Saturday, July 12, 2008

A Quest for NetFlix Plus Functionality for Books - for Young Readers!

I'm on a quest and perhaps you can help me. The young readers of the world need a free website which offers "Netflix functionality" for books and specifically caters to young people-- meeting COPPA, FERPA and other legal requirements for minors in the United States as well as other countries. No one wants to pay a $130,000 fine to the FTC like did back in January. To avoid legal problems like Imbee ran into, websites which collect and maintain personal information from children under the age of 13 must first notify parents and obtain their consent. I've noticed as my 10 year old son continues to utilize websites like Club Lego that he's had to ask for my email address and I've had to grant permission via an emailed link for him to have an account and profile on the website. Based on the Imbee FTC case, it appears key that a COPPA compliant website for kids must NOT maintain their account and profile without parental consent. According to the FTC:
The FTC complaint alleged that the defendants [Imbee] violated COPPA and the COPPA implementing rule by failing to obtain verifiable parental consent before any collection of personal information from children; failing to provide sufficient notice of what information they collected online from children, and the site’s information use and disclosure practices and other required content; and failing to provide sufficient notice of the types of personal information they had collected from children prior to obtaining verifiable parental consent.

I know of three websites which offer functionality similar to what I'm looking for, but I am not sure if any of these sites "do it all" in terms of NetFlix functionality or in terms of COPPA compliance. The sites I know about which offer the ability to write book reviews and share recommendations are:

I will admit at the outset that I have not registered for any of these sites yet to give them a test drive, but do have several friends (including Bob Sprankle and Tim Kane) who are using some of them very enthusiastically. I'm writing this post not because I am an "expert" (yet) on these sites and how they compare, but rather to fully respond to Susan Ettenheim's tweeted question today, "What do you mean by 'NetFlix functionality' for books?"

When I say I want free "Netflix functionality" on a social networking site for young readers, I mean the site should offer the following features:
  1. The website should be free for anyone to register for and use, but minors should be required to obtain parental consent to comply with COPPA and other relevant laws as described above.
  2. The site should permit users to RATE books they've read, from one to five stars, just like NetFlix.
  3. The site should let users write book reviews and recommendations that can be public and/or sent directly to friends, just like NetFlix.
  4. The site should let users maintain lists of friends, and view what those friends report they are currently reading, as well as their friends' recommendations for books to read.
  5. The site should use AI technologies (or whatever you call the technologies that can do this sort of thing) to dynamically generate book recommendations for an individual based on the books s/he has already rated in the system.

This is an example of what this looks like today on NetFlix. I've rated 398 different movies I've watched in the past. Based on those ratings and the ratings/preferences of other NetFlix users, when I click the button MOVIES YOU'LL LOVE at the top of the NetFlix website I am presented with the following screen which shows some of the 1279 movies the website's intelligent advice engine thinks I'll like:

Netflix: Movies You'll Love

The movies I've rated which generated the recommendation are shown to the right of each recommended movie. The book rating/review/recommendation and social networking website I'm describing in this post would/will offer this same functionality.

This feature (the ability to get dynamically generated book recommendations) is the most valuable aspect of the current NetFlix rating and social networking website, in my view, and would make this website I'm searching and hoping for of TREMENDOUS benefit to young people / students around the world. As an example of why this is the case, the recently released 2008 Kids & Family Reading Report by Scholastic found that kids commonly report they can't find good books to read and that is why they don't read more books. From page 4 of the report's "Key Findings:"
Trouble finding books they like is a key reason kids say they do not read more frequently. Mom is the top source for book suggestions for kids age 5-11, and friends are most influential among kids age 12-17, who also turn to the Internet.

A website which offers "NetFlix Plus Functionality" for young people about books could help take away this VERY common excuse. I'm certainly not saying social networking technologies can or should replace the role of librarians, classroom teachers, parents and others in supporting young people in their personal journeys of reading and literacy acquisition, but I AM seeing a huge opportunity for those technologies to provide powerful new tools to fuel individual motivations to read.

I've described so far "NetFlix Functionality" for this book-focused social networking site. I next want to describe several important features NOT currently included on NetFlix for movies which would make this hypothetical website possess "NetFlix Plus Functionality." The site should additionally:
  1. Include not only books with official ISBN numbers and available in analog/atomic printed forms, but also include all texts in Project Gutenberg. I do love print books, and even though the Kindle is cool I still see myself curling up with paper books more than an eBook reader in the years ahead. My personal feelings aside, however, it is evident that eBooks are going to become increasingly important in the years ahead. This website needs to therefore include eBooks in the catalog of books which can be rated, reviewed, and recommended.
  2. Users should be able to add links along with ratings and recommendations for other books on other websites which they like and recommend. This is potentially controversial, of course, because "What if one of our students links to a book that is inappropriate?" I think it is essential, however, because many kids LOVE reading stories on Fan Fiction websites like and KidPub. As an example, if a student loved and wants to recommend the KidPub published original novel "Alone in the Middle" (written by a student I interviewed for a podcast recently) they should be able to do this on the website. Yes, traditionally published books can be fantastic for reading and we should continue to support young people's reading of print books. Electronic books are already here in great numbers, however, and those numbers are certain to dwarf our meager imaginations as people born and primarily educated in the 20th century.
  3. Teachers, librarians, and principals (as well as any other user) should be able to create their own "community groups" within the website to share recommendations and favorites.

The current NetFlix site does permit users to select others with similar movie tastes and add them to their personal "community," but to my knowledge the site doesn't permit people to create their own groups in the way users can on many Ning social networking sites (like Celebrate Oklahoma Voices or the NECC 2008 Ning) or on Diigo.

Netflix Community

As a final requirement for this book networking website, I'd like it to include ZERO advertisements (for individuals, families, or schools which pay a small and reasonable annual registration fee) and include both MINIMAL and student-appropriate advertisements for people who are not paying for no-ads. I'm thinking here of advertisements like we see on Facebook, NOT like those we see on MySpace.

That's a long answer, but I think some specific details were/are needed to adequately respond to Susan's question. (Susan, btw, is an "art/media/library/technology" teacher in New York and a contributor/participant to/in Teachers Teaching Teachers. MANY thanks to Susan for challenging me via Twitter with this question. :-)

Here's are my closing requests:
  1. If you've used one of the sites I've mentioned above (Goodreads, Shelfari, LibraryThing, etc) please comment on what you like and don't like about the current site's feature set. Also please comment on how the site addresses COPPA issues for minors, if you can, and your experiences with young people (your students or your own kids) using one of the sites.
  2. If I've left out a book review/recommendation website that you've used and recommend, please share the name and link as a comment.
  3. If you develop or alter a book review/recommendation website based on any of these ideas, please don't be shy with your linktribution. :-)

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