Seems like MySpace is everyone's space
The Web site never really intended to change the way human relationships were conducted. With 50-million members, that just happened.
By ERIC DEGGANS
Published February 18, 2006
In St. Petersburg, a single mother is using it to jump-start her longtime dream: a jazz singing career. In New York City, a comic long on show biz credits and short on name recognition has used it to build a nationwide fan base for his work.
And in Brandon, police arrested a high school teacher they say used it to talk about sex with an underage girl.
Welcome to the wild universe of MySpace.com, where more than 50-million users are redefining the nature of human relationships, taking the world's most successful online networking service in directions likely never intended by its creators.
"You know you've got a good piece of software when people use it for purposes for which the designers never intended or designed for," said Clay Shirky, an associate instructor at New York University who researches electronic networks and their effect on the social lives of users.
"MySpace's success is a big surprise," he said. "But underneath that is the idea that someone made software that allowed people to talk to each other in a fresh way. And there is a bottomless desire . . . in the amount and ways people want to talk to each other."
On MySpace, people talk by creating profiles: a page on the service's Web site which can feature a picture, blurb about yourself, a Web log (basically, an online diary), information on schools you've attended, bands you like, movies you idolize and even a sample of your favorite song.
Once your profile is established, you can ask other users to join your circle of friends, who can share material with ease. The free service cleverly bundles a range of popular features - photo galleries, e-mail, blogs, Web pages and instant messages - in a highly addictive format, which grows virally as more users get involved.
"What appealed to me about MySpace . . . was a way to have a direct relationship with people who enjoy your stuff," said Jim Gaffigan, a stand-up comic who once starred in his own TV sitcom, CBS's Welcome to New York, and now has a performance special airing on the Comedy Central cable channel. "Silly as it sounds, it's kind of flattering to go through 15 pages of people who want to be your friend."
Gaffigan maintains his MySpace account personally (unlike some stars), answering e-mails from fans and alerting them to shows coming up in their area - sometimes amassing a backlog of 400 messages.
"On MySpace . . . the whole demographic of the stand-up comedy fan has changed," said Gaffigan, 39. "It's like an indie band thing. People think they've discovered you."
Some users collect friends like baseball cards, racking up large tallies of contacts the same way teenagers once traded telephone numbers. Others keep a tight circle of pals they have already met offline, using the service to communicate faster.
Over MySpace's two-year existence, such users have reinvented what friendship means, creating an online universe of connections they may never have met - and whose true identities they may never learn - but who still know quite a bit about them.
Fifteen-year-old Christine Foster joined the service about 18 months ago, mostly because so many of her friends from St. Petersburg High School - 20 or so, by her offhand count - were already there.
Then 14, Christine lied about her age to avoid the service's screening software, which bars young users from accepting messages sent by strangers.
Her mother, Wendy Foster, insisted Christine reconfigure her page, concerned that some of the photographs and information was inappropriate. This is a common tale among parents whose young children use MySpace, where anonymity and an uninhibited atmosphere encourages edgy content.
Christine's current profile is a collection of tidbits about her life - pictures of friends, a list of interests (Jesus Christ and basketball), a desire to meet President Bush - set to automatically play a tune by indie-rockers the Scene Aesthetic.
Already a veteran of Xanga (another networking Web site like Friendster and Facebook), she is careful to keep her last name and telephone number off her profile. And even though Christine's list of contacts has swelled to 287 people, the teen insists she mostly uses MySpace to talk with real-life friends and check out new, undiscovered bands.
"People automatically assume I'm out there to meet up with a bunch of strange people, but that's a big stereotype," said Foster, who spoke with a reporter only after checking with her parents. "I have, like, no desire to go visit random people's pages."
Still, Shirky said youths may be drawn to MySpace for the chance to inhabit different personas.
He was referring in part to James Dungy, the son of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy, whose MySpace page - filled with references to gangsta rap, violence and drugs - drew nationwide attention after his suicide late last year.
"It attracts people for whom playing with identity is an attractive thing, . . . people in their late teens and early 20s . . . who are trying on different kinds of identities to see what they want," said the professor.
It was dubbed a "friendly reminder and a wakeup call," in the February newsletter for Coleman Middle School in Tampa. The message: Students are accessing MySpace and parents should keep a close watch.
