3.27.2006

get out of myspace, get into my car

A long post that hopefully comes off more as an analysis and commentary than as a rant.

As promised, a response to the discourse on MySpace, currently being thrown down by danah boyd and Abe and William from abstractdynamics, and surely many others. I know you’re on MySpace, and so is your dog and your cat and your favorite band. I’m not saying I don’t like people who are on MySpace, I’m not saying everyone on MySpace is a bunch of suckers, even. Just offering my criticism of the site, as I think a number of things about it that are worth thinking seriously about are often overlooked. Bear with me while I sound like my mom for a couple thousand words.

I think the foremost question regarding MySpace ought not to be whether it's a bottom-up, malleable internet community controlled by the youth who use it or a method by which “they” can perpetrate their power- and profit-driven schemes (because surely it's a mix of both); the question ought to be, how does MySpace and its architecture affect the way in which its users (and even to an extent its non-users) communicate, and is its effect positive or negative?

Much of boyd's essay explores critically the amount of control networking communities like MySpace and Friendster wield over the way their participants make use of the site – postulating that perhaps when a site tries to place strictures on the purposes for which it can be utilized, it flounders, whereas when a site adapts to fit the ways in which the users want to use it, it succeds.

She's probably right. I'm not so much concerned about the desires of the MySpace crowd and how to cater to them, though. My concern is more this: there are elements in the interface of MySpace (and other networking sites like LiveJournal, but perhaps they're most apparent in MySpace) that force users into a shallow discourse in which they reflect upon themselves as a conglomerate of consumer choices and empty descriptors and in which they market themselves as a commodity. To hold it up as a project of and by youth culture reduces youth culture, I think, to something completely superficial, based on social networking and devoid of serious thought and discourse. We already have parents, teachers, television and advertising of all sorts to make young people feel like they've got nothing real to say, that they're simply a bunch of preferences plastered onto a body.

To compare MySpace and LiveJournal to youth-based expressions of mass communication that I find to be more palatable: zine culture and blogging in the blogspot-typepad-etc. sense, which I (and others) would look at as a contemporary twist on zine culture in ways, while they can contain superficial personal-information wankery and reductive self-description, are much more conducive to permitting the user to express herself/himself in more complicated and self-directed ways, as their templates (literal and figurative) are more skeletal in nature. If the blog is related closely to the zine, we could perhaps say that the MySpace page is in the same way comparable to a business card. LiveJournal would fall somewhere in between on this scale in that, in its design, it privileges the complete written thoughts of the user (a user's main LiveJournal page is the blog section, which often includes a small photo) but also includes more traditional "networking" features -- communities based on shared interests, etc. -- and encourages users to augment their blog posts with superficial information that may or may not be pertinent to the post, such as what music they're currently listening to and what their "mood" is. ("Mood" can be made up by the user or chosen from a bunch of "presets" as it were. The presets come with funny faces.)

Look at someone's MySpace page. Preferably someone you don't know. Where do your eyes go first on the page? If you're like me, they go to the picture, then to the “General Info” section, then to the “Friend Space,” then to the “Comments.” Such is the design of the page – our eyes are drawn to things that stand out graphically, and thus on MySpace we follow a zig-zag down the page, skipping at first the user's contact information, “blurbs” and blog, then getting back to them on our second sweep.

These are the building blocks of our understanding of other people and of ourselves on MySpace, based on the interface we're given. Our appearance (first and foremost), the books we read, the records we listen to, the movies we watch, the people we think of as heroes. While they're things that surely inform the people we are, they're also dangerously one-dimensional. In life we often meet people who listen to music that isn't what we ourselves listen to, or read the same books as us, whom we still get along with wonderfully; using MySpace as a networking tool, we might easily discount such people as uninteresting to us based on those very aspects of them. Beyond that even, there aren't opportunities to posit opinions on things like politics and current events; entertainment is privileged as the definitive aspect of the MySpace user's life. (This seems to not take into account the fact that naming favorite books – or movies or music for that matter – can in some cases give a very clear view of one's politics, but I'm acutely aware of that; I think that it's more complicated than that, though, since we tend to pick and choose our tenets from others' works and few of us can seriously say that we agree 100% with our favorite writer or band or director.)

Where danah boyd says that MySpace allows personalization, which other similar sites don’t, I disagree to a great extent. It does allow for a certain amount of personalization, but only on the most shallow aesthetic level; changing the background of one’s main page to be polka-dotted doesn’t count as liberating as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think she fails to recognize this, but I think she doesn’t put the proper stress on it.

