Thursday, April 13, 2006

Peter Griffin: Teenagers cyber-socialising in a substitute world

It was a cold and rainy day in London, and I was catching up with an old workmate who wanted to show off her pride and joy - her 14-year-old daughter.

But the girl was nowhere to be seen. She was upstairs, tapping away on her computer.

"Faceparty," my friend said distastefully. "She spends half her life on it."

It turns out Faceparty.com is a social networking website. I'd never heard of it so I logged on myself to have a look.

The front page told me: "Faceparty is the most advanced online community in the world. We're more than a website - to thousands we're a way of life."

Faceparty has six million members, most of them British teenagers. It's a social networking site, like Myspace.com, the most successful of the breed with more than 70 million members, which was bought last year by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp for a whopping US$580 million.

On Faceparty, people with similar interests meet and chat, swap photos and gradually build a network of friends. Sounds innocuous enough.

But that last bit - "to thousands we're a way of life" - also sounded a bit creepy to me.

Don't kids spend enough time on the internet doing homework and playing games without undertaking much of their socialising on it as well?

And as a gathering point for youth, you might be concerned that it's also a trawling ground for perverts and paedophiles.

Many readers will be oblivious to the popularity of Myspace among teenagers as it's an American and European phenomenon. A mere 3000 Myspace members are listed as being from New Zealand and just 400 for Faceparty. Both sites are free to join.

But the profiles of those Kiwis who do belong to the social networking hubs are no different from those of youths on the other side of the world.

They're forthright, open accounts of life. It seems that the barrier of keyboard and computer screen gives people the confidence to really open up.

The postings are littered with personal information, some members going well beyond the pale to post numerous photos of themselves, list email addresses and even the names of bars and nightclubs they drink at.

The personalised sites, which are designed with templates provided by the likes of Myspace and Faceparty, let other people know what sort of person you are, and therefore whether they want to electronically socialise with you. You're invited to list your favourite movies - Donnie Darko and The Princess Bride seem to be favourites among female Myspace members. Favourite bands, hobbies, sexual preferences, religious beliefs, smoking and drug-taking habits can also be listed.

Myspace will host a blog for users to keep a running diary, which their network of friends can read. Notes are often written in that terrible sort of shorthand that makes up mobile phone text messages.

After a few hours in the world of Faceparty and Myspace, I came away staggered at the scale of the websites and impressed at the attention some people pay to maintaining their online personalities.

But there are enough horror stories in the United States already about some of the content that's been posted to Myspace - from naked photos to defamatory statements about teachers.

Experiencing such fast-paced growth, Myspace has become the Wild West of the web, a place where literally anything goes. Its owners have clearly struggled to police the masses of postings.

To its credit, Myspace is now trying to clean up its act, seemingly spurred on by the Murdoch takeover. It recently appointed former US federal prosecutor Hemanshu Nigam as its chief security officer.

The site is also running adverts on American TV stations warning children and adults of the danger lying in wait on the internet. Policies are being tightened and there will be more zealous policing of the content posted.

For News Corp, Myspace offers a direct channel to the youth market. Advertising revenue figures haven't been revealed but are believed to be in the tens of millions. There is money in social networking.

When Trade Me was scooped up by newspaper publisher Fairfax for $700 million last month, the buyers picked up a thriving online community of traders who discuss everything and anything on the site's message boards as well as the Oldfriends site, which has 750,000 members.

The social networks attract eyeballs like nothing else on the internet and that alone will ensure they're here to stay. They can be expected to assume more of a presence locally.

It seems the human desire to be understood and to fit in as part of a group, for many people, can be well satisfied through the internet. That's what social networking is all about. By and large, it's a very progressive movement. But if you're penning a Myspace profile, just be careful about revealing the real intimate details. You never know who is watching.

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