In June 2012 Channel 4 embarked on an attack on the most prominent and largest social network of its day – Habbo Hotel. At that time I had left Habbo, as their UK marketing manager for 5 years. Social network abuse surfaced at the time around underage sex and pornographic chat. Surely after all this time things are better?
To provide full disclosure, at the time I held shares in Sulake the Finnish parent company of the online virtual world, but this is no longer the case. Yet working for the company gave me an insight that few others had….
Unfortunately the negative PR rather than the issues being faced in the game led to the ultimate demise of the game and community. The major investors sold their stakes to distance themselves from the toxic association of social network abuse based on children and paedophiles. In the end this was probably right, as new commercially focused management came in and did not seem to understand the nature of online communities.
For people who were not aware of the case Channel 4 “went undercover” and reported on explicit sexual chat and extensive lewd behaviour in the pixellated game designed, as they claimed for children. Rachel Seifert (https://twitter.com/RACHSEIFERT) the lead reporter explained people “without consent approached me, before saying they were touching my boobs before walking away again”.
Further reports claimed channel 4 had “uncovered” pedophilic behaviour on the site resulting in two men being convicted of making real life contact with teenagers using the game I doubt that is the case very much.
However I can see why there was such an outcry. The examples given are not acceptable in a public or private forum and indeed it seemed that the moderation of Habbo had been reduced from past levels.
However the issues raised and discussed relating to Habbo are more relevant now than ever, as ever increasing attention is given to the large social networks of today and the volume of use continues to rise as well as becoming more mainstream.
A lot of the issues surrounded the fact that Habbo “targeted children“. Yet this angle taken by Channel 4 was again at the extreme end of the scale claiming “players as young as 8 were exposed to highly inappropriate sexual activity”. This is undeniably unacceptable and disturbing. However these kind of statements give a false perception. What age range does Facebook aim itself at? People tend to say “over 18s”, but you need to be a minimum of 13 to join Facebook.
In reality the game was not actually designed for children (it was designed for teenagers between 15- 17), despite the graphical imagery appearing from an adult’s perspective as though it is aimed at a 10 year old. The Finnish designers were actually in their 20’s when they designed the game initially for themselves to hang out with their friends online and it extended from there. The pixel graphics were a retro hommage to 80s computer games like Mario. Unfortunately people like Seifert didn’t understand online culture enough to understand that.
The average age of a Habbo user was actually 15- 16 (I met many of them in person through marketing campaigns I conducted) and despite channel 4’s claims of very young children being the center of the debate, it is funny how their interviews were of Habbo users between 15- 20 and still used the site. As a popular online community of course there are some people who were 8- 13 years of age (and steps were taken to remove these people), but there were also people using the social network who were starting to explore their sexuality between 15 and 16. There were also those who were in their 20s who used to hack the game (the infamous 4Chan) for pleasure.
All social networks with millions of users are used for different aims and appeal to people younger than their target audience. Aspirational living and game play is part of human nature.
Like so many other social networks like Twitter today there are age limits on using a site to prevent children being exposed to adult material (whether text or image based). However like all other social networks it is easy for children to circumvent these age restrictions. Due to Habbo’s commercial nature the fact that users wanted to buy virtual furniture and the monthly subscription “Habbo Club” meant they generally needed a form of payment that required you to be 18 or to ask your parents. This inadvertent safe guard is not in place on the majority of social networks today, but did mean that parents were often aware of situations occurring on Habbo, but failed to act themselves to prevent access to the site or monitor their child’s behaviour.
There are hundreds of millions of children using Facebook and Twitter today who are experiencing more extreme sexual discussion and activity than ever experienced on Habbo. Yet this discussion has rarely attracted the attention it deserves in light of the report conducted by Channel 4 on Habbo.
The difference between social networks like Habbo is in the graphical representation of the self. This detaches the person from what is happening on screen and the very positioning of it being “just a game” also removes people from the actions they carry out on screen. “Have you got webcam” was cited as an ongoing request for other users to explore sex with them and “cyber” as it is called. Most of this occurred within the game, in the same way this occurs (whether justified or not) on the Sims online, Second Life and IMVU. The greatest problem arguably was when these online characters or ‘avatars’ were circumvented and people moving off the relative safety of the platform into real life.
Twitter, Facebook and others lack this layer of anonymity and active moderation does not exist as it did on Habbo. It is even easier for people to be sent pornographic or abusive messages and images directly with no regard for the end users age or acceptance. Indeed the complexity of Facebook’s privacy settings now makes it very easy for pedophiles to target underage teens and groom them because settings are misunderstood and used.
(I refrained from sharing a profile that appears to be from an under-age teen using a ‘selfie’ profile picture that is pointing downwards to show off more cleavage and is shared publicly to the world, but it is not hard)
There are also art communities like Deviant Art that are social networks built to share images and are now used by teenagers to share explicitly photos of themselves in their bid to explore their sexuality. Teenagers did explore sex before becoming sexually active and will continue to do so, it is where and how that society needs to ask itself.
This leads to the issue of moderation. Habbo worked hard to provide a safe environment and brought the police up to speed on dealing with “cyber crime”, at a time when the technology and issues were very new. It was proactive in developing and training moderators, reporting illegal behaviour and sending information to the police to bring illegal activity in front of the legal system. The moderation team helped advise the government on how to deal with crimes that occurred in this virtual world and worked closely with the Child Exploitation & Online Protection Centre (CEOP).