Moving on, we're directed to the user's “Top 8” friends, a fairly recent development in the design of the site that has/had some users in an uproar; as a MySpace user, you're essentially forced to rate who, among your online friends, are your favorites. This is another major aspect of your existence as interpreted by MySpace. Clearly in day to day life we're seen with our friends and judged to an extent on that basis, but I think few of us would, first of all, willingly rate our friends in that manner or, additionally, want people we're interacting with to base their opinions of us on who our friends are. Rating friends will of course end up causing some trouble in people's friendships, on or off the internet, and I question whether the decision to make the “Top 8” a standard feature was actually the result of user feedback or simply a misguided effort to allow for the very sort of user control/influence that boyd claims is the feature that distinguishes MySpace from other similar sites in a positive way.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of MySpace to me is the “comments” feature – a way of communicating with your MySpace “friends” that is public but at the same time ostensibly a communication between two people. There's a feature of MySpace that allows you to communicate privately with other members, analagous to emails or private messages on a message board. But then there are comments – messages you leave for your MySpace friends that show up on the front page of their profile as part of their online package – a way to say hi, to drop a line, and to get some attention from anyone who looks at your friend's MySpace page. It's kind of like approaching a friend while she/he is talking to a bunch of friends whom you don't know and just saying hello, so that those friends will notice you – then leaving them all a business card so they can “check you out.” It's not a simple facet of youth culture as far as I'm concerned – it's like a job fair, or a speed dating session, or something similarly uncomfortable and intrinsically self-promotional.

Another important aspect of MySpace, and one that hits close to home for me, is its use as a promotional tool for bands. In the interest of full disclosure, my band does have a MySpace page. We didn't for a long time, mostly because I was uncomfortable with it, but I'm okay with it because, from what I understand, it helps as a communication tool when you’re working on booking a tour for yourself. To be honest, the fact that everyone uses it and that’s what makes it such a useful tool turns me off to it even more, but that’s just my difficult personality showing through. Since I’m not the one doing most of the booking, I leave it to the bandmate who is doing that to make the decision on MySpace.

Despite the fact that it eases communication both between fans and bands and between promoters and bands, I don’t necessarily buy MySpace as a positive development for DIY music communities. I look at it as comparable to the rise of the CD-R and low-priced computer-based recording equipment and software: these are things that make it easier for bands to promote themselves, which is nice but as a result they’ve also clouded the field so far as bands are concerned. When every band with a month of practicing and no shows under their belt has a MySpace page (since it’s free) and a CD-R of poorly-recorded music (since Dad bought them a couple mics and they have Garage Band on their Ibook), people (labels, local music writers, promoters, potential fans) have that much more to wade through in order to get to the bands that actually care, have put considerable work into what they’re doing, and will be around in another month. (Note that I don’t mean to be an elitist asshole and discount those bands’ efforts – just to say that, while month-long high school bands are excellent formative experiences, so many won’t last enough to be worth a second look for most people.)

As far as an exploration that isn't a full-fledged essay goes, I think I've covered the bases I hoped to. I think, as noted, boyd is correct technically in her assessment of why MySpace does better for itself than Friendster did and why MySpace will likely soldier on where other sites have failed. But I also think that she skims over the more important questions (which she brings up quickly then discounts as not mattering, because what matters in the context of her argument is what “kids” care about, and having a more complete palette of ways in which to express their existence isn't something “kids” care about.) I think the abstractdynamics guys bring a good point to the table in exploring what's done with all the data that's gathered on MySpace. But I also think they neglect to explore (in that post at least) what we as MySpace users do with that data ourselves, which is the biggest threat in my eyes.

I'm sure I've left things out of this, so ask questions/make points in the comments section if there's something important that you think I neglect or have wrong, of course. Also, I fully admit to being overly naive and idealistic and theoretical in ways.

7 Comments:

Blogger Brian Taylor said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:45 PM  
Blogger Brian Taylor said...

"zine culture and blogging in the blogspot-typepad-etc. sense, which I (and others) would look at as a contemporary twist on zine culture in ways,"

There's a significant difference here, though. When you publish a paper zine, you have a physical product that is very difficult to alter/forge. Even if an altered copy of the zine were produced, some of the originals could still exist.

The digital nature of a blog enables it to be easily edited by an author, but also allows it to be modified without any accessible physical traces (the fact that some message board scripts add a line to an edited post suggests that this is a problem that digital media developers are seeking a way to deal with).

Another important thing to keep in mind is that this information, while it is not read in a physical form the same way as a zine is, does have a physical place of residence, on a server somewhere. And it's very likely that the person who wrote the content does not own the server where it resides and doesn't have ultimate control over it. I don't want to sound like the boy who cried "Identity Theft", but one should keep in mind that this information can be modified by others if they gain access, either through the system used to update via the web, or even if the company hosting the blog decided that they would no longer carry the blogs of people whose ideas they disagreed with. Assuming it's going to happen is paranoia, but to act under the assumption that this text is published in space that you as an author control completely is also misguided.

A blog can easily reach a wider audience than a zine, but one also has to consider that what the blog gains in its freedom from a physical document, it loses in being bound to a computer screen and therefore only accessible at certain places where the necessary amenities to run a computer are present. In most of our lives, they're so ubiquitous that this isn't really an issue - but isn't that in a way a narrowing of our worldview, rather than the expanding of it that blogs promise to be?

