Hanging Out With the In Crowd on Myspace.com
by: Mary Sykes Wylie
Some weeks ago, The New York Times reported on a group of Amazonian Indians--the Nukak-Maku--who wandered, nearly naked, out of the jungles into a small Colombian town and declared their intention of settling down there. The Nukak, the article said, had no last names, no concept of money, property, government, the future, or the existence of a country called "Colombia," the nation they inhabited. They were amazed by the buildings, streets, and paved roads. They wondered whether the planes they saw flying overhead were moving on some sort of invisible highway. "The Nukak don't know what they've gotten themselves into," said a physician who'd been working with them.
Like most adults who grew up before computers, I feel like the Nukak when confronted by the entire youth pop culture scene, particularly its cybernetic components. I know there are all these entities beginning with "I"--iPod, ICQ, iMac, IMing, iTunes, IRC--but I don't really know what they are, what they do, or how you use them, and I don't much care if I never find out. It's enough excitement for me just to be able to go online and listen right there at my own computer to Fresh Air, with Terry Gross. Actually, it was pretty exciting for me just to learn how to go online.
And then, there's MySpace.com. I can't say that I hadn't heard of this site before (or its kinfolk, Facebook.com, Friendster.com, etc.) but I can't say I had, either. It sounded vaguely familiar, like a stray wisp of the zeitgeist wafting at the periphery of consciousness--an aspect of the strange mass internet/pop/techno/youth market that means no more to me than the weird names of rap/hip hop/post-punk/hard rock bands proliferating like millions of mutant sound spores in the atmosphere. MySpace was just another one of these peculiar life forms that inhabit an alien universe--possibly benign, possibly not, but forever beyond my ken.
However, in the interests of investigative journalism, I was asked to take a look at MySpace. Founded in late 2003 by an internet marketer and a musician with a master's degree in filmmaking, MySpace was originally intended to be a site where musicians could post their music online and fans could listen. Since then, it's morphed into a vast social networking site drawing in nearly 82 million people--mostly teens and young adults--and growing literally by the thousands every day (by the time you read this, the number will be creeping up to 100 million, unless the whole bubble has burst).
Now, the world's fourth most popular English-language website (according to Alexa Internet, a subsidiary of Amazon.com, which studies web traffic), it was bought out last year by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation for $580 million dollars. Clearly, Murdoch et al. hope that those tens of millions of users will translate into advertising dollars. Already MySpace displays more pages (one billion a day) than Yahoo.com, thus more room for ads. But it might not pan out--kids' taste is notoriously fickle, the pop culture is notoriously shifty, and the fortunes of internet companies are notoriously unstable.
Nonetheless, while it lasts, MySpace is the undisputed Godzilla among networking sites, mostly for the teen, twenty- and thirty-something crowd. But even some of the elderly (past 35) hang out there, though their profiles--the individual homepages each member sets up--tend to be modest, unembellished, and unvisited, and, it seems to me, have an air of uncertainty, as if their proprietors don't quite know what they're doing in this mosh pit. Once entering the MySpace maw, you have, besides the 81-plus million individual profiles, access to nearly 700,000 forums, 2.5 million interest groups, and close to 17,000 public blogs, not to mention probably about 2 million different pop bands of every conceivable and inconceivable genre--all of which are linked in one stupendous, ever-expanding superweb of possible interconnections.
Getting on this bandwagon isn't really hard, but for somebody not young and not used to the internet ethos of unbridled exhibitionism, the process raises qualms right away. Do I really want them to have my full name? My e-mail address? They promise my real name will remain private and my e-mail address will not be shared, but still . . . . I set up a new e-mail address at Yahoo.com, one remove from my true cyber home, as a kind of buffer.
In the creation of my profile, I'm asked for a photo (no nudity allowed, though given the many profiles featuring pix of buff and almost entirely uncovered young bodies, this rule is very elastic), a user name (the name appearing publicly on your profile), plus a long list of biographical categories--marital status ("swinger" is listed), sexual orientation, religion, body type, hometown, income, interests, favorite movies, music, whom I'd like to meet, my heroes, etc. This all makes me queasy and I log out--I'm not ready to share myself so totally on the first date.
Of course, I could also fake everything--pretend to be a 22-year-old female bisexual swinging Latina bodybuilder, claim that my favorite band is the post-hardcore rock group My Chemical Romance, submit a smoldering picture represented as myself--and who's to know? With such potential for personal shape-shifting, there must be plenty of people among the 80 million who bestow on themselves new, cool, more glamorous, more dangerous identities than the nerdy selves they wake up to every morning.
