Sunday, February 26, 2006

College Freshmen and Political Freshmen

This may be yet another case where the fake news has its facts straight better than the real news. This week, one of our local news stations in Los Angeles, Channel 7, is doing hard-hitting investigative reporting about My Space, the social networking site for young people.

As always, the prurient media emphasis is on young people and their possible exposure to sexually explicit materials (gasp!) rather than on the social, intellectual, or political effects of New Media on a new generation of social actors. Adrienne Alpert's Report on teens who use features her talking head with the phrase "SECRET INTERNET WORLD" superimposed on an image of a laptop and crime scene tape in the background. Alpert compares online social networking to "the old telephone party line" and then launches into fear-mongering for parents about how children are lying about their ages and making themselves vulnerable to pedophiles and cyberstalkers.

It turns out that the message of the Channel 7 report is to have young people use a competing and supposedly more secure networking service, YFly, where advertisers would also have an ideal captive audience to exploit. Parry Aftab of Wired Safety has been hawking the site with drippy ex-Backstreet Boy Nick Lachey. (All right! Backstreet Boys! Teens and pre-teens today are so in to them!)

If parents want to be involved in their kids' online lives, why not use the Internet creatively to encourage teens to be designers, as Ellen Lupton has, and be producers rather than consumers in our culture industry by fostering sites like Media Savage? It's true that sites like My Space encourage identity production in a networked culture, but they also emphasize consumption rather than exchange. This may make me sound like a fuddy-duddy, but I think the interface of My Space is more like a creepy website for mail-order brides than more user-centered/task-oriented old-school listservs or bulletin board services or newer MMORPG's or large group blogs in which peer-to-peer interactions encourage less evanescant virtual friendships.

Oddly, the coverage of My Space by Demetri Martin on the Daily Show is not only funnier but more on-target in describing the dangers of creating an entire generation that is incompetent at F2F. (That means face-to-face communication, for those of you oldsters who aren't keeping up with the investigative reporting on your local news.) Imagine a whole generation with a combination of Asperger's Syndrome and ADHD! Martin also interviews Siva Vaidhyanathan of in a funny cameo that emphasizes how live interactions and knowledge sharing suffer in commodified social networking cultures.

I joined Facebook two years ago, because I wanted to know more about students' online experiences. I'm a lurker, as you can see above, who enjoys being told I have "no friends." Facebook is restricted to those with an .edu address and at first appealed to the elite culture of the Ivy League where it originated. I consider it a useful unofficial window on campus culture and essential reading for any Internet researcher who is part of a higher education environment, just like

A recent Chronicle of Education story discusses the political implications of the Facebook. As Wonkette has noted, the son of newest Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito pulled down his sexist page before media scrutiny during the confirmation process brought it to light. And, of course, there are predators in the online environments of college students as well, and law enforcement officers are developing methods to respond to Facebook stalking.

(As an addendum, I have to mention the fact that Facebook is important to college students in death as well as life, according to a recent item in the Wired Campus from the Chronicle for Higher Education. Facebook entries allow opportunities for commemoration that privacy-conscious and damage-control-conscious universities generally avoid.)

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