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Teen Identities in Cyberspace

It’s a generational thing - cool, tech-savvy teenagers creating wild, outlandish identities for all the world to see in cyberspace. The name of the most popular web site is MySpace.com. Some others include: facebook, xanga, bebo, and tagged. Each page is devoted to the identity of its creator. He or she tends to be popular and young. The names are wild: napkinnights tracy or no no bad kitty. There are now more than 100 million profiles on MySpace.com. Almost two million more sign up every week. This site has a life of its own.

I first encountered MySpace.com while sitting in front of a computer screen with a teenage girl in an apartment in Beijing. The girl was studying English but was quite shy. Though I was supposed to be her conversation partner at lunch earlier in the day, she only spoke a few words. Then, while her mother and others socialized in another room, this girl asked me if I would like to see her MySpace.com site. I agreed and we logged on to the site. Her beautiful smiling face appeared in faint coloring on the screen. Then this girl showed me the music that she liked. She showed me how to play a game that involves pressing keys in time with the music to win points. She was good at this game. She beat me every time but I was improving. So, we sat there together, hanging out both in cyberspace and the physical world - me a middle-aged American man and she a Chinese teenager, granddaughter of a general in the Red Army, in a world where she felt more comfortable. That was my introduction to teenage identities and MySpace.com.

What these teenagers want

I can see that today’s generation of teenagers has a totally different type of experience than what I had at that age. Even so, the basics remain the same. Teenage boys and girls are searching for their identity. Each wants to be popular. Hemmed in by the harsh competitive requirements of school and career, these boys and girls are yearning for individual freedom. They want the freedom to be themselves, express themselves in imaginative ways, and exhibit glimpses of their creative selves before the world. MySpace.com gives them an opportunity to do just that.

These are not serious profiles such as would be found on a job seeker’s resume, but whimsical self-portraits. Some teenagers say they are 100 years old. Their heroes are not persons we would recognize as such. The cyberspace self-portraits are not so unlike the bizarre personalities of youth that one would see in shopping malls: girls with purple spiked hair and plenty of cleavage, the cool and swaggering boys, pierced or tattooed bodies, unpredictable expression of every kind.

Cyberspace has certain advantages over hanging out in the mall. First, despite its ominous reputation, it is safer. You can approach strangers without fearing physical assault. You can have those exciting experiences in the privacy of your bedroom. Too, this world of cyberspace has a broader physical reach. Your intimate messages go out indiscriminately to the far corners of the earth. Each person becomes a player on the world stage. Then too, there are more possibilities for self-expression: Not only can you tell the world your favorite kinds of music, you can offer them an immediate experience of the sound. The visual images on the MySpace.com site say volumes about who you are. Not only that - you can change your self-image whenever you like. You can quickly reinvent yourself . You can freely choose and be another cyberspace identity.

Perhaps the biggest advantage, though, is that computer technology allows each individual who has a MySpace.com site to know objectively how others are responding to this image of themselves. The space has a place for comments. It has a place for “friends” to be posted on the site. A person with many friends - and the site tells exactly how many there are - must certainly be popular. And isn’t that what teenagers want? They want friends and they want to belong to something, even if in an electronic world.

A Reaction from Adults

Adults are fearful of social networking in cyberspace. To them, it is an unknown world, fraught with many dangers. Most identity theft takes place there. Parents tear out their hair while thinking that their daughters exhibit revealing photos of themselves or drop sexually suggestive hints. They might come across as sluts, inviting sexual predators to pounce on them at a vulnerable time in their lives. The daughters, in turn, are fearful that their parents might be watching how they present themselves on MySpace.com. There is a natural reticence among young people to tell their parents of certain innermost thoughts about their identity. There is an embarrassment at being seen without knowing of this, especially when it is the parents who are invading one’s privacy. With total strangers, one would not care so much. Indeed, there is software that makes it easy for parents to snoop around in cyberspace and see what their children and their children’s friends are saying about each other.

