In Between Lauding and Deriding: A Pedagogical Review of MySpace
by James J. Brown, Jr., and Lacey Donohue
1. MySpace and other social networking websites offer the opportunity to post audio, video, and textual materials online as a way of communicating with friends, colleagues, and strangers, all while developing a specific online persona. However, sites like MySpace have recently drawn a great deal of criticism in the national media, hyped by some as the next big threat to child safety. Rob Stafford, a correspondent for NBC’s “Dateline,” explains: “It's a cyber secret some of them like to keep from their tech-challenged parents. I think of myself as a savvy dad, but I was shocked by some of what I found on the site.” In typical fashion, Stafford follows this up with a perfect solution to the problem – watch NBC: “Friday night on Dateline we'll show you what you need to know about MySpace and other social networking sites to keep your kids safe.” Universities have also expressed concerns with MySpace, though these concerns generally focus on issues of access, classroom interference, and representation, not necessarily safety. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog has reported that a number of universities are blocking MySpace use because it has become a “bandwidth hog” (“More Colleges”) and a recent Chronicle article decries networking sites as a “distraction” in the wireless classroom, believing that in order to turn “students on to learning,” college instructors should find ways to “turn off the technology” (Bugeja).
2. Sitting in opposition to these pessimistic accounts are those who claim that we are in the midst of a social networking revolution. Time’s choice of you as “person of the year” is one example of such utopian extolling. This is Time’s version of the story of 2006:
It’s a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people's network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes. (Grossman)
By this way of thinking, MySpace is part of the Web 2.0 revolution—an answer to the technology bubble that burst in the 1990s.
3. In terms of pedagogy, both of these visions of the social networking boom are limiting. Rather than considering MySpace as a problem to be solved or as part of a revolution, this review will explore MySpace as a teaching tool in intensive writing courses and literature classrooms. Writing instructors have recently found useful ways to incorporate other modes of electronic writing into their pedagogies (blogs and forums, for example), and we would like to pursue this same line of thinking for social networking sites. If MySpace and Facebook, also a public social networking site (though it was limited to users with university email addresses until September 2006 and still continues to be dominated by undergraduate users), are commanding enough student attention to bog university networks and monopolize a significant portion of undergraduate social life then it behooves educators to understand how such sites operate, the ways in which our students operate on the sites, and how their interactions and relationships with the sites can be incorporated into our teaching.
4. While initial visits to social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook can be overwhelming for a new user, we believe familiarizing oneself with the sites and with the genre-specific kind of writing and description that occurs there is the first step to effectively introducing MySpace in the classroom. An easy way to start this process is to sign up for an account and explore the site’s capabilities and limits, while also learning to control individual user settings, such as privacy controls, etc. We encourage instructors who are not familiar with social networking to begin investigating the site – a fun activity is to search for classmates from high school or college, work colleagues, or family members, perusing their pages for ideas and inspiration. New users might also consider looking at pages of current students enrolled at your institution to see how the particular demographic of your school uses the site and to see just how pervasive it is. Be forewarned – seeing your normally quiet students represent themselves, sometimes in unflattering ways, in public forums can be initially disturbing. Because of this, there is currently much debate about how much instructors and students should interact with each other in these virtual realms (a great example of this heated debate can be found at a recent discussion on "Blogging Pedagogy"). However, for the purposes of our argument, it is just important that an instructor be aware of the debate surrounding the use of sites such as MySpace and Facebook in the classroom. Before embarking on classroom uses of these sites, consider that some instructors have expressed concerns about privacy invasion and the potential for blurred lines between student and instructor. If you are aware of these issues, ready to face them, and comfortable with the site, MySpace offers a number of possibilities for the writing classroom.
5. MySpace, when used as a teaching tool, can generate conversations about any number of issues including identity, rhetorical analysis, genre, and Web design. After briefly reviewing the site’s role in these discussions, we will conclude the review with an assignment we have used in our own classes.
