When people ask me questions like, “What makes Yoursphere different than other social networks?”, or “What are you guys doing to compete in such an impacted market?” I always find myself eager to list all of the great things we do that makes us so unique, but I stop myself, step back, and focus on the most important thing we do: verify the identity of members where and when we can,
more specifically, parents of those 12 and under and parents of those activating their child’s membership.
This is a crucial step in the Yoursphere sign up process for a reason. Unlike most popular social networks and online communities out there that let anyone become a member, we like to know who is who in our site. By doing this, we’re able to eliminate the thing that acts as the conduit to most cyber-crime on the Internet—anonymity.
Though it’s hard to imagine what the Internet would be like without anonymous entry to social networks, forums, message boards, and virtual worlds; I can’t help but anticipate the day when identity verification is an online norm, and not just for kids, but for adults as well. I know there are many individuals and great companies working to make this happen and I hope to support those efforts through my work here. But we can’t doubt that anonymity breeds more than just “the Internet tough guy”; it breeds cyberbullies, online sexual predators, and thieves. And because we want our children to have access to the ‘rich side’ of the Internet—the good, educational, resourceful side—we have to risk, every single day, putting them in the same “online world” as everyone else.
In reference to one outcome of anonymity, cyberbullying, cyber-safety journalist Ross Ellis said in her recent Examiner article “Ask the kids who are cyberbullied on Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites and are tormented on a daily basis. [But] You can’t ask the countless number of other kids who aren’t here to defend themselves online because of the sheer volume of kids who tormented them behind [their] social networking pages.”
Of course, Ross is referencing the host of teens and tweens who committed suicide as a result of severe bullying. Sadly, this trend will continue if we don’t do a few things: educate our children at home and in schools, verify identities in all social networks where kids are allowed—and equally important—manage the content in any given site to make sure that the safety and privacy of its members aren’t being threatened.
In the meantime, we as parents need to focus on the difference we can make ourselves today, specific to the first point made above. We need to teach our children that being anonymous online doesn’t, in any way, make it OK to act foolish or to be mean to other people. It’s important that the change starts with our kids, in our homes, around our kitchen table, or when we’re kissing our kids goodnight. That’s why we promote Internet safety practices and good digital citizenship in Yoursphere. We encourage our members to become leaders and role models to other, younger kids; and as a result, we can build a young online community where kids are Internet-safety smart and reaping the benefits of a community that’s free of anonymous users.
With all that said, let me share that Yoursphere is not without its problems, and I’d never state otherwise. In fact, I often tell those who interview me, or to the mom or dad I speak to: “Like the offline world, nothing is ever 100%. What is 100% is the fact that we verify the identities of members where and when we can, we have a myriad of safeguards in place within the site itself, and we are in the unique position to do something when a problem arises.” And recently we’ve had our problems. Thankfully the problems were minimal, but nevertheless, they do exist.
Our members consist of children ranging in age from elementary school to the early years of high school. For many, Yoursphere represents their first community experience. They’re learning. They’re making mistakes. We understand that they’re not able to comprehend the results of their actions as their brains aren’t yet fully formed. That said, we’re holding them accountable for their actions and doing our best to educate them about what’s appropriate online interaction and what isn’t. We set clear guidelines and boundaries.
Just today, the Yoursphere team was dealing with a bullying issue. Some could argue mild, some could argue not. The point is: it happened, it was wrong, and it’s against our community policy and terms of service. The member avatar account was deactivated. We know who they are because we knew their identity. That right there is the upside to online identity verification. It helps to create a better experience all around.