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February 23, 2006

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MySpace ph34r

Columbine-area teen in custody after posting showing guns. Best headline ever. It condenses almost all the over-hyped media youth-bashing of the last five years into one succinct line. If only the copy editor had thrown in some stuff about video games and goths.

Seriously, though, this is getting ridiculous. I was on a local radio show this morning being interviewed about MySpace. (Some might call me a media whore. I prefer to think of it as being democratic in my approach to granting interviews.) I did my best to cut through the hype and talk about how slightly modified versions of this exact same narrative have been circulating through the press forever. Poisoned Halloween candy. Dungeons ‘n’ Dragon cults. Grand Theft Auto. I’m guessing the number of these stories has increased since the arrival of the Internet, but I’m not even sure. As far back as I can tell, the overriding media narrative about youth has been, “Your children are in grave danger. Panic.”

Yes, your children are in grave and perpetual danger. Welcome to existence. Over time, we’ve exchanged sabre-toothed tigers for more sophisticated predators. And most of those are far more dangerous, far more sophisticated, and far less well-known than your standard neighborhood MySpace pedophile/stalker. Now you may panic.

Danah Boyd has done phenomenal research looking into the hows and whys of youth using social networking platforms. Most recently, she presented a talk to the American Association for the Advancement of Science about MySpace’s appeal. All of us, Boyd says, participate in three spheres of social interaction: public, private, and controlled. For adults, public space is just what it sounds like — the mall, the grocery store, etc. Private space is the home. And controlled space — where we’re expected to act within strictly delineated and enforced behavioral norms — is usually work.

For youth, controlled space is pretty much everything. Home, school, you name it, it generally happens under the watchful eye of some well-intended norm-enforcer. So, Boyd says, in the shadows of these controlled spaces, youths attempt to create public and private spaces for themselves. MySpace provides a great opportunity for them to do that.

And at a time in their lives when youth are just beginning to actively create public identities for themselves, Boyd says, MySpace is a perfect laboratory for them to experiment. They can easily present themselves however they’d like, emphasizing particular tastes, aspects of their personality, looks, interests, etc. And they get instant feedback from peers.

Travel back through all those media fear narratives and these two elements — youth struggling to explore non-controlled spaces and youth struggling to explore alternative identities — underlie each one. Take Dungeons ‘n’ Dragons, for example. It’s all about creating alternate personas and maneuvering in a violent, sexualized fantasy environment parents don’t really have access to. Ditto GTA, goth culture, etc.

But this metanarrative never makes it into any of the news stories. Journalists take the same tired youth+danger=panic approach to presenting these stories they have for as long as I can tell. Robin’s coworker Anastasia has done a good job of tracking stories like this through the media on her blog Ypulse, as has Fine Young Journalist.

Posted February 23, 2006 at 9:42 | Comments (3) | Permasnark
File under: Journalism, Society/Culture


Nice post. Just to connect the dots: why are parents so credulous of these media stories? To a certain extent, the "your child is in grave danger" trope would alarm any parent. But parents whose children are constructing alternative personae are already alarmed. The fact that the personae are usually "alternative" ones is already confusing to most parents, and the fact that they've been developed and maintained outside of their surveillance is threatening. They want to believe that something sinister has happened; the fact that it's happened "to" their child exonerates everyone in the family. It's adolescence as demonic possession.

I think that connection is absolutely right, Tim. It makes me think of one of the most destructive "your child is in danger" media feeding frenzies in recent history: the McMartin preschool trial.

You might have seen this L.A. Times story from October written by a man who was one of the hundreds of children who falsely recounted tales of sexual abuse at McMartin. "I never mixed up reality and fantasy and always knew I was lying," he says. He describes his mother as wanting desperately (to this day) to cling to the idea he had been abused. So he made up lies to satisfy her.

Why on earth did this mother so want to believe these awful things had happened to her little boy? His speculations on that match yours exactly, Tim:

But the lying really bothered me. One particular night stands out in my mind. I was maybe 10 years old and I tried to tell my mom that nothing had happened. I lay on the bed crying hysterically—I wanted to get it off my chest, to tell her the truth. My mother kept asking me to please tell her what was the matter. I said she would never believe me. She persisted: "I promise I'll believe you! I love you so much! Tell me what's bothering you!" This went on for a long time: I told her she wouldn't believe me, and she kept assuring me she would. I remember finally telling her, "Nothing happened! Nothing ever happened to me at that school."

She didn't believe me.

We had a highly dysfunctional family. We argued and fought all the time. My mother has always blamed anything negative on the idea that we went to that preschool and were molested. To this day, she believes these things went on. Because if they didn't, how can she explain all the family's problems?

I was thinking more of the various times in my life when my parents asked me if I was taking drugs. But the hysteria surrounding child molestation is right on. For example, parents usually aren't terrified by their children being molested or sexually assaulted by either 1) a member of the family or 2) a total stranger; it's always the little league coach, the teacher, the priest, even though I'd guess #s 1 and 2 are statistically more likely.

There's a weird displacement of the home and the family going on there -- the problem can't be within the family, because that's too close, but it has to be near enough to the family to be appropriately alarming/uncanny.

Freud has this whole riff about the German word for uncanny, unheimlich, which is literally un-home-ly, actually being something familiar made strange, familiar enough to "hit home", but strange enough to be sufficiently distorted to be acceptable. So even when we talk about something being uncanny/unheimlich we're lying to ourselves a little bit -- it's not really something strange, but something repressed and familiar.

Psychoanalysis -- still can't be beat.

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