MySpace’s vacancy

When an adult puts his ear to the door of youth culture, he inevitably mistakes the noise for the signal – and usually misses the signal altogether. So we have media blogger Scott Karp reeling back in horror from his visit to MySpace. It is, he tells us, “a DEEPLY DISTURBING place,” rife with “sexually suggestive or explicit content.” There’s even a hint of “murder” in the air. It is “humanity in the raw.”

Excuse me while I go sign up for an account.

What’s most fascinating about Karp’s post, though, is not his reaction to MySpace but his reaction to his reaction to MySpace. Having offered a moral critique – a visceral one – he suddenly goes all wobbly. “I’m not going to do a moral critique of MySpace or Web 2.0 or anything else — that’s not my gig,” he says. Then he says it again, with caps: “let me be repeat — this is NOT a moral critique. It’s a practical, business critique.” A wise retreat, I suppose. Moral critiques are so uncool. They’re the surest way to lose your web cred.

Still, I liked the outburst, the act of recoiling. It was real. The “practical, business critique” seems forced in comparison: “‘Social media’ may be all the rage, but ‘society’ functions best somewhere in between anarchy and fascism. Let it drift too far to one extreme, and things can get ugly. And when things get ugly, it’s hard to sell advertising.” That’s automatic writing, and when it’s not platitudinous it’s wrong. Ugly’s edgy, and edgy’s where advertisers want to be. Did Paris Hilton lose her endorsement deals when her naughty video leaked onto the web? Hell no. She got bigger and better ones.

A lot of bloggers hammered Karp for being an alarmist, for questioning the social-media orthodoxy. One went so far as to compare MySpace to a bicycle: Kids can get hurt on both, right? So what’s the big deal? Maybe I’m misremembering, but I think my old banana bike was a pretty wholesome toy, even with the mile-high wheelie bar. Riding it around the neighborhood with my friends was a way to get some exercise and fresh air, to see things in three dimensions, to escape “my space.” MySpace seems a little different.

Fred Wilson, a blogging venture capitalist, sees in MySpace the signs of a great emancipation:

We are at the dawn of the age of personalized media. The web has given the world a place where the audience is the publisher and what we are witnessing (and hopefully participating in) is the personalization of media. It will manifest itself in many strange and wonderful ways. And I am embracing it; for me, for my kids, and for the rest of my life.

I guess you see what you want to see. When I look around MySpace I don’t see much that’s “strange and wonderful” – or “deeply disturbing,” either. I wish I did. What I see is a dreary sameness, a vast assembly of interchangeable parts. Everything feels secondhand: the pimps-and-hos poses before the cameraphone, the ham-fisted, cliche-choked blog-prose. It’s sad to see so much effort put into self-expression with so little to express. Humanity in the raw? No, this is humanity boiled to blandness in the tin pot of personalization.

There was another blogger who responded to Scott Karp’s post by comparing the effect of MySpace to that of Elvis’s gyrating hips back in the fifties: The old folks didn’t get it then, and they don’t get it now. But MySpace isn’t anything like Elvis. It’s more like Jim Morrison limply exposing himself on stage in Miami in 1969: an enervated pantomime, force turned to farce.

I’ll tell you what scares me about MySpace. It’s not how dangerous it is, but how safe.

25 thoughts on “MySpace’s vacancy

  1. JohnO

    The only danger is the uniformity of the message. People will end up thinking “this is all there is”. And when people stop to think, when the next generation stops to think, we’re all going to be in trouble.

  2. Scott Karp

    Nick, your psychoanalysis of my “reaction” to MySpace is one of the most interesting responses I’ve seen — you are quite right to have analyzed the structure of the post itself as much as the substance, and I largely agree with your interpretation.

    But I’m afraid I don’t agree with your overall conclusion that MySpace is on balance a banal place. To be sure, there is a huge amount of banality, but then the self-expression of most people should not be expected to rise to the level of art or insight. That said, I would hardly call the intersection of sex and children under 18 in a public space a banal phenomenon.

  3. parijat

    Back in the 90s when Gates wrote ‘The Road Ahead’, he spoke of how ‘publishing’ would become a zero-cost affair. Then, everybody would be able to publish. If someone wrote crap, at worst nobody would read it and if someone wrote something good, lots of people would read it. Sadly, it has stopped being as simple as that. When publishing was expensive, your chances of randomly finding something good to read were significantly better than what the “Web 2.0” now allows. As you say Nick, “it’s sad to see so much effort put into self-expression with so little to express”. I wish someone would do some *really* good filtering of content instead of raw keyword search and pagerank (which in the case of blogs doesn’t seem to help much). In the meanwhile, I’ll try to stick to printed books, no matter how hard my wallet cries.

