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iShare, therefore, iAm

November, 2006

The information age is upon us. This tired saying has been hobbling around for the past decade or so, coming up whenever someone decides to glorify the internet and its role in providing easy access to information. It has been thought to be a revolution of sorts; no longer the property of stuffy academics holed up in libraries, information is disseminated freely (although, sometimes erroneously) amongst all users who wish to access it.

However, the internet is now becoming the ground for a different kind of revolution, that of ‘Sharing’. Witness, the participants of this revolution: a journalist in Kenya blogs about the political situation to a global audience; an Australian film student uploads clips of his productions for everyone to see; a girl in a corner of Hong Kong leaves messages and photographs on a networking site for faraway friends.

All of them are putting themselves online for others to see. They want to make their mark on the ever-expanding realm of cyberspace, leaving footprints for those who care to follow. The iGeneration, as it has come to be known, is tech-savvy and eager to be heard. At no time has the individual been as important, or as watched, as now.

At the same time, though, there is also a move towards the collective. Not only do people want to be known, they want to share what they know. They want to know that there is someone whom they can reach out to and forge a relationship with, someone who will appreciate what they have to offer.

Time’s recent announcement that its Person of the Year is ‘You’, along with its profiles of rising internet ‘stars’, is a nod to this movement. In the article accompanying the announcement, Lev Grossman says, “It's a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before […] 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.”

Of course, it is much easier for the average person to reach out with the Internet around. Although people were never exactly isolated before the creation of the World Wide Web, the potential reach was minute. It would be limited to maybe a handful of close friends whom one would write to or call infrequently to exchange news of what was happening. Photographs were sent within carefully sealed envelopes, with uncertainty and much hoping that they would reach the intended recipients. What the Internet has done is reduce the distances and time needed to reach a mass audience, so the girl who daydreams of becoming a popstar now can host her own concert and broadcast it live to a potential audience of millions.

That is where sites like MySpace come in. The iGeneration have a number of channels available to them that allow them to make that crucial link with others in the online realm. Most people are not satisfied with a single medium anymore, and the multimedia platform offered by MySpace is ideal.

The tools are simple and well-known; anyone with a computer and a decent internet connection can log on and join one of the many networking sites dedicated to bringing people together in virtual communities and allowing them to share what they have made or done.


Edward Maradona of Perth is a self-described MySpaceaholic. He checks in on the site daily, adding pictures and tweaking his profile to reflect his personality. The dominant red-and-black layout is a theme with him, the colours that he wears to competitions. To Maradona, a.k.a ‘Edit’, an accomplished breakdancer (B-boying or B-girling to purists of the style), MySpace is a way of putting himself out there and letting people know about his skills, as well as keeping in touch with friends now that he has graduated from university. His profile describes his training in dance and a hip hop tune blazes from a tiny integrated music player on his homepage. A look at his picture gallery reveals a variety of shots from professional events, and his profile links to several videos of him in action.

MySpace is Maradona’s ticket to stardom. One of the newer networking sites, the past two years have seen its popularity rocket as more and more people logged on. In August 2006, it hit 100 million users. The site itself is a sprawling cyberhub; originally set up to help people to keep in touch with friends and perhaps meet some new ones, it is now a beehive of creativity, playing host to both established and upcoming talent. Setting up an account takes about five minutes, and gives access to users all over the world.

While there are many network sites in the same vein as MySpace, it gained an early edge by allowing the integration of mixed media (pictures, videos, music and animation), all controlled by the user, a factor that other sites are only now catching up with. The fact that a user can use their MySpace page to showcase his or her work has not been missed, especially by the music industry. The site has been put to good use by both upcoming and established artists, who have created pages on MySpace to allow fans to connect with them in a new and more personal way than before.

Even though many of these artists have their own websites, MySpace allows for a more informal mode of contact with blog entries from the road, snippets of new songs, pictures that are far from the typical airbrushed, glossy magazine fare. This adds to the ‘cool factor’ of MySpace.

