Web users have created more than 116 million profiles on MySpace, the social-networking site owned since 2005 by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. As I will explain in a moment, many of these profiles are fake. Still, 116 million is more than the number of people in Mexico and the number of cable TV subscribers in the United States.
Parents and members of the U.S. Congress have begun to take note–and they don’t like what they see. Conservative groups fomented a media panic this year over the supposed rash of sexual predators on MySpace and pushed a bill through the House of Representatives–the Delete Online Predators Act (DOPA)–that would cut off minors’ ability to access this and other social-networking sites from federally funded facilities like schools and libraries.
In the opinion of experts such as Henry Jenkins, a professor of literature and director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, the threat of sexual solicitation on MySpace is not as great as many fear. The company has indeed been hit with a high-profile lawsuit over an incident in which an adult molester allegedly met his underage victim on the site. But teens who use the Internet have said in surveys that online “solicitations” often come from people under 25–and are simply ignored. Furthermore, MySpace is likely to get safer: an October Wired News report that as many as 744 registered sex offenders have MySpace profiles will likely push the company to cull such members.
But while MySpace’s bad rap as a haven for sexual predators is probably undeserved, there’s good reason to be disturbed by the site: it is devolving from a friends’ network into a marketing madhouse.
If any social-networking company has found a way to rake in cash, it is MySpace; for example, Google recently agreed to pay $900 million for the exclusive right to provide Web searching and keyword-based text ads on the site. Of course, targeted advertisements distributed by Google and other companies provide the revenue that keeps many Web-based businesses afloat. But MySpace’s venture into consumer marketing has gone far beyond traditional advertising. The site has given members the technological tools to “express themselves” by turning their own profiles into multimedia billboards for bands, movies, celebrities, and products. Think MTV plus user photos, bulletin boards, and instant messaging.
I realize that in criticizing a pop-culture mecca frequented by millions of people, I risk sounding just as out of touch as DOPA’s supporters. But after spending the last few years chronicling the emergence of social networking and other forms of social computing for this magazine, I had higher hopes for the technology. To me, the popularity of MySpace and other social-networking sites signals a demand for new, more democratic ways to communicate–a demand that’s likely to remake business, politics, and the arts as today’s young Web users enter the adult world and bring their new communications preferences with them. The problem is that MySpace’s choice of business strategy threatens to divert this populist energy and trap its users in the old, familiar world of big-media commercialism.