Some employers check the MySpace.com self-portraits of job applicants in search of information that would not appear on resumes. Some college officials likewise seek the more free-wheeling and candid self-portraits of students applying for admission to their college. And so, youthful self-expression in cyberspace comes at a certain price. But the danger comes mostly from adults using the information for serious purposes rather than from kids having fun. Yes, the kids, too, can hurt each each other with innuendoes and unkind remarks. But this is part of the process of growing up. By their very nature, teenage children fight for rank and position in the community that they inhabit, whether in a school cafeteria or in cyberspace. Each wants to know where he or she stands in the eyes of one’s peers. Computer technology reduces this to a cold statistic: the number of “friends” or visitors to one’s web site.

Seeking Reaction

So this is a new way of looking at personal identity. It is a way of advertising oneself and gaining instant feedback. Each individual puts out a self-image that fits his or her mood at the time. Then the web site feeds back information about the reaction of others. The computer thus democratizes what politicians have long enjoyed: personal publicity. Instead of polls and election results, it exhibits public favor or disfavor in terms of rankings in a search-engine generated report. A book’s ranking on Amazon.com indicates its salability or popularity in this electronic market. A web site’s ranking on Google likewise gauges public reaction, though in a more mysterious way. The creative personality behind the book or web site wants to know how his or her product has been received. So it is as well with MySpace.com; one wants a large number of visitors and friends. This shows interest in me as a person.

A newspaper story on the phenomenon of “ego-surfing” - or the practice of continually keeping tab on computer rankings related to oneself - states: “Infatuation with one’s standing in the digital age is a byproduct of the Internet’s most unique and basic attributes. That is its ability to keep count. It’s also a reflection of how the Web has evolved into a culture where participation is encouraged and opinions matter ... So for those Web denizens who use the Internet as a means of communication and identity, the ability to count visitors, or comments, has become an entirely new form of personal validation.”

MySpace.com is not a site like Amazon.com which sells books and other commercial products in an electronic store. It is not an electronic want-ad listing like Craigslist.com. In fact, it does not depend upon people personally getting in touch with each other as for a commercial purpose. MySpace.com discourages giving out contact information such as addresses or phone numbers. While strangers with evil purposes may lurk behind computer terminals eying attractive prey, the spirit of this site is to allow people who already know each other - real friends and acquaintances, in other words - to know more about the individuals who have put up their personal profiles on MySpace.com. It’s like wearing an article of clothing that inspires gossip. A person makes a “fashion statement”, or, in this case, a quasi-official statement about preferences in music, books, acquaintances, and, most importantly, girl friends or boy friends, and the public is invited to react. In the end, it’s about the person’s choice of personal identity. It’s about identity independence.


An Example of what is posted on MySpace.com

Visitors to MySpace.com can see this in the types of categories listed on the site. There is straightforward personal information. In the case of a 21-year old West Coast female, we have the following “details”:

Status:
single
Here for:
networking, friends
Orientation:
straight
Hometown:
Sacramento
Body type:
5’’ 7” athletic
Ethnicity:
Asian
Religion:
Jewish
Zodiac sign:
Aquarius
Smoke/ drink:
no/ no
Children:
someday
Education:
some college

Then there are “Interests”. Not all the categories were filled in this case. There are “general” interests, “cities” of interest, “hot albums”, favorite “music”, favorite “movies”, “heroes”, and “groups”. The groups included: Sexy & single on MySpace, Glacier magazine, Club Diezel, Solmatic records, body music, Rave clothing.

The 21-year-old female made this personal statement:

“I party for a living! Yes, it's an exhausting job, but someone has to do it! I love being spontaneous and having fun.. I give what I expect; I expect to be respected so I give a lot of respect to people. I expect people to be nice, so I am nice to begin with. I live in Vegas part time, and part time in Sacramento. I spend a lot of time in LA as well. I love the fact that I am never in the same place for long.

I want to meet people who are NOT drama and love to have a good time. I don't like flakes, but god knows that in vegas, top selling cereal is FROSTED FLAKES! Pass the SELSUN BLUE!!!!

Jealousy is not an option, spontaneity a must, and intelligence a prerequisite...

I like cowboys cause they are the leaders of the pack.. If you are a cow, move on to calmer pastures!“

Well, she knows who she is and has expressed it quite well on MySpace.com. Now in her post-teen years, this West Coast woman remains focused on identity. Reminiscent of the bar scene, people such as this are busy defining themselves and presenting a certain image to other people in a new medium.

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