MySpace’s PR problem

MySpace's image problem is partly everybody's problem. It says something about how we view teens – and how willing we are to accept the complexity of teens-on-the-social-Web and our unprecedented inability to assert control in this space. Though the headlines suggest otherwise, this story is not just about crime. It's more about growing up more publicly than ever and maybe a bit of denial on our part that it's the heightened exposure that's new, not the adolescent behavior, and that that exposure – like everything in this picture – is both good and bad. But let's drill down a bit….

1. The myths we develop

Increasingly, the Web is a mirror of all of human life – not just a communications technology or a global collection of hyperlinked documents or even a channel for individual and collective self-expression. So what we're seeing, learning, worrying, and mythologizing about teens in "real life" is directly related to their online experiences as well.

In "The Myth of Lost Innocence," New York Times commentator Judith Warner describes the experience of two Philadelphia sociologists and specialists in teen sexual behavior, Kathleen Bogle of La Salle University and Maria Kefalas of St. Joseph's University. Even though "teens are, in truth, having sex less and later than they did a decade or two ago," Warner reports, Bogle and Kefalas have "had to struggle mightily to get people out of their 'moral panic' mindset, and make them understand that teens are not 'in a downward spiral' or 'out of control'." People "just don’t believe you," Bogle and Kefalas told Warner. The same is true for anyone trying to present the big picture of online teens. In the current moral panic about predators, the fact that overall child sexual abuse has declined by 51% since the Web took off (between 1990 and '05), according to the National Data Archives on Child Abuse & Neglect) and the fact that Internet-related abuse is well below 1% of the overall child-sexual-exploitation figure get drowned out in 1-millimeter-deep reporting about 90,000 predators having been deleted from among some 150 million MySpace profiles. [No one knows, much less reports on, the more important question of whether those profiles led to any communications with teens or how teens deal with them (delete, ignore, block, or reply?). In fact, there have been zero reports that any of those 90,000 offenders have been prosecuted for illegal contact with teens on MySpace (and that would be covered if it happened). For a sample of what we do know about predation risk, see this.]

Meanwhile, amid all the numbers-out-of-context noise, parents, counselors, educators, and social workers can't hear or don't know where to listen for the signals they do need to hear. As Warner puts it, "details concerning exactly which children are suffering, flailing or failing, and in what numbers, and how and why, and what we can do about it – are lost."

In focusing on worst-case scenarios and making them the reality of all online teens, we do parents a disservice and teens a double disservice – by selling them short and distorting the picture of teen social-networking in the eyes of those with authority over them. See also "Chances are, your kids are savvier online than you think" in the Toronto Globe & Mail and New York Times health reporter Tara Parker-Pope's "The Myth of Rampant Teen Promiscuity."

2. How did we get here?

MySpace has become the subject of this kind of hyperbole-fueled, negative myth. Having watched its emergence as a vibrant social and media-sharing tool and music community from mid-2005, I've puzzled over how MySpace got from there to here – how it has come to be almost demonized in the eyes of the adult population, or the portion of it that views the social site through either a strictly law-enforcement lens or that of an adult with no interest in trying to understand social networking in young people's terms.

Its first full year as a Fox Interactive property, 2006, was telling. MySpace found itself, I later told Business Week, in the middle of a "perfect storm" of parental concern development. The converging conditions were:

* Its sudden arrival out of nowhere (only as far as parents and other adults – including reporters – were concerned, and adults did not understand this social-networking thing).
* Its exponential, viral growth that year (a story that a lot of uncomprehending reporters were compelled to write, well before there was any known social-media research to cite).
* A high-profile news story out of Connecticut about a police investigation into whether "as many as seven teenage girls" had had sexual encounters with men they'd met in MySpace. It was a tipping point (see my commentary on that, 2/3/06). Though similar stories have been rare since then, this Connecticut one led to Fox hiring former federal prosecutor Hemanshu Nigam as its chief security officer and turned state attorneys general into social-networking watchdogs (Connecticut's attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, co-leads the AGs' Multi-State Working Group on Social Networking that created the Internet Safety Technical Task Force on which I served).
* The launch of Dateline NBC's "To Catch a Predator" series, which in no way represented risks to youth on the social Web or even child sexual exploitation in general, but distorted associations were made (see "Predators vs. cyberbullies: Reality check").
* DOPA and a mid-term election. All the above made for great stump speeches about championing child protection, an uncontroversial way to garner votes, and the ill-conceived Delete Online Predators Act, which never reached the Senate but passed the House with an overwhelming majority (maybe partly because voting against it would've somehow looked in the voting record like a vote for predators?). The law would've done more to delete teens from social-networking sites at school than to "delete online predators" (see this item).

