Singapore teens’ perceived ownership of online sources and credibility
First Monday

Singapore teens' perceived ownership of online sources and credibility by Andrew Duffy, Tan Liying, and Larissa Ong

This study investigates teenage attitudes towards unofficial versus mainstream media as a source of information. It starts from three unproven premises. First, that young people place more trust in unofficial online news than in mainstream media, because they feel a greater ownership of the cyberworld. Second, due to a perception of authoritarian control over Singapore’s mainstream media, truth and accuracy in unofficial sources are of secondary importance to a feeling of ownership. Third, teenagers’ need for accuracy is secondary to their need for ownership and differentiation; and, unofficial information sources are a badge of identity worn by the young. The study found that perceived ownership of a medium is secondary to its utilitarian function. Content is more important than platform. Off–line media were preferred for current affairs and sports, where reliability and convenience were important. This went in tandem with greater interest in current affairs among academic high fliers, and a greater interest in entertainment among others. Online media were preferred for entertainment and leisure information, where accuracy and reliability were secondary to attitude.


Aims and objectives
Theoretical perspectives
Results and discussion




The Internet has revolutionised how people find information. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ, 2006), audiences are moving from print to online sources and as a result they consume news in a different way. They are more likely to go to multiple sources and draw their own conclusions from what they find than accept pre–packaged, edited versions of events presented to them by old–fashioned reporters.

This study investigates how teenagers in Singapore consume news and other information, examining the values they place on news based on its provenance, such as why they use certain media platforms to access certain types of information.

The imminent death of newspapers has been widely reported; the question is, what niche does print journalism occupy for the younger generation destined to preside over this supposed demise? Fifteen–year–olds of 2005 will be 50 in 2040 when the last newspaper is printed — according to media baron Rupert Murdoch’s (2005) best estimates.

In this study, “online information sources” refers to the Internet, including electronic newspapers, search engines and online encyclopaedias. “Off–line information sources”, covers all print (books, newspapers, magazines and other periodicals) and broadcast (radio and television). It classifies information sought by teenagers into five categories:

  1. Current affairs (national and international environmental, political, social etc. issues)
  2. Entertainment (tabloids, music, movies)
  3. Leisure (travel, hobbies, games)
  4. Sport (national and international)
  5. School research (information for school/homework).



Aims and objectives

This study, completed in 2007, hoped to gain a deeper understanding of how teenagers in Singapore use certain media to access certain types of information. It aimed to investigate teenage trust of unofficial online news versus mainstream off–line news; how teenagers consume news and the value they place on the news based on its provenance; as well as exploring what information Singaporean youths wanted, where they got it, and what factors affected their decisions.



Theoretical perspectives

The uses and gratifications theory of media concerns itself with the principle that utility and needs are the overriding factors for media consumption (Katz, et al., 1973). Yet with a new generation of digital natives (Prensky, 2001), it may be time to reconsider whether this theory gives a full picture. The use of media by youth has been well studied, but frequently with the disdainful tone of an adult criticising young people’s use of a new media with which the older generation may be less familiar and often more fearful. Many studies concern themselves with online addiction, pornography, Internet predators – to read these studies, one would think that the Internet is a terrible place. And yet individuals – notably young people – flock to the Internet. Just as Jones (2005) challenged the accepted wisdom about video games by asking children why they liked playing them, the aim of this study was to discover from students themselves their uses of media, and how the Internet fitted into it.

A secondary interest was in their news and current-affairs habits. Newspaper editors see declining sales and research reveals that this decline is more notable among younger readers. Overall, circulation has decreased since 1960, although this is not equally apparent across different countries (Raeymaekers, 2004). The concern that newspapers face such an uncertain future may be linked to the rise of electronic media (Norris, 2000, and others). There is both media displacement and media complementing each other. Use of the Internet seems to have reduced the use of television; 40 percent of youngsters say they watch it less (Mediappro, 2006). There is evidence of substitution between of the Internet for television, both overall and for news, between daily newspapers and broadcast TV news (Waldfogel, 2002).