Myself, I just tippy-toe in, adopt the user nom de plume Zoe, after my recently deceased cat (joining 11,000 other Zoes), pass on the picture, and leave most of the rest blank. I confirm my account at Yahoo and (voila!) I have a profile among the vast hordes of other MySpacers.
As soon as I register, I get an e-mail from my first "friend" in my own personal "friends" network at MySpace. It's Tom, who I later discover, just happens to be Tom Anderson, the cofounder and president of MySpace. I also learn from his profile that he likes The Doors, Bruce Springstein, and the movie Blade Runner. I kind of like those things, too. LOL! I'm a little crestfallen to note that Tom's profile notes he already has 81,660,889 friends, but it turns out that he welcomes every new person to the site; he's literally the central node, the lynchpin, the hub of the cosmic wheel connecting all MySpacers to each other in one gigantic, gigabyte-sized family.
Tom welcomes me and in the same cyberbreath tactfully offers me the opportunity to tell him to buzz off, if I want, by clicking "edit friends," thereby removing him from my "friends space," just as I can drop any other friends who no longer entertain me. Would that all tiresome human relationships were as easy to delete! This is the first lesson of MySpace--friends giveth and friends taketh away.
Apparently, this facile acquirability and deletability of "friends" can be a source of anxiety, heartburn, and downright fury among MySpacers. Each profile allows the listing of the Top 8 friends in the profiler's life (who have to give their permission to be listed)--a changeable clique of favorites that might include your mother, oldest pal, girlfriend/boyfriend, or somebody who just caught your eye on MySpace itself. Anybody can be dumped at will, or blocked from your homepage, though the dumpee can also counterdump, sometimes leading to hard feelings all around. And don't think nobody will find out who's now in or out on your friends list--there's probably more interprofile spying on MySpace than ever dreamt of by the most feverish agents at the National Security Agency.
Finding my way into the labyrinth, I "browse" MySpace to see whose profile I might want to visit. Though I can specify lots of criteria--and later I play around with different genders, ethnicities, ages, sexual orientations, drinking/smoking habits, etc--this time, I basically open the search to any and all comers: whatever you've got, MySpace, bring it on!
Plunging into the maelstrom--it's like the mother of all singles mixers--I encounter the first hurdle for anybody who, like me, still lives in the primitive premodern world of dial-up connection. Bandwidth insufficiency.
MySpace imposes a plain format on the profile homepage, and there are plenty of members who don't elaborate much on the basic package--their homepages are as plain, dull, and uninformative as mine, suggesting their creators aren't quite ready to get down and boogie. But within those same pared-down, monastic-sounding format rules, all hell can break loose.
Loads of profiles are tarted up extravaganzas of colors, graphics (black backgrounds and Day-Glo lettering much favored), animation, videos, flash movies, interactive features, special effects, cartoons, photos, music, and whatnot all jumbled together in an often unreadable, blinding mishmash that can take half an hour to download or cause my computer simply to freeze up in defeat. It's maddening to find cobwebs growing between my head and my screen as I wait for these obese kilobyte loads trying to squeeze through my pitiful little telephone wires.
Pornography is banned outright at MySpace (though simply following various profile threads can lead quickly to outside porn sites). But crudity, raunchiness, world-class vulgarity--cleavage and thong shots for women; spread-eagle, unzipped jeans shots (lots of pecs, delts, lats, abs showing) for men; fart, penis, and boob humor; aggressive in-your-face sexual posturing--seem to be one, if not the only, lingua franca at MySpace.
Still, for all their self-conscious 'tude and sexual mojo, some of the profiles seem to be case studies for dissociative disorder. The same hot babes and studs showing their stuff may also, on the same page, render with diabetically sweet cuteness apparently sincere homages to childhood innocence, religious faith, and family values. A typical profile of this genre--display name something like "SexiStacy"--showcases a 25- or 27-year-old bombshell, with numerous pictures of her busty, sultry, mostly unclad, heavily tattooed self, salacious visual animations and jokes, encomiums to her own sexual prowess, and . . . images of puppies and kittens, an appreciation of Harry Potter (lots of people's favorite books), loving tributes to her family, affirmations of her faith in God, and, finally, a photo of herself, her husband, and her two small children all beaming happily and wholesomely into the camera.
