and Saudi Arabia, spends his free time doing the same thing on American turf. Through his website,, Haselton provides free access to tools that Saudi Arabian citizens and American students alike use to tunnel through their respective barriers. (Authoritarian governments and school districts often employ the very same filtering software.)

"Historically, teenagers have been much closer to adults than children," Haselton says. "It's only in recent decades that the teenage years became classified as an extension of childhood rather than part of adulthood. Just because kids stay in school longer, it doesn't mean that the natural age of human maturity and responsibility has gone up."

The technology behind blocking software, and the software to circumvent it, have remained mostly the same since Haselton began this crusade about 10 years ago, when he was a freshman at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Peacefire was then, as now, a "students rights organization." Its motto: "You'll understand when you're younger." The challenge has been less inventing new technology, Haselton says, than disguising the same technology over and over so that the enemy can't recognize it.

Filtering software generally resides on a school or library's central server computer, a gateway to the unfiltered Internet beyond. All the connected computers direct their Internet traffic through this server so that if a giggling adolescent in a computer lab types in, the server intercepts that request and sends back a blank page instead of a naked woman.

Problem is, the Internet is a vast landscape of billions of sites, expanding by the millisecond. It's obvious that a school would block Playboy, a known entity, but what of the unknown? Despite receiving daily or even hourly updates from filtering-software vendors, it's simply impossible for software programs to censor the Web in its entirety. So Haselton and teenagers everywhere set up and abandon porthole after porthole under cover of anonymity.

Let's say that instead of typing in, that same giggling adolescent typed in Chances are that the server would grant his request because this new address isn't on the list of blocked sites. Unbeknown to the server, however, is one of a never-ending stream of "circumventor" websites created by Haselton and others, each one located at another random, innocuous-sounding Web address (for instance, and

Now all the kid has to do is scroll down on the new page to where it says, "Enter the URL below that you want to access," type in, and voila: His request is rerouted not through the central server but through an outside server willing to retrieve whatever he so desires. Freedom ... for a few hours or, if he's lucky, a few days, until the filtering software bans the portal, called a "proxy server," and it's time for Haselton to think up another silly address, which he e-mails to a cast of thousands and word-of-mouth does the rest.

There's intrigue and subterfuge. "We have Yahoo and Hotmail and other free e-mail accounts that we use to subscribe to [Peacefire's] mailing lists under crazy names, so we can be informed about these proxies," says Drew Yates, a network administrator at South Fulton High School in South Fulton, Tenn. Yates also relies on teachers to identify and report renegade students.

"The right of free speech is alive and well, and that's fine," Yates says. "But in an educational system, Haselton's position on free speech does not exist. It wouldn't bother me a bit if they passed a law that banned stuff like MySpace." (It certainly wouldn't change much at South Fulton High, which already blocks social networking.)

The collateral damage from this arms race, says Benjamin Edelman, a Harvard doctoral student and an expert on Internet filtering, is that as filtering companies fight to hide all forbidden content and students fight to reveal it, the Web gets censored in an increasingly broad, slipshod way. Google's image search, for instance, has long been known as an easy way to access images residing on banned websites; but if it gets blocked, "then when a kid wants a picture of Nelson Mandela, they can't get it," he says.

Or, rather, they can get it -- but they find themselves using forbidden techniques to access allowed material. Cameron Stolz, 17, of Griffin, Ga., recently tried to research the Bay of Pigs, was blocked and employed circumventor software to complete the class assignment. Stolz, by the way, is in favor of moderate filtering: "I'm not an anarchist kid who thinks that we should be able to do whatever we want," he says. "We shouldn't just be able to roam the Internet."

Joel Key, a Spanish and art teacher at New York's Bronx High School for the Visual Arts, is likewise in favor of filtering but says that currently it just doesn't work. Students on an Internet scavenger hunt for collage images found that all basketball photos were blocked, Key says, "but for some reason they can get porn, and they can get Internet television sites, such as We've tried to get those blocked many times." MySpace and the wildly popular social networking site are blocked, but kids find ways to access them anyway, Key says.

OK, so it's clear that kids don't take Internet censorship sitting down, and a congressional ban might well make them more belligerent. But let's say that a social networking ban does work, on some level, for some kids. What then?

It'll strike a blow to the ne'er-do-wells "who are crawling through the profiles that our children are creating at school while their parents are not around," says Fitzpatrick, the congressman who wrote the bill, which is currently in the Energy and Commerce Committee and has 21 cosponsors.

No, what it will do is create a "participation gap," says Henry Jenkins, co-director of the comparative media studies program at MIT. Kids who are wealthy enough to have a computer and an Internet connection at home will access social networking from there, while whoever must use school and library computers "will be locked out of participating in the defining experiences of this emerging generation."