Some research suggests that young people value news. Gauntlett and Hill (1999) asked young British respondents to keep a diary of their TV viewing behaviour over five years. Based on these diaries, Gauntlett and Hill claimed that news programmes increasingly became part of the youngsters’ daily routines as they grew older. Young people indicate that they are interested in particular in shocking, bizarre, funny or abnormal events. The particular relevance of such information is that it provides conversation topics (Meijer, 2006). Knowledge about current affairs also seems to be a strong element in prestige in some social groups, at least for 16 to 18–year–old Belgian students (Raeymaeckers, 2004).

Most research into children’s information–seeking behaviour has been conducted in schools. This study was open to the same strengths and weaknesses identified by Shenton (2004). He identifies administrative and contextual reasons among the benefits, and timing, permission and absenteeism among the weaknesses. But while Shenton valued schools for their diversity, this study valued Singapore’s schools for the academic similarities within the streamed groups. While this study is by no means fully representative of all teens in Singapore, it is relevant to those who are likely to be affected by changing information habits – those who read newspapers and surf the Internet on a regular basis. Another factor is that researchers have tended to ask parents to report on the use of technology by their chhildren, even though it is central to childhood to generate tactics to live within or circumvent the strategies adults use to constrain them (Seiter, 1999). Asian adolescents were chosen because they belong to a wired generation eager to connect to the Internet in a region where Internet penetration is high (Jung, et al., 2005).

Media use among teens

The bigger picture of online media use shows a difference depending on the ages of respondents. The Pew Internet and American Life Project (Horrigan, 2006) found that there was a distinct bias towards younger people (under 36 in the Pew study) having broadband and getting news online, even though they are “generally less news–hungry” than older online users. It also noted that speed was a deciding factor in whether Americans got their news online or in print, with 43 percent of those with high–speed broadband turning to the Internet, compared to 26 percent of those with slower dial–up connections. Another Pew study (2002) also found that teens use the Internet more for communication and entertainment than for research.

Looking more at youth, Kvavik, et al. (2004) found that students used the Internet first for educational purposes, second for communication and third for presentations. Surfing the Internet for pleasure was only marginally ahead (97.2 percent) of surfing for schoolwork (96.4 percent) and, indeed, students often did both at the same time. Kvavik, et al. (2004) were concerned more with use than motivation.

Other research has considered children’s use of the Internet generally, rather than their information–seeking behaviour (Lai and Tong, 2006). But as they are the next generation of newspaper readers it seemed important to examine what kind of information they value and where and why they seek it. In a study of the research habits of children at an English secondary school, Madden, et al. (2007) found that the Internet was consistently ranked, in terms of perception, as the most useful information source. Newspapers and magazines were ranked highly at the ages of 11–12, and dipped dramatically at the ages of 13–15, before settling somewhere in the middle of the range for the remaining teenage years. But when it came to use, both Internet and print media languished at the bottom – with newspapers and magazines scoring more highly then the Internet for all but 13 to 14–year–olds polled. This suggests a further line of enquiry among Singapore students, looking at real, rather than perceived, research activities.

Teens in Asia

Singapore, with its high Internet penetration rate of 66 percent (IDA, 2006) and distinct streaming of students, was an interesting test case. This study observed that differences in media use corresponded to differences in academic achievement and attitude. This is not to assume causality, as newspaper use and high academic achievement may be coincidental or caused by separate social, economic and other factors that predispose newspaper readers to academic heights, as well as directing academically inclined students towards the respectability of newspapers. In one study, Danish tweens were observed as being more likely to use mobile phones and the Internet for interpersonal communication and for enjoyment than Hong Kong tweens, while Hong Kong tweens used the Internet more for educational purposes than Danish tweens (Andersen, et al., 2007).

Ownership or pragmatism?

While many commentators concentrate on ownership in its physical sense, this research was more interested in perceived ownership in a conceptual sense (van der Voort,et al., 1998). Jiang (2003) questioned whether youth’s main loyalty was towards content or format. Madden, et al. (2007) was surprised that the use of the Internet was so small for English schoolchildren. But pragmatic children the world over value speed and convenience above all else, in keeping with uses and gratification theory. They do not prefer the Internet – they use it out of convenience, although they find it more convenient as an instrument of research because they tend to go there for entertainment. Ultimately, this research concurred that the process of appropriation is highly influenced by an individual’s profile — tastes, psychological and social orientations (Mediappro, 2006). Neuberger, et al. (1998) pointed out that online news media lacks portability, but now that teens find themselves using a computer for many hours a day, it has become a convenient place to read news.

