March 21, 2006


Friendster lost steam. Is MySpace just a fad? is danah boyd's latest essay on the big social network sites, and her continued defense of MySpace against rising media driven fears. I'm pretty much in agreement with her on the level she has framed her argument, as the freedom of users to create their space versus the attempts of managers and concern parents to control it. Yet something big is missing from that story, something about MySpace being created by an internet marketing company know for spam, adware and spywear. Something about it being bought for a rather large sum by news corporation known for pursuing power first and profits second.

Through out her writing danah constantly invokes a bottom up defense of youth culture. Essentially that the kids are alright they just need space and privacy to develop their own identities. It's an argument I'm totally sympathetic to, but it becomes completely problematic when one realizes that something like MySpace just isn't a traditional bottom-up youth culture situation at all. Rather it's something more like an engine, a structure to contain the bottom up energy and transform it into something else entirely.

Now that probably comes off as rather critical, yet it actually purposefully devoid of value judgments. If all MySpace is doing is giving kids a place to be themselves on line and transforming that into ad revenue its a rather benign operation in my book. But is selling ads the only reason for MySpace as a company? Is it the only reason News Corp was willing to pay many hundreds of millions for the service? Without inside knowledge it's difficult to answer, but it is an undeniable fact that the MySpace database is filled with a massive, perhaps unprecedented, amount of demographic data.

MySpace knows their users basic info, name, email, age, etc. Then it also knows their friends, their friends data, their favorite bands, the way they speak, who they like, who they don't. Heck it can probably run a simple algorithm and figure out your favorite words (assuming you use MySpace). A more complex algorithm and it can probably imitate they way you talk.

Not only does MySpace have an absurd amount of personal data on people, the sort of stuff traditional demographics companies have been collecting for decades. But it also has something perhaps far more valuable, a wealth of data on the relationships between all those people. And just what emerges from those relationships remains to be seen. We can speculate a little though.

Imagine a new friend request, good looking person, same style, likes the same books and movies you do, never met them but sure you say yes. Something maybe a touch off, a touch cold, robotic maybe. But they are in your network, in the conversation churn. But slowly they push in odd ways, push certain products, certain activities, push for more info. The future of marketing just might read the same zines as you, buy the same punk 7" as you, watch the same YouTube as you. Perhaps they might even know just what you'll buy better than you.

That's just a scenario, imagine another one. One where it's not about the personal touch, but instead the bigger picture. Youth culture has always relied on reality moving faster on the ground than it does in the board rooms. The ability for kids to find and build their own worlds outside of the ones filled with parents teachers and cops. But what happens if MySpace can see trends faster in their data than kids can actually see them on the ground?

Just a scenario, but remember it might be my space and your space, but it's their data in the end...

Posted by Abe at March 21, 2006 01:04 PM


Yeah, I think you're spot on about Boyd's paper, it's too utopian. I'm working on a research project right now for a class that references her stuff. I don't think she's being quite critical enough, but that paper is really well researched and it is for a pretty lay audience.


Perhaps, the more youth culture exists (or co-exists) on the network the more trackable it will be giving corporattion precisely the level of "cool hunting" look ahead you're discussing.

Of course, on the other hand, the possession of vast databases doesn't automatically mean the owner will intelligently parse the data. There may yet still be unseen currents, hiding in plain sight.

I hear what you're saying. I hear what danah boyd is saying. Somewhere between the corporate tectonics and the bottom-up circulation/production of culture 2.0 is likely a more heterogenous geometry containing clouds that vector the dynamics of culture between and amongst all those (pretty much everyone who is a social being) who fab their social lives. Clusters of culture rather than hierarchies. Business practices are only one form of social practice, and no one practice can possibly determine another with such authority and certainty that either the bottom-up or the top-down hierarchical architecture holds up to strenuous argument.

In boyd's defense, there are important political (perhaps ethical) reasons to approach an explication of MySpace from the angle she does, and my guess is that it has as much to do with not giving cred to the hierarchical top-down architecture. That approach does not lead to constructive responses and empowering imaginaries for making more habitable online social spaces.

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