For all the best possible intentions Channel 4 recently exposed how a large number of peodophile and predatory interactions take place on a very regular place on Habbo Hotel. Habbo is a Finnish social networking site aimed at teenagers, wiki describes it here.
In an extensive piece, they talked about how undercover researchers joined Habbo Hotel and found that they were immediately and regularly sexually propositioned. They were subjected to sexual talk and coercive behaviour which sometimes attempted to move virtual chat through avatars from online ‘sexting’ into requests for individuals to strip in front of webcams. The Channel 4 investigation also revealed the identity of a couple of men who have already been prosecuted for such activities.
Habbo seemed unphased at first but when they realized what a storm Channel 4 had provoked they immediately silenced all interaction on their site. This was undoubtedly exacerbated by one of Habbo’s sponsors immediately withdrawing their interest from Habbo.
Despite all my interest in researching teenagers’ online behaviour over the years, I had not been at all interested in Habbo. perhaps because not one of my research participants ever mentioned it to me – although I had heard of it. In fact as it has been around so many years I had assumed there was not activity on there. This is apparently not the case with wiki reporting that by 2011 230 million avatars had been registered (such figures need to be regarded with caution as some people will have multiple avatars and many avatars will have been registered but never or rarely been active).
It looks like the site is going to only unmute the talk and text functions once it has put into place much better more stringent moderation features.
My comments on all this are that:
(a) As usual the research that Channel 4 undertook was research that I think is pretty flawed. The adult researchers did not behave in the same way as teenager researchers and I thnk they should have involved teenagers in a much more authentic exploration of the site. What adults do in the site is not going to be the same as teenagers. This could have been asking teenagers to consent to being involved in research, asking them to join and observing them while interacting on the site – obviously a range of safety and ethical features would need to be set up for the project.
(b) The researchers made all kinds of assumptions about how young people might react to the propositions and lewd interatcions from the resident peodos perverts etc. Agtain, involving teenagers in the research would have helped with this.
(c) The researchers had a model of teenagers and young people as helpless victims. They did not think to consult teenagers who were already using the site about their observations and experiences.
(d) the researchers made the classic mistake of trying to immediately understand the site and to participate without lurking first. I would always advise researchers to first lurk about a site before participating… and this is what most people do before they join in on a networking site too.
(e) I am against covert research. Although the researchers like to get a scoop and love the thrill of under cover operations, I think they woud have got a great deal more from the research if they had got permission ethical approval and then done a thorough and multi faceted research project.
As a result of Channel 4’s research, not only has Habbo itself reacted by taking action which it should have taken long ago in relation to trolls, peodophles and pervs (!!) but many of the sites users are using the internet as a way of speaking back, protesting and making it known that they would like to be acknowledged as having some agency. For example here and here.
I like the way that this player critiques Channel 4’s use of the site. You can see from the video that many young people are utterly distraught by this decimation of what they see as THEIR space.
(It is somewhat naff, btw, that Channel 4 have disabled the embedding of video material they put on YouTube.)
I am very happy to see also how young people were finally invited to be on Channel 4 to have their say and this was a very good piece.
Hopefully Habbo will involve young people in the moderation of the site and to play a major role in advising on policy etc. But the whole piece is a really great example of why we need to teach about and with social networking in schools and to see young people as research participants as opposed to subjects.