MySpace gives new meaning to the term all-inclusive. There are profiles of beach bums, ski bums, anarchists, Marxists, libertarians, free-market conservatives, social activists and committed do-nothings, car buffs, poetry lovers, and philosophers cheek and jowl with proud nonreaders and the barely literate. There are Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, black people, white people, red people, yellow people, and all variant shades. There are the many profiles of very nice people in their 40s and beyond. "Sue," for example, from New Mexico, 62, mother of two adult children and the former owner, with her husband, of an RV park, loves country and western music, and just wants to make a few more friends.
There are, of course, millions of college kids on MySpace, probably doing what millions of college kids always have done--think, drink and party, not always in equal amounts. Take "Holden Caulfield," a 23-year-old college philosophy student, whose hero is his dad and who blogs about Aristotle's theory of scientific explanation, the nature of reality, and what it was like to stay drunk for 35 days straight. Or 19-year-old "J," a female college student in the UK. Her blog entry for March 27, 2006, cryptically but instructively reads: "si o im cquite drunke mrigth now,. no rmoe mo=dnay night ous forf me!!!!!" (Translation: I am quite drunk right now, no more Monday nights out for me!!!!!)
There are the ANA (anorexia) profiles, as well as anorexia groups and forums, featuring young women who post "thinspirations" to others of their religion--photos of impossibly thin models and of themselves posed to accentuate their concave stomachs, severely jutting hip and collar bones, skeletal rib cages, and sharply protruding vertebrae.
While I come across salespeople, marketers, truck drivers, engineers, firemen, military people, musicians, teachers, and the occasional "entrepreneur," I see no lawyers, scientists, or professors, though I'm sure there must be a few among the tens of millions. I do, however, come across many individual "profiles" of the same famous people--Brad Pitt, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tom Cruise, Renee Zellweger, Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice (motto: "I'm running for DICTATOR"). There are 62 "Bill Clinton" profiles (motto of one: "Can I run again if I get a sex-change operation), several dozen of "George Bush" (sample motto: "Kill em all and let Haliburton sort it out"), 518 of "Jesus Christ," and 4,239 of "God" (another sample motto: "Lucifer is my homeboy.")
Many of these profiles are almost transcendently kitschy, utterly ridiculous, frequently funny (not always intentionally), strangely addictive, and clearly meant to knock your eyeballs out of your head. The plainer ones (like mine), which include no more than name, rank, and serial number so to speak, seem like pathetic little whimpers in this pulsating wilderness, with no real reason for being. The true MySpace profile is pure, exuberant, pull-out-the-stops performance, show biz at its brassiest, nearly reaching out from the screen to throttle you into paying attention. HERE I AM, DAMMIT! LOOK AT ME! LISTEN TO ME!
Which makes it all the odder that these laboriously constructed megawattage paeans to the personal uniqueness of the individual self borrow so much from the endlessly repeated, hackneyed, mass-produced artifacts of pop culture. Much of the space on any given homepage is taken up with lists--favorite pop bands, prime-time TV shows, blockbuster movies, big-board sports, fast foods, bestseller books. Their photos often look like homemade knockoffs of those in celebrity fanzines. Their blurbs might grace high-school yearbook pictures: "I'm outgoing, love to meet new people.....Kinda Shy, Fun, Friendly, Open Minded, Sociable, love to laugh, Dance, Eat, Drink, Laidback, Easygoing, not too picky, not too demanding, but WHAT girl DOESN"T like THE good THINGS in LIFE??"
And yet, beneath all these strangely anonymous, frequently adolescent (even in chronological grown-ups) self-presentations often lurk wrenching cries from the heart. A woman in her mid-twenties, with the display name "Love is a flame that can't be tamed," describes in her blog the excruciating details of her recent public humiliation by a man she has a crush on. Another profile--a girl who admits to being 13, "Lashes" (not her "real" display name)--plaintively opens her blog, "If you read this can you comment so that i know people hear me!" Thereafter follow two sad, even disturbing, blogs about her life: she hates her stepdad, she thinks her real dad hates her, she drinks a lot (Smirnoff), she worries about her sister who "moved in with my dad who is on speed and heroin and shes letting him watch my 2 year old nephew," she gets "closer every day to snaping because of the lies i have to tell my family," she "thinks about death a lot . . . for me." She seems like a small, lost kitten, and I wonder if I should turn her in for being underage--isn't she vulnerable to the peeping perps out there?--or write back or try and stage some sort of mental health intervention. I don't, but take some comfort from the fact that she has eight reasonable-sounding friends who've written nice things about her on her page.
