MySpace and the Participation Gap

Everyone seems to agree that we live in a era of participatory culture. Few people agree on what should be the terms of participation. From time to time, I will direct attention towards challenges and obstacles to the public's right to participate. More often than not, these debates center on young people and their access to media. Young people are the shock troops in the digital revolution -- early adopters and adapters of technology in their constant search for a room of their own in a culture where adults get to define all of the rules.


The latest battle in the ongoing struggle over young people's access to and participation within digital cultures is HR 5319, better known as the Deleting Predators On-Line Act (or Dopa). Essentially, this proposed legislation would require any school or library which receives federal funds to ban a range of social networking software, including most notably MySpace, but also potentially including Live Journal and blogging software. This legislation has emerged in response to media coverage of a range of social problems which critics associate with MySpace, including concerns about the threat posed to young people by adults on the prowl for underage victims.

My former student, danah boyd, has been researching MySpace and the other social network sites. She's become a go-to gal with the media on MySpace issues and a sharp critic of the proposed legislation. Recently, the two of us got together for a joint interview about DOPA and MySpace more generally.

My own concerns about DOPA center around two key factors:

The Participation Gap

First, if passed, the legislation would further exaggerate the gaps in social experiences between kids who have a high degree of access to new media technologies at home and those who do not. Throughout the 1990s, there was a great deal of discussion about the so-called Digital Divide which was understood as a gap in access to new media technologies. Concerted efforts were made by those who saw digital resources as valuable to wire every classroom in America and to get networked computers into public libraries. Yet, as the dust has settled, we are realizing that the problem is only partially technical. There's a huge gap between what you can do when you've got unlimited access to broadband in your home and what you can do when your only access is through the public library, where there are often time limits on how long you can work, when there are already federally mandated filters blocking access to certain sites, when there are limits on your ability to store and upload material, and so forth. We call this the participation gap and if passed, this new law will only leave lower income Americans further behind in their ability to participate in the defining experiences of their generation.

The Worth of Networks

All of this would matter less if it wasn't for the second issue -- the ability to operate within social networks is a core skill which we should be cultivating in all young Americans. Increasingly, our professional lives are shaped by large-scale collaborations within knowledge communities. Yet, schools tend to be invested in training autonomous learners. Students, by and large, are acquiring networking skills on their own, outside school hours, through their involvement with MySpace or fan discussion lists or game guilds. In a hunting-based society, kids played with bows and arrows. In a networked society, they play with information and online communities.

Around the country, some teachers are already incorporating social network sites and blogs into their teaching practices. They are using them to connect kids with others who live in very different circumstances or who have specific expertise relevant to a particular assignment. They are using them to generate data which can be used in math or social studies classes.

But if this law is passed, it will make it much harder for these teachers to do their job in preparing students for their future digital lives. True, the law allows exemptions for recognized educational purposes but it creates some strong barriers for teachers to overcome before they can pursue such projects. Having dignified the fear that MySpace is a "Big Bad Evil" through federal legislation, they will face increased public pressure not to take Little Mary or Johnny into their horrible place.

Are We Really Protecting Kids Here?

To be sure, there are some real risks involved in letting young people enter into social networks without some degree of adult guidance -- issues of privacy and cyberbullying for example. And yes, there are some predators there -- though right now, these sites are being heavily policed. We do encourage parents and teachers to discuss responsible and appropriate ways of interacting in virtual worlds and give periodic reminders that while the world may be virtual, the people they are interacting with are real people with real feelings. We do not advocate parents spying on their kids; we do advocate adults communicating with their children about their values, expectations, and norms as they relate to these emerging digital environments.

You would think that if MySpace were as dangerous as critics claim, there would be a stronger effort made to educate young people about the safe and responsible use of social network software, much as earlier generations of educators taught kids what to do if a stranger calls on the phone when their parents are not there. Instead, the law would leave kids to confront these challenges on their own, outside of adult supervision, and off of school grounds.

Our position is in favor of education and against regulation.

For a short interview segment with me talking about these issues, see Beet TV.