    P.S. – Don’t bother commenting on the quality of my blog. Its freedom of expression right :)

  4. Paul Malin

    As said well written… But let me offer this:

    the reason myspace seems so banal is that the average user is the average human and judging from your writing, you have above average intelligence!

    While it probably isn’t worth the effort due to the age disparity, if you dig around there are some great people to meet.

    Cheers, Paul

  5. Phil Aaronson

    You make a good blandness argument. But do know any of the teenagers behind the myspace sites? You see pimp-and-ho sameness. I see a disturbing pimp-and-ho expectation.

  6. Tom Foremski

    When I peaked on MySpace over a year ago, I was stunned by how great the writing was, wondefully expressive with a minimalist style. Anfd there was pages of writing that I could only describe as Joyceian. Remakable.

    However, Nick, yours and mine or anybody elses criticque of MySpaces content is out of place and ridiculous. Let our new generations express themselves in the way they see fit–stay out of it, you are not the target audience.

    Here is K. Gibran to provide some wisdom for us:

    Your children are not your children.

    They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

    They come through you but not from you,

    And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

    You may give them your love but not your thoughts.

    For they have their own thoughts.

    You may house their bodies but not their souls,

    For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

  7. Nick

    Tom, Speaking of Joyceian – or is it Freudian? – the “peaked” typo in your first sentence is priceless. I think you must have peaked about the same time MySpace did. Remakable indeed.

  8. john beeler

    I have my own ideas as to why MySpace works. You write that everything you see is a “a dreary sameness.” I imagine people have said the same thing of small towns, which is exactly what I think MySpace replicates, from its community to its ritualistic UI.

    MySpace is ugly and seemingly plain, but it needs to be. It needs to reinforce community through comformity while providing ownership through customization.

    You know, like internet.

  9. Nick

    John Beeler:

    Thanks for that link. That’s a great interpretation of MySpace. I think you’re probably full of crap, but it’s really good crap.

    By the way, I wrote an earlier piece that started from a similar premise but reached a different conclusion. I argued that the difficulty of figuring out sites like MySpace is part of their appeal, but that once you have figured it out, you’ll get bored and go somewhere else – so you can start over. In other words, it’s the “figuring out” that’s fun – more than the “living there.” So learning the “rules” doesn’t make you likely to stay but likely to leave. It’s a lot easier to move out of virtual small towns than real ones.

  10. Marcelo Lopez

    With all due respect to Gibran….Psychobabble is called Psychobabble precisely for that type of analysis.

    I could use similar Nietzche-ian logic to MySpace. It’s only as abyssmal as you’re looking for it to be. What ? Oxymoronic ? Of COURSE it is ! It was specifically phrased to be rhetorical.

    And Nick, I think you’re on to something. It’s the figuring out. Then, it’s off to the next “in” thing.

  11. Scott Karp

    Nick, I just tested Tom Foremski on his site with the following. Let’s see if you have the courage of your convictions to post this:

    So I go to the MySpace homepage and click on browse:

    Where I find Cassy (who knows if she’s really 23):

    Where I find her friend David (scroll right):

    Quite “banal” don’t you think? All it took was 30 seconds and three clicks.

    Sure, you can find this anywhere on the web — but on MySpace, minors can find it through casual browsing and can link in as “friends.”

    Ah, so very, very “safe.”

  12. Scott Karp

    Nick, this isn’t just about the availability of pornography. It’s about pornography being tied to a personality, e.g. David, who is inviting minors to connect, to be his “friend.” It’s about the ease of minors stumbling on pornography without having to look for it. It’s about how minors might perceive pornography found on the “safe” MySpace vs. pornography found on sites that are principally about pornography. It’s about the slippery slope of the social acceptability among minors of posting images on their own pages that either approach or by some standards are pornography.

    MySpace introduces so many new layers on top of the basic availability of porn to minors online.

    Do you agree, or am I making a distinction without a difference?

  13. Marcelo Lopez

    Scott. You’re dead on the money. And it’s PRECISELY what “some folks” miss entirely.

    They lose sight of the fact that it’s not only that a supposedly “safe to be me” place can be so easily overrun with crap like that. It’s that a “safe to be me” place doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Well, I can see how some folks wouldn’t have a problem with that. But there are people who do.

    For example, if a person wanted to defecate in public. There are people who might not take issue with that. Specifically the person doing so. But, there are people who WILL take issue with that.

