It's been a bad week -- make that, a really really bad few weeks -- for MySpace, for supporters of participatory culture, indeed for anyone who cares about civil liberties. MySpace is being hit on all sides and it remains to be seen which -- if any -- of these blows do lasting damage to its status as an important social networking site.
1. The Dopes in Washington:
By now, most of you who read this blog will have heard that the U.S. House of Representatives has passed Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) by an overwhelming 410-15 majority last week and the aptly named law now moves to the U.S. Senate, where it is also expected to pass. A growing number of Library and civil liberty organizations have come out in opposition to the law. Here's what the President of the American Library Association Leslie Burger had to say about the legislation:
"This unnecessary and overly broad legislation will hinder students' ability to engage in distance learning and block library computer users from accessing a wide array of essential Internet applications including instant messaging, email, wikis and blogs....Under DOPA, people who use library and school computers as their primary conduits to the Internet will be unfairly blocked from accessing some of the web's most powerful emerging technologies and learning applications. As libraries are already required to block content that is "harmful to minors" under the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), DOPA is redundant and unnecessary legislation."
danah boyd and I co-authored a public statement describing some of the reasons why we think this is a really bad piece of legislation earlier this summer. It's hard to know what more I can tell you now that I didn't say then. So if you haven't read our statement, take time to read it. Go ahead -- we'll wait for you to catch up.
Keep in mind that I believe the following: Statistically speaking, children are more at risk from sexual predators at a church picnic or Boy Scout camping trip than they are when they go onto MySpace. The greatest risk of sexual abuse comes from people the kid already knows -- a family member or someone who the family knows and trusts and not from a total stranger. Social network sites are important vehicles for youth community life -- offering a way for kids at risk, kids who are socially isolated, to connect with a larger community which shares their same interests.
MySpace has emerged as an important site for youth activisim -- having played an important role in rallying young people during recent protests about immigration issues, for example.
Or consider the following. Social networking skills are key competencies which are going to be increasingly central to the professional life of adults. We want to make sure that every kid in America acquires these skills. The DOPA would have two consequences: it would actively discourage teachers from incorporating such software and the skills related to them into their pedagogy (even though a growing number of educators are using such tools in meaningful and responsible ways) and it would lock out low income kids from whom schools and public libraries are their only point of access to the online world, further exaggerating the gap between the digital haves and have nots.
But, ignore all of that. Let's for the moment imagine that we think MySpace is a really dangerous place where kids are at risk. Wouldn't you think young people would be safer if teachers and librarians taught them about the responsible use of this technology and offered them some minimal supervision and advice rather than locking the door and leaving kids to confront social network sites on their own. I ask you: Is this really about "protecting" kids from risk or is there something else at stake here for the promoters of this bill?
Of course, all of this assumes that the legislators who passed this bill have a clue what a social networking site is or how it is used other than having heard from some sensationalistic news report that blocking MySpace will look like they are doing something to protect young people from sexual predators.
This isn't a liberal/conservative, red-state/blue-state kind of issue, people. What's at stake here is a fundamental question of free association and expression which should concern every American citizen. For this bill to have passed by such a large margin of votes, it has to have had the support of a significant number of Liberal Democrats who want to take the Joseph Lieberman-Hillary Clinton route -- trying to appease their social and cultural conservative constituents by going after what they see as low-hanging fruit. They can take away the rights of young people to assemble in cyberspace because young people aren't likely to vote in the next election.
All I can say is that on an average day, this site gets well over a thousand readers. If each of you who lived in the United States took ten minutes to e-mail your Senators and tell them that you vote and you care about DOPA, it could make a difference.
2. Preying on the Young:
Remember several years ago when the U.S. Military announced that it was going to pour a good deal of money into the development of America's Army at about the same time that the Senate Commerce Committee was listening to former West Point instructor David Grossman tell them that playing video games was teaching young people to kill? Well, it's happening again. Congress, in its wisdom, seeks to protect young people from online predators who might violate their innocence, we learn that there is a concerted effort by military recruiters to use MySpace to coax young people into signing up for military service. Here's how the Associated Press reported the story:
Teens looking to hook up with a friend on the popular Web community MySpace may bump into an unexpected buddy: the U.S. Marine Corps.
So far, over 12,000 Web surfers have signed on as friends of the Corps in response to the latest military recruiting tactic. Other military branches may follow....
The Marine Corps MySpace profile - featuring streaming video of barking drill sergeants, fresh recruits enduring boot camp and Marines storming beaches - underscores the growing importance of the Internet to advertisers as a medium for reaching America's youth.
"That's definitely the new wave," said Gunnery Sgt. Brian Lancioni at a Hawaii recruiting event. "Everything's technical with these kids, and the Internet is a great way to show what the Marine Corps has to offer."...
It is where prospects are," said Louise Eaton, media and Web chief for the U.S. Army Accession Command. "We go to where they are to try to inform them of the opportunities we offer."...
Steve Morse with the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors is critical of recruiters using MySpace profiles. But Morse said they don't surprise him because the Iraq war has forced the military to search "under every bush" for recruits.