Multiplicity of viewpoint

A final consideration is the unusual media model in Singapore, where broadcast and press are effectively run as monopolies, with significant influence by the government. While not a perfect match, a comparison with centrally controlled media systems is instructive. Ithiel de Sola Pool (1973) identified a few consequences for media use in countries governed by authoritarian governments — continuous retreat into privacy; declining political interest and decreasing credibility of official media. This corresponds to the Singapore experience on two levels. First, where the press is perceived as being government controlled, people will look for alternative sources of information. Second, it is standard teen behaviour to perceive any official voice as being biased, and therefore they are doubly inclined to find alternative sources.

Meyen and Schwer (2007) identified six types of media consumer in the old German Democratic Republic, based on the credibility and use of both East and West German media. One group, The Committed, had climbed the career ladder within the GDR, graduated from university and were of above average intelligence and loyal to the system. They understood that political programmes broadcast on each side of the Berlin Wall were biased, but wanted to see both sides to balance their own arguments in discussions. The comparison can be made to the Singapore students who recognise that no single source is without bias, and want different sources to get a fuller picture. Young people have learned that zapping (that is, switching between multiple channels) is a good way to get a general impression of a wide variety of information. Objectivity does not exist in their experience and thus they are not inclined to identify with a single standpoint (Meijer, 2006).

Equally, Singapore is a multicultural society, which has further implications of multiplicity, or at least an acceptance of complexity. Living in a multicultural society has taught young people that there is no single truth. This is why young people have a preference for programmes that show that multiple stories and realities can exist side by side and which do not force them into identifying themselves with one position (Meijer, 2006). Prensky’s (2001) digital natives prefer more raw information so they can filter it themselves. Among Dutch teens, the primary need was a demand for more background information that would enable them to understand the context of news, in order to draw conclusions and finally to understand what an given story was really all about (Raeymaekers, 2004).

Perhaps the platform itself is less important than content. In the new media environment, it seems that people increasingly engage with content more than forms or channels – favourite bands, soap operas or football teams, wherever they are to be found, in whatever medium or platform (Livingstone, 2004). Possibly the very architecture of the Internet – its flexible, hypertextual, networked structure as well as its interactive mode of address and almost anarchic feel – particularly appeals to young people, fitting in with their informal, peer–oriented, anti–authority approach, making this an environment in which they feel empowered (Livingstone, 2007).

Initial research for this paper involved a literature review, followed by face–to–face interviews with 20 Singaporean teenagers to suggest a relevant direction for subsequent surveys and also to give a general idea of how Singaporean teenagers sought information. Next, 150 students from three different academic streams (50 from each stream) filled in a questionnaire (Appendix A) which examined:

  • Their information needs.
  • Their choice of media to fulfil those needs.
  • What influences their decision of which media to consult for which information.
  • Their attitudes towards the value of online and off–line information sources.
  • Their attitudes towards perceived generational ownership of media.
  • Their academic credentials as shown by the PSLE score, the Primary Schools’ Leaving Exam which streams them into different secondary schools and is an indicator of future academic success.

The three streams are:

  • Integrated Programme IP. High academic.
  • Express Stream. Mid–academic.
  • Normal (Academic) N(A) stream. Average academic.

A control group of 10 adults was also polled.

The limitations of this study are that the target group may have been too small to provide a more fair and all–encompassing point of view. Also, as all survey respondents from the IP stream were female, the survey results may have been skewed to a feminine perspective. Yet Livingstone (2003) found that there are few gender differences in motivation for Internet use. Further, Raeymaekers found that gender differences in patterns are not significant. Instead, rather than gender, educational level has a strong influence on interest in political features of news, and young respondents with the lowest level of education were more interested in features such as “television and entertainment” (Raeymaekers, 2004). This study adds to this finding. Lauf (2001) found, however, that in 1998, looking across Europe, education was no longer a significant predictor of daily readership. Rather, age had become the strongest predictor for daily use of newspapers as a source of political information. And following Meijer’s (2006) use of a peer group to overcome resistance to adults, this study also used students from the same peer group to conduct the surveys.



Results and discussion

The findings are presented first quantitatively, based on the survey responses and then qualitatively, based on interviews. This research is based on different academic streams.