    Just because there are people who DON’T take issue with the problems apparent with MySpace, doesn’t mean that those who do take issue, should be marginalized or ignored.

  14. Nick


    How come you’re willing to do moral critiques on my blog, but not on your own?

    Just kidding – you make a good point.


  15. John

    Nick, thanks for the, uh, compliment?

    You’re right, I think we are saying the same thing about figuring out MySpace. What I would suggest though is that as soon as one starts getting bored with the customization, they receive a notification. Ah! A new comment! What’s this, a friend has posted a new poll? Oh my! Frank4847XXX has a new picture! My goodness, he’s showing cleavage!

    I’ve had an easily searchable internet presence since 1998. It’s always annoyed me that friends haven’t. Now they can, and are. People I would never have imagined being online spend hours on MySpace.

    That’s weird. And signficant. It’s all too easy for us web-elitists, with our web2.0-y webapps, to write off the very web 0.5-y MySpace. In the end, it all comes around to sounding like big city assholes looking down our noses at small town “idiots.”

  16. Brian Shapiro

    I agree with several of the comments made here.

    I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, which basically consists of suburbs of Los Angeles. A lot of the buildings here are ugly and bland, most of the streets are long strip malls. Everything is organized around wide streets so people can shop easily. The houses are plain except for often gaudy additions that indulge the creativity of people who live here. Its the same thing you dislike about MySpace; there is no real culture.

    But the San Fernando Valley is also the capital of the pornography industry and schools have drive-by shootings. There is a lack of focus in social life, and life in general, in environments like this that can be part of depravity. (Have you seen the movie Elephant?)

    I think people see the same things about MySpace.

    I don’t think MySpace really is necessarily more dangerous than other mediums, personally. But I understand what Scott Karp means when he says its “raw”.

  17. LeisureArts

    I humbly offer that some of us ARE trying to do something interesting on MySpace. LeisureArts is running a research venue/exhibition space on MySpace called Concept Trucking. It aims to host research that critiques, exploits, or embodies the social dynamics/structural limits of social networking sites and other Web 2.0 phenomena…

    We are always looking for contributors.

  18. Chris

    Quoting Scott Karp out of original order:

    >I would hardly call the intersection of

    >sex and children under 18 in a public space a

    >banal phenomenon.

    I don’t know what’s more banal:

    1. the fact that people *will* be interested in, intrigued by, even fascinated with the topic of sex between puberty and 18, unless they are biologically altered (castration anyone?)

    2. the fact that some people persist in being shocked by the above fact.

    >To be sure, there is a huge amount of banality, but

    >then the self-expression of most people should not

    >be expected to rise to the level of art or insight.

    I think there’s something really wrong with a

    world or society in which the self-expression of

    most people can’t reasonably be expected to rise

    to the level of insight, at least some of the time.

    We *are* trusting these people to make many decisions in their own lives such as voting.

    Heck, in primitive pre-agricultural societies the local equivalents of these people had to be able to feed themselves and exercise sufficient insight to walk around the wild, predator-infested countryside without immediately dying.

    I think the problem is, much of our society is governed by social norms which make it dangerous to *clearly express* much insight.

    I suppose such social norms interfere with something we might hope for: more “children under 18” criticizing some customary and banal ways of expressing interest in sex.

    I also suppose such social norms against expressing actual insight are the cause of observations about how shocking it is that “children under 18” (but well into puberty) are so interested in sex.

    Anytime someone expresses shock that such “children under 18” are interested in sex, the “shocked” person is conforming to the social norm that mandates:

    “the self-expression of most people should not

    >be expected to rise to the level of…insight.”

    In other words, you’re following the same rule being followed by a teenager who thoughtlessly posts a stupid ‘sexy’ picture and embarassingly vulgar details of their lives.

    Anyway, the impressive phenomenon isn’t that such “children” are interested in sex, but that in some cultures it’s even possible to persuade many “children under 18” to behave somewhat more decorously about their fascination.

    You people are relatively bright I’m sure, but if you want to make more progress against society’s problems you’re going to have to take off the blinders a bit, IMHO.

    Somewhat iconoclastically,


  19. ankaranakliyat

    Hi all

    Great script, I love it! I think BBC News would be a nice addition to the supported saç ekimi sites too – I took a quick try at adding it mysel tüp bebek but couldn’t quite figure it out… I’ll let you know if I do get it working though.

  20. Albert

    Socializing is what Myspace does best, and I believe no one can that from them, not Facebook, not Ning, not any social network.

  21. knight

    How come you’re willing to do moral critiques on my blog, but not on your own?

    Just kidding – you make a good point.

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