Also part of what makes MySpace popular is its trend appeal – the 2000s version of “all the cool kids have one”. People recommend the site to their friends, and so on and so forth. As word spreads, the site gains even more popularity, and everybody wants to be in on the trend. Some, like Patti Robertson, also of Perth, say they are MySpace addicts, spending hours on the site searching for old friends.

“I first got an account because I was curious as people kept talking about it and telling me to get one, so I wanted to look into it and then I was hooked into the MySpace craze finding so many friends I had lost touch with,” she says. She estimates that she has sent out about 60 ‘friend requests’ in the past two weeks, although not all of them have been to people she knows.

On MySpace, a ‘friend’ is a term that is ubiquitous and prominently displayed on a person’s profile page. Similar to the real world, a person’s worth is sometimes measured by how many friends they have.

However, out of these friends, maybe a handful will be people whom the person knows in real life. The rest are restricted to online relationships, but these are the ones that seem to matter more. Your real life friends will add you because they already know you; your online friends will add you because they think you’re worth knowing. The statistics displayed on each profile give an introduction to the individual; the profile itself reflects the individual’s tastes and it is not uncommon to find comments such as “cool layout!” or “great picture, you look fantastic” followed by a friend request from an otherwise complete stranger. There are competitions to see who has the most friends, and the number ends up being a barometer measuring the degree of existence: the more people you connect and share with, the more your presence online is counted.

It is a mutual stroking of the ego of both parties, that someone out there thinks you have something to give and therefore it is only polite that you ‘friend them back’ because they, too, have something to share – whether it be commiserations on university life or the latest from a rising rock star.

Stalker potential

However, putting so much information out there is not always safe. Even though most of the posts and pictures put up are in good fun and as a way of getting oneself known, there have been cases where overeager users have exploited networking sites to achieve their own ends.

The most famous criticism of MySpace results from a case brought by a 14-year-old girl against the company after she claimed to have been sexually assaulted by an older user she met on the site. Security measures on the site have been tightened in light of such events, with underage users being protected from receiving friend requests from people they don’t know in the wake of the site being used by online predators. There are talks underway on how to restrict accounts to genuine users, as well as not allowing criminals to have access to the site or to create accounts – paedophiles being the primary concern.

However, it has only a limited degree of usefulness – users can easily lie about their age, preventing the automatic tools coming into effect, and anyone can create a ‘sockpuppet’ account, which is one registered under a pseudonym and with false details, essentially allowing the user to masquerade as a completely different (and not always fictitious) person.

The aspect of sharing makes this situation worse, since a number of personal details, including what schools one has been to, are published freely on the site. It is not that difficult for unscrupulous individuals to take advantage of the ‘sharing’ principle to gather information about other users, and sensitive ones like younger teens are particularly vulnerable.

Other times, friendships on the site go awry. Just as in real life, it is not possible to be friends with everyone, and someone who you may have added turns out not to be the kind of character you would want to be otherwise associated with. Jilted admirers can turn to cyberstalking and vandalising webpages if they have the know-how, making life miserable and forcing the targeted user to withdraw from the site for fear that they have put too much of themselves out there. Personal information from the blogs are used and incriminating photographs (mostly manipulated in programs like Adobe Photoshop) suddenly appear. The concept of sharing mutates; now other users are sharing details that are not theirs to spread, and are not always true.

Although Robertson is quite comfortable with using networking sites as a whole, she is wary. As a teenager, she had an incident with a boy she met on another networking site before she switched to MySpace. The boy in question went to her school and for the first two weeks they were talking he appeared to be what every girl wanted: kind, funny, sensitive and sweet. They agreed to meet, and started a relationship.

However, as the relationship progressed, Robertson found that the online persona was far from the real one, and things went to a head when he began to “joke” about sexually assaulting her, as well as implicitly threatening her friends. Breaking it off turned out to be a headache – not only did the boy refuse to let go, he spread a story about their relationship around their school, approaