When citizen cops turn bad

In my small, neighborhood park there is a regular assortment of runners and walkers, picnic groups, dog-walkers, grandfathers pushing strollers, homeless guys and tennis players. On any given day you can hear voices speaking Russian, Chinese, English or a lovely range of other languages. And always there are children — with moms, dads, nannies or other supervisors — stumbling around makeshift mini-baseball diamonds in the meadow or tumbling noisily around the playground. It is, in short, exactly what an ideal neighborhood park should be. Its neighborhood, within a few surrounding miles, is home to the low-ish income, middle income and affluent.

And apparently at least one over-anxious mom. Recently she spotted a man she perceived to be a potential threat. The incident was reported in a San Francisco Chronicle op ed piece by former editor and now columnist/blogger Phil Bronstein, who says he used to take his own son there. (Bronstein is not among the low-ish or middle incomes.)

A worried mom took (the man’s) photo with her phone and messaged it around with a detailed description and a warning. “He does not have children and pretends he does and is there to do pull-ups,” she wrote.

The e-mail, originally intended for a small pool of officials and families, went wide in an expanding spiral onto lots of electronic doorsteps. That’s the way it works on the Web.

“Hope someone goes Woodsman on him,” one commenter wrote.

“There were people who wanted to suspend the Constitution,” investigating police Capt. Rich Correia at the Richmond station told me about some lynch-mob sentiment. “It’s interesting how people feed off the Internet, how fast it gets around and how much people can amplify it. Folks made all sorts of assumptions about (things) they didn’t know.”

In this case, the mix of digital citizen vigilance, child safety concerns and viral networking caused a train wreck with a definite victim. And it wasn’t a kid.

San Francisco blog SFist ran the headline “Potential Child Predator” with the photo the mom took. KTVU-TV broadcast the guy’s easily identifiable portrait and kept it on the screen throughout its story. “Take a look at the picture of this man,” said the reporter. “There’s obviously concern he’s some kind of predator.”

Except he isn’t.

What he is, unfortunately, is a marked man. Tried and convicted in the courts of the internet and public communications. The cops identified him, went to his house, determined there was no danger (he was “unguarded, cooperative and surprised at being the subject of a police investigation”) and that the poor guy was doing nothing but exercises in the park. The blog and the TV people took down his photo, but you have to wonder if the original mom apologized, or if he will feel very welcome in the park now.

A somewhat different go-after-the-bad-guys story was reported today by New York Times writer Dan Frosch, this one about Justin Kurtz, a hapless Kalamazoo, Michigan college student whose properly parked car was towed from its parking lot and it cost him $118 to get it back. Anyone who’s ever had a car towed can identify with the rage that then prompted Kurtz to start a Facebook page called “Kalamazoo Residents against T&J Towing.” But after 800 people signed up in sympathetic outrage, T&J filed a defamation suit seeking $75,000 in damages. I’m rooting for Justin and his friends (having been towed under less-than-happy circumstances myself), but the whole business will likely end up costing another unnecessary load of pain and anguish — and possibly, more than $118.

The question is, how far are we ready to trust cyberspace? In the case of the Mountain Lake Park non-pervert, the hysteria continued despite fast action by the cops.

People trusted the social network far more than they did the seasoned and reputationally impressive police captain. “After 30 years on the force,” he says, “it’s hard to accept that people believe Internet chatter more than they do reaching me on the phone.”

In this case, social media was not a new and improved town crier. Instead, the hysterical tendencies that understandably surround kids’ security led to what Correia called “long e-mails of inference and innuendo like the opening act of ‘The Crucible,”’ Arthur Miller’s play about witch hunts.

As a friend of mine with kids who lives near Mountain Lake Park and got copies of the e-mail from multiple people noted, “It’s often easier to share than to deliberate. Were we deputized, or just weaponized?”

In the emerging world, you can think you’re a citizen journalist, but you’re really a citizen cop. And in the Mountain Lake Park case, people also became citizen prosecutor, judge and jury.

Viral campaigns are hard to undo, but maybe we should try. What if T&J were to return their ill-gotten $118, enabling Justin to create a new Facebook page about what a fine business they are? Their tarnished reputation could then be restored to its former glory, if towing companies have glory, for a pittance.

With the non-pervert, it’s not that simple. But maybe the over-zealous mom will take the trouble to contact him and apologize. It would be a start, although I’m not holding my breath. If I see him, however, I’m apt to be extra kind and pleasant, and then people will probably talk. As long as they don’t put us on Facebook.

‘Pervert’ in the park isn’t what he seems.

Oh Yayy! A new social network! Togetherville targets 6 to 10-year-olds

First and second-graders, even third-graders who haven’t gotten to be Facebook regulars yet, can now Have Fun Online Together and Share Proud Moments With Friends through their Togetherville social network accounts.

“What we want to do is build good digital citizens,” says Togetherville founder and CEO Mandeep Dhillon.

God help us.

With the brewing controversies about Facebook and privacy, not to mention news stories about the dangers of cyberabuse, the last thing parents might want to do is let their children get into online social networking.

But Togetherville Inc., a Palo Alto startup that finished a test run last week, hopes to alleviate those fears with a social-networking service tailored to children ages 6 through 10.

The free service creates a secure network that gives children access to the benefits of social networking while giving parents oversight to make sure their kids are shielded from potential dangers until they are old enough to handle the Web.

No offense to Dhillon and his investors, but are we really ready to offer up a new generation to be “shielded from potential dangers…” by the operators of a social network while they are having fun sitting in front of a small screen all day sharing proud moments with their friends? Did Alice just fall down the rabbit hole?

On Togetherville, no one who is not authorized by the parent can contact the child. Nor can anyone outside the network gain access to a child’s information or postings, including through search engines.

There are adult Facebook members who are pressing for that same level of privacy. Parents create the account using their Facebook login information, but the Togetherville site operates in a separate world outside of Facebook.

However, children can exchange text messages with other friends in their Togetherville “neighborhood” and with authorized grown-ups through Facebook Connect. The text comes from a pre-written selection of “quips” like “Cool,” “Random” and “What planet are you from?”

The kids can create digital greeting cards, play games and watch approved video. But they can’t share links to outside sites or, for now at least, photos.

Dhillon said the company is working on generating revenue by buying and sharing virtual goods.

It is not Dhillon’s fault, I suppose, that Togetherville is launching into the world at a time when faith in Facebook is not exactly on an all-time high. If there are parents of 6- to 10-year-olds ready to believe that their children can be shielded from potential dangers once tethered to Togetherville, they must surely have spent the past few years in Wonderland with Alice.

Social networks unquestionably have benefits. Just don’t try to convince people right now that those benefits come without perils and frustrations. If they are shielded from dangers, are 6-year-olds ready for the frustrations? For instance. A few months ago, Facebook decided it didn’t want me to have access to my Friends any more. Oh, they can send me messages, and presumably if they haven’t hidden me they get my status updates. I get a few of their status updates too. I just can no longer access my Friend list because it has disappeared somewhere. Have you ever tried to find a real person involved with Facebook? The people behind the software are utterly unreachable.

This is the world to which 6- to 10-year olds will now be introduced. Fully shielded from danger, their parents are told…

Social-networking site Togetherville is designed for youngsters ages 6 to 10.

Loud parents, silent grandparents create problems across generations

It’s an intergenerational problem: when to shut up, and when to speak up. Two takes, both worth listening to, came up on blogs of the same day last Friday. Writer Susan Goldberg vents for millions of abused passers-by in a protest published in the New York Times Complaint Box:

We see them everywhere. And if we’re being honest, we have all had the same frightening and ignoble urge to smash their heads in with a brick. I am speaking about those smug and uber-informative moms and dads who do their parenting in public places — aggressively and at the top of their highly educated lungs. They are easy to recognize, decked out in natural fabrics and larded up with the self-importance that comes from foisting “teachable moments” on an unsuspecting public.

Vibrating with earnestness and a gravitas that can seem eerily out of proportion to the setting, they pollute the public airspace as they loudly instruct their artisanal children on topics like sharing, Unicef or the water table — all the while glancing about furtively to make sure that people have noticed how very patient and loving and role model-y they are. Unable to let any educational opportunity go unexploited, they are famous for holding up checkout lines while they explain commerce and all the denominations of American currency to sleepy and uninterested toddlers.

While I may desperately wish that they would shut up, or at the very least use their “inside voice,” it is not because I am morally opposed to displaying one’s parenting skills for the approval of strangers. I myself was a young mother once, and I remember quite clearly the thrill of maternal showboating. What bothers me about this generation of parental windbags is their painful lack of subtlety; when they speak to little Cassidy or Aidan, it is at an almost nuclear volume. I may have been a showoff, but I like to think that I did it with panache. I spoke softly and intimately to my children, as if my words were intended only for them, as if I were indifferent to the gentle Madonna-in-blue-jeans image I presented.

And in almost the same breath, the good doctors Mehmet C. Oz and Michael F. Roizen proclaim, on their RealAge blog, that silence can be bad for your health, specifically once you get past the age of the parents cited above:

No doubt that loud noises are bad for you, wrecking your hearing and even driving up your blood pressure. But silence can hurt you, too — at least when it’s what you don’t say to your doctor. Don’t fall into these clam-up traps:

You think something “isn’t worth bothering anyone about.” We know a 50-something guy who kept hoping that the shortness of breath he had while walking up the hill to work was just going to go away. Fortunately, he got himself to the hospital . . . where he survived his heart attack. We know you don’t want to hear something’s amiss, but it’s better for you to hear it when you’re standing than for others to hear it when you’re about to go 6 feet down.

You think your appointment is over when you leave. You don’t get to ask your doc questions only after you’ve forked over your co-pay. Too many people leave their appointments and then say, “I wish I’d asked . . . whether I can have wine . . . when I can have sex,” and other essentials. Don’t rely on Dr. Google! Smart patients call or e-mail and ask!

You think that if the doctor didn’t bring it up, it’s not important. We can do lots of things, but mind reading isn’t one of them. We don’t know that you’ve been having erectile dysfunction, chest pains, or an overwhelming desire to speak in Klingon unless you tell us. We don’t know what that last one means, either, but if it’s bothering you, mention it. Speaking up may be the healthiest move you’ve made.

Goldberg’s rant stirred plenty of speaking up from all sides. The question remains, though, when the over-parented toddlers reach grandparenthood, will they remember to speak up for themselves?

Facebook parenting — God help us

At the risk of sounding like a grandmother, which I quintupitally am, I have to say I’ve been spending a lot of time in the past several days being thankful I’m not raising any teenagers. This is thanks to the story of Tess of the d’Overmuch and her Facebook quest for relief from being grounded. If you’ve missed this exciting adventure, Susan Dominus summarizes it in today’s New York Times:

They feel her pain. At the Spence School and Greenwich High and Fullerton Union High and Nyack High and Narragansett High, teenagers and near-teenagers, hundreds of them, are waving a virtual flag for Tess Chapin, a 15-year-old from Sunnyside, Queens, who has been grounded for five weeks. A few days after founding the Facebook group — “1000 to get tess ungrounded” — Tess had nearly reached her stated goal, with 806 members by Friday morning; after this column about her quest was posted on nytimes.com, she surpassed it.

This is teenage rebellion, electronic style — peaceful, organized and, apparently, contagious.

So basically, Tess explains on her group page, she made an honest late-night mistake. Her parents flipped, and they grounded her for five weeks — “thats my childhood right there,” she wrote. “please join so I can convince them to unground me. please please please.”

Interesting she should mention childhood. Tess’ groundation, as she terms it, occurred after an honest late-night mistake involving drinking booze and missing a curfew, behaviors that are wisely left until childhood is past, which her parents, if not her friends, understand. To their everlasting credit — and bless their hearts for having to raise what must be a bright and feisty daughter in such a public arena — they seem thus far disinclined to let Facebook group rule.

If your parents didn’t care,” pointed out a sophomore at Ithaca College, “they would have just let you rot.” Someone agreed with Tess that “parents can be stupid.” A friend of a friend expressed hope that she and her parents would take something “grand” away from the experience. A close pal chimed in, “I love you, but your parents are not gonna unground you for convincing 1,000 people to join a group.”

