MySpace hysteria and popularity games

[23 February 2006]

By Rob Horning

Via comes this link, to a paper by Danah Boyd explaining why MySpace has attracted so many teenage users. MySpace has attracted a lot of media attention recently, usually of the alarmist variety, precisely for the reasons that Boyd claims for its popularity—it is public space that teenagers rather than adults control. “It is not the technology that encourages youth to spend time online - it’s the lack of mobility and access to youth space where they can hang out uninterrupted,” Boyd points out.  Boyd admits that “of course, there _are_ adults who want to approach teens and MySpace allows them to access youth communities without being visible, much to the chagrin of parents. Likewise, there are teens who seek the attentions of adults, for both positive and problematic reasons.” I’ve complained before about marketers being able to infiltrate these teen networks and tempt teens into becoming advertising tools; make friendship a sponsorship racket. Teens, who are in perpetual quest for social legitimacy, are more prone than adults to sell themselves out to commercial interests, which would seem to validate their choices and their power rather than exploit their vulnerability, their lack of an anchored iddentity independent of the world of consumption. Others fear the way the site seems to foment sexual predation, though that seems more like hype. Magazine stories about the forbidden life of teenagers are surefire winners—it gives a moral alibi (shocking what these teens are doing!) for being titillated at the evidence of their irrepressible sexuality.

Boyd notes MySpace’s ubiquity forces even teenagers who aren’t interested in social networks to have pages on MySpace, and for many teenagers it is simply the place where they can build their identity unconstrained by adult pressures. Through language skill and manipulation of the various aspects of the profile, they can create identities that wouldn’t otherwise be possible—it enables the formation of a new kind of teenage identity, one that seems to have proven irresistible, one that allows immediate alteration in response to feedback, for which there are copious channels. Boyd points out that “comments are cultural currency,” which makes sense, as validation is a primary source of economic power. (When we have what we need to survive physically, we begin to want attention over all else, it seems. Evolutionary biologists probably have a good explanation why.) MySpace formalizes and makes concrete and tangible the reciprocal exchange of social recognition. Through comments, permament traces for all to see, it makes friendship into an exchangable good. Testimonials to friends likely escalate, potlatch style, until all the tributes are imaginative, hyperbolic encomiums or else worthless. Will this make the most valued friends be those who are the most able flatterers? Boyd asserts that “adults often dismiss the significance of popularity dynamics because, looking back, it seems unimportant. Yet, it is how we all learned the rules of social life, how we learned about status, respect, gossip and trust. Status games teach us this.” She says this as though status games are an inherent part of humanity, and perhaps they are; but they are also the engine that drives consumerism: these sorts of popularity games prepare one for a life of perpetual defensive consumption, of keeping up with the Joneses. I’m not sure it is a requisite rite of passage for teens; I think adults dismiss it because it was humiliating and horrible for them, and they have grown out of such preoccupations rather than internalized them.

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