Everyone just hold on a second, please, asks Brad Novreske, a high school freshman in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. This war is based on a misunderstanding: Social networking isn't evil, he says, "It's just friends. Growing up, you have to have friends and social ties. Otherwise you feel alone."

Until his school district, and Congress, come around to his way of seeing it, Novreske will continue to access social networking illicitly. But he'd rather see kids and adults MySpacing together in peace.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Early `Code' risers


Saturday May 20, 2006

Early `Code' risers
* Does 6 a.m. seem a little extreme for taking in a screening of the `The Da Vinci Code'? Not to this crowd.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

USUALLY, when obsessed fans line up for an early-bird premiere, it's the cape-and-tights and light-saber crowd. But these were book people -- and grown-ups at that -- who showed up at 6 a.m. Friday for the first screening of "The Da Vinci Code" at the Hollywood ArcLight. Fanaticism was not required.

Or was it?

Janan Jem, a 26-year-old advertising student, traveled all the way from London to catch this showing -- yep, you read that right -- and dubbed the big-screen version of the bestselling novel by Dan Brown a raging success. The overseas trip, she said, bobbing her head giddily, was well worthwhile.

Early indications from multiple sources outside Sony, the film's distributor, suggested that midday attendance figures were strong but unlikely to set any records, despite book sales that have surpassed 60 million copies. Steve Elzer, senior vice president of media relations for Sony Pictures Entertainment, said business was "very encouraging," adding that "matinees are strong."

Opening-day tracking also suggested the movie might hold more appeal for younger adults than earlier research indicated.

The ArcLight crowd seemed to bear that out. Consider Corey Jovan, a 26-year-old L.A. video game tester who normally doesn't rise before noon. Period. "I'm lazy," he says. But there would be no waiting until after work to see this film, so Jovan and his fiancee joined some 800 bleary-eyed Angelenos who packed the lobby before sunrise, collecting free T-shirts emblazoned with the movie's motto -- "So dark the con of man" -- and choosing between popcorn and soda or the breakfast foods (juice, pastries) made available at the concession stand.

Lauren Ocean looked quizzically at the offerings. "Orange juice just doesn't seem like legitimate movie fare," said the film producer from Hollywood. "I guess I have to get a soda." Ocean had stayed up late Thursday night, racing through the last few pages of Dan Brown's international bestseller, the basis for the film. The book was a Mother's Day gift, but even so, Ocean left her kids and husband slumbering and arrived solo.

"It was my turn," Ocean said, grinning. "My husband got to see the midnight showing of 'Mission: Impossible III.' "

That critics generally disliked the movie didn't seem to faze a soul.

"I'm my own person," Jovan said. "We've come to see the best movie of the year." Nearby in the lobby, Marlene Picard, a writer from Santa Monica, chimed in: "The critics have had their say, now we're going to have our day."

The ArcLight wasn't alone in betting that Angelenos would trade sleep for an early showing; the AMC in Santa Monica rolled back its curtains at a brazen 5:15 a.m. In Hollywood, at least, the bet was a good one: The ArcLight's Cinerama Dome filled to capacity by the time a Gilbert Gottfried sound-alike asked the audience to refrain from text-messaging during the film, gestured grandly toward the screen, paused for applause, and the lights dimmed.

For such a passionate bunch, the next three hours were surprisingly sedate. Little discernible laughter, hissing, cheering, crying. The applause before the film was far more spirited than after, and few people stuck around to hobnob or catch breakfast, touted as "The Last Breakfast," in the theater's cafe.

"It was pretty good," said Sandarsh Kumar, 26, rushing to his job as a biomedical engineer at USC. "At times, though, they compressed the timeline. When I watched the movie I was left hanging. When I read the book, I was never left hanging."

There was some criticism from the crowd. Donnie White took issue with Tom Hanks' physique. "In the book, his character was in better shape," said White, a personal trainer visiting Southern California from New York. "He's a swimmer, and that's a lot of cardio. His lats would've been very defined."

And then just 15 minutes after credits rolled, the theater and the lobby were empty, save for employees and a few journalists trying belatedly to document the hype.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Take a number, pal


Wednesday May 10, 2006

Take a number, pal
* Web etiquette goes wacky when ranking friends becomes an exercise in lifeboat ethics.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

LET'S begin with an exercise. First, name the eight most important people in your life -- friends, family, rock stars. These are your Top 8. Now rank those people in order of importance. Finally, send a copy of this list to everybody you know, including people who didn't make the cut. Be careful not to hurt the wrong feelings, or you may end up getting bumped from other people's Top 8s.

