Thursday, June 22, 2006

In Defense of MySpace and the Rest of the Internet

I have teenage cousins, I work with teenagers, I live in the US in the aughts, so I hear a lot about MySpace and other networking sites where people frequent. At one family dinner relatives states that a teenager was risking her life by being on MySpace. I responded that certainly not all of the tens of thousands of people on MySpace are - you know - dead. And I don't mean to be flip. (Well, I do a little). But we are - to a certain extent - blaming the internet for something that existed long before the internet.
Back in the day there were books, and TV movies-of-the-week, and news horror stories about people killed by people they met through newspaper personals. Before that I'm sure that there were other methods that people were blaming for bringing people in contact with killers, rapists and pedophiles. I don't want to beat this point too much here, but killers, rapists and pedophiles are not new. They have always existed and sadly probably always will. I'm not saying that people who become victims if such people bring it on themselves or that we shouldn't try to stop, assist and prevent such behavior. We absolutely should. And certainly changing technology necessitates that we change the ways that we protect ourselves and others.
Parents used to (and hopefully still do) warn their children about talking to strangers. Well, people on the internet are often strangers. So, we need to help our children make good decisions. Decide who it's okay to talk to. How to draw lines about people you talk to but don't meet. And how to take precautions if and when you do decide to meet people you have met on the internet.
Reading this story about a teenager suing MySpace because she was assaulted by a person she had met through MySpace reminded me of that. This 14 year-old is upset that the 19 year-old she met on MySpace was not truthful about himself on MySpace and assaulted her. (I assume these two things are not related.) They are charging that MySpace did not do a good job of protecting her.
But what were they supposed to do? Clearly she had decided on a public (rather than private) profile, or this guy would not have been able to contact her. Then she decided - based on information provided by the guy (not MySpace) - that he was trustworthy and she should give him her phone number. I don't see what MySpace - based on this information - could have done. And MySpace's response is in a similar vein. They take web safety seriously, but in the end, people make their own choices. MySpace is a networking site. Most people join it to meet other people. (I know MySpace's origins had a slightly different mission, but this is where we are today). One of the things you learn - whether you meet people at school, at a party, at Starbucks or on the net, is people aren't always truthful about themselves. And sadly, people aren't always trustworthy. It wouldn't make sense for me to sue Starbucks if I gave a person I met there my phone number and things turned out badly. I would have to blame the person who attacked me.