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The fakester phenomenon gives network members a way to declare their cultural affinities. These declarations are a huge part of a member’s online identity, according to social-media researcher Danah Boyd, who is studying MySpace and other social-networking sites for her doctoral thesis at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Information. “It is important to be connected to all of your friends, your idols and the people you respect,” Boyd writes. “Of course, a link does not necessarily mean a relationship ….The goal is to look cool and receive peer validation.”

But profiles are about more than looking cool, in Boyd’s view. She argues that social-networking sites are among the last unregimented environments for young people, places where they’re free to explore issues of personal and group identity. Members of such sites “write themselves into being” through their profiles, Boyd says, trying out personalities and slowly coming to understand who they are and how they fit in.

Ideally, every networking site would be this liberating. Alas, MySpace tends to herd its users into niches created for them by the mass market. If MySpace members are writing themselves into being through the profiles they friend and the products they endorse, then today’s 14-to-24-year-olds are growing up into a generation of ­Whopper-­eating, iPod-absorbed, ­Hollywood-­obsessed Red Bull addicts.

Take BillyJ (not his real handle), an 18-year-old high-school graduate and UPS employee in Louisville, KY. BillyJ smokes Kools, prefers Coke to Pepsi, counts X-Men: The Last Stand among his 393 friends, admires New Jersey Nets guard Jason Kidd, likes to work on car audio systems, doesn’t have a girlfriend yet, and apparently covets a Ducati motorcycle (his profile features customized Ducati backgrounds, color schemes, and ads). BillyJ may have deeper, more personal interests, but you won’t find them on his MySpace profile. It’s unclear what he contributes to the network–but as a single 18-to-24-year-old male with his own income and lots of friends, he is a viral marketer’s dream vector.

In fact, MySpace can be viewed as one huge platform for “personal product placement”–one different from big-media-style product placement only in that MySpace members aren’t paid for their services. There’s nothing new, of course, about word-of-mouth marketing. What’s sad about MySpace, though, is that the large supply of fake “friends,” together with the cornucopia of ready-made songs, videos, and other marketing materials that can be directly embedded in profiles, encourages members to define themselves and their relationships almost solely in terms of media and consumption.

This can’t be all that social computing has to offer. Older Web-based social networks were launched with serious (or at least creative) missions: LinkedIn is about making business connections, Flickr and Fotolog are for sharing photographs, Meetup is for planning book clubs and campaign events. Of course, there’s no requirement that a social network have high ideals. Like television and every other technology that started out as a shiny showroom prototype, social networking will inevitably accumulate some dings and scratches on the road to mass adoption. But if MySpace is to be the face of online social networking, it’s fair to ask whether it’s making our culture richer or poorer. To date, the only people who are profiting are Rupert Murdoch and his stockholders.

Wade Roush is a Technology Review contributing editor.

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