Information sought

There is an increase in interest in current affairs with greater academic ability. In the IP stream, 42 percent showed a great interest in current affairs, which dropped to 32 percent for those in the Express stream and just four percent in the N(A) stream. The control group of adults showed an 83 percent interest in current affairs. Mirroring this, the interest in entertainment among the IP stream was its lowest at 46 percent, rising to 54 percent for the Express stream and topping 70 percent for the N(A) students. These students are likely to look for information on entertainment — including sports, games, music, movies and TV–related information — and for information on current affairs in order to appear knowledgeable for school reports. “I read current affairs in the newspapers to be up to date, as there is a constant competition for who has the most knowledge, and knowledge is necessary for survival.” (Timothy, 16) This is consistent with previous findings (Meijer, 2006; Raeymaekers, 2004).


Percentage of students who were interested to know or really wanted to know about subject areas on the Internet
Table 1:  Percentage of students who were ‘interested to know’ or ‘really wanted to know’ about subject areas on the Internet (N = 150).


Reasons for choice of medium

All three groups agreed that speed was a very important consideration. For IP and Express students, convenience and availability were king, scoring 96 percent and 100 percent respectively for IP and 88 percent and 90 percent for Express; while for N(A) students they were less important, scoring 66percent and 60 percent respectively. But among secondary factors, popularity with teenagers (which can be linked to a sense of ownership) was highest among the N(A) stream at 42 percent; and lowest among the IP stream at 18 percent. Reliability as a criterion was highest among the IP students, at 54 percent and lowest among the N(A) students at 24 percent. Feelings of ownership towards the Internet were based more on IT literacy levels of their parents. “I don’t feel the Internet belongs to my generation and the more traditional off–line media belongs to the older generation. More and more adults are using the Internet for gaming etc.” (Amanda, 15) “I do feel a sense of ownership of the Internet, because my parents are not IT savvy.” (Joanne, 15)

Respondents preferred online sources for convenience, speed, habit and searchability, which were most commonly cited reasons for looking online. “It’s accessible, because most of the time I’m already at the computer.” (Amanda, 15) Convenience and habit were also key: “It also lets you multi–task, as you can click around and do more than one thing.” (Glenys, 15) “I use it to find things that cannot be found in newspapers – and vice versa.” (Dawn, 16) It is “far–reaching and satisfying.” (Naomi, 16)

By contrast, they prefer off–line because it is reliable, and it is habitual. “I get tired of doing things on the computer, so I want a change and hence read newspapers and magazines.” (Natalie, 16) Off–line is more reliable according to Dawn (16) and others. “It is portable, and healthier because it does not harm your eyes.” (Liyoung, 16). “Off–line news is more reliable as compared to online sites such as Wikipedia where anyone can edit the information. Off–line news is also more reader friendly as it is all summarised in a day’s/week’s copy.” (Natalie, 16)


Percentage of students' motivation for choosing media for research
Table 2: Percentage of students’ motivation for choosing media for research (N = 150).


Trust in sources

Kvavik, et al. (2004) found that a student’s major was a good indicator of use of technology, especially in the classroom. This study found that trust in the Internet went up slightly as academic ability went down, although there was minimal difference between the student groups in trust in the Internet based on the idea that “it appeals to my generation.” Valuing the Internet for entertainment was consistent across all three groups. Trustworthiness was a major consideration among the IP students (72 percent), dropping to 50 percent for the Express stream and 46 percent for the N(A) stream. Being written for their generation was unimportant for the IP stream ( four percent), slightly more so for the Express stream (10 percent) and even more so for the N(A) stream (28 percent). Similarly, entertainment value differed between groups, with IP and Express students matching at 22 percent saying it was valued, and 38 percent of N(A) students ascribing value to it. But in all cases, these were not significant factors.

Respondents valued online information for its speed, frequency of updates and variety of viewpoints. “Off–line news is not trustworthy as it is biased and is used to spread propaganda, especially the Straits Times.” (Zeslene, 16) “There is a whole range of opinions. That is important as the more ideas, the better, so that you know whether your ideas are solid, after you’ve sieved out the useful contributions.” (Zackary, 18) And they valued off–line information for its reliability, dependability and credibility: “You can be sure it gives more accurate information.” (Tami, 16) Others, though, found there was no difference in credibility between online and off–line. “They are equally valuable, as they both cover very different areas. Newspapers cover current affairs, while online is for entertainment purposes.” (Dawn, 16) There were more comments that a friendly tone of voice was important (26) than neutral comments (20). Friendliness appears to boost credibility for entertainment information, but weaken it for news.


