Dear Buddy Pearson,
I was delighted to learn today of your recent explorations into digital social networking, including MySpace. As the managing editor of the Herald-Citizen newspaper in Cookeville, Tennessee, you certainly have a wonderful opportunity to better educate the variety of constituents in your community about both Internet safety and the constructive, positive uses of Internet websites for communication and collaboration. I am responding to your request at the end of your editorial yesterday to share about some of my experiences on MySpace and other social networking websites.
Like you, I created a MySpace account awhile back to explore the environment and learn more about what young people as well as older adults are doing there. I’d heard and read the hype, but I wanted a better perspective for myself. As an educator and a frequent leader of professional development workshops for teachers, I need to know about MySpace for my presentations about Internet safety as well as my other conversations with educators and educational leaders about the ways online digital tools can be used for positive and constructive purposes. Generally I think we hear too much about the negative uses of technology in the mainstream media, and I want to obtain as well as share a more balanced perspective about online social networking and Internet use by young people more generally.
I have found MySpace to be a mildly interesting but not very engaging online destination. Being on and in MySpace periodically has been instructive for me in many ways, however. I am glad to see groups like YALSA (The Young Adult Library Services Association) on MySpace, bringing their message to the thousands (and I guess millions) of young people who spend so much time there. I agree with Dana Boyd, cited by librarian and blogger Carleen in her post “The Effectiveness of Social Networking Sites” last week that for many youth, MySpace is less about soliciting information from traditional and non-traditional sources as it is about “creating and recreating their identity.” I think Dana’s points about the marked differences between the ways many teens approach social networking and online identity building compared to adults are very thought provoking. They also point to a key lesson of online social networking that many young people either do not understand or refuse to care about at present: Content shared online can live on forever, which can prospectively be very negative down the road in multiple contexts.
My most negative experience to date with MySpace involved some unsolicited and unwanted “friend requests” from females apparently targeting me because of my self-reported age (at that time) and gender. As I mentioned briefly in a blog post last month titled “Wrestling with website registration limits,” ultimately that experience encouraged me to change my MySpace profile to say my birth year was 1900. The MySpace administrators evidently surmised (correctly) that I was not a 107 year old male on MySpace, and insisted that I change my age. I made a slight adjustment, so I now “officially” am a 72 year old male on MySpace:
I have found, likely not by coincidence, that my MySpace profile is no longer targeted by those types of unsolicited “friend requests.” Although I appreciate your attempt to share statistics about MySpace user demographics in your editorial, “The MySpace myth,” I think my own profile experiences highlight the fact that self-reported ages by MySpace users (even bona fide adults) are far from accurate. Even though it is now a year old (which may seem like an eternity for rapidly changing landscapes like online social networking) I would point you to the Pew Internet report from January 2007, “Social Networking Websites and Teens: An Overview” for statistics that are likely more reliable regarding the demographics of MySpace users.
My experiences receiving unsolicited “friend requests” on MySpace certainly WERE eye opening for the potential doors a profile on MySpace can open to inappropriate and offensive websites. My own children are still in elementary school, but regularly enjoy age-appropriate social networking websites like Club Penguin and Webkinz. My ten year old and I have recently started playing Travian, a free online war game, and the social networking dynamics involved with it have provided several “teachable moments” regarding Internet safety. While some law enforcement officials I have heard address the issue of online safety seem to want and encourage parents to NEVER let their children use the Internet for any purpose, I think that approach is unrealistic as well as undesirable. It IS eye opening to see how readily links to other websites can be provided and exchanged between friends or strangers on a social network like MySpace, however. This reinforces my own contention that “hyperlinked writing is the most powerful form of writing,” because it permits our ideas to be readily connected to not only the ideas of others, but also multimedia representations of ideas literally around the world. This is a POWERFUL communications potential which I think many adults may still undervalue, and my experiences using MySpace as well as other social networking sites have reinforced this perception.
My experiences on MySpace have also strengthened my belief that we, as adults, parents and educators, must do a better job helping students become better decision-makers online as well as in the face-to-face world. Our kids are faced with ethical decisions online that they would rarely (or might never) encounter in the face to face world. Should I click on that link and visit that website? Once I’ve visited it, should I visit it again? Should I share it with my friends? Should I post it somewhere on my blog or online profile, so I become associated with that site, as well as the content and ideas it contains? Do I want those ideas, links, and media files to become part of my “permanent record” online that could help or haunt me again in the future?
While I started exploring social networking sites by joining MySpace, my involvement with social networking has expanded considerably. I have created a fairly complete list of the websites I maintain and to which I contribute on claimid.com/wfryer, but I would currently rate Twitter, Facebook, and Linked-In as the three most useful social networks I visit pretty regularly. My own social network for Internet safety and digitally saavy parents, Digital Dialog, is another site I update and visit periodically. I frequently tell teachers about the Classrooom 2.0 Ning social network, which now includes over 5000 participating educators from around the world.
As I continue to share presentations and workshops here in Oklahoma and elsewhere about safe digital social networking, I am encouraging educators and parents to do EXACTLY what you have done prior to writing your article for this weekend’s paper: Create a personal profile on MySpace and other social networking websites, and explore what young as well as older people are doing there. For parents whose children are on MySpace or other social networking sites, I encourage them to sit down with their child and view/visit the profile pages of their friends. I think parents should ask their children to “friend” them on MySpace and other sites, and regularly check in on them. It is amazing what can be learned about boyfriends, girlfriends, and other acquaintances of your children by visiting and reading their online profiles.
Of course, many young people as well as parents will balk at the suggestion of “friending” each other on MySpace, but I think this situation highlights the critical need we have for ongoing dialog about our activities both online and in the face-to-face world. The information environment is changing SO fast, no one is really able to stay “caught up” with the latest trends and changes. Your role as a newspaper editor in sharing experiences about social networking, both good and bad, with your readers is VERY important.
An additional resource I want to share with you on this topic is the summer 2007 report commissioned by the National School Board Association titled, “CREATING & CONNECTING: Research and Guidelines on Online Social — and Educational — Networking.” That report is one of the most valuable I’ve seen to date on this subject, in large part because it encourages educational leaders to LEVERAGE and take advantage of the learning opportunities afforded by social networking technologies.
Good luck to you in your continued explorations of MySpace and other social networking sites! In addition to joining and exploring Twitter, Facebook, and Linked-In, I encourage you to view and share the following video from Lee LeFever called “Social Networking in Plain English.” We need to help everyone in our communities become more aware and skilled in the ways to safely and effectively utilize online communication tools, and I think Lee’s movie does a great job explaining social networking to non-techies! If I can answer questions or provide more information about social networking, please do not hesitate to contact me!
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