The World Wide Web gets its name from its sense of all-encompassing connectivity. But the word web has another, less-friendly meaning, too, as in trap. And a lot of Internet users—be they kids, teens or grandparents—aren't applying that connotation to today's world of virtual gathering spots such as Xanga, PureRave and, to mix metaphors, the Web's 60-million pound social gorilla, MySpace.
A Multimillion-Member Public Forum
Myspace.com was founded in 2003 by Tom Anderson, whose primary motivation was to provide a means for independent musicians to gain fans and publicity. Since then, the interactive Web community has grown to more than 60 million user profiles.
Even though there's nothing to prevent an individual from creating multiple online profiles as long as each has a unique e-mail address, that's still a gargantuan number. And according to MySpace, the site adds nearly 85,000 profiles a day—about 2.5 million a month. (Users spend a mind-blowing average of one hour and 40 minutes a day on the site.)
Clearly, this is a new social phenomenon. Businessweek reports, "Although [online] networks are still in their infancy, experts think they're already creating new forms of social behavior that blur the distinctions between online and real-world interactions. ... Increasingly, America's middle- and upper-class youth use social networks as virtual community centers, a place to go and sit for a while (sometimes hours)." When Plugged In Online posted a poll asking about readers' relationships with MySpace, nearly 10,000 responded within a week. While just over 20 percent said they'd never heard of it, better than 60 percent said they themselves or a friend already had a page on MySpace.
Who, exactly, has a page on MySpace? And what do they do with it once they have it? The site requires users to be at least 14 years old, although founder Anderson admits there's no way they can check all registrations, never mind that anyone can lie about such information. A user creates a profile that can include as much or as little as she wants. She can post photos, a "life quote," the name of her school, the results of a personality quiz and a listing of favorite music, movies and TV shows. The site also allows users to create a Web log (blog, in Internet-speak) and to communicate with each other either through e-mail or by instant messenger (IM).
Scrutinizing the Spiders of MySpace
MySpace has a few built-in safeguards. Most, though, appear feeble in the shadow of its sheer size. In an attempt to monitor the nearly 2 million photos uploaded by users every day, "flaggers" manually view images and delete any that violate the site's no-nudity policy. But they know their limitations, as evidenced by this disclaimer in fine print: "Information provided by other myspace.com members (for instance, in their profile) may contain inaccurate, inappropriate or offensive material, products or services and myspace.com assumes no responsibility or liability for this material."
So, for example, MySpace takes no responsibility for Darin, a 21-year-old who recently popped up as one of the "Cool New People" who were being introduced to other users. Darin's profile opens with several f-words, features a provocative photo and discusses his "porn star name." The background wallpaper shows a woman clad only in lacy bra and panties. Those aren't the worst photos on the site, either. Not by a long shot.
Another stab at safety involves the site's commitment to never providing a user's last name, address or phone number. Also, users can set up their profiles so that before outsiders can view their page, they must be explicitly invited to become an online "friend" (a word you'll see over and over again on myspace.com). Still, some "residents"—many of them teens—volunteer far too much information about themselves. They'll list their hometown, school name and church name. They might post several photos of themselves, sometimes with classmates and friends, thus providing a smart predator lots of clues. And predators have become a serious issue on MySpace.
At least one fatal crime has been linked to the Web portal; a 14-year-old New Jersey girl was allegedly murdered by a man in his 20s whom she met on the site. And a federal grand jury in Connecticut has indicted two men whom prosecutors allege used myspace.com to set up sexual encounters with girls who were 11 and 14 years old. Connecticut's attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, is crusading for tighter rules and more supervision of Internet gathering spots, MySpace chief among them.
On the lips of teens everywhere right now, of course, is the assertion, "But I don't post too much of my personal information. I just use MySpace to meet my friends." Assuming that's true for a moment, MySpace still presents problems. Big ones. For every "Christian Singles" group, there are literally thousands named "Touch Me, Tease Me" or "Make-Out Whores" or "Gay California Boyz."
Added to that concern is Playboy magazine's announcement that it intends to publish a "Girls of MySpace" photo feature. Julia Angwin writes for the Associated Press, "The site has so many explicit pictures that Playboy Enterprises Inc. has launched a casting call for a ... nude pictorial for an upcoming issue of its magazine." Michael Sprouse, senior vice president of marketing at Playboy, told the AP, "We've done a lot of these types of castings, and this is by far the best response we've gotten to date."
According to MediaPost Publications, the pornography giant established its own MySpace page promoting its search for models, and has purchased advertising on the site.
In response to those who are concerned that the upcoming feature promotes pornography to teens, a MySpace spokeswoman insists that the majority of the site's users are 18 or older. But online marketing expert Pete Blackshaw, of the firm Intelliseek, doesn't agree. "We're in an environment where half of all teens have created blogs or personal home pages. Venues such as MySpace have fueled those percentages. MySpace is deeply woven into teen culture—that is without question."
A Teen's Dream; a Parent's Nightmare
What is MySpace: good, bad or ugly? Actually, all three. As with so much else in the world, Internet sites such as myspace.com mix everything up in one pot before it's served. Some parents, then, will choose to ban these congregation sites altogether. And they'd be in good company doing so. "It's a parent's worst nightmare to have a young person on this Web site dispensing all kinds of information," says Blumenthal. Fellow Connecticut public servant Bill McKenna, who is a police sergeant investigating a spate of MySpace-related sexual assaults on seven 12- to 16-year-old girls, adds, "It's a predator's dream come true, this Web site."
Others will allow teens access provided that they adhere to strict rules and fully understand the need for caution. But as more and more sleaze is slathered onto the site, and as more horror stories emerge from its depths, that's getting harder and harder to do. I'm a dad myself. My 16-year-old daughter has a MySpace profile set so that only her friends can access her page or communicate with her, and she knows not to engage anyone she doesn't recognize. Many of her Christian friends also host pages. (Indeed, despite being woefully outnumbered, the various Christian groups on MySpace boast hundreds of thousands of members.)
Still, we may have to rethink our membership, since even the most vigilant user can so easily stumble across unsavory—and unsafe—content.