[EDIT: See Zeller’s New York Times piece that followed, and my wet-blanket remarks therein.]
Over the past couple of months, there’s been a great deal of fresh hysteria about Myspace, sex offenders and the “dangers” of kids going online without draconian supervision. (Which, I’d like to remind parents, your children will subvert. Consider fostering trust and openness. I know it’s harder work than just instilling fear, but it produces much brighter humans.)
This moral panic is nothing new. Every year or two there’s a fresh bout of breathless reporting about a predator who used the Internet to lure some 14-year-old out of her Kentucky trailer and into a Taco Bell, then before she knew it she was in the back of a van in Miami being used as an ashtray. Setting aside the underlying chronic social horror that this guy seemed a better option than whatever was going on back in that trailer, this is another example of confusion about what is dangerous and what is not.
Much like plane crashes and anorexia, the media – in reporting these rare but sad situations – conducts a feat as stunning for its logical acrobatics as it is its fallacy by positing that these situations should force us to ask if the Internet is organically dangerous.
Children are psychologically, physically and sexually victimized every day – almost always by someone they know and trust. There are any number of great ways that the media could be helping their plight. Panicked reporting about MySpace.com is not one of them.
While the public and its media are at fault for yet another exercise in hysterics, the blame for the damage on MySpace’s reputation seems fairly put, in part, at their own feet.
As if in an effort to compound the stupidity, to my knowledge not a single MySpace executive has taken on the ridiculous implication that somehow this is connected to MySpace. Every time I see a hyperventilating Rita Cosby report on the dangers of MySpace, or another Dateline “online predator sting” (where NBC pays a questionable non-profit $100,000 or more to entice predators with the absurdly stupid actions of a fake teen), there is never a MySpace.com spokesperson to suggest a bit of square breathing. There are the painful “refused to appear for this story” or “no comment” obligatories, indicating to me that MySpace thinks silence will help them make their case. Even if they view these stories as a third rail, they could at least be doing something proactive and positive beyond the flack-fodder of appointing a CSO.
Just because the case shouldn’t need to be made to a population skilled in critical thinking, your key customers – especially their parents – are not that sort of population. So, the case needs to be made.
And that case is simple and will sound trite to many of you.
The web is an amplifier and an enabler. It helps us do things better and faster – and it helps us do entirely new, unimaginable things. In its many forms, online social networking – which has now secured an inseparable and almost universally-positive position in global culture – belongs in the latter category. It has made the impossible possible. It enhances the quality of people’s lives. It enables the geographically disparate to build and maintain friendships (based on any common thread or denominator) literally impossible a dozen years ago.
Unfortunately, like community organizations or churches, sometimes bad people use powerful social tools to do very bad things. This should not serve as an indictment of the tools.