Friendster lost steam. Is MySpace just a fad?

Youth and alienated populations are inclined to spend more time going through identity development processes because they are trying to “figure out who they are.” Blogs and profiles are particularly supportive of this. Of course, blogs require having something to say while profiles let you write yourself into being via collage. People do grow out of ongoing identity production, but not for quite some time. (Hell, i still haven’t.) Friendster tried to stop this, wanting people to be serious and fit into pre-defined checkboxes – to know who they are. MySpace let these groups run wild and these are the two populations who dominate MySpace – youth (14-24) and 20/30-somethings who participate actively in cultural development (from performance artists to clubgoers to sex divas to wannabee celebrities). These sites are ideal for these populations, even if they make no sense to parents and professionals.


What’s at stake here is what is called “subcultural capital” by academics. It is the kind of capital that anyone can get, if you are cool enough to know that it exists and cool enough to participate. It is a counterpart to “cultural capital” which is more like hegemonic capital. That was probably a bit too obscure. Let me give an example. Opera attendance is a form of cultural capital – you are seen as having money and class and even if you think that elongated singing in foreign languages is boring, you attend because that’s what cultured people do. You need the expensive clothes, the language, the body postures, the social connects and the manners to belong. Limitations are economic and social. Rave attendance is the opposite. Anyone can get in, in theory… There are certainly hodgepodged clothes, street language and dance moves, but most folks can blend in with just a little effort. Yet, the major limitation is knowing that the rave exists. “Being in the know” is more powerful than money. You can’t buy your way into knowledge of a rave.

“Coolness” is about structural barriers, about the lack of universal accessibility or parsability. Structural hurdles mean people put in more effort to participate. —Danah BoydFriendster lost steam. Is MySpace just a fad? (

When you put it this way, it looks like MySpace is heading for some inevitable high point, after which it will no longer be cool to use. Of course, it may morph into something that is completely different and thus gives people still more reason to continue using it.

Another interesting quote, that (to me) illustrates one of the core problems: “Even if your kid has a perfectly PG profile, the idea that s/he can hang with R-rated ones is flipping people out, even when the R-rated ones are perfectly normal in the context in which their created.”

PG means “Parental Guidance,” but MySpace is thriving because it encourages teenagers to develop their own identities without parental guidance (“There may be some profanity in these films. There may be some violence or brief nudity. But these elements are not deemed so intense as to require that parents be strongly cautioned beyond the suggestion of parental guidance. There is no drug use content in a PG-rated film.” — MPAA), in what is perceived (rightly or wrongly) as a safe zone, where they can delete and reorganize and start over if they don’t like the result, and where they can count and link to the evidence of their own growing cultural capital.

One of Boyd’s points is a call to action: “Stop celebrating the crisis and get off your asses and engage. This panic is not just a funny side note. It is an industry wide problem concerning speech, property and responsibility.”

As for the fad issue:

Part of being an American teen is figuring out who you are, how you fit into society and culture, how social relations work, etc. Part of this process involves sharing cultural objects, hanging out and trying out different self-performances to find the one that feels “right” (think Goffman “faces”). There are plenty of adults who are doing this as well, but it is central to youth culture. Youth will always do this, using whatever medium is available to them. MySpace is far more deeply situated in the cultural values and practices of its constituents than Friendster ever was. MySpace teens may jump ship, but they are not going to stop doing identity work, at least not for a few years.

But what interests me the most is the first few lines of the “Finally” section:

I began this as a blog post and it grew and grew and i want to put it out there even though i know that i’m missing factors. Still, i think that this should answer many of the questions that people have. MySpace is not the same as Friendster – it will not fade in the same way. Friendster was a fad; MySpace has become far more than that.

Notice the use of lowercase “i”, and then a few sentences later, an academic semicolon. I’m not pointing this out as part of a grammar flame, I’m just noting this as Boyd’s signal to her online audience that she is a serious scholar who is nevertheless firmly on the side of the MySpace teens. (A recent blog entry explained her frustration at being told not to use the term “MySpace whores” in the title of a talk.)

This fall, when I plan to introduce a new focus on social identity into my existing Writing for the Internet class (which I last revised in order to include blogging), part of my focus will be to get my students (especially those who are fresh out of high school) to recognize that the public identity they create can and often will lead to consequences in the real world.

My point isn’t to stop them from celebrating the freedom the internet offers them, but rather to consider the full range of consequences. Yes, I want to encourage them to spread their wings and make new mistakes, but I’m also conscious of my responsibility to teach them that Google doesn’t forget.

Reading Boyd’s essay made me feel my age. This is not a bad thing… at 37 I’m still a young scholar, but the online landscape I’ve been studying for years is changing faster than I can master it. I’m realizing that each time I teach “Writing for the Internet” or “New Media Projects,” the course will be practically brand new. On the one hand, that’s a bit frightening, because it often takes more than one try to tweak a new unit until it works smoothly. On the other hand, since online culture is part of the content of the course, I won’t be blindsided by new developments in the same way as I might be if I concentrated only on teaching American literature.

As I look back at the 2005-2006 academic year, I’m comfortable with the realization that Boyd and other up-and-coming new media scholars are providing a steady stream of insight that reminds me how my view of the internet is likely to differ from that of my students. Interesting things happen when both teachers and learners leave their comfort zones. I don’t think I’ve ever been this excited about a new academic year.

This fall, I’ll continue to advise the Setonian, while teaching

  • a new freshman composition course (all punctuation, sentences, paragraphs, and process, without the build up to the end-of-term research paper that has dominated every freshman writing course I’ve taught in the last 8 years)
  • Writing for the Internet (which will include social networking, personal identity, and the remix culture, as well as professional e-mail etiquette and website usability)
  • New Media Projects (an upper level studio course in which students will create simple arcade games, interactive fiction, an animated essay [more on that when I figure out how to teach it, but Strongbad and the Jib Jab shorts come to mind], and a Half-Life 2 mod).

On another note, I’m also interested in this post, On Being a Press Expert . This could be useful to teach freshmen about the value of academic peer review, and specifically why it’s important to go directly to sources written by academic experts, rather than rely on statements that they make off the top of their heads in response to a journalist’s question.