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When I worked as an IT HOD at a school, I was very privileged to be involved with the rollout of the Obami platform at our school and network with several other schools at the time. Obami was a communications and learning platform developed in South Africa by a team of two whose main aim was allowing networking and learning between students and teachers on an easy-to-use platform that involved parents. The security of the children using this platform was priority number one with filters working constantly to monitor and block out profanity as well as report incidences of bullying through speech pattern recognition. Each child had to be loaded by the school through lists sent to Obami who released that information to NOBODY else. Parents were connected to their children and students in groups connected to teachers who could use the platform to serve tasks and monitor homework. Generally, children could just go online and have good, decent fun while learning at the same time. In the two to three years that I was involved, I never experienced an issue with the network or service or had to deal with a nasty incident. There was respect for the child and respect for a legal framework that protects the child. Not so much with the latest app from Facebook called Lifestage.
What is it?
The official description from the App Store:
"Lifestage makes it easy and fun to share a visual profile of who you are with your school network. Simply capture into a field on your profile, and then post it on your profile. Once your school is unlocked, you can access the profiles of others in your school community (and all over!) so you can get to know people better in your school and nearby schools, discover others who are into the same stuff you are, and connect with them."
Lifestage is an app aimed at teen usage recently released by Facebook to a select group of high schools in the USA currently only available for iOS, for now. A 'teen' signs up to Lifestage, gives their age (with no verification) and what school they go to (with no verification). The only verification is that of the telephone number. Are the warning bells already ringing? On Lifestage, teens are encouraged to create videos that are assigned to pre-specified fields, with descriptions of their daily habits, their likes and dislikes. They are also encouraged to enter information into their profile to allow others to connect with them on other platforms, in particular Instagram and Snapchat. Once a sign-up threshold is reached, the network of the high school then becomes open to connecting with other high school networks, reminiscent of the start of Facebook days when the platform was only available to university-confirmed students.
When signing up there is a warning to users that their information is publicly available on the platform. There are no custom privacy controls. There is a nod in the direction of some kind of security in the form of a ban and report function for pesky users or bullies, I should imagine. There is no private messaging feature or inbox functionality.
What does it aim to do?
Seemingly, Lifestage aims to allow teens to showcase themselves in the best light possible in order to allow those stalking them to see their best side, naturally. There is currently the perception that the 'Millennial' generation is the most self-absorbed generation ever to have been seen in the history of mankind. Now, imagine these self-obsessed, self-absorbed people significantly upping the level of self-obsession and self-absorption. This seems to be the profile we're working with for the next generation. Beware babies in utero who start eating their hosts from the inside out, basically.
Lifestage, innocuous as it seems, is not that at all. Read on, keeping in mind the massive fail of Facebook to attract teens to the platform.
Snapchat and Instagram
Before going into my suspected reasons for Lifestage having been created, let us look at the seemingly direct competition, Snapchat and Instagram.
Snapchat got teens on board at a rapid rate. The platform suited their never-sated instant gratification needs as well as the need to feel like they wouldn't get caught out doing something naughty or borderline unacceptable. (The pictures just disappear, you know. No, guys, screenshots. But that's a discussion for another day.) Brands have bought in. Teens have buying power. Brands are evolving at a rapid rate to reach the teens and tweens who dictate the marketplace. Snapchat is Snapchat. Lifestage is NOT competition for Snapchat. Snapchat is on-the-go, instant, now. If you don't see it, you miss out. YOLO and FOMO combined into one. Lifestage is slightly more permanent and structured than this.
Instagram? Instagram is just pictures, you say, with a random inbox that everybody forgets to check. You may have noticed people's profile pictures all lined up neatly at the top of your app waiting for your attention to look at their happy snap with captions/stories of their day - the "Stories" feature. Is this competition for Snapchat or Lifestage? Personally, I think Instagram just got sick and tired of people like me posting pictures of their children being ridiculous and yet another fuzzy dog picture and are trying to get through to our thick skulls that we should rather make those pictures less permanent in a life story type deal. Is Instagram returning to the pure roots of curating gorgeous imagery in a styled feed, artists only? Or, Instagram has cottoned onto teen trends, as well. Teens curate their Instagram feeds if you haven't noticed. They will only keep pictures that achieve a certain number of likes in a certain amount of time. Generally these pictures have very deep and meaningful captions written by 'Anonymous'. The rest get deleted. So no, not really direct competition. Besides, Facebook owns Instagram, too, so I suspect they have a different plan for the platform, entirely. (Here we might see the ad wars start between Snapchat and Instagram.)
I do suspect that data privacy advocates world-round are tearing their hair out in despair at this move. There have been comments thrown about already in the media regarding the fact that Facebook apps come and go so perhaps Lifestage will just disappear. My first comment on that point is that Lifestage isn't a name that rolls off the tongue for a teen so a rebrand might be in order at the outset. Lifestage is really a more clinical type of term, is it not? Somebody in a deep dark corner of a Facebook data lab has been tasked with the unenviable mission of GETTING TEENAGERS TO BUY IN OR ELSE. The empire will fail, is the 'or else' in this matter. Think about it for a second. An app that is structured with fields. Teens will fill each field with the relevant video. They don't like to write. And they'll constantly update. Object recognition in pictures and videos is so far advanced now that a data centre could very easily in a short amount of time spew out a profile, with trend tracking, of each of those teens.
How much is that information worth to advertisers? Beginning to make sense? The elusive generation might very well be herded into the pens of the masses under control, yet.
I'm certain that as a parent, caregiver or educator you will have genuine concerns should this app be released to a 'school near you'. I suggest keeping in touch, monitoring what is being installed onto devices and having open discussions with teens. Our lives are being constantly monitored and we're all being used to feed the big data monster. This happens pretty much whether we like it or not (makes me think of trying to have a tax revolt in South Africa - just not going to happen). Are we willingly going to allow our children to participate in this or allow them to be protected, just a little, and not be bombarded with advertising that changes the way that they think and moulds them as a person? Data privacy concerns are real. Please, educate yourselves.
Edit: Lifestage is downloadable and easily accessed in South Africa, now.