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June 05, 2006

Is MySpace a Place?


spatial nature of MySpace

Networked Performance pointed me toward an interview (download in PDF) with Networked Publics speaker Henry Jenkins and Networked Publics friend danah boyd about Myspace. The site, popular with teenagers, has become increasingly controversial as parents and the press raise concerns about the openness of information on the site and the vulnerability this supposedly poses to predators (Henry points out that only .1% of abductions are by strangers) and the behavior of teens towards each other (certainly nothing new, only now in persistent form). In another essay on Identity Production in Networked Culture, danah suggests that Myspace is popular not only because the technology makes new forms of interaction possible, but because older hang-outs such as the mall and the convenience store are prohibiting teens from congregating and roller rinks and burger joints are disappearing.

This begs the question, is Myspace media or is it space? Architecture theorists have long had this thorn in their side. "This will kill that," wrote Victor Hugo with respect to the book and the building. In the early 1990s, concern about a dwindling public culture and the character of late twentieth century urban space led us to investigate Jürgen Habermas's idea of the public sphere. But the public sphere, for Habermas is a forum, something that, for the most part, emerges in media and in the institutions of the state:

The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor. The medium of this political confrontation was peculiar and without historical precedent: people's public use of their reason (öffentliches Räsonnement). In our [German] usage this term (i.e., Räsonnement unmistakable preserves the polemical nuances of both sides: simultaneously the invocation of reason and its disdainful disparagement as merely malcontent griping. (Habermas, 27)

Nevertheless, the salon, the café, and the parliament were key places that instituted this kind of discourse, and they succeeded the court, which was explicitly spatial.

But Myspace and the new sites of network culture are different from the media of old. If they are—in general—not places of rational discourse, they are venues in which publics gather. Is Myspace media? Yes. Is it a place, maybe? In my book, MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft definitely are. So do we exclude myspace just because it is not rendered in three dimensions? Are spaces media themselves? Are media spaces? Could be (think of the Seattle Public Library). I don't have any easy answers on this, even as Anne Friedberg and I work on our essay for the upcoming Networked Publics book.

[blogged by Kazys Varnelis on Networked Publics]

Comment by danah boyd:

spatial nature of MySpace

Over on Networked Publics, Kazys Vernelis asked Is MySpace a Place? I wrote a comment in response that others might find interesting. (And perhaps prompt folks like Anne to put me in my place.)

I would argue that MySpace is a 'place' in that it's a locatable site that people "go to" and it has structural walls regulated through being logged in, being inside the domain, etc. But I would argue that this is not that important. Instead, I would focus on how MySpace is an 'imagined space' (stretching Anderson's 'imagined communities') where the space is framed by the perceived rituals, norms and acts that constitute MySpace participation. [I would also argue that MySpace is a 'medium' in a McLuhan sense because of its role in 'extending man' into the virtual for social engagement. In this way, participation might destroy the platial nature of MySpace by letting people participate in imagined communities where MySpace is simply a channel through which communication and performance occur. But it does not destroy the spatiality invoked.]

I think things get confused by bringing Habermas into the fold because his definition of spatiality is rooted in the public sphere which is entirely framed by discursive engagement. He sees identity as constructed in private such that the public sphere is the gathering of private individuals for the purpose of verbalized communication. Nancy Fraser is useful in this way because she argues that a core component of publics is the way they allow individuals to negotiate identity. Pulling in Goffman in response to Fraser, spatiality is constructed by shared situationalism through which impression management can take place.

This is where I end up talking about 'digital publics' because the nature of public life in a new networked age relies on architectural properties not normally present in (unmediated) social life - persistence, searchability, replicability, invisible audiences. While we can turn to celebrity culture and mass media's role in collapsing contexts (Meyrowitz) to get a grasp on what's going on, negotiating these types of publics is new for most people. Digital publics are tricky because they rely on a networked structure, not a group structure dictated by audience or location. The same turn that complicates digital publics complicates issues of spatiality. In short, what are the boundaries? This is why i'd argue that it's an 'imagined space' instead of a space as we normally conceptualize it.

[How terribly am I misreading theoretical ideas of space and place?] [blogged by danah on apophenia]

Posted by jo at June 5, 2006 11:12 AM