"It's kind of obnoxious of them to be using something that's sort of like a youth domain, to kind of come in and really sucker youth into something they're not really explaining fully," Morse said.
Of course, if DOPA is passed, then this will cut large number of low income students from participating in MySpace. Given that military recruiters have historically targeted low income youth, the government may be working at cross purposes here. Just a thought...
Before people come flaming me: I do realize that many people sign up for military service out of a deep sense of patriotism and public service. I have nothing but praise for anyone who chooses to serve their country in this fashion. However, it is also pretty clear that some military recruiters exploit economic desperation to try to sign up low income kids who might otherwise not have chosen to join the armed services. And that's where my concern about their use of MySpace enters the picture.
3. Boring From Within:
Earlier this summer, Wired reported on the following incident:
After hearing Sen. Ted Stevens' now infamous description of the internet as a "series of tubes," Andrew Raff sang the senator's words over a folksy ditty and anonymously posted it to MySpace.com, where about 2,500 people listened to the tune, thanks to a link from one of the net's top blogs.
On Tuesday, MySpace canceled the TedStevensFanClub account, telling Raff that the social-networking site, now owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., had received a "credible complaint of your violation of the MySpace Terms of Services."
(Editor's note: MySpace reinstated Raff's account Thursday afternoon following publication of this story. The company says Raff's account was deleted in error.)
The cancellation e-mail referenced a number of prohibited activities, including trademark and copyright violations. MySpace also reserves the right to remove any profile for any reason.
But Raff, a recent graduate from law school, didn't violate any copyright laws in using the Alaskan senator's words, since government works cannot be protected by copyright. And Raff composed the music himself.
Raff doesn't contest MySpace's right to enforce its terms of service, but he sees a political lesson in the takedown -- a foreshadowing of the kind of repression of speech that could become commonplace if phone companies prevail in their efforts to create a two-tiered internet. In an e-mail interview, he also questioned MySpace's motives in removing his political commentary from the site.
"I'm not at all upset about MySpace taking the page down -- just curious as to why," he wrote. "I have yet to receive a reply to my inquiry as to why this account was deleted.... I am very curious about the reasons why they took this down -- if it is a case of extreme caution with regards to copyright or whether it is the result of some
other influence (perhaps even good taste)."
Art Brodsky, communications director for Public Knowledge, questioned the timing of the takedown, noting that News Corp. has interests in the telecommunications bill put forth by the Senate Commerce Committee that Stevens heads, and that some in Congress are looking to regulate MySpace over concerns about pedophiles.
"Of all the God-knows-how-many separate postings on MySpace, this one was singled out," Brodsky said. "You can't fill out an online form to get something deleted; somebody had to make a specific call on that specific song. Given all that has been happening with Stevens -- he was on The Daily Show last night and all the writing we have been doing -- I just have a very skeptical view of coincidence."
So, at the very moment that civil libertarians, myself among them, are rallying to protect MySpace from unwarranted government regulation and censorship, the folks who run MySpace may be exercising political censorship on one of their participants. Keep in mind that participatory culture can be destroyed from within just as readily as it can be destroyed from without. It is worth keeping in mind that while sites like MySpace do share some attributes of the public sphere (in that they allow like-minded individuals to identify themselves, form communities, and circulate ideas), they also are more like shopping malls (where owners can restrict political activities) than they are like public commons (which theoretically respect our rights to assemble and speak.)
It used to be said that by the time a cultural phenomenon has reached Time, Newsweek or USA Today, it is no longer cool. By the time one of these publications report that you are no longer cool, your life is pretty much over. The following was in USA Today earlier this week and probably represents the final nail in MySpace's coffin:
Is MySpace losing its cool? Margaret Marks, 17, thinks so.
The Birmingham, Ala., high school senior was an avid user of the No. 1 social networking website for two years.
"But I never use it anymore, because most people my age now use Facebook," she says. "I can talk to people I haven't spoken to in years, and you can join college networks and meet people. MySpace is good for looking at bands and music, but for your own website, Facebook is much better."
USA Today reports that there are more than 200 different social network sites, all grabbing for a segment of MySpace's market, with many of them serving more niche subsets of the larger teen population. That said, the newspaper acknowledges that MySpace can lose an awful lot of customers before it loses dominance in this space: it currently attracts 81 percent of those people who use social networking sites. (Of course, all of those other social network sites will also be effected if DOPA becomes law.)
USA Today can't resist jumping on the DOPA bandwagon though, tossing off in the middle of an article otherwise concerned with youth engagement with social networking the following:
To deter predators, the House late Monday overwhelmingly passed a bill that would keep libraries and schools from allowing children to access social networking sites, as well as chat rooms. It now goes to the Senate.
Let's see if this statement might even remotely make sense if we rephrased it in response to another medium:
To prevent false advertising, the House late Monday overwhelmingly passed a bill that would keep libraries and schools from allowing Americans to read magazines and newspapers.
Nope, I didn't think so.
How about this one:
To deter pornographers, the House late Monday overwhelmingly passed a bill that would keep libraries and schools from providing books, magazines, and other printed matter to their patrons.
Hmm. Funny, that one doesn't make a lot of sense either.