Mary Davis, a technology specialist at Coleman, said faculty grew concerned after hearing students talk about their friends' profiles. Davis had to explore it from home; like school districts in Pinellas and Polk counties, Hillsborough County schools had already banned MySpace from the district's computer system.
"I was shocked by one person that literally was talking about making pornographic movies," said Davis. "People were responding to her and telling her how great her movies were. And I was thinking, "This is what my middle schoolers can access.' "
Indeed, users don't need to travel far to find sex on MySpace: profiles exist for porn stars such as Jenna Jameson and Heather Hunter. Playboy magazine has created its own page to find women for a planned "Girls of MySpace" nude pictorial.
And the danger can be more than theoretical. Police in December arrested a 42-year-old English teacher at Seminole High School on computer pornography charges after he attempted a late-night meeting in Brandon with a 14-year-old Tampa girl he contacted using an alias on MySpace.
Bob Breeden, an expert on computer crimes at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said social networking sites such as MySpace give predators information they can use to build bonds with potential victims. Even without a last name, a potential stalker with a picture and a school name can grab a yearbook and quickly discover the child's identity.
"It's critical parents look at children's MySpace pages to determine if there is too much information there," said Breeden. "A lot of these kids are suffering from self-esteem issues, they may be struggling with their sexuality and they find the Internet as a place of connection. But for pedophiles, that gives them an opportunity."
Representatives of MySpace did not comment by press time. The Web site offers online safety tips, warning users not to reveal their full names or telephone numbers while encouraging them to report abuses and underage people.
MySpace owner News Corp. also plans to appoint a safety czar for the service, launching a media campaign to educate parents and young users about the site while implementing measures to make it tougher for pedophiles to locate teens, according to a recent Wall Street Journal story.
But they face a tough challenge: The freewheeling atmosphere of MySpace, which makes the site so appealing to underage users, could fall apart if the service requires a stricter level of registration.
A cursory spin through profiles reveal several users who seem to have lied about their ages (people routinely say they are 100 years old) or posted images that skirt the service's prohibition on explicit photos (the women aren't totally nude, but they're close).
But the features that make MySpace so popular - user anonymity, the capacity to assume fake identities and the ability to contact many people at once - also make social networking sites a useful tool for pedophiles.
"Pedophiles are in no hurry, and the Internet gives them the ability to groom multiple victims at once," Breeden said. "People feel safe and anonymous when they're online, so they give away far too much information."
These concerns likely weren't on the radar screen when co-founders Chris DeWolfe and Thomas Anderson first dreamed up MySpace as a site for linking music fans.
"What MySpace did was start with music and that (bond) fans have in relation to their favorite band," said NYU's Shirky. "And if you're someone who is unsettled, trying to forge some kind of identity in the world, allegiance to a band isn't just about the music. It becomes a declaration of who you are."
That bond, entertainment companies know, can also be a powerful selling tool. Which may explain why media mogul Rupert Murdoch bought MySpace's parent company for $580-million in July, touting his News Corp.'s need to develop a higher profile in cyberspace.
Now the service has partnered with Universal Records to create its own record label and announced a deal allowing cell phones to access MySpace. Projects as disparate as the film Final Destination 3 and the FX series Nip/Tuck have used MySpace to push their wares at the service's youth audience.
But MySpace's unique community has also proven useful to smaller entertainers such as Cheryl Hawkins, a Tampa-based single mom and aspiring jazz singer who now has nearly 900 people in her friendship network - from rappers in Tampa to artists in Canada and Europe.
"Especially for people who are in the industry and nothing's happening for them . . . it can put your name out there much more than even a paid Web site," said Hawkins, who spends about four hours a week searching out new friends to add to her network.
"It feels like you're accomplishing something, whether you are or not," added St. Petersburg-based percussionist Gumbi Ortiz, who introduced Hawkins to MySpace.
"The object is to keep active, on a daily basis, your dream. And for a lot of people, to see so many people on their site, it's like hearing your music on the radio. In a weird way, MySpace is fulfilling a lot of dreams for a lot of people."Information from Times files was used in this report. Eric Deggans can be reached at 727 893-8521 or firstname.lastname@example.org His blog is at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media/