Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Lessons from an unusual social network

In the English speaking world, teenagers are all busy chatting to their friends on commercial social networking platforms, like MySpace (owned by News International) and Bebo. These platforms are full of advertising and offer little in terms of child protection or safety. Meanwhile many French speakers are using a rather unique platform, set up by a non-profit organisation, called Parano.be. Although it's based on rather basic technology (php), it has a huge number of users and survives on donations made by the biggest fans of the site. There is no advertising at all. Members join specific sectors based on their interests, which include sector-specific forums, bulletin boards and a number of other features. A virtual 'salary' is provided to users based on how long they stay online; the currency can be used to purchase virtual gifts or services for others, or even transferred directly to others' virtual accounts. The network is essentially organic: to invite a new member, you have to spend a relatively large sum of virtual currency to send the invite.

Here are some of the most intriguing features from an educational point of view:
- child safety is maintained. Under 18s can only join and view certain sectors of the site, which are monitored by older, verified individuals. Occasionally younger members will lie about their age, but the community usually swiftly responds. There is a high level of responsibility and self-policing. It shows that a school-based community could effectively be moderated by older children.
- role play (RP) is pervasive: although the interface is largely text based, RP is part of the life of most sectors on the discussion forums. The moderators organise an RP session on a regular basis, based on the suggestions of the members. These RP sessions are basically long stories generated by the contributions of each user, and can be highly imaginative. In education, such an approach would be great to encourage creativity and written expression.
- rank changes according to behaviour: the moderators assess the level of participation and other issues to understand what rank the members should have. Usually enthusiastic members will rapidly rise in rank, unlocking new features and 'missions' to complete. This is an interesting 'game style' approach which could encourage pupils to use a system.
- virtual currency is usually spent solidifying social links: buying virtual gifts such as champagne, flowers, teddy bears, etc. for others is really important in keeping good relationships with other members. Such a system could be used in a school-oriented scenario to help individuals understand money management and mathematics.
- games are common: individuals will organise games or competitions from their profiles. They could be treasure hunts, to find information hidden on others' profiles, or simple trivia questions. Prizes are usually virtual currency or gifts. This ludic atmosphere could easily be transferred into an educational 'quest'.