February 23, 2006
Columbine-area teen in custody after MySpace.com 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.