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Myspace, meatspace
Written by Editor   
Sunday, 19 February 2006 13:42

I have other articles I planned to finish however in browsing tonights news, I was distracted by the recent flurry over myspace. Here are just a few headlines culled from the last two weeks:

I must admit, the uproar about myspace does not surprise me in the least little bit. After all, we have a group of people, who have little to no understanding of social dynamics, writing software to be used by another group of people, who have little to no understanding of cyberspace dynamics. That it is just now coming to a head, is probably the most surprising. At least to me. Why? Let's start with a brief history walk.

Prior to online communities such as myspace, friendster, xanga, livejournal, facebook, etcetera... in fact, prior to the web, online interaction was limited to Usenet, listservs, IRC, and bulletin board systems. Or... we could go way back to DARPA and bitnet. And before that it was citizens band radio and short-wave radio. In any event, as the web began gaining public acceptance, the information superhighway was born, software companies began talking about standardization, and w3c came into being. By the late 1990s everyone and their brother had a website, dot-bombs were enjoying success, google became the search engine of choice, and Java was no longer coffee.

Before software moguls entrance, only those who were technically adept cavorted in cyberspace. With the new changes however came new problems. Predators lurked in AOL, Yahoo, and Excite chatrooms while people, both young and old, regularly disclosed personal information (something that was unheard of in the days of DARPA and bitnet) thereby becoming vulnerable and a possible target to everything from identity theft to cyberstalking. By 1999, the US DOJ released a report warning of the dangers of putting too much information out there. By 2000, yahoo bought out EGroups, establishing itself as the industry leader of listserv management, PHP began making inroads into the scene, and open source became the new buzzword.

While some might argue that online communities have been with us from the inception of the Internet, exclusive of Usenet, they tended to be limited to those who shared interests. In other words, you pretty much had to know somebody in real life in order to join this community or that. That all changed with the advent of the web. As the novelty wore off, people grew tired, frustrated, or perhaps both, with building websites which often saw little more than a trickle of visitors in relation to the work that it took to build. Furthermore, some realized repeat visitors required ever changing content. Thus templates and blogging was born.

Software companies took the fluid face of the Internet in stride, marrying concepts of the old with the new, and online communities such as myspace, friendster, xanga, livejournal, facebook, and tribenet sprung up. Seemingly overnight. The most unfortunate mistake that all of them made however is that they seem to have ignored lessons from the past. Revealing personal data, for example. Since myspace is presently in the news and it boasts some 55 million customers, lets take a look at what that means.

Myspace designers focused upon the technical. Therefore, instead of seeing social networking as something that is by nature dependent upon individual choice, they have designed it such that people are automatically networked with each other based upon a variety of personal data, such as their school, graduation, degrees, affiliations, occupation, location, age, gender, sexual preference, hobbies, and the list goes on. Furthermore, myspace designers allow people who have accounts to search their membership using private data as well as displaying individual's age and location with no option to turn that feature off. This is incredibly short-sighted of them. For they have designed a quite efficient hunting ground for the predators who walk among us.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for automation. Within limits. Even so, the software companies lack of aforethought in their design is only half of the problem. The other half involves people's lack of understanding when it comes to participating in cyberspace. For example, meatspace has its advantages. You can disclose something untoward, something off-the-cuff, and only those in your immediate vicinity hear what you say. Whereas in cyberspace your disclosure is not only archived... somewhere... but is also available for all to see. Likewise, in meatspace you have a plethora of non-verbal cues when communicating with others. Ways to identify say... danger. Again, not so, in cyberspace. All you have is written word, perhaps a picture or two. And if vlogging takes off, you may even get a video. Regardless, not only is the cyberspace communication asynchronous, but you still have no means of knowing for certain who may be reading whatever you write at any given time. Your audience now extends beyond your immediate circle of family and friends. While this has its advantages, the disadvantage is that Joe Q Predator can read what you write and construct a persona that is the seeming perfect fit.

So... what do "we" (the universal we) do, anyway? For starters, myspace and the other social software companies need to get their act together and lose the searching on private data features. Furthermore, they need to give their users a means to set their profiles to private. By doing those two things alone, their users cyberworld will not only shrink by an order of magnitude, but the number of potential victims will shrink as well. And finally, these companies really need to consider adding some social psychologists to their payroll. After all, if they're going to design social software it would behoove them to at the very least attempt to truly understand their audience.

As for users, both young and old, need to work on their personal perception of cyberspace. That is, if they wish to participate online with a modicum of safety. And yes, that even means those who are really open and who do not mind that others know who they are, what their favorite beverage is, and what they had for dinner last night. Why? Knowledge of this seemingly trivial information is what helps us to gauge trust. For example, if you meet John Q Stranger for the first time and he tells you that he went to school with your sister, Lilly White, you may lower your defenses. If he goes on to mention things that only immediate family should know, you'll probably lower more of your defenses. After all, unless sister Lilly White knows him, and more importantly, trusts him, the probability of him knowing those things is rather low. However, if John Q Stranger happened to find the information on the Internet, you could be in for a world of hurt. All too often, we convince ourselves that just because we sit in the privacy of our homes, typing away on our computers, that only those who are important to us will read what we may have to say, thereby feeling a false sense of security. And therein lies the problem: we apply the same rules to cyberspace that we do to meatspace and visa versa. We really need to stop doing that.

What I am speaking of here is social gatekeeping--something that we, as a society, have managed to engage in rather well in the past. The Internet has however changed all of that. And unless we begin to not only understand how our online behavior must change--how to define and defend our boundaries--but also make that change a way of life, all of the laws and sanctions in the world will not do one whit of good. This isn't about secrecy or paranoia. If anyone is seriously out to get you, they will. My contention however is, why draw them a map? After all, even if the odds of any single individual being targeted by an online predator are reasonably low, you may not get a second chance.


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