On MySpace, you can be friends with Burger King. This is social networking?

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.

Illustration by Richard Thompson

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.

My biggest worry about MySpace is that it is undermining the “social” in social networking. The general expectation when one joins a social network is that its other members are actual people. On MySpace, this isn’t always so. The movie Jackass: Number Two has a profile on the site, as do Pepsi, NASCAR, and Veronica Mars, the CW network’s teen detective. The company interprets the idea of a “profile” so broadly that real people end up on the same footing as products, movies, promotional campaigns, and fictional characters–not exactly the conditions for a new flowering of authentic personal expression.

As a site organized around an enormous collection of profiles, MySpace was modeled on Friendster and other earlier online social networks. Users are given pages where they can post self-descriptions, photos, short videos, blog entries, and the like. Every profile includes a list of the other members its creator has “friended,” and a comment section where those friends leave feedback. (Most comments are encouraging, casual, and shallow: “Love the new look! How are you not married yet?”)

But one feature that makes MySpace different from earlier sites, and evidently more appealing to users, is its friendliness toward independent artists. Cofounder Tom Anderson, who has a background in the Los Angeles arts scene, has said that he and business partner Chris DeWolfe started the site in 2003 because the older social networks didn’t give musicians, photographers, digital filmmakers, and other artists adequate ways to promote themselves and their work. From its beginning, then, MySpace has functioned as a public stage. It lets bands and solo musicians create profiles, publicize upcoming shows, and upload their songs, which other members can then embed in their own profiles. Filmmakers can upload video clips. Indeed, the site has become one of the main places where unknown artists go to be discovered by major studios, or at least to develop a base of fans who’ll attend shows and buy CDs and DVDs.

In the early days at Friendster, only real individuals could create profiles. Bands were lumped in with other “fakesters,” the term coined by Friendster users for profiles created by impostors or dedicated to someone other than the author, such as a pet or a celebrity. The company eventually relented, and fakester profiles became an accepted part of Friendster’s culture, often taking on the function of fan clubs.

MySpace, however, has been hospitable to fakesters from the beginning–so much so that it’s now perfectly kosher for a company (or one of its fans) to create a profile for a fast-food chain, a brand of soda, or an electronics product. Other MySpace members can friend these profiles just as if they represented people. As of early October, Burger King had more than 134,500 friends, and the Helio cell phone had 130,000.

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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