It is to this last theory that Ms. Iselin Chapin (mom Jennifer Iselin Chapin, a fund-raiser for the Natural Resources Defense Council) subscribes.

“What’s your fallback strategy?” she asked her daughter Thursday night, sitting across from her in the living room of their two-bedroom apartment in Sunnyside.

“O.K., one: drive you so crazy that you’re going to unground me,” Tess replied.

Her mother shook her head. “That’s not going to do it, sweetheart.”

Times writer Dominus suggested early on that perhaps another group might be started in support of “Parents Who Believe in Consequences for Serious Lapses in Judgment and Care Enough About Their Kids to Enforce the Rules,” and reported that within an hour a Times Online reader had done just that. And bless that reader’s heart, too.

I think raising kids in the relative obscurity of pre-internet times was infinitely easier and surely effective, for proof of which I offer three excellent grown children, parents of three flawless teenagers and — in the case of son and daughter-in-law who deserve an extra blessing of hearts — two gorgeous girls who won’t be teenagers for another 6 or 8 years.

My eldest granddaughter came across the country to enter college last fall, offering joy and a learning experience to her creaky left coast grandparents. We are diligently learning about what 19-year-old college art students create, wear, enjoy and pierce. She is extraordinarily grounded and gifted and fast approaching the end of child/teenagehood — though she did exemplify the complexities of it all when assuring her mother she was not homesick while asking that she (the mom) please not talk about the dogs.

I have conceded that most of today’s teenagers will miss the pleasure of things like thank-you notes (they don’t write, they Facebook and they text,) and think it’s just as well my own college art major was in the dark ages. We did life drawing and paintings of little arrangements of bottles and fruits for starters. The college art life today is tough. My granddaughter took us on a walking tour of her dorm and its collection of depictions of violence and terrors, which prompted me to remark that there is so much angst in today’s art.

“Well, Gran,” she said with a note of weary indulgence, “we ARE teenagers.”

Big City – Teenager Taps Facebook to Protest a Punishment From Her Parents – NYTimes.com.

The perils of parenting… and iPods… and texting while driving…

My granddaughter’s birthday is today. She’s 19. A gifted art student, a remarkably grounded, neat kid. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that this afternoon she totaled her car.

The further good news is that she’s okay, and she didn’t hurt anyone else. But it was her fault. I understand the music was playing customarily loud; I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if she had been texting a friend.

The really bad news is that I don’t imagine either of the above behaviors will change.

In 2008, the latest year for which a lot of data has been collected and digested, some 3,500 teens between the ages of 15 and 19 died in car wrecks. About 10 times that many wound up in emergency rooms, but survived. The 15 to 24 age group accounts for 14% of the population, but it accounted for 30% of the costs of motor vehicle injuries ($19 billion) among males, and 28% ($7 billion) among females. Nobody knows how many of the young drivers causing those accidents were texting their friends at the time — cell phones tend to fly out the window, although many of them have survived to incriminate people who murdered other people during casual conversation. There’s a very popular YouTube video that ought to cure you; my granddaughter has seen it.

A few months ago I was driving my granddaughter to catch the BART train back to campus, fairly late one night, when I committed a minor traffic violation under the immediate gaze of a San Francisco policewoman. During the interminable length of time it took for the policewoman to sit in her car studying her computer I did a lot of beating on the steering wheel, ranting about how this would ruin our insurance, how I hadn’t had a ticket in decades, how furious I was with myself for a dumb move. Eventually the policewoman returned, congratulated me on my excellent driving record, and said, “I’m going to give you a break this time, Ms. Johns…” and my granddaughter and I exhaled.

For the next few minutes we talked about my driving record. I said at least some of it has to relate to the fact that I do not talk on the phone while driving and I do not text while driving, and I like soft music (actually, I don’t think I mentioned the music business.) Those, however, are not dots one is interested in connecting if one is 18 years old… or any age, probably, coming from a little-old-lady driver who just got off lucky.

My greatly beloved granddaughter said she often texts while driving. “Everybody does,” she said.