Who?s afraid of MySpace?

Who?s afraid of MySpace?

I don’t know what social networking guru Danah Boyd would have made of Melbourne’s RACV club where I heard her speak last week. It’s a such a weird architectural collision of old and new Melbourne Australiana with a massive wood panelled foyer overlooked by two huge silver kookaburras. What better place for an Australian education event about online social networks? You can hear the podcast of the presentation here.

The audience were primarily from the education sector – both schools and universities – and a lot of audience questions related to the fact that many schools in Australia and the US have blocked student access to sites like MySpace and YouTube. In fact a Victorian Government representative mentioned in her opening speech that Victoria had implemented these kinds of restrictions in their schools. And it was with that great introduction that it was over to Danah.

Danah’s thesis is built around looking at the overprotective attitudes adults have towards children (at least in western first world countries) . The MySpace phenomenon for her is a product of wider social restrictions in place that stop teenagers from congregating and socialising in public spaces like parks and malls. Parents fear more than ever that their kids will get into trouble if given too much independence and so kids are forced to do their socialising online in the comfort of their own homes. But all the fears that the media whip up about the real world – stalking, bullying, abuse – are now manifest in online social networking. So it’s the chicken or the egg, how much do these networks encourage this behaviour or are they just reflecting behaviours that are already there in the real world?

In a litigious culture like the US, schools and other institutions are threatened by the prospect of being held responsible for kids being led astray. In Australia there is also an air of caution around social networking software particularly where ordinary people can freely publish their own material. It was interesting to hear about the history of Friendster, one of the earlier online social networking systems which basically crashed and burned because the operators were overly restrictive of their users. People were not allowed to create fake profiles on Friendster and administrators used to delete these accounts in a game of ‘wacamole’ with users. MySpace took disgruntled users away from friendster and encouraged them to express themselves more freely, often in a counter cultural way. It is precisely this kind of freedom that regulators and bureaucrats find so threatening.

And the stats are interesting – 55% of US 12 – 17 year olds have a profile on a social networking site (for girls it’s 70%). But the primary use made of these sites is to talk to people they regularly see face to face – reflected in 91% of the user base. So rather than Andy Warhol’s 15 seconds of fame everyone is now famous to 15 people. Online social networking fulfills the same function as ‘hanging out’ for teenagers and they generally only communicate with people their own age. For Danah Boyd this is another manifestation of our protective culture where teachers generally fulfill the role of the only older mentor modern kids are likely to get. Such is our fear of ’stranger danger’ that kids are effectively quarantined from the adult population. Comparisons between schools and jails were mentioned.

Another interesting thing mentioned in the talk was that in the US 93% of kids now have access to the internet meaning in effect that there is no ‘digital divide’ in the US. The implication was that the other 7% deliberately avoided the internet by choice due to religious conviction.

And then there were questions from the audience and I’ve got to say Danah had some great responses particularly to all the usual fear factors. What it boiled down to was that there has always been teenage angst and the only thing that is different now is that negative behaviours are made more visible by online social networking. If bullying is happening online it is probably happening in the real world as well. Social networking can be used by teachers and parents to pick up subtle warning signs of teen problems – though this has to be done sensitively so it is not perceived as surveillance.

The highlight of the day was definitely the two high school students on the afternoon panel who told everyone how easy it was to route around the school firewall block of MySpace by use of proxies. And mobile media expert Jennifer Wilson summed up the school firewall blocks brilliantly when she said “If you stick your head in the sand you’re going to get bitten on the bum”. A great take away line for the day along with a wide range of positive messages to encourage teachers to engage with social networking tools on their own terms and to use them in their teaching.

For more information about the positive uses US students are making of social networking and Web 2.0 sites Danah Boyd cites some interesting new reports in her blog here.