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Response to danah’s MySpace essay

Regular readers to this blog will have noticed a bit of a hiatus over recent weeks with respect of blog post quality and quantity.

Travel, work and more travel has turned my brain to Swiss cheese, resulting in a general lack of coherent thought.

But it’s time to get back into regular habits again, so I thought I’d start off with some observations on the fab MySpace essay by the ‘she’s-so-astute-it-hurts’ danah boyd*…

If you haven’t read it, you really should (you really should subscribe to her blog too).

If you work for Fox Interactive Media, well, you really ought to think about commissioning some work from her me thinks (she’ll be dr danah soon btw).

MySpace logo

Anyway, here are some points, views and observations:

danah on why the MySpace experience works

danah includes an interesting section of her essay: “It’s not about technological perfection”.

To greatly paraphrase what she has to say, in essence she pitches the point that websites don’t necessarily need to be the most easy-to-use, accessible, bug free propositions possible. Having a barrier to entry, or a learning curve perhaps, creates “sub-cultural capital”.

danah puts it like this:

“Often, people don’t need simplicity – they want to feel proud of themselves for figuring something out; they want to feel the joy of exploration. This is the difference between tasks that people are required to do and social life. Social life isn’t about the easy way to do something – it’s about making meaning out of practice, about finding your own way.”

This part of the essay threw me to begin with. I’m a massive advocate of user-centric design, and in reality that usually means a KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) approach where everything is designed, tested, honed, re-tested and re-honed for it’s accessibility, usability and ease of use.

What danah was putting forward totally flies in the face of the design principles I believe it.

But then it became clear. This is about the difference between task-orientated experiences verses what I can only describe as a ‘hanging out’ experience (danah, please give me a term of this!). There’s a difference between interacting with a site to order your groceries to be delivered to your home and interacting with a site for entertainment and engagement. It’s like visiting a shop vs visiting an art gallery. (Interestingly in all of this examples the former is generally a linear experience and the latter a non-linear/random experience).

So what danah is saying is that this is about the journey. In the case of MySpace, it’s about how you got to the point of having these cool profiles with whizzy music streams and neat CSS tricks, etc. It’s about how you discover cool people to call ‘a friend’ and how you discover all this information about each other.

Having to do a bit of work to obtain this data gives the user a bit of social status that they have earned.

Conversely the goal of buying my food shopping online is not about the user experience, it’s solely about the man coming to my door between 7pm and 8pm on Thursday night with my monthly supply of juice, etc. With that in mind, the user experience wants to be as simple as possible as it’s not the point of using the site (ie, this is where the orthodox KISS approach is warranted).

danah on the future of MySpace

If MySpace falters in the next 1-2 years, it will be because of this moral panic. Before all of you competitors get motivated to exacerbate the moral panic, think again.

If the moral panic over MySpace succeeds and causes a change in law (which it is looking like it will), everyone invested in social technologies will lose. In other words, stop celebrating the crisis and get off your asses and engage.

She’s right.

Sure – the concern around sexual predators using MySpace to discover children to groom is a valid concern – in that it certainly could be used to achieve this abhorrent goal.

But it’s also worth noting that there isn’t a great deal of evidence to suggest that is happening to any significant degree. There’s a lot of media hype around the potential for problems, but many of the recent stories about children going missing ‘who also had MySpace accounts’ seemed to reach a conclusion that didn’t involve the site whatsoever.

What we need to do is put it all into perspective: the quantitive assessment of the numbers of paedophile cases verses the numbers of happy users, and the qualitative assessment of the degree of predatory problem verses the social benefit the site achieves.

There will always be problems in any system, but it’s about putting them into perspective.

If people want to place predatory concerns upon MySpace then they need to extrapolate their concerns to the rest of the Internet.

Peer 2 peer technology must be an absolute God-send in the eyes of the paedophile community. Here we have a technology that has been unintentionally designed to perfection to facilitate the sharing of despicable images and videos of children. The technology does this in a way that not only is fast and efficient but also goes a very long way to protect their identity from the authorities.

But when the media address the issues of p2p, how often to we hear these concerns with this kind of usage? Very rarely. Instead we hear a lot about how big companies are (it is claimed) loosing a lot of money from the piracy of their albums, tv programmes and movies.

Grokster was shut down because of piracy, not because of paedophilia.

Let’s extrapolate further still – the whole Internet has the potential to facilitate paedophiles.

Chat rooms and IM networks not only have the potential to put paedophiles in contact with children but are also totally private and secretive environments which make it nearly impossible for parents to monitor.

Forums and message boards on child-friendly topics have the potential to be used subversively by those with repulsive interests.

Online games with a social angle, such as The Sims are popular with children and could easily be exploited. Even not-so-social online games such as Counter Strike, Half Life have the possibility.

Are we saying that the whole Internet should be shut down because nearly every service upon it has the potential to do harm? No.