Interestingly, though, the clouds of that perfect storm started gathering much earlier on – right at the beginning, in fact. Besides the lifelike picture she paints, I'm seeing in danah boyd's account of what drew teens to MySpace, in her doctoral dissertation, that the site's roots in the music scene have a role in the challenge it faces today too: "Most early adopter teens were attracted to MySpace [in 2004] through one of two paths: bands or older family members. Teens who learned of MySpace through bands primarily followed indie rock music or hip-hop, the two genres most popular on MySpace early on. While many teens love music, they are often unable to see their favorite bands play live because bands typically play in 21+ venues. MySpace allowed these teens to connect with and follow their favorite bands…. Given its popularity among musicians and late-night socialites, joining MySpace became a form of subcultural capital…. Early adopter teens who were not into music primarily learned about the site from a revered older sibling or cousin who was active in late-night culture. These teens viewed MySpace as cool because they respected these family members…. While teens often revere the risky practices of [older nightclub and concert goers], many adults work to actively dissuade them from valuing them. By propagating and glorifying 20-something urban cultural practices and values, MySpace managed to alienate parents early on."

This takes us back to my first points about 1) how behavior, culture, and perceptions offline are mirrored online, and 2) how myths develop out of fears and too much emphasis on the negative part of a phenomenon, which is only a fraction of the reality. Which brings me to the final factor I've seen in MySpace's PR problem: the development of the online safety field itself. The field got its start in and is still dominated by law enforcement and its expertise – all those good people in local police departments and state Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Forces giving Internet-safety talks in schools about criminal activity in chat, instant messaging, on cellphones and on the Web. Law enforcement people are experts in crime, not adolescent behavior and development (so should they really be giving talks about cyberbullying?), and the latter, certainly not crime, is the lionshare of what's going on with and among teens in social network sites – good, bad, and neutral. What's happening with teens on the social Web is infinitely more about adolescent development than about technology or crime.

Yes, we need to teach children how to keep away from predators of any form, online and offline, but the public  discussion has to broaden to reflect reality, from the negatives – the full spectrum of online risk (including noncriminal bad behavior like bullying and harassment) – to all the rest, teen online socializing in general. As for the dark side, even one exploitation case is too many but, for perspective, it helps to keep in mind that what the attorneys general are talking about – social-networking-related crime involving minors (see Newsweek) – represents only a fraction of Internet-initiated sexual crimes against minors, and the latter figure itself, the Crimes Against Children Research Center tells me, "was too low to calculate" in two national samples it used in studies on child sexual exploitation (for more context, see this).

3. MySpace's child-protection record

At my last check of Google News, nearly 900 news outlets around the world ran reports this week that MySpace "evicts," "boots," "deletes," etc. 90,000 predators (the headline at India's was "No space for sex offenders on MySpace"). For brevity, the headlines are in the present tense, of course (I used to write headlines at a newspaper), but the present tense suggests this just happened this week.

What MySpace wrote this week in a letter to the attorneys general about all this offers another perspective that rarely gets play in the news media:

"Some reports wrongly suggested that there are 90,000 RSOs [registered sex offenders] on MySpace today. This is wildly inaccurate and irresponsible. All 90,000 profiles were removed from MySpace upon discovery and preserved for law enforcement investigations. Such inaccurate reports send the message to other sites that they will be publicly criticized and punished for taking similar steps to protect teens online. While much is being made of the increase in the number of RSOs removed from MySpace since the inception of our program, the fact is that as long as the program is working, the aggregate number of RSOs removed will increase – it is a cumulative number representing all of the profiles deleted over time. The program has been a tremendous success: not only have 90,000 RSOs been removed from MySpace, but MySpace has seen a 36% reduction in RSOs attempting to access the site year over year."

Concerned parents may be interested in this lengthy bulleted list of child-safety steps MySpace has taken on the site, at its headquarters, and in Washington. But short of shutting down its site (which wouldn't "help," because there are zillions of social network services, tools, and technologies provided by businesses worldwide), MySpace or any other social-media business couldn't possibly bar all hurtful or criminal activity from its site – anymore than the phone company can keep people from having any arguments on the phone. Technologies, good business practices, and laws may be able to help keep users safer, but they can't change human behavior or nature. That takes education.

Related links

* John Palfrey, author of Born Digital: a print interview in ComputerWorld, a video interview at CNET, and a YouTube video of a keynote he gave at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, which he directs
* Don Tapscott, author of Grown Up Digital: a video interview on YouTube
* Larry Magid and myself: 2006 was also the year I met and first interviewed danah boyd, who was a source for our book published that year, MySpace Unraveled: A Parent's Guide to Teen Social Networking.

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