Now where did I put that username?

Today I was told I couldn’t go inside the building society without a password. The guy on the door could remind me of my password but only if I could remember the name of my first pet. And my first girlfriend. And my favourite film. Which I couldn’t of course. So I gave up and went next door to the bookshop. But security wouldn’t let me in there without a recognised username. Apparently I would have chosen one three years ago when I first went to that shop. No, it’s not that one. Nor that one. No sorry, that’s three attempts and you’re now banned from this shop.

It wouldn’t happen on the High Street. So why has it become so hard to do my shopping/banking online? Of course I should be able to remember my username. But each site needs ever more complex combinations of numbers, letters and signs. So every shopping trip becomes more and more complex. Which e-mail address had I used to sign up? I don’t know, it was three years ago.

The building society has just sent me a ‘grid card’ – a physical piece of card with a jumble of letters from which I am required to produce on-demand the letters on two co-ordinates (you’re confused? think how I feel). So I have to carry around this card in my wallet – hardly The Matrix is it? And of course I still need a username, and another independent security question. Which could be the pet. Or the girlfriend. Is that the first girl I kissed? Or the one when things started to get more serious? Does unrequited love count?

Somewhere between automated service and transaction security, the world of e-commerce, e-banking and other online services forgot that I’m just a guy trying to buy some stuff, pay some money and then get on with my life. It used to be that doing everything online was so much easier than going onto the High Street. Now I am starting to think it might be easier to put on my coat and pop into the city centre instead.

Of course I don’t want to do that. I want to stay indoors, checking out every possible model available and not listening to a shop assistant claim vaguely that my size might be in next Tuesday’s delivery. Of course I could just buy everything from Amazon, but I still need to transfer money to the building society. And to do that I need to remember my password … or of course the name of my first pet. Does the stick insect count (“Sticky” I think)? Did I use the name of the dog that belonged to the whole family, or the guinea pig that was my very own?

Playing safe

Last week a British online game, Smokescreen, won the best game award at the hugely prestigious South By Southwest conference in the US. As well as a coup for producers Six to Start and commissioner Channel 4 Education, it’s also focused attention on how to engage teens about safety online.

At its heart, Smokescreen simulates the internet. In the game, players use ‘Fakebook’, ‘Gaggle’, ‘Tweetr’, ‘MSG messenger’ and other sites to help friends who’ve set up Whitesmoke – an exclusive teen-only social networking site. Players also receive simulated phone calls and text messages from in-game characters.

The producers set out to convince players that the fictional world they were in could actually be real – and so can the risks and threats it contains. What’s brilliant about the game is that it puts online safety into a credible context, even parodying social networks as it goes.

As a parent and a school governor myself, I’m concerned that we find ways to educate children about the risks of the internet without scaring them off what is the greatest educational resource available today.

Because teens are hard-wired to believe in their own invincibility, standard efforts to explain potential dangers can either fail to convince or sound like the draconian measures of an adult ordering them around in what they perceive to be their space.

But still teenagers don’t think twice about putting e-mails, phone numbers and photos onto Facebook and other social networking sites.

The conviction of a serial sex offender for the rape and murder of teenager Ashleigh Hall, ensnared by him through a fake profile on Facebook, dominated the news a month ago. The need for effective engagement of teens about the dangers of social networking has never been more apparent.

Smokescreen offers one highly effective tool to persuade and engage teens, rather than adults telling them what to do. Now we need more such approaches to fulfill the potential of Web 2.0 as an education and networking platform for good.