Clearly, one of MySpace's main draws is its appeal to the joiner in all of us--the desire to belong, to be part of some kind of "in" crowd. MySpace has squared the circle by creating a site that celebrates both wide-open democracy and the illusion of "in-ness"--letting people belong to a private club that just happens to have nearly 82 million other members. Indeed, some people in various MySpace forums allude to the possibility that if you don't exist on MySpace, you don't really exist at all; if you aren't in here, you're really out.
But if the biggest product MySpace hawks is some sort of mass-produced, wildly attenuated dream or idyll of friendship, connection, tribal belonging, a cozy nest of buddies, or a huge fan base of admirers, how does the vision pan out in reality? It all depends. Shortly after joining MySpace, I find at my Yahoo address an invitation, with photo, from an attractive-looking young woman named, "Sarah," asking me to join her subgroup, "Face Buddies" (18,046 members when I join). Why don't I post on the topic, "Am I hot or not?" she asks. I don't think I'll post, Sarah--thanks just the same. But a lot of people do. The "hot or not" phenomenon seems to perfectly capture the crude, sexually hyped-up informality of pop culture--the cyber equivalent of a packed bar on Friday night--and not for the delicate of ego or faint of heart.
Can this ploy possibly connect people any better than the bar scene does? I notice, once I get to the subgroup, that many of those who did solicit an answer to this loaded question received no answer at all. There's something poignant about all these souls earnestly putting their photos and themselves out there before the MySpace multitudes, imploring judgements on their personal appeal, only to find nobody cares enough to even respond--the equivalent, I guess, of going to a wild party and standing there alone and ignored, while everyone else is getting it on around you.
Trolling further, I click on the photos of some of these anxious truthseekers whose "hot or not"question was posed in vain. In fact, behind their public expressions of either world-class bravado or yearning self-doubt, there's often a genuinely sad back story. "Reecemoney," for example, a smiling young black man, looking gently goofy wearing his billed cap sideways, admits defeat right away, titling his "hot or not" post, "I know I'm not hot." He then writes in his message, "But am I at least cute?" This appeals to me and I click on his photo, which takes me to his full profile. There he writes that he's a "chilled out person that just likes to have fun . . . a relaxed type person . . . that's willing to try anything new and just have fun. . . ." But, "fun" doesn't seem to be the real message, as he continues to write that he's very religious, doesn't "do every woman I see," and confesses that, next to Jesus, he'd like to meet his daughter, Brianna--"she passed away during delivery and her mom (my-ex) didn't call me at work to inform me what happened until everything was said and done and so all i have left of her is a picture and a half of her baby hat. Don't worry I will meet you one day precious. . . ." I want to e-mail Reecemoney and tell him, "Forget about ´hot or not,' Reece. Get out in the real world, get more involved with your church, have your minister introduce you to a nice woman, settle down, raise a family."
On the far extreme from pathos, the "hot or not" group evokes this more or less typical internet exchange among the radically unthoughtful, inarticulate young. In a group titled "Is Ashley hot?" led by Ashley herself, 16 (whose user name is spelled, "^@$h!vr0$vv"--the "vr" are little heart and spade icons in the original). The first message is posted by "Mark," who presumably knows her. The exchange, somewhat redacted, goes like this:
"Mark": if u think she is hot just say yes under this. thank u.
"^$!vr0$vv": she's not!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!woohoo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
(Ashley herself): hahahahahahahahahah jk [just kidding] im just to hot for everyone
"Mark": - ash hole u r way hot and im not just saying that I want to do u lol jk im not laughing.
"Kay_lin: - she's bangable if that's what your asking . . .
hot . . .
Then, Jimmy comes back, writing, "that jimmy kid Wrote," followed by a reprise of his earlier "SHIT" chorus and the statement: "i don't know no why i wrote that" Neither do I, for sure.
I find this kind of thing appalling, but also weirdly appealing, like an absurdist, comic poem, even if all it really reveals is the severely underutilized teenage brain. True, a little of it goes a long way. But, absurdism in the more or less conscious existential sense, as well as a great deal of unconscious absurdity, are big players in MySpace, particularly among the thousands of various forums and groups. In one high-minded and densely packed discussion about political philosophy among several people in their twenties and thirties, one free soul, obviously bored with the ponderousness of it all, broke in with this little impromptu, not entirely nonsensical, riff:
"Capitalism? Nationalism? Imperialism? Libertarianism!
