Yesterday, Erica Kermani, Director of Community Engagement at Eyebeam, Dan Phiffer, and I hosted our first workshop for OurNet. Middle school students from Sunset Park's Life Lines program visited the Eyebeam space in neighboring Industry City.
We started the day, asking students what the word "network" means to them and what they think of when they hear the word "network." At first students suggested mostly apps or websites, but then they considered larger categories and components like "internet," "browser," "social media," and "satellites."
Next we asked the students to draw a picture of how they think the network works. Dan also drew a picture, and explained it to the class:
We handed out string to the students and gave them each a piece of a paper that said what role they would play in the network. First the two students representing "backbone" held a string. Then each student connected string to two students representing ISPs (4 total). And with each of the ISPs, 4 more students would hold string to represent Users. Remaining students traveled back and forth, following the string, sending messages from a User from one side of the room to another side of the room. They were the "Packets."
After lunch, we recapped the exercise and then we introduced students to O-u-r.net, a website that only works when the router is running. It is based on Dan's previous project Occupy.here. Dan gave a presentation to the class on how he built Occupy.here and what a "darknet" means.
We asked the class how OurNet might operate differently from a social network owned and operated by someone else like Facebook. We talked about the pluses and minuses of anonymity on the internet. We also talked about setting up rooms for the community we were setting up.
One student volunteered to be the "admin" and he deleted posts that violated the rules. The rest of the students began communicating on OurNet.
As we wrapped up the workshop, we asked the students how they felt about using a social network this way. Some students pointed out it was not as dynamic as online services that they are used to as it does not have games or music and they can't send DMs or private messages.
We also talked about safety using this network. While most students used pseudonymous screen names, after the exercise, they said it wasn't hard to identify people. Since everyone was in the same room, people would notice if someone was typing before a new post went up. Some students talked about the same music and movies they usually talk about.
One student was posting song lyrics and she asked why the admin deleted them. He said they violated the rules of "plagiarism." That led into an interesting question of when rules for a social network might be too strictly enforced. Since everyone using the network was in the same room, we could easily change the rules and request that the admin not act as strictly when enforcing that rule. However, if an admin for Facebook or Twitter or another internet service too strictly enforced rules and deleted information, it would probably be a lot harder to change that rule as quickly.
The Life Line students follow three rules in their program that they call the "Three Rs" (Respect Others, Respect Yourself, and Respect Your Environment.") We closed the day talking about how those "Three Rs" relate to the internet. Then we asked students to each use OurNet to type a question for us. We got a lot of great questions! It appeared that some students were too shy to ask questions in class but were not afraid to ask questions using the anonymous network we set up. Anonymity on the internet can be confusing but there are some real benefits like the opportunity to ask questions that you might otherwise be afraid to ask.