January 4, 2007
Henry Jenkins on Congress, MySpace, and DOPA

In yesterday's post about filling in the niches around YouTube censorship and the many companies that are launching services that try to take advantage of the content YouTube is rejecting, we made reference to Henry Jenkins' work on MySpace.

I wanted to point out Jenkins' piece that appeared in last Sunday's Boston Globe as well, listed in the category of "Hidden in Plain Sight: Unsung Developments of 2006." Jenkins' focus is about the congressional response to the growing popularity of sites like MySpace and the introduction of the Deleting Online Predators Act, acronym DOPA. The program "would prohibit schools and public libraries that receive federal funds from allowing youth access to social network, chat, and blogging sites -- most notably MySpace."

The bill has already passed the house in a vote of 410-15 and is now going through the Senate, but Jenkins points out that organizations like the American Library Association opposes the move because it would put severe restrictions on educational resources. "Rather than abandoning youth to face MySpace's perceived dangers on their own, trained educators could help students use social network sites safely," he writes.

In the Globe editorial, Jenkins places the current struggle between moral crusaders for protecting children on MySpace to a fight that has lasted more than a century that focuses on "struggles between adult moral reformers and young people eager to embrace new technologies." Jenkins conclude, "We could have more rational policies if leaders would confront, not exploit, parental fears about the online world."

In yesterday's piece, I pointed to a quote from a New York Times article in which a spokesperson for one of these child safety groups says, "The only thing you get from the combination of Web cams and young people are problems. Web cams are a magnet for sexual predators." As I contended yesterday, the problem is that, while child safety concerns are certainly legitimate, these tools are indeed good for more than that. I wrote:

This is another venue for personal expression and it provides more than just safety concerns. There is a new ability for free conversations, and children don't just use these venues solely for inappropriate purposes [ . . . ] The problem is that people go to these extremes when discussing the issue. It has to be all bad because of child safety fears, with no balancing discussion of the many ways high schoolers could use tools such as video chat and Webcams. Previously, we had these discussions about MySpace.

As I pointed out back in July, "It's not like banning the social networking tool from these social spaces would cause teens to quit using MySpace--it just means they'll be using it on their own, which could not be the best situation. And, considering the growing importance of the Internet in the lives of American teens, these social networking tools cannot just be legislated away."

And, in July, I pointed out the ironic double-standard of the government's use of MySpace since, "while the government seeks on the one hand to eliminate the exposure of children to the site, another branch is trying to do everything it can to exploit MySpace in its recruitment of high schoolers to a branch of the United States service: the Marine Corps."

In Henry's post here in August entitled "Four Ways to Kill MySpace," he writes, "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," and goes on to remind readers that "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."

It's not that I don't understand, nor that Henry is ignoring, the legitimate concerns for the health of young people. But saying that the ONLY purpose of these tools is for use of online predators and that no good can come of them is completely stacking the argument on the side of public fear and paranoia and not taking into aspect how and why young people are using these tools, which are not all for sexually explicit communication. Back in October, I wrote:

Finding the right balance between minimal protection for minors and the ability of adults to express themselves free is always a challenge. It seems our goverment all-too-often relies on too many options of blanket censoring, but those of us who are skeptical of such "censoring" activities must also remain aware of the very real dangers that also exist out there instead of painting this picture in black-and-white.

For more on Henry Jenkins' work on MySpace, along with danah boyd, look here and here.