Go ahead and bite your nails. Realize the magnitude of these decisions.

OK, so, you're either lost in terrifying flashbacks of middle-school cruelty -- or you've already made such a list, already showed it to all your friends, and since you didn't make all their Top 8s, you've already deleted the offenders from your list (and prayed they noticed). In other words, you're already on or one of the many other social networking websites such as or, doing your best to navigate this complex new world of friends-of-friends-of-friends-etc. with as few social casualties as possible.

If the Internet was once ungoverned by etiquette, those days are gone; MySpace and its siblings, by many accounts the future of the Net, are rife with discussions of good manners versus unforgivable faux pas. There isn't an aristocratic class, just yet, but you can see the lines forming in the sand, renegades and bad boys posting bulletins pell-mell, uploading risque pictures, collecting "friends" as if it's all some big popularity contest -- while mannered netizens look on disapprovingly. Screw up and you just might get dumped, online and off.

J.D. Funari is hoping that clarity prevents offense. A week after logging onto MySpace, the 24-year-old TV editor from Studio City posted a disclaimer above his Top 8: "Since this 'preferred' listing of friends can quickly become unnecessarily political, I'd like to briefly explain my sorting technique," he wrote.

"The first spot will always be my brother (for obvious reasons) and the second spot will always be my friend Katie (for reasons obvious to Katie and I). The third and fourth spots are reserved for music and movies of interest. Five and six are wild-cards which may be related to how well I know the person and/or if I'm dating them (opposite sex only) and/or if they've paid me for inclusion. The final two spots are, to be perfectly honest, the two most attractive current female photos from my list of friends."

The posted explanation sent ripples through Funari's 97 interconnected friends. "It's very flattering," says Katie Rose Houck, 23, an actress in Los Angeles who occupies slot No. 8, reserved for attractive females. "We've only known each other for a couple of months, and we have a flirting banter going on between the two of us. This reaffirms that he knows that I'm pretty, that I know that he thinks I'm pretty, and all of his extended friends know that he thinks I'm pretty."

Houck admits laughingly that she has browsed through Funari's other friends to see whom she bested. Then again, she is No. 8 on the list, while No. 7 went to Amy Vo, a 25-year-old receptionist from Maryland, who happens to be wearing a bikini in her MySpace picture. "I have an outfit on, so of course Amy is going to get the first spot," says Houck. "Naked wins over pretty."

Vo has never actually met Funari in person; the two connected through Funari's No. 1 friend, Katie. It went like this: Funari clicked on Katie's picture and was whisked to her profile, where he spied Vo in spot No. 3. He clicked over to Vo's profile and sent her a message. "He said, 'Oh, you're so pretty,' " remembers Vo. "And I said, 'Oh, you're so nice.' " Then Funari requested Vo as a friend, she accepted, and soon she rose to spot No. 7 on his page. (Alas, Funari, you're absent from Vo's Top 8.) These, the newfangled dances we dance.

At first it seems as if Funari's strategy might just work. Play the honesty card, let people know where they stand, watch them celebrate or nurse their wounds and then move on. But life threatens to throw a monkey wrench into his beautiful absolutes. "The first spot will always be my brother," his rules explain. Problem is, Funari has two younger siblings who will soon be logging on themselves. What then? And what if he gets serious with a girl -- will she be happy at sixth place?

"If he was my boyfriend, and he didn't put me in the top 5, I would be a little offended," Houck says. "And if he kept his best girlfriend at No. 2 -- and she's pretty! -- I would be a little offended. Maybe that's why he's still single."

Well, he is single. It says so right on his page: "Status: Single." MySpace profile pages are customizable in many ways; you can add pictures, music, write blogs, list your interests or skip all this entirely. You can allow friends to jot comments directly onto your page, viewable by all, or you can retain absolute control. But try as you might, you can't avoid classifying your relationship status, which isn't always easy to do.

After the Top 8, relationship status causes the most ire in the MySpace world.

"It gets highly dramatic," says Danah Boyd, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley who is studying the culture of social networking. "Sometimes one person thinks they're single while the other person thinks they're dating.... You can't have your status be, 'I'm in a relationship that I'm not entirely thrilled with, I'm waiting for something better, come talk to me.' "

What results is an inordinate amount of "swingers," an allowed choice that's sufficiently deviant for teens, ironic for adults (minus actual swingers) and has quickly become socially acceptable within the MySpace mainstream. Still, there remain many conventionalists who choose "single" or "in a relationship," and watch their physical and digital worlds intertwine.

Five months ago, 27-year-old James was "in a relationship," according to his MySpace page. Then James, a New York public relations executive who declined to provide his last name, broke up with his girlfriend and switched to "single."