6. While creating identities on MySpace can be a valuable exercise (we will revisit this below), MySpace, along with other social networking sites such as Facebook, can also be helpful in creating a basic framework for a discussion of identity. When discussing characters in a fictional work, the MySpace framework can offer a set of terms with which students are familiar. If students are having difficulty describing a character, it can be useful to ask what that character’s MySpace page might look like — what might such a character include in their “Interests” or “About Me” section? The MySpace template offers students a way to talk about identity construction in familiar ways.
7. Additionally, when discussing identity outside of a literary context, it might be useful to ask students to reflect on what kind of person maintains a MySpace page. How do access issues come into play? In what ways are social networking sites a privileged space for identity construction? Beyond discussions of technological haves and have-nots, instructors might also raise questions about how different social networking sites cater to different audiences. Until recently, Facebook was only open to college students, while MySpace was open to all users over the age of 14. Such differences might open up interesting conversations about socio-economic class. Instructors might also consider discussing race and gender issues: Why are “Race” and “Gender” listed in the “Details” section of a user’s page? Why are these details significant on a social networking site? How do we read a picture of scantily clad user? How is our reading different if we consider the gender of that user?
8. MySpace pages are filled with visual, aural, and written arguments. Users can post video clips, songs, blog entries, and immense amounts of information about themselves (schools they have attended, jobs they have worked, and sexual orientation are just a few examples). However, a user’s friends can also contribute by posting general comments or comments on pictures and blog posts. Thus, a user’s MySpace identity emerges out of a collaborative construction of identity. Students could be encouraged to consider what kind of control MySpace users have over how they are portrayed. We should note that MySpace pages can be set to “private” so that only a user’s friends can view content. However, this decision in and of itself opens up interesting questions. What causes some users to protect information while others offer the intimate details to any and all readers? How does a MySpace page carve out its own audience? As we have noted, there are also visual and aural arguments happening on many MySpace pages, and this makes MySpace a great tool for expanding rhetorical analysis to consider the images, page layout, video clips, and songs posted by a user. Thus, texts are multiple in MySpace, and the words on the page are only part of how a page is presented. The multimedia experience of MySpace could give many students an accessible example of what we mean when we say “everything is a text.”
9. A great deal of writing happens on a MySpace page, and a study of the various genres of writing on these pages could be a useful classroom exercise. Students could study these various genres: comments, messages, bulletins, and blog posts. What are the different audiences for these kinds of writing? Why is it that a “comment about Jim” (this is the section of the page that allows friends to leave comments on a user’s page) is rarely a “comment about Jim” and much more often a response to another comment? That is, users communicate via comments (back and forth) but users do so in a place where others (either friends or everyone – depending on how the page is set up) can see. Further, the genres often bleed into one another. Something that probably would fit best as a “message” (messages are privately sent to particular users and are not posted in a public space) is posted as a “comment” so others can see it. Finally, MySpace users can comment on a number of other things such as pictures and blog entries.
10. While this type of discussion would be useful for all students, it might be especially useful to those who maintain MySpace pages. A discussion of genre could help students who maintain MySpace pages explore how they negotiate all of these different types of writing and how that applies to what we talk about in a literature or writing classroom. In this sense, such a lesson wouldn’t have to be prescriptive – it could make students aware of the strategies that they already use.
11. MySpace is designed for those not familiar with Web design, but the limits it places on users can allow for a conversation about how to operate within these boundaries. During a MySpace assignment, one of our Web-design-savvy students mentioned that he made sure that his page layout fit with the MySpace “terms of service.” Thus, a close analysis of the terms of service and user guides might be a useful exercise, especially in a technical writing classroom. How do MySpace manuals frame the Web design experience for users? Could MySpace technical support provide users with better guidelines for designing pages? Students could examine the support materials and suggest improvements or changes.
12. There are also websites other than MySpace that offer support to MySpace users. A number of websites, such as Skize.com, offer MySpace layouts. Layouts offer users a template and allow them to customize the look of their page, but MySpace layouts can be a Web designer’s worst nightmare. Pre-designed layouts often make text difficult or impossible to read, and content is often scattered around the page in haphazard ways. Students studying Web or information design might develop ways to make MySpace more accessible and user friendly while preserving the aesthetics that users are hoping to achieve. They might also develop some MySpace template layouts for the less tech-savvy user.