So why focus on MySpace? At the end of the day, the only thing it’s guilty of is being transparent with where potential abuses could occur, unlike IM, p2p and other propositions where the potential for abuse is hidden from the surface but just as apparent on the inside.


For me, the whole MySpace thing demonstrates the need for parental supervision and responsibility. If we had more parental supervision, more parental responsibility, then these issues wouldn’t arise.

I can imagine danah possibly having concerns with too much supervision restricting teen’s self-expression. “Peadophila aside, teens would not be able to express themselves naturally with their parents monitoring everything they say”, or something along those lines

My response would be supervision and the demonstration of online responsibility from an early age would set up a child with the maturity to use a service like MySpace on their own by the time they came of age to be interested in it.

For me, MySpace is a tool just like a kitchen knife is a tool.

There comes a point in most children’s lives where they want to start using kitchen knifes – to assist in the preparation of dinner, etc. At that point responsible parents teach them how to handle a knife properly and the dangers that go with it. Even then close supervision is applied to ensure that dangerous situations don’t occur.

Over time a trust develops as the child demonstrates responsibility whilst using the tool, and the parent needs to supervise the child less and less. As the child grows older there comes a point where the child can be trusted to use the tool appropriately on their own without any supervision whatsoever.

Well, for me, the paradigm crosses over from kitchen knives to MySpace, and most other Internet services like it (IM, email, IRC chat, online games, etc).

* = I respectfully refer to danah without capitalisation of her name, as explained here.

Published in Thoughts and Rants


  1. The problem at least in the US is that parents are taking less and less responsibility for their kids and they expect schools to teach their kids everything.

    And so, if parents don’t want to take responsibility they diserve to have their govenment come in and fsck everything up.

  2. Danah’s paper has certainly got some air-time. Your comment on user-centric design was interesting – in the sense that you design for different needs.. but the need for creating an ‘identity’ out of various images, audio and video files as well as text and friends – just a bunch of uri’s – is that the need is so fucking simple. It just doesn’t ‘help’ in design terms does it?

    But actually by inadvertently not making it really simple, by actually having design ‘quirks’ the service has spun out well. There’s a sense of satisfaction, perhaps, in its rather geeky early 90s aesthetic and social structure – “cool new friends” etc. And then it struck me… they’ve inadvertently kept this as an ‘edge’ in aesthetic terms. And as Seth Godin has stated “it’s at the edges that people notice you”. Perhaps we should stop trying to design for perfection with UCD methodologies and build for ‘imperfection’ – so long as you keep the technical solution flexible you can adapt quite rapidly…

    Aside from this Rajat has an interesting comment on the fact that some of the MySpace inhabitees are going to be mighty embarassed in future years when all this stuff is still ther ein the archive a la usenet groups… which offers potential service ideas around ‘cleansing’ identities etc.

    Lastly, Danah’s paper is, as othere have stated, a bit utopian in its evocation of the MySpace experience. After all the power relationship, the structures that allow their agency to develop are under the control of Murdoch and manoey making data devils. Murdoch’s a bad man right Ben?

  3. Midpoint at the BBC Innovation Labs…

    Al Davidson reports back from the midway point of the BBC Innovation Lab on “making it people-shaped” and “making it beeb-shaped”…

  4. Ron Metcalfe Ron Metcalfe

    Ben said: “task-orientated experiences verses what I can only describe as a ‘hanging out’ experience (danah, please give me a term of this!)”

    Isn’t the term you’re looking for “process”? That is,
    task-oriented experiences versus process experiences – where process is about the experience of getting there rather than the end result, or task.

  5. Ben Ben

    Nah, hanging out on a website isn’t a “process” because it’s a non-linear experience, with many spontanious diversions, useage of the back button, etc.

  6. So many of the definitions of idle apply to myspace. But probably entirtainment-oriented is the word you’re looking for.

  7. Btw: i don’t have a good term for it.

    As for the critique regarding Murdoch… Frankly, for the last 50 years, youth have been treated as consumers by every capitalist institution on the planet. This is nothing new and it’s only getting worse. They’re used to it and they’re determined to do their thing in the midst of it. They use what’s sold to them as cultural objects and they repurpose them to build identity. I’m certainly not a fan of Murdoch, but to think that the only valid youth culture is that which sits outside of corporate manipulation is foolish.

    Lots of folks have made money off of youth communities doing their thing (and even more want to). I’m not entirely thrilled with that dynamic but if the alternative is no place to gather, i’d rather them hang out amidst all of the folks trying to sell them things.

  8. danah,
    i wasn’t suggesting that there was some pure uncommercial public space for kids to ‘hang out’, rather, that your evocation of the MySpace experience was somewhat utopian. I stand by that. youth culture has always negotiated commerciality – in fact commercial fashion thrives off youth culture and always has. going forward i’m just unsure that we’re not losing some critical distance from potentially disarming marketing strategies in what is an increasingly opaque social structure [in phenomemon like MySpace].

  9. Dance mambo in a new year !

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