Thanks for the add

On: October 22, 2007
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About Maarten van Sprang
Maarten has a Bachelor degree in Communication and Multimedia Design and is working for Humanique as an interaction designer. Right now he is also finishing his thesis on the New Media Master at the University of Amsterdam. He's is very interested in new media (obviously), gaming and music.

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http://www.maartenvansprang.nl/wordpress    

Myspace started in 2003 as a stage for aspiring bands and musicians, but evolved from a subculture platform to a mainstream profiling and networking giant. I want to have a look at the social constructions within Myspace and how Myspace is being looked at after it has become the number one networking site.

Social structures

Not having a Myspace account in the digital era doesn’t make you look particularly good as a teenager. People are almost obligated to have an account, in order to exchange account-names instead of phone numbers in the bar. If everyone in my class has an account, I should have one too. But it also works the other way around, people first get to know each other via their friends on Myspace, and then later meet them in real life.

“I wasn’t the popular girl in high school. And now it’s like when I see those people, they know me because they know me from my MySpace. They’re more inclined to talk to me then than they would be just seeing me on the street.”

The example above is often the result of what you might call the ‘Myspace photo ethics.’ Most pictures are blurry, close-ups, showing abs, selfshots and exaggerated frowns and pouted lips, all that for the sole reason to appear as hot as possible. It gives teenagers the ability and the possibility to be popular online, instead of in real life.

But for the early adopters, Myspace has lost the exclusivity as a playground for people who do not walk the mainstream path. And as any good subculture member, they lose interest in the medium and neglect or delete their account (or make money selling their account!). For the other members Myspace acts as a digital hangout, favoured over local spaces such as malls and record stores.

As with any social networking site, it’s the quantity of your friends that counts as an index of your popularity. It is no surprise then that the activity of gathering friends has become an actual verb: “friending.” It is the process of finding new friends or strangers and adding them to your friendslist. This is one of the main reasons for the succes of the site, teenagers are craving for attention and the Myspace-organism supplies that need. As Danah Boyd points out a lot of ‘friends’ on Myspace don’t have an emotional background, but merely act as a tool to expand your public profile. The phrase ‘thanks for the add’ is a clear cut example of the unpersonalized and standard reply to a friend request.

But as it comes to the layout of your profile, Myspace gives the user almost unlimited freedom to fool around with the HTML and CSS of the page. This results in beautiful examples, but more frequently in hideous designs and horrible interactivity. As it shows the flexibility of the design doesn’t justify the site structure and it’s because of that the Myspace won the award for worst website in 2006.

Change of function

What started out as a platform to promote music acts, turned into a networking site, but if you examine it further you can see some other changes.

It still acts as a means to promote bands, especially emo and rockbands such as Panic! at the Disco and My Chemical Romance, and Myspace certainly wants to be associated with it. But due to the fact that NewsCorp has acquired Myspace, promoting bands isn’t about discovering new independent artists. Because of this revenue has to be made and record companies have embraced Myspace as an ideal format to push their acts. The same counts with TV-shows and movies, the entertainment industry is creatively mimicking real Myspace profiles with characters from that show or movie, to seduce people into adding them as friends and thus creating exposure. As shows in the following quote from the New York Times:

The bigger opportunity, however, is not so much selling banner ads, but finding ways to integrate advertisers into the site’s web of relationships. Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers, for example, created a profile for the animated square hamburger character from its television campaign. About 100,000 people signed up to be “friends” with the square.

A whole other story to how Myspace is used other than the ordinary networking is the account of Taylor Behl, who got murdered on her first week in college. Her profile acted as a means to express condolences to the family and now, two years later, it functions as a digital grave, a place where people can talk to her and tell her how much they miss her. It is touching to see that the Myspace account acts as a memorial, but as the profile is public, it does not have the same intimacy and privacy as a real grave.

What’s the issue?

Besides the critique on the layout and structure, Myspace has also been in the news concerning security issues. A member wrote a script within a CSS that released a worm which added viewers to his account, and automatically put him as a Hero in all the added accounts. Within moments he had 1000’s of requests coming in a minute and after a short while Myspace found out and put a halt to the worm. The guy who made the worm didn’t want to cause any damage but it he did point out that it is relatively easy to harm unknowing victims in a community of millions of people.

Another problem today is the hacking of accounts, in order to use them for spam messages across friendslists. Or child molesters who act as teenagers and try to arrange meetings with real teens. Equally worse is the act of identity hijacking, as happened to Chrissy Quantrille who discovered that someone had taken her photos and created a fake page in order to set up a relationship with a boy in Canada. Imposters are a big problem and one of the main reasons why parents are either monitoring their kids heavily or just preventing them to have an account on Myspace at all. Which almost seems cruel due to the facts that kids are supposed to have a profile. To put it differently, you are nobody if you don’t have a databody. Danah Boyd again:

Because the digital world requires people to write themselves into being, profiles provide an opportunity to craft the intended expression through language, imagery and media. Explicit reactions to their online presence offers valuable feedback. The goal is to look cool and receive peer validation. Of course, because imagery can be staged, it is often difficult to tell if photos are a representation of behaviors or a re-presentation of them.

Youth are not creating digital publics to scare parents – they are doing so because they need youth space, a place to gather and see and be seen by peers. Publics are critical to the coming-of-age narrative because they provide the framework for building cultural knowledge. Restricting youth to controlled spaces typically results in rebellion and the destruction of trust. Of course, for a parent, letting go and allowing youth to navigate risks is terrifying. Unfortunately, it’s necessary for youth to mature.

In decline?

Myspace still is the biggest of the social networking site, but it’s growth is stagnating and more importantly the time spent on the site is dropping significantly. According to an article in the Washington Post sites like Myspace rise exponetially but are also being forgotten if the users get bored by it and go looking for something new.

“They’re not loyal,” Ben Bajarin, a market analyst for Creative Strategies Inc., said of the youth demographic. Young audiences search for innovative and new features. They’re constantly looking for new ways to communicate and share content they find or create, and because of that group mentality, friends shift from service to service in blocs.

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Facebook is the one who is rising steadily and closing in on Myspace but for now the latter still is the biggest. Recently they registered account number 100 million (which happened to be a dutch account!), but if you look at the profile it illustrates the illusion of the number. The only friend is Tom (who’s everybody’s friend) and it’s clearly no active account. To conclude the article I’d like finish with a quote from Brian Carley, who uses Myspace to promote his band. He manages to capture both the attractivity and the problem of Myspace in a nutshell:

“It’s kind of like watching a train wreck,” he says. “You can’t look away.”


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