The news is that MySpace has trashed 200,000 profiles that its corporate owners and managers defined as "objectionable." Don't know if any of the rejects were postings by Vineyarders. The Financial Times, in a news report published March 30 and written by Joshua Chaffin and Aline van Duyn in New York, says MySpace hopes to "calm fears about the safety of the network for young users."
It's safe to say that for the MySpace moguls, led by global media magnate Rupert Murdoch, owner of News Corp, the risk to their prize-winning investment in MySpace is the chief concern, not the well-being of MySpace participants. That's business. The Financial Times reporters say that MySpace, a News Corp unit, is "at the centre of the media company's internet strategy."
What did the News Corp execs excise? According to Mr. Chaffin and Ms. van Duyn, "Ross Levinsohn, head of News Corp's internet division, said some of the material taken down contained 'hate speech.' Some of it, he said, was 'too risqué.'" Perhaps they left in place those postings that were merely foolish and tasteless, like some of those The Times recently used to illustrate coverage of Vineyard young people who participate in MySpace."It's a problem that's endemic to the internet - not just MySpace," Mr. Levinsohn said. "The site, in the last two months, I think has become safer."
Well, maybe, but with nearly 70 million registrants and more than 200,000 signups a day, it's hard to say, and besides, safety is only one of the issues.
"MySpace is more potent and powerful than even we knew," Peter Chernin, president and chief operating officer of News Corp, told the Financial Times. "And it is becoming a more integrated part of people's lives." Good for News Corp, I suppose, but maybe not so good for the rest of us. Quite a few of those lives are Vineyard lives. And, perhaps they are your children's lives, or mine.
Mr. Chernin admitted to some concerns related to the housecleaning MySpace has just done. "We don't want to change the fundamental look and feel of the site," he said. "We do not want users to have any sense that it is corporatised." Although, of course, it is "corporatised."
Mr. Chernin has a tough job. He must soothe parents and educators nationwide who are worried about MySpace. The big concern is safety, because, whatever the privacy promises made by businesses such as MySpace (and there are many others, many far sketchier), privacy cannot be guaranteed. At the same time, there is an ironclad, guaranteed risk of exploitation, as well as the possibility, though often exaggerated, of predatory interactions between heedless teens and unscrupulous exploiters. But, if MySpace becomes too controlled, too contained, too adult-supervised, many teenaged participants will wander away to the next big thing. And that means diminished earnings for News Corp. They hate diminished earnings, as do we all.
All of which brings to mind the only public reaction of some Island school committee members who detailed James Weiss, the superintendent, to write a letter to me, which The Times published last week. Mr. Weiss wrote that the school committee members had "strong feelings" about the Vineyard community's "accepted norms," which "might have been breached" by The Times MySpace coverage. Mr. Weiss did not define these norms, and he did not assert that, whatever they are, they were certainly breached. After all, how could he?
For him and the school committee, he wrote, "We very much would like our community to celebrate its young people and their successes and be somewhat more respectful and understanding when they act as children and youth, making missteps like we did when we were young."
How silly. MySpace and other sites like it are by the nature exploitative. Much of what may be found there, whether posted by Island young people or young people elsewhere, deserves no celebration, and it's hardly respectable. And, while children and young people have always made "missteps," the unfortunate MySpace postings that The Times coverage described are not the equivalent of the foolishness we committed "when we were young." They are more compromising, more debasing, more dangerous. And, most important, we are not young any more. Those of us who are parents and teachers, and even school committee members, have a crucial job to do.
Acquainting Island adults, including especially parents, with the MySpace thing was the goal of The Times coverage. The appropriate response by parents, teachers, and others who are responsible for guiding young people, ought to have been to recognize that we're substantially behind the curve here, and in the interests of young people for whom we are responsible, we ought to think about how to help.
Mr. Weiss reported correctly that The Times is anxious to help, and toward that end, we have a couple of things we're interested in. First, the internet concern is misplaced, we think, if it is about the technology. Kids, everyone really, need to be taught how to evaluate what they find on the web, how to think critically about what they find there. What is credible, as well as what is risky? How to test credibility? How to recognize risk, but also how to recognize the implications of what is not explicitly risky? For instance, when MySpace, in its disclosures, describes the kind of information it gathers on participants and then describes how it will share that information with marketers, what does that mean? Or, are the images your son or daughter uploads to MySpace downloadable by some suspicious character who runs a child porn site in Bangkok?
Second, there needs to be some considerable emphasis on helping parents learn how to oversee and understand their children's use of the internet, including such things as MySpace but other sites as well. Blocking access at home or at school accomplishes little. Kids will get access somehow, somewhere. What does it take to be a savvy parent? What should parents who may not be particularly adept with a computer know about the Internet's mysteries?
"It is my hope," Mr. Weiss concludes his letter, "that a positive outcome of this experience will be a better understanding of the Internet, a stronger bond between teens and their parents, a more circumspect press, and an even more supportive community focused upon celebrating the wonderful things our young people do every day."
We're fine with the celebrating. We do it week in and week out, with the High School View and other extensive news coverage of student activities. We do it annually with the Vineyard Spelling Bee. But, we suggest that the Vineyard community could not possibly be more "supportive." Mr. Weiss is right to say that the Internet is vast, growing, and filled with judgment-taxing labyrinths. We certainly need to understand it better. And, of course, parents and teens need to be closer. But, he is mistaken to suggest that greater understanding and more effective leadership will be advanced by circumspection.