The MySpace Revolution

October 2006

The editor of a publication I occasionally write for gave me a daunting task: write a 900-word article about the MySpace revolution.

MySpace, as you may know, is now the most popular web site in the U.S. as measured by total number of visits. The vast majority of teens and twentysomethings have a MySpace profile and use the service to post pictures and videos of themselves, share their thoughts, create formal links with their friends, send messages, and more.

Faced with a daunting topic, I did the usual: post a query to Profnet, which in turn sends it to experts around the country. Then I sit and wait for them to contact me. Eighteen did so.

I was excited. After all, this is my bread and butter, this Internet revolution. I was eager to hear what the experts had to say about why this most popular web site is revolutionary.

I was disappointed. Every single one only wanted to talk about the dangers of MySpace. It’s a shopping mall for pedophiles. It’s a vehicle for identity theft. It interferes with the development of face-to-face communication skills. It hurts employment opportunities because companies are increasingly checking out the MySpace profiles of those applying for jobs.

But what, I wanted to shout, is so appealing about MySpace? Why are kids spending three hours a day there? And why is it revolutionary? They had nothing to say.

So I went to the real experts — the kids. I asked in a discussion forum at YouthNoise.com why they like it.

An 18-year-old from Washington said, “MySpace is a very easy way for teens to get in touch with their friends. It's also easy for them to meet new people. You can easily communicate with friends via comments and messages and see what they're up to through pictures and bulletins, while putting up your own pictures and bulletins to do the same for your friends.”

I’d say that’s a pretty good answer to why it’s popular: the ease of keeping in touch. He also said that MySpace is “really just like an online hangout spot.” Nothing is more important to young people than being with peers and being in touch with them. And MySpace makes it easier.

I now had part of what I needed for the article: why it’s popular. But my editor wanted to know why it’s revolutionary.

So I turned to the person most likely to know the answer: me.

Seriously, I had to come up with something. And then I thought of Marshall McLuhan, the man famous for the phrase “The medium is the message.” McLuhan had good insight into media and technology. In his classic book Understanding Media: Extensions of Man, he explained that technology is an extension of us. The wheel is an extension of our legs, clothing an extension of the skin, the telephone is an extension of our voice, the camera is an extension of the eye, the computer an extension of the brain.

His point was not just that these are handy tools, but that the tools end up reshaping who we are. This is not trivial. Some observers have suggested that part of the cultural divide between the West and aspects of Islam is a difference in thought and perception. A literate, document-based, social-contract mentality confronts a culture that has more of an oral and tribal mentality.

We are a species continually recreating ourselves and our environment. We have extended almost every facet of ourselves via technology. And now MySpace is taking things one step further. It is an extension of the web of relationships that connect people. It is a technology that isn’t just an “extension of man,” but of the connections among people.

It’s the new place to hang out, replacing the malt shop or mall of earlier eras. It’s a new neighborhood, an electronic neighborhood that is seemingly unbounded by space and time.

This is now where young people now live. They understand this new environment in a way that adults never will. This, to me, is the revolution.

Once I saw a program on TV in which the government of a South Pacific island went in and set up a school among an indigenous people that had lived the same way for a millennium or more. The kids embraced the new culture. But an old man being interviewed said plaintively, “What will happen to the old ways? What will happen to us?”

Technology changes, we change. Like it or not, MySpace is the future, and the kids know it.

© 2006 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D

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