I didn't even touch Myspace at all. I must be stuck in Narrative and Technology.

10:00 PM  
Blogger Talya said...

I like your post, and i think Myspace is horrible. I just saw a presentation boradcast from MIX 06, thought, and they say it´s the third site with more traffic. So, yes, even the dog is there. But it is so horrible, I do not even reason it like you. It just make me want to vomit. Then again, I realize that some of the things you mention are more the real reason, and not the glittery bling bling ugliness of it.

Oh, so I forgot to mention now they will be offering a gadget available on the side bar of Windows Vista, where people will have the pictures of new people or friends etc in their desktop (eoww). Also, they are developing a new way to organize the content by drag & drop thinks they like, or dont.

Again, great post. :)

11:56 PM  
Blogger andyhorbal said...

Passing thoughts:

It's like a job fair, or a speed dating session, or something similarly uncomfortable and intrinsically self-promotional.

Dating and job hunting are two particularly glaring examples of a larger movement to encourage us to "market" ourselves. Here your arguments feed into a broader social critique...

I'm interested in the fact that MySpace is being discussed as a portal for adolescent and teen internet users. I know many people who "surf" MySpace for (to me) incomprehensibly long periods of time: there is an endless sequence of profiles to explore. I worry that the idea is for MySpace to be a "one stop" internet destination. It is, in effect, a reconceptualization of the internet's use and potential. When everything you need is right at your fingertips there's no longer any need to search. And suddenly when content is being regulated by a third party, no matter how benign, the internet is no better, no more free than any other media outlet...

And what do you think of the fact that by the time you get to "third degree" friends virtually the "whole world" is connected?

Good thoughts! I'm going to encourage my MySpace user friends to read this...

12:42 PM  
Blogger andyhorbal said...

First, I think I mean "mediated" instead of "regulated" in my last comment.

Second, there's a related conversation starting at Slate:
Who Controls the Internet? and An Army of Davids. It's a dialogue between the authors of these two books. This jumped out as particularly pertinent to our consideration of MySpace:

"But—to return to the theme of my own book—that hardly means that the Internet and other technological tools haven't empowered their users. Napoleon famously said that the tools belong to the man who can use them, and that's the story here, too: Tools, by themselves, don't provide freedom. They have to be used, by people."

1:20 PM  
Blogger andybot said...

I forgot somehow to add into the above post one of my favorite, and most disturbing, MySpace anecdotes. It happened a little more than a year ago, when we played in Edinboro with a few other bands. I was sitting at the merch table next to Droopy Septum, and this kid, this painfully stereotypical "MySpace kid," kept sort of hovering over Ryan, waiting for him to have a free moment. Ryan said hey, and they made quick small talk, MySpace Kid insinuating that they had met at some point in the past, at a party, or at the radio station, or whatever. He told Ryan he liked his set that night. After a good minute or two of this finagling, out came what he had originally come to discuss:

MySpace Kid: "Uhh . . . I think I sent you a friend request on MySpace a couple weeks ago?"

Ryan: "Uhh . . . maybe. I dunno, I don't usually add people unless I know them."

MySpace Kid: "Oh. Well, maybe we can do that now!"

Ryan: "Uhh . . . yeah, maybe, next time I'm on . . ."

Then he scurried away, delighted at the prospect of an addition to his friends list.

The point being that we've gotten to a point where some people don't use virtual interactions to supplement real-life ones, but rather utilize real-life interactions for the purpose of furthering their online lives. Not a healthy way to be.

Thanks for the interesting comments so far!

9:21 PM  
Blogger m.m said...

To some degree I do agree with you that sites like Myspace are vast pits of shallow, uninspiring crap. On the other hand, so are most social situations. Yes, I know that oftentimes an event like a show can be an amazing experience with all sorts of great interaction and ideas being expressed and people genuinely communicating. But the thing is, we are both part of a very insular community, one which has people with many of the same interests, if not necessarily the exact same views, that we do. As such, hating on myspace and similiar things becomes a cultural issue.

The fact is, to a lot of people, and I mean a LOT of people, myspace is not that different from normal social interactions. It's high school. And for a lot of people, high school just continues on well into adult life.

Weblogs are the same. Blogspot caters to a very different crowd than LJ does. Just look at the templated for blogs they offer. Half of them scream out INDIE ROCK! They don't have the social network aspects of Livejournal because, frankly, their user base doesn't want it; to them, it smacks of immaturity. On the other hand, when you think of Livejournal, you almost immediately think of whiny teenage girls and ratings communities. And you know what? What those whiners and shallow folks have to say is no more or less valid than what I do. I just personally think that I am more interesting.

I do agree with you that sites like Myspace aren't ushering in some grand new method of communication. I don't think they're destroying it either, though.

2:28 PM  

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