When it comes to the technological tug-of-war across the generation gap, ours is both the lost generation, and the last to bear witness. That struggle has played out in the past decade, between the older establishment of our parents’ age group and the silent cohort directly succeeding us; kids who, unlike us, remember no time before the Internet. Though the theme has remained the same, the shifting permutations of this divide have kept apace with changing technology, and the current battleground is MySpace. The online community, which boasts over 57 million members, has lately been accused of providing a free forum for sexual predators, with a rash of articles, public service announcements, and posturing speeches depicting it as a Wild West in which molesters prowl the suggestive profiles of naïve and enticing nymphets. Amid the hysteria, it may provide a measure of sanity to look at how the forgotten middle generation — especially young parents — are using the Internet in new and defining ways.
MySpace is only the most recent flash point in a debate that is as old as the public Internet. From the inception of the rudimentary world of chat rooms, children have seemingly been in constant danger of exposure to all manner of obscenity. Two attempts by Congress to restrict web content, the Communications Decency Act of 1996 and the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) of 1998, each met constitutional roadblocks (though COPA may be rearing its head again this year, bolstered by the government’s recent preliminary victory in its suit against Google). Both laws were found to overreach in their efforts to protect minors, putting legitimate speech directed toward adults at risk.
Internet communities like MySpace present a new challenge, providing space for members to set up their own pages, communicate with one another, and create online identities without real-world constraints. This level of user freedom, coupled with the site’s popularity among adolescents, has already led to a number of cases of statutory rape. In most of these cases, the perpetrators posed as teenagers themselves and lured minor girls into illicit meetings. In the public perception of sexual predators, a spate can easily morph into an epidemic, especially when new technology is involved, and these cases have prompted Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal to launch a criminal investigation of MySpace, recently calling it “a parent’s worst nightmare.”
Whether or not this problem is overblown — Kevin Poulsen has argued in Wired that the rate of actual incidents of molestation stemming from MySpace compared with its total membership is far less than national averages of statutory rape cases, making MySpace safer for children than America itself — it is the type of problem that could easily prompt lawmakers to throw the baby out with the bath water. MySpace plays host to a wide variety of users, from bands to bloggers. Running in the right circles, since no matter how newfangled the technology, a community is still constituted by degrees of familiarity, one can even find parents populating their “worst nightmare,” blogging about their kids, sometimes setting up profiles for the yet-unborn.
Aja G. is one such parent. Her constantly evolving profile currently boasts an ultrasound photo of her daughter, Sofia, who is due in May. The rest of her pictures chart the life of her 2-year-old son, Xavier. Aja is 24, works nights, and spends the days taking care of Xavier while her husband works. It is not a forgiving schedule for keeping up with friends, but Aja started using MySpace in the same way as any twentysomething, while bored at work — and as her life changed, so did her profile. “I like to keep my family and friends updated,” she says. “You can go to an ultrasound at 1pm, get a print out of your sonogram, scan it, download it to your computer and post it on your site to show off to everyone in the world all by 3pm. It’s great! Then when you give birth you can have someone film your newborn with their camera and then post it within about five minutes.” Precious moments, transmitted at broadband speeds.
Resisting isolation in any form, Aja has cultivated a network of MySpace moms. Her Top 8 friends who grace the front page of her profile consist of two more sonogram glamour shots, and other tykes of various ages. Her blog is a chronicle of maternal woes and joys, from potty training (“current mood: pessimistic”) to trips to the obstetrician and a public forum on baby naming. Friends comment on her postings, offering advice or sympathy. She is unabashed about her decision to make an increasingly hidden process public. This way, she says, relatives and friends can’t protest being left out of her new family; they need only check up on its ever-changing status online.
As for whether young Xavier has a hand in his Internet persona, so far he’s a silent partner. “I’m going to keep him away from this stuff as long as I can,” Aja says. “I remember when AOL came out, I wasted so much time talking with my friends in chat rooms. I want my son to do some growing up in the real world.” She is concerned about losing touch with the technology her kids will be using, and understands why it makes parents feel helpless. But she plans to use some low-tech remedies to avoid this feeling. “Growing up, my computer was in the kitchen, so my mom was always monitoring what I was doing in some way. Her reasoning was that at 14, I didn’t need any privacy.” She plans to stick to that tried and true method. “The technology keeps changing, but how to be a good parent — that is, being involved in your kid’s life — that seems to stay the same,” she says.
Responding to media perception of MySpace and its dangers, Danah Boyd, of UC-Berkeley’s School of Information, has argued that online communities create “digital publics” for teenagers with limited access to uncontrolled spaces. In a culture increasingly hostile to the natural social energies of adolescents, the Internet can be harnessed as an instrument for the production of youth identity and interaction within a safe physical space, namely their bedrooms. Digital publics have gained such currency among teenagers, Boyd argues, not so much because of the ability of technology to replace face-to-face communication, but because uncontrolled youth space has so dwindled that online communities have become an imperative; a necessary reaction to a void.
Similarly, within the broader, national trend of eradicating public space through strip-mall suburbanization, parents are just as hungry for social exchange and peer interaction. This state of affairs has given rise to two seemingly contradictory phenomena: the Internet and the megachurch. While the substance of the latter is prescribed by a relatively constant set of themes, the Internet is one of the last (mostly) uncontrolled public spaces, with users of all stripes creating novel subspaces within it. Young parents on MySpace are an example of just one of these pioneering groups. A rush to regulate the Internet out of a dubious devotion to safety would strip this and many other communities of a tool that, for better or worse, is increasingly vital to a vibrant social fabric.