This was all at a time when Habbo stood alone as the main social network of its day and needed to set the standards of social network moderation. I believe it its utmost, but ultimately the learning curve was too steep and unacceptable scenarios slipped through the net.
Has the situation improved?
Recent articles and examples suggest not. The death threats against Edward Milliband and racist abuse of Stan Collymore on Twitter. Facebook also causes a stir with a range of examples like the suicide of Caitlin Alker after being subjected to an online verbal attack and the pedophile ring leader on Facebook who was jailed. Yet these are just a few that hit the news.
Perhaps the most worrying difference with Habbo is that these social networks are far larger to hide in and do not have the same proactive approach (although less mainstream social networks like SnapChat potentially represent an even greater risk with fewer safeguards).
From recent events with Stan Collymore it is clear they hide behind the law, using their server location to prevent prosecution. This is not morally correct but legally correct. They have also been accused of failing to provide timely evidence to the police so they can take necessary action.
But are the social networks and social media in all to blame?
TalkSport’s (Collymore’s broadcast channel employer) official statement claimed,
“It seems inconceivable that a hi-tech company with a market capitalisation of $30bn appears incapable of preventing racist and abusive tweets being broadcast across its platform”
It is not because social networks don’t want to help their users or are somehow devoid of morality, but because, like Habbo, the volume of conversation and users is too vast compared to the human and underlying technology’s ability to support moderation. This results in failure to identify illegal activity and means the development company is sluggish in being able to deal with the problems.
People often cry an increase in moderation, but how can a team of moderators watch and respond to millions of lines of chat per second without hiring such a large team that commercially it makes no sense? 500 million tweets are recorded per day. How many moderators would you need for that? Tens of thousands…
Habbo developed increasingly new (and ground breaking) tools to help the process (like a report button, chat filter, alert that showed conversations with just 2 people). Yet they also worked with CEOP and continually developed relationships with the police and advised about the underlying technology so police were empowered to take action. This was considered the best possible approach and the utmost that could be done. Channel 4 and other observers claim that was not enough, but clearly thing have not progressed much since.
Today Twitter is being chased by the police and Facebook has also been in the news about cases of racial and sexual abuse, bullying and pedophilia. Twitter’s response to accusations of failing to deal with the problem was their provision of a ‘report tweet’ button so users can report problems themselves and block offensive accounts from contacting them further. In addition to this they state that they have a “clear process of working with the Police”.
These accusations and issues faced by Twitter all rings true through words dismissed on the channel 4 news programme from the Chief Executive Child Exploitation & Online Protection Centre (2006-2010), Jim Gamble;
“Habbo Hotel like so many other social networking sites is in essence a legitimate site where many many people go and spend their time legitimately. Unfortunately like any public place that where children frequent people are going to go who are unscrupulous to get into that environment…. the issue for me is how you police those environments sensibly and sensitively but most of all effectively. Not whether you close them down or not.”
There is an argument to say that the difference is between children and adults, where children are more vulnerable and naïve. However these sites are still open for use by children and adults can be equally vulnerable. The trouble is that people don’t stop to consider the other person, where they are, their mental state, their upbringing, education or other factors that will influence how such communication is received.
On the BBC breakfast news (23rd January) discussing Twitter’s failure to respond appropriately to recent racist abuse Vicky Beaching highlighted the cultural issue that we as human beings are still playing catch up to realise and mentally deal with.
“Behind your computer (in social networks) you lack ‘concrete consequence’ ” she points out.
Communication through technology is cognitively and emotionally different to being face-to-face with a person and strips people of their social conscience. That is why people set up new accounts with fake names and details to carry out abuses, so they are anonymous and can say what they want without reprisal. People use technology to do things they wouldn’t in real life. In Habbo teens explored sex in a way that is far safer than in reality and said things that were untoward. This is not acceptable to society, but the reality.
Our culture, society, parents and the individual must all take more responsibility.
The challenge for all social networks continues to be the battle between providing enough physical support and the tools necessary for the community to moderate what they feel is unacceptable. They must support other societal structures like law enforcement and CEOP for example to openly discuss what is happening on the networks and develop norms online to deal with the technological c
hanges we all face.
Society must understand how these technologies work and the impact they can have on people’d real life. A throw away comment on Facebook or a photo sent via Instagram, to the wrong person can ruin lives.
Individuals must realise that people online are people. Some are kind, giving, helpful, while some are out for revenge, hate and abuse. Sharing problems, reporting illegal activity and understanding that you are more open to attack and criticism to a far larger group of people online is crucial.
Let’s call the social networks to do their bit in moderation and response to upholding the law, but not blame them as a result of the people using the social networks by banning people. It is too easy to ban an account for them to create another.
The solution lies in how we see online behaviour and deal with it in society. Online behaviour reflects and enhances behaviours and feelings people have in real life. If we solve this we solve our problems on social networks.
What do you think? Should the social networks be doing more or is it down to society and the individual to help regulate other people’s behaviour online? Do let us know, as this is a sensitive and very important topic- we’d love to hear your thoughts.