I really want to see what the social software evangelists make of this one! Last night, after all the celebrations on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange had adjourned to the various bars, clubs, and restaurants that are so vital to the Manhattan economy, Steven Musil put up a fascinating post on the News Blog run by CNET News.com:
It's probably a safe bet that you won't find Eliot Spitzer listed among "Kristen's" friends on MySpace, even though the alleged prostitute in the sex scandal seems to have quite a few.
Two days ago, we learned that Spitzer--the politician who made his reputation as being tough on crime--had been implicated in a prostitution scandal. We got to see Silda Wall Spitzer stand by her man--AKA "Client 9"--while he apologized for "acting in a way that violates my obligations to my family and violates my, or any, sense of right and wrong." Then Wednesday we saw him resign from the governor's office.
The only thing we haven't seen--until now--is "Kristen," the woman who allegedly played the role of prostitute at a Washington, D.C., hotel with Spitzer last month in this mini-drama. Thanks to her MySpace page, we have a chance to meet "Kristen," a 22-year-old aspiring musician whose real name was revealed by the New York Times as Ashley Alexandra Dupre.
So, let me get this straight, is this the MySpace, the "brave new world" for teenagers over which Janet Kornblum gushed in USA Today back in 2006?
If you're a teen in America today, the place to be is the social networking site MySpace, which has virtually exploded in the past few months.
Actually, Kornblum had the presence of mind to provide a sidebar for her article, which began as follows:
As MySpace booms in popularity among teens, it also is drawing the wrath of parents and school officials who are concerned about the off-color nature of some pages and the safety of young users who give too much information about themselves.
Nevertheless, in spite of those who tried to raise cautionary warnings, MySpace became the darling of the social software pushers (as well as the property of Rupert Murdoch). A little more than a year after Kornblum's story had run, Candice Kelsey had an entire book, Generation MySpace: Helping Your Teen Survive Online Adolescence, on the shelves, which, if nothing else, recognized the need to provide parents with a "reality check" on what their kids were doing in cyberspace.
We now know that, like every other commercial platform for social software out there, MySpace is all about selling stuff. MySpace just happens to be the place that takes greatest advantage of teenage buying power. However, as Kornblum's original sidebar observed, life on MySpace necessitates far more than maintaining a strong caveat emptor attitude. The question of safety, particularly from sexual predators, has been around pretty much since the platform surfaced; but there is also the problem of what happens when what Janet Malcolm dismissed as "harmless chatter" ventures into that "off-color nature."
This takes us back (metaphorically, of course) to Dupre's MySpace page and what Musil found there:
Her page features several photos of Dupre, who seems to be a very popular woman, with more than 1,800 MySpace "friends." According to her profile, she "learned what it was like to have everything, and lose it, again and again."
The thing about social networks, which was probably extremely appealing to many teenagers, particularly those having trouble making friends in the "real world," is the ease through which one can make lots of friends, often through the friends-of-friends links. The question for those of us for whom "community" is a complex concept in social theory (rather than a buzzword for promoting cool software) is: What exactly is the demographic profile of Dupre's 1800 MySpace "friends?" My guess is that most of them are not in her peer group (euphemistically speaking). From the opposing point of view, what are parents likely to think if their own teenage kids happen to be in that set of "friends;" and would they be justified in wanting to know what sort of "harmless chatter" might be taking place within that "circle of friends?" (Trying to frame this as a more objective question: If you were a parent, what would you think if your school invited Dupre to participate in one of those "Career Night" events at your kid's school?)
It is not my intention to be overly moralistic. We all know from personal experience that the teens are a complex period in life, and I sympathize with Kelsey's effort to inform parents of the assets and liabilities of a technology that spread across the teenage population like wildfire. I just wonder how many of us would have anticipated that someone like Dupre would be in that space, probably not for any predatory reason but just to "hang out" as if she were still part of that teenage demographic. Now that we do know, I have to confess that I am still at a loss as to what we should do with that knowledge. I certainly do not believe in going to Puritanical extremes. I suppose I still have not worked out in my own mind whether or not her presence jeopardizes the safety of the general MySpace community; nor am I willing to dismiss the possibility that, at some fundamental level, this community may ultimately take care of itself without intervention from outside its population. After all, the greatest threat to the LambdaMOO community (about which most, if not all, of the MySpace community is probably oblivious) was resolved strictly within the community; and I continue to believe that the story of that threat is one that should never be ignored. At the very least Musil's little post should serve as a not-so-little reminder that the consequences of Spitzer's indiscretions may have a far greater extent than we had initially assumed.