In the real world and online, James and his ex remained friends, so when James started dating another woman, he didn't want to rub it in his ex's face. He delicately broached the MySpace topic with the new girlfriend, and they agreed not to switch their designation to "in a relationship" just yet. So: single online, together off.

It was four months of limbo before James and his girlfriend decided the time was right. "I was at her Easter family dinner," James remembers, "and that pretty much constitutes a relationship."

They went online, made the change and all's well -- unless things go sour. "There's a tension that never existed before," James says.

In this case, James and his girlfriend were making the safe assumption that their exes engage in "MySpace stalking," the practice of secretly keeping tabs on friends, lovers, co-workers, celebrities or complete strangers by reading their profiles.

If stalking in the real world implies some dangerous psychological imbalance, on MySpace it's essentially the norm, although etiquette suggests that you keep your stalking to yourself. Mention so-and-so's dating status too loudly in the wrong context or without the required I'm-just-kidding jocularity and you risk being judged a stalker in the regular sense.

Where there's stalking, there's reverse stalking. After all, wouldn't you want to know who's watching you? To watch them watch you without them knowing they're being watched? Um, of course you would. At first. And then you realize that if you watch whoever's watching you, then you'll also be unveiled to everybody you're stalking, which puts a real damper on the initial voyeuristic enterprise.

Some social networking sites, such as Friendster, allow users to view who has visited their profiles; MySpace does not. Which simply means that MySpacers are more desperate than ever to unearth a reverse-stalking technique and then hide it from everyone they know.

In February, James hit gold. He came across a website,, which gave users the ability to watch the watchers. Unlike the dozens of hoaxes circulating throughout MySpace, this one actually worked. "It showed who visited my page and the exact time they visited. One girl, an old friend, checked it almost every hour." James was omniscient for nearly two weeks until MySpace blocked Whospyme, returning him to darkness.

Tom Anderson, president of MySpace and its most beloved member -- he regularly receives marriage proposals among the thousands of comments on his profile -- explains: "We can't allow somebody to create a service like that, which reveals who's looking at your page. That's a violation of privacy." If MySpace were to unveil such a feature, Anderson says, each user would get to make an individual decision about whether to be traceable. Yet another decision fraught with online and offline complications.

There are plenty of other decisions to make in the meantime:

Number of friends: Too many, you're deemed a "MySpace whore," too few, a loser. (Caveat: If you're in a band, or you're a middle-school kid who lied about your age to get on MySpace and are competing with friends to see who's most popular, "too many" is a good thing.)

Profile picture: Posing in your skivvies opens you to scorn, but, depending on your friends, it may also increase the probability that you'll score some Top 8 spots. "I can't stand it when people put pictures up, trying to look all sexy," says Lori Carter, 25, a Salt Lake City office manager. More specifically, Carter can't stand it when her husband accepts such people as his friends.

Grammar: "I am not a grammar Nazi," says Michael Block, 23, an L.A. search engine marketer who uses MySpace and "But I do feel terrible for words like 'probably' and 'someone' that are constantly bastardized into 'prolly' and sumone.' " Etiquette here is often divided by age, with teens writing in slang that evokes fury in their twentysomething elders. Block has been unable to decipher this message, for instance, which he received from a 15-year-old stranger from Florida: "y u want people 2 look at u 4. u thinken that u looken sweet 4 da females."

Bulletins: These are messages that users post to virtual bulletin boards. Perhaps the most common social networking pet peeve are posted versions of the chain letters of yore, the "if you don't send this on you'll never fall in love again and then you'll die a horrible death" variety.

If you've steered clear of social networking so far, enjoy that simple existence while you're able. Sooner or later friends will ask -- then demand -- that you migrate toward multidimensionality. There are more than 76 million people on MySpace (about 270,000 join daily), and Anderson wants to expand the MySpace experience until the entire Net rests within it. "Anything you do on the Internet, I want you to be able to do on MySpace," he says. "That's the goal and ambition. Almost all the things you can do online can be enhanced by the social structure of MySpace."

Which suggests that the Top 8 will become only more central to the human experience, more dizzyingly complex.

"It's the Seinfeldian Speed Dial Dilemma of our generation," says Sarah Ciston, 22, a page designer at the Long Beach Press-Telegram. "I love it. But I think you should also get a Bottom 8, or a Bottom 20. A hall of shame of sorts."

Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Digital memories overwrite real thing


Tuesday May 09, 2006

Digital memories overwrite real thing
* Camera phones let anyone capture the moment -- but they risk missing the experience.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

None of the 250,000 or so protesters who crowded around Los Angeles City Hall on May 1 have license to forget that day. Nor to remember it incorrectly. The Nation of Islam SUV rolled by just after the mariachi band, not the other way around. Don't believe me? Review the tapes, archived on more than a dozen public photo and video sharing websites like and Opinion is irrelevant. We've got the facts.

It's tough to find a cellphone these days that doesn't double as a camera, and at the demonstration, cellphones joined countless digital cameras, video cameras and even conventional film cameras to document history in progress.

Truth is, practically anything beautiful or terrible or just slightly unusual calls for the interposition of a lens these days -- stop along PCH to watch the sun set over the Pacific and you're bound to encounter passersby holding up their phones, watching the digital version. At the recent Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, hundreds of people packed into UCLA's Royce Hall to see Arianna Huffington interview Gore Vidal, and I watched a man watch the entire hourlong conversation on his 1-inch-square cellphone screen, snapping pictures along the way.

Photographing the moment is only the beginning. Next stop is dissemination, in which that experience, that memory, is transferred, at the push of a button to other cellphones, to computers, to any of the several dozen media sharing websites, joining more than 122 million photos on Flickr alone and millions of videos on And then it spreads further still, filtering through some of the 57 million pages and onward through and, and the rest of the social networking universe.

A memory for one is a memory for all; the fallibility of memory is no more. Arriving home, sweaty and satisfied after an exhilarating immigration protest -- or cool and quiet after watching an auburn sunset across the sea -- talking about your day becomes a different exercise than it once was. Remembrances are no longer ambiguous collages of past and present experiences but rather the well-defined digital records sitting in front of us. We don't close our eyes to invoke memory; we open them wide to decipher the proof, the truth. It's clarity of one sort, though maybe blindness of another.

A stranger across the globe who knows me only as my Internet moniker can stare through my camera-eyes and interpret my experience, perhaps more accurately than I can. Perhaps she notices a smaller mariachi band just before the Nation of Islam SUV, at the border of the frame. Perhaps that sunset was more red than auburn. Perhaps Gore Vidal was rising to stand, at the moment of applause, when I remember him lowering himself toward his wheelchair.

Whatever I remember, the image overwrites it. Computers may catch viruses, may be prone to crashing, but they don't have creative imaginations that color their memories.

We perceive images and videos as "ground truth," says Elizabeth Loftus, distinguished professor of psychology at UC Irvine and an expert on memory. Studies have shown that when people are presented with doctored family photographs, they often adjust their memories, even invent false memories, rather than questioning visual evidence.

Didn't Aunt Betty die in '93? Well, I guess not -- here she is at the reunion in '95. I remember now! She played piano with Cousin Lou!

Technology marches giddily forward, and it's a safe bet that cameras and other recording gadgets will proliferate further, that distribution channels will become more immediate and accessible, and that in sum, collective memory will interact with individual memory in ways we cannot yet comprehend. In one sense, this web of interconnection is the awe-inspiring stuff of Buddhist "inter-being"; it conjures a thousand mystics saying in their various tongues, "we are all one." It threatens to disappear the fractious boundaries of place, time, race, sex, self even.

But it also can be seen as rendering the moment something other than the moment, transporting us into the past and the future -- anywhere but the present -- and transferring our experience to everybody except the self.

It's difficult to imagine Robert Frost, say, stopping in the woods on a snowy evening, giving his harness bells a shake with one hand while holding a camera phone with the other, and still taking in enough of the experience to conjure it later in verse. Another poet could write from Frost's photo record, although whose woods those were he might not know.

Enlightenment or alienation. Or something in between.

"The whole idea of personal experience, if it were simply left to the person alone, would be pretty meaningless and superficial," says Ken Gergen, professor of psychology at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and author of "The Saturated Self." "It's only because we're engaged in relationships that it becomes something. We never do see things through our own eyes; we always see them through the eyes of others. In some sense, it was always the others' sunset, the others' City Hall confrontation."

Yes, humans long to share, and we begin to conceptualize memory before the moment ends. We fantasize about future conversations, rehearsing them in the car and the shower until they finally come to pass. Yet the culture of immediate connectivity is something else -- not good, not bad, but with possibilities for both.

"We're a culture in transition," Gergen says. "We thrive on the notion of authenticity, individuality, interiority. At the same time, there's something isolating about that as well. The techno-civilization is moving us into connectivity very rapidly. There is something to be glad about, which has to do with breaking down these isolations, bringing us together. My sense is there's reason to be optimistic. But only if we start thinking, considering, debating about it."

The danger, I guess, is that we'll watch everything change through our viewfinders and then get so carried away with sharing that we forget to reflect.