13. However, these discussions of web design are not limited to technical courses. These issues of design can also prove particularly fruitful in rhetoric classrooms, especially as they relate to discussions of visual rhetoric and ethos. Pulling up multiple MySpace pages, comparing those that use the “original” MySpace layout, a pre-designed template, or a professionally coded page asks students, in a genre that is very familiar to them, to critically engage in issues of design. The expansion of Web 2.0 technologies has meant that users can no longer leave design issues to the experts. By forcing students to engage with issues of design and delivery, we can teach them that the medium and the message are never cleanly separate. Whether they are made by experts or amateurs, design choices are always rhetorical.
Example Assignment: MySpace pages for fictional characters
14. As instructors in literature classes, we assigned students fictional characters and asked them to create MySpace pages for those characters. Such an assignment can open up questions of identity construction, and it can also replace or enhance forum discussions, blog posts, and classroom discussion about the reading. However, instructors should consider what they hope to get out of this assignment before implementing it. As anyone who has taught in a computer classroom knows, technology alone does not make for effective pedagogy. If you want students to create detailed pages, provide them with specific guidelines. Do you want them to maintain a blog for their character? Do you want them to interact with other characters? With non-characters? How do other classmates interact and respond? Should they be focusing on the look of their site, or are you more concerned with the writing that happens on the page? These are all questions an instructor should consider before trying such an assignment. Instructors might also consider privacy issues. Do you want character pages to be public or private? Finally, you should consider how such an assignment will play out in a non-computer classroom. We have found that not being in a computer classroom can limit group discussion about the pages created. Without a way to view and analyze pages in class, students and instructors might not have as much to gain from this type of assignment.
15. In the 4 September 2006 issue of Fortune, Patricia Sellers chronicles the rise of MySpace and its expanding “empire.” For example, she notes that in summer 2006, the 100 millionth MySpace account was created. She also reports that, according to the numbers, over 230,000 new accounts are being created each day. In terms of web traffic, MySpace gets over one billion views daily. Finally, taking into account all social networking sites, MySpace “the most risqué and chaotic” of them all, accounts for 82% of all social networking traffic (Sellers). These numbers surpass Google’s traffic, making MySpace the second most-viewed Internet site daily (Yahoo is number one). This is especially astounding when considering the fact that MySpace is barely three years old.
16. While educators may argue about whether or not MySpace belongs in the classroom, one thing is certain: it is in our student’s lives. A brief show of hands in most undergraduate classrooms will verify this. So as educators, we can choose to ignore this phenomenon and, as Bugeja says, “turn off the technology,” or we can embrace these sites and their popularity, harnessing that energy that keeps our students turned on. If our students enjoy writing on social networking sites, and if a significant portion of their lives are spent creating, commenting on, and “pimping” profiles, it is in our best interest to begin exploring and re-imagining these spaces as sites of instruction.
Bugeja, Michael J. “Distractions in the Wireless Classroom.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 26 January 2007. 18 March 2007. <http://chronicle.com/jobs/news/2007/01/2007012601c/careers.html>
Grossman, Lev. “Time's Person of the Year: You.” Time 13 December 2006. 5 January 2007. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,15695 14,00.html>
“More Colleges Move to Block Myspace” The Chronicle: Wired Campus Blog 27 April 2006. 5 January 2007. <http://chronicle.com/wiredcampus/article/1212/more-colleges-move-to-block-myspace>
“MySpace Backgrounds.” Skize.com 5 January 2007 <http://www.skize.com/>
Sellers, Patricia. “MySpace Cowboys.” Fortune 4 September 2006. 18 March 2007.
Stafford, Rob. “Why parents must mind MySpace.” Inside Dateline 27 January 2006. 5 January 2007. <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11049450/#060127a>