Exactly what are teens doing on sites like MySpace? If you ask them, they'll most likely tell you they're "just hanging out."
Hanging out on MySpace and other social-networking sites is sort of like networking in the adult sense of the word, except that teens aren't reaching out to their extended network of friends with some purpose in mind, as we think of it. Instead, they're engaged in conveniently asynchronous but also real-time collective and interactive self-expression. Whew — it's not easy being a teenager! Let's take a look at what this self-expression is all about, from teens' and the experts' points of view.
MySpace profiles represent teenagers' online selves — not so much an extension of who they are but who they see themselves to be at the moment, expressed in comments, photos, and music.
"With MySpace, you can get more creative about who you are," says Lisa, an 18-year-old MySpace user in California. "When you're a teenager, that's what you're trying to do."
Part of what forms those online selves, in addition to profiles, are friends' photos and comments that appear on the same page.
A lot of thought often goes into these profiles, in what looks to adults like terse comments and crazy photos. This haphazardness is a natural byproduct of teens' making up who they are as they go along. Although it may look aimless and superficial, it's actually very productive, says Danah Boyd, a pioneering social-networks researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. MySpace is "not the waste of time adults think it is. What's happening in it is what academics call informal learning," Boyd says.
Hanging out has a lot of social value, adds Boyd. "It's where you learn social norms, rules, how to interact with others, narrative [writing a blog], personal and group history, and media literacy."
David Huffaker, a researcher of online social behavior at Northwestern University, agrees. "These activities are important for identity exploration, which is one of the principal tasks of adolescence," Huffaker wrote in an academic paper, "Teen Blogs Exposed: The Private Lives of Teens Made Public," which he presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in February 2006.
Detective Frank Dannahey, a 15-year veteran Youth Division police officer in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, has worked and consulted on a lot of social-networking cases. He takes a pragmatic approach to MySpace, based on his conversations with teens: "For the most part, these [MySpace users] are just average, everyday, good kids. . . and this is part of their social life."
How Public Is It?
To get a sense of how differently adult visitors and teen users perceive the public aspect of MySpace, picture a giant big-city train station full of people — say, Penn Station in Manhattan.
A person entering the station for the first time might take a sweeping look around, feel intimidated, and look for the nearest exit. A New York City commuter, on the other hand, would simply zip in and head straight for their train.
Socializing teenagers entering MySpace are much like those commuters: They'll pop in and make a beeline for their friends, who are gathering in a group under the Departures sign, where they always meet. They'll check for messages, look for the latest comments or blog postings, and type their reactions and comments.
By contrast, parents go into MySpace very new to this phenomena, maybe searching for a child's high school or just randomly clicking profiles. Quickly overwhelmed by the vulnerability that goes with exposing oneself in such a massive public space, we might develop a sudden urge to head for the exit — and insist that our kids do the same.
But kids rarely use MySpace that way; they don't wander aimlessly, for the most part. When they've finished checking and updating their own profiles, they usually check their friends' profiles. "If they're really, really, really bored, maybe they'll start random searching," says Boyd. But teens don't search the way adults do, in a sweeping, random, out-of-the-blue fashion. Kids first search for people with shared interests, via their friends' profiles and friends lists, and then search their friends' friends lists and out through the concentric circles as time allows.
Acting Up In Public
MySpace reminds us of (and we're dating ourselves here) of Arnold's — everybody's favorite burger joint in the TV show "Happy Days."
Arnold's is where Richie, Joanie, the Fonz, and everyone else who mattered ate, chatted, flirted and exhibited plenty of youthful sexuality — tempered, of course, by the mores of a sitcom set in the '50s. Although some adults were usually in the restaurant, they were back in a corner minding their own business (and maybe rolling their eyeballs). No one else existed when the teen "owners" of that space occupied it. This naturally egocentric, nothing-else-exists teenage approach lives on in the 21st century — the age of exposure. But now, many people are watching teens behave as though nothing else exists. It's a contradiction, and a very interesting one: Consciously, today's teenagers seem to think that no one is out there watching, but at the subconscious level, they put on a lot of performances for that nonaudience.
The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same
A few generations ago, parents fretted over the jitterbug. In the '50s, parents worried about the sexually charged influence of rock 'n' roll. Parents in the '60s worried that experimentation with marijuana would lead their kids into lives of depravity, but somehow, those kids — the Baby Boomers — not only survived, but also managed to grow up to run companies, universities, media empires, and the country itself.
We're not being cavalier. We're just saying that social networking is today's fear of choice. But as in every generation, despite a few casualties, the vast majority of these "users" of a different sort are not being harmed even emotionally, much less physically.
We suspect that today's young people will survive this new "threat." In fact, we're confident that the positive aspects of social networking far outweigh the dangers, and based on what we now see among high-school and college students, it's clear to us that the vast majority of kids using these sites will be just fine.
And they'll be in even better shape if they consider one important caveat: If teenagers are still in denial about the social networks being their own space, they need to come out of denial. Increasingly, college admissions offices, prospective employers, and other people whom they want to impress are searching MySpace and other such sites — not just general Web search engines — for information about them.
What young people put in their profiles and blogs can not only be found by people other than their friends, they can be printed out and filed online and on hard drives, passed along in e-mails and instant messages, and copied and shared on file-sharing networks or third-party Web sites (more about this in Chapter 5). Social networkers soon will soon need spin-doctor skills as they negotiate this "superpublic" cyberspace.
Excerpted from "Myspace Unraveled." Copyright © 2006 by Larry Magid and Anne Collier. All rights reserved. Peachpit Press