Capital? National? Imperial? Libertarian!
CA? NA? IM? LI?
Make the right choice(s)."
To which another participant responded: "That was a beautifully cryptic rant. I feel like falling into a sheep-like trance and donating all my worldly goods to you. Possibly even investing them in any pyramid schemes you have."
If this doesn't race your motor, you have hundreds of thousands of other individual groups and forums to choose from. Some of those have thousands of members; many only a few, or perhaps only one lonely member, who tried and failed to get a conversation started. There are also many groups whose membership is recorded in minus numbers, whatever that means. There are what you might call "normal" groups like "American Civil War Re-enactors, "Dancers and Choreographers," "Conservation, Biodiversity and the Environment." There are more off-beat groups--"!Tatooed and Pierced! (18,660 members), "punk parents and punklings," "Magazines don't count as reading." And then there are those that are frankly strange--"Obscure Ramblings of a Mindless Woman" (one member listed), "God hates Jim Cult," and "Army of Bob" (with -27 members).
Within these groups and forums, there seems to be a huge amount of imbecilic dreck, but also some intelligent, thoughtful, and serious exchanges. Flaming is an ever-present possibility, as it is in any online chat room or forum. One discussion about ancient Persia that began reason- ably enough with slides of ancient Persepolis quickly degenerated into an insult-hurling, obscenity-spewing screaming match about the exact location of the old borders between Iran and Iraq. And the screamers aren't entirely anonymous--you can simply click on their profile, see their photos, the names of their towns, the photos of their kids and puppies or neo-Nazi support group, as the case may be, read their blogs, and generally get some sense of how they see themselves, whether any of it has anything to do with reality or not.
What does it all mean? Is MySpace a fabulous thing, as tens of millions of members appear to think (not to mention Rupert Murdoch)? Is it a terrible thing because it's so easy for underage kids to fake their ages, slip by the various safeguards MySpace has in place, and leave themselves open to online sexual predators? (I wonder why people don't seem more concerned about what MySpace is doing to American literacy--if grammar and spelling on MySpace are any indication, the nation's educational system is in much, much worse shape than we thought.) Even though there are rules in place for members--against porn, hate speech, harassment, violence, spam, commercial activities, providing personal contact information, and so forth--the sheer size of MySpace and the fact that it doesn't prescreen content means that probably almost anyone or anything can get online there for virtually any purpose, whether legal, illegal, sublime, or satanic, at least for a while until found and deleted.
While MySpace may seem to some critics the epitome of vicious excess and unbridled, civilization-destroying license, there are plenty of MySpacers darkly convinced that the site is already falling victim to the tyranny of encroaching censorship. One member, "copyright," in his group, "MySpace is the Trojan Horse of Internet Censorship," muttered that Rupert Murdoch's takeover was all part of a plot to turn the Internet "into a mass surveillance database and marketing tool."(Actually, that doesn't sound farfetched at all.) Another, "Purveyor of Truth,"complained vehemently in a forum and in his own profile that MySpace had taken down his anti-immigration postings for alleged racism. He denied the racism charge and then printed in large, red type, "FUCK YOU MYSPACE NAZIS," thereby demonstrating, I guess, that the MySpace administrators still know the difference between "offending speech" and a temper tantrum.
But as in so many areas, the bad news is also the good news. For all its nastiness, vulgarity, commercialism, potential danger, and mind-bending dumbness, there's a vast, untrammeled sense of exuberant freedom about MySpace, imperfect as that freedom may be. Like the internet in general, it offers opportunities for people to express themselves, to make and remake themselves, to say their piece, in ways never experienced before in human history. In a subgroup of "Existential Phenome-nological Psychology," called "MySpace, shifting identities, fictional truth," a 49-year-old woman, whose display name is "Stephanie," said it well. "Identities are created, masquerade is the name of the game, fictions are woven and believed by others . . . there are at least 3 Patti Smiths, pages hosted by the dead, men and women over 100 years old, celebrity lures, conjurers of cool, and lecherous fools. . . . the territory of the self expands as far as the imagination is able to generate images, stories, wisps of identity, likes and dislikes. . . . Free from corporality, I can be anyone or anything I want. Radical freedom? Do we have a responsibility to present the truth[?] I don't think we do as the ultimate creators and destroyers of values, selves, gods, worlds. What do you think?"
And, of course, to her last question, she got plenty of online answers.
Mary Sykes Wylie, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Psychotherapy Networker .