Her listeners included her 80-ish grandmother and her 55-ish uncle, who was probably the most purely analog of the bunch.
"She means she's not into worshipping the relationships," I said helpfully, figuring that no one but the original speaker would grasp that my knowing this indicates that I've spent too much time online TV forums. For those who haven't wasted their lives in this manner, a 'shipper is someone whose emotional lives are deeply tied to the relationships between the TV characters they have embraced. Can Jimmy and Gretchen survive the personal disclosure that ended last season on You're the Worst? Will Alicia and Will get it together on The Good Wife? On long-running series, many such relationships perforce become on-off just to manufacture conflict to mine (because we know there are no conflicts in settled relationships, right?), and that feeds the obsession as people try to explain the characters' inner motives. Saying, "One of the actors is doing a movie" or "The writers ran out of stories" is as welcome in this context as a motorcycle on the shared bicycle/pedestrian path along the side of London's Great West Road (which I encountered just last week). If the writers are so unwise as to give one character multiple intimate relationships (say, Buffy and Spike versus Buffy and Angel), the war between the two lots of 'shippers can run and run.
The rather animated discussion she and I went to have about social media and other sites led the uncle to ask this: "Is my 12-year-old son OK online?"
The reply, from the height of 19-year-old wisdom: "He'll be all right as long as he stays away from Tumblr."
Without much in the way of evidence, I suspect she just dated herself, not something 19-year-olds used to have to worry about. She was 12 when Tumblr launched in 2007, so she probably hit its sweet spot. Two years earlier, it might have been Reddit (founded 2005); a couple of years later maybe Snapchat (2011), WhatsApp (2010), or Instagram (2010). Twenty years ago: Usenet.
As a highly digerate friend said when his daughter was 13, it's genuinely difficult, even for parents who designed the technology, to understand how to guide their kids through the present landscape. My parents, born in 1906 and 1913, thought they knew how to ensure their kids grew up right: ban comic books. As their last child, born in 1954, I had no limits on TV, however, and they displayed no curiosity about what I watched.
So I suggested this to the uncle: ask him to show you what he does and where he likes to go. Granted, said son will not show his parent everything. But you can pick up clues to how much risk he's taking. What kind of personal information has he posted in site profiles? What criteria does he use to decide whether to pursue off-site communication with someone he only knows online? Does he hang out on various sites with his real-life friends, or does he like to explore on his own? What risks does he see others taking that he thinks are stupid? What does he make of the role models adults provide when they sext strangers dick pics or pile into the latest case of global shaming?
I've actually done this myself, although it's admittedly much easier when you're not the actual parent: the kid has less of a reflex to hide stuff from you. In 1999, when a friend's son was 15, for a time he liked a MUD called Medievia, which I guess was sort of an online Society for Creative Anachronism. I joined, to see what he was up to and what it was like. It was a real role reversal, and as such rather fun: here, he was the expert on how the world worked, and I was the child who could barely walk. He was kind enough to pat me on the head and give me a weapon. Given my extreme vulnerability, armor might have been more helpful. I also spent time watching him play a few of his favorite computer games, and followed him on the instant messaging choice of the day. It seemed the logical thing to do.
This all seemed particularly relevant, as last week the House of Lords closed a consultation on children and the internet. In the oral evidence (linked from that page), Childnet CEO Will Gardner and indefatigable campaigner John Carr talk about what more they believe online service providers (as well as schools, teachers, and public education) should be doing to protect children. It was noticeable that Facebook was the service they mentioned most frequently. Yet aside from cases where bullying spreads through every available outlet, Facebook seems one of the less problematic sites: sure, young kids are on there, but so are their parents and grandparents. The problem with the approach outlined above is that it's not something politicians or campaigners can list as an achievement. Yet if you want to know what upsets children online and what they'd like to be protected from, you really have to ask them, like Andy Phippen does.
Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.