Sunday, July 16, 2006

Gang Signs

Guess what? We have a brand new group of people with which to demonize peer-to-peer Internet practices and social networking behavior, which we can add to the already existing categories of sexual predator and apocalyptic terrorist that are justifying restrictive legislation! Members of street gangs!

That's right, an Associated Press story about gang use of the Intenet was picked up in both the New York Times and The Washington Post. I like the fact that the featured Eighteenth Street Gang site currently links to PBS alongside artful black and white documentary photography by insiders and a tattoo parlor page. The website is currently under construction now, so you can't get to the page I saw with all the lonely inmates hoping for e-mail. Nonetheless, the 18th Street chatroom is up, although I would strongly recommend avoiding the "poetry" page, where I was foolish enough to go first.

This "news" about gang members is actually an old story to ethnographers of Internet culture. Many of these outlaw sites have been monitored by the LAPD for a long time, according to a 2001 article in The Los Angeles Times, "Authorities Watching Gang Web Sites." I've seen In Memorium pages for fallen gang members for years. Ironically, some blame the "No Child Left Behind Act" for this new generation of web-savvy OG's.

Flashback. Fifteen years ago I put high-risk kids on the Internet through the City of Santa Monica's PEN (Public Electronic Network) program. So it's probably true that some L.A. gang members had e-mail addresses long before corporate CEO's. What's interesting is that those beeper-wearing teens immediately understood that e-mail was the killer application. I had intended for them to use the system as it was designed, as an opportunity for citizens to address public officials. Want a basketball court at the park? Get on PEN, I told them. They totally ignored my do-goodism and promptly started sending messages to each other, sometimes to kids in the same room! Of course, now that's the way that everyone acts, including academics at conferences IM-ing each other while the speaker is talking, so I can hardly blame them for it now.

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