What students consider very important or somewhat important in choosing a source of information
Table 3: What students consider ‘very important” or ‘somewhat important” in choosing a source of information (percentage; N = 150).


Different streams

Integrated Programme (IP) stream

When searching for information, 46 percent of students from the IP stream – the most academically inclined group – ranked school research as their first priority. The next most popular choices, current affairs and entertainment, could reflect students’ desire to be well informed. Sports and leisure were not popular choices. In the IP group, 90 percent of those seeking information on current affairs turned to newspapers and magazines, and 46 percent to the Internet. For the same group, 64 percent seeking information on sports looked off–line and 42 percent online. IP students interested in current affairs and sports preferred off–line media, such as newspapers and magazines and TV or radio, over online media, because they place more weight on credibility and trustworthiness of sources relative to these topics. Off–line sources were generally perceived to be more accurate as they involve expert opinion and coverage. On the other hand, respondents searching for information on entertainment and leisure – which are considered less ‘serious’ topics – demonstrated a preference for the Internet. Hence, an emphasis on certain requirements such as reliability and speed varied with the nature of information sought.

Availability (100 percent), convenience (96 percent) and speed (86 percent) proved to be most important – all were 100 percent among the control group. The regularity of updates was also an important criteria, as the students want to be informed of the most updated news in order to avoid being out of the loop. Only slightly more than half of the respondents felt that reliability was important, which suggests they are willing to discount reliability in favour of speed and convenience. Factors such as humour and popularity with teenagers were not important to the IP stream. However, 65 percent preferred the Internet as it is more entertaining, and almost half agreed that the Internet was more appealing to their generation. Even so, 48 percent felt that whether the news source was “for their generation” was the least important factor.

Express stream

In the mid–range of academic ability represented by the Express stream, more than half of the respondents listed leisure, entertainment and current affairs as areas they wanted to know about the most. School research was the least popular choice, with 66 percent of respondents citing it as something they least wanted to know about. The Internet was the most popular mode of finding information (except current affairs), because it is easily available, convenient and fast. At least, 80 percent of the respondents felt that those factors are the most important criteria. Newspapers and magazines were the preferred choice for current affairs, because they were considered more reliable. However, only 42 percent of Express stream respondents cited reliability as an important factor in information–seeking. That suggests that convenience – reports are edited and compiled – is important to this group. Certainly, 88 percent of the respondents felt that convenience was an important factor.

Some felt that friendliness was essential for entertainment and leisure information seeking, so they could relate to it. Hence, the Internet is the preferred choice for information on entertainment, as style appears more important than substance. In other words, they can forgive some inaccuracies in entertainment news – which is considered less serious and important – if it is appealingly written. Speed is important, as print media may not be updated with movie screening times, for example.

Unexpectedly, newspapers and magazines were the preferred choice for sports information (52 percent), despite being slower than the Internet, possibly because everything is more condensed. Also, sport may be a topic where professional opinions are more valued, and newspapers provide expert commentaries. This trend was also identified in the N(A) stream.

The Internet is the preferred choice for school research (74 percent) due its convenience, as many students usually find themselves already at the computer. Searchability was also key. Although the Internet may be less reliable compared to newspapers or TV, this is not a great deterrent – only a few in this group (42 percent) said reliability of information was important.

Humour and being “theirs” also ranked low across all sources of information. However, most of them preferred the Internet as it appealed to their generation and is more entertaining. This suggests that the entertainment value of a source is not a main or deciding factor, but a bonus.

Most of the Express respondents trust newspapers more than the Internet as they are run by experts, and listed trustworthiness as the most important factor. Half of them also liked newspapers for summing things up. Overall, the respondents appear to use the Internet for entertainment rather than as an information source.

Normal Academic N(A) stream

Among the least academically advanced group polled, the most popular choices were entertainment, leisure, and sports. The least popular choice was current affairs. They use the Internet more than off–line sources, which reflects their content interests. They also attribute their greater use of the Internet to the fact that it is more informal, and more in their idiom. The Internet is more searchable, containing a large database of information, accessible at any time.

In the N(A) stream, 56 percent of respondents preferred the Internet for school research, possibly because it is fast and convenient and easily searchable. The top three most important factors when the respondents are looking for information were speed, regular updates, and convenience. This was reaffirmed by 52 percent of the respondents who preferred television and newspapers as they sum things up quickly. Almost half of the N(A) students also stated humour and appeal to teenagers as factors when they search for information. In this group, 40 percent trusted the Internet more than newspapers. It also reflected higher Internet use because their interests were aimed more at leisure. For a majority of these respondents (52 percent), the Internet seemed to relate to their generation and perhaps was a contributing factor for their preference of the Internet over newspapers.




1. Content was more important than platform in terms of information needs. Students valued utility above any idea of “generational media.” Academic ability was a good indicator of the type of content sought, and hence of platform used.

2. Off–line media were preferred when searching for information on current affairs and sports, where reliability and convenience were important. Online media were preferred for searches on entertainment and leisure, where reliability and accuracy took a back seat to speed and convenience.

3. Overall, speed, convenience and accessibility were the most important factors among teens in Singapore in searching for information. Trust and reliability were secondary, especially for entertainment and leisure information. Perceived generational ownership of a media was a distant third motivating factor. End of article


About the authors

Andrew Duffy is a lecturer in journalism at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. This research was done with the help of Tan Liying and Larissa Ong, students at Raffles Girls School in Singapore, as part of the Nanyang Research Programme, 2007.
E–mail: duffy [at] ntu [dot] edu [dot] sg



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Appendix A

NTU Nanyang Research Programme 2007
Student Research Behaviour and Attitudes.

What do you want to know – and where do you get it?

This is a survey of what kind of information Sec 4 students usually look for, where you find it, and why you go to that source.

All the following details must be filled in and are confidential. There are 2 pages.

Now the good news: Your name will go in a draw to win one of five pairs of movie tickets.

Name: ________________________

Gender (M/F):___________ Age: ______

School: ________________________

Stream: _________Class: _____

PSLE Score: ______

Where do you plan to go after Sec 4?  Work □   ITE □   Poly □   JC □


1. What kind of stuff do you often want to know more about?

Rate these 1–5, where 5 = really need to know, and 1 = really don’t care

Current Affairs (political news, global scene, social issues etc) ___

Entertainment (movies, celebrities, showbiz, music etc) ___

Leisure (shopping, travel, hobbies etc) ___

Sports (news, results, tactics etc) ___

School Research ___

Other _________________________________________ (please state)

2. Where do you go to find out more?

Please tick whichever ones apply to you

Current Affairs________________
School Research________________

3. When you’re looking for information, how do you decide where to get it — e.g., why do you go to the Internet instead of a newspaper for some info, or a newspaper instead of the Internet?

(Tick whichever ones are important to you)

It’s convenient__

It’s easily available__

It’s where teens go for information   __

It’s funny/entertaining__

It’s a habit__

It’s faster__

I want variety or different viewpoints__

It’s more relevant __

It has regular updates__

It’s reliable/I trust it__

Others: _________________________________ (please state)


4. What do you like? What do you hate?

Please rate these 1–5  (1 = Agree strongly. 2 = Agree a bit. 3 = Don’t care. 4 = Disagree a bit. 5 = Disagree a lot.)

I trust the Internet more than the newspapers__

I prefer TV and newspapers because they are run by experts__

I prefer the way people write in the newspapers__

I prefer the Internet because it appeals to my generation__

I prefer TV and newspapers because they sum things up quickly__

I prefer the Internet because it is more entertaining__


5. Wherever you get this information, what really matters to you?

Put these in order of importance, from 1–6.

It is trustworthy__

It is written in a way I like__

It is entertaining__

It is for my generation__

It is independent__

It gives me what I want quickly__


Thank you for your time!

Larissa Ong, Tan Liying, Andrew Duffy, Nanyang Technological University


Editorial history

Paper received 14 February 2010; revised 23 March 2010; accepted 30 March 2010.

Commons License
This work is in the Public Domain.

Singapore teens’ perceived ownership of online sources and credibility
by Andrew Duffy, Tan Liying, and Larissa Ong.
First Monday, Volume 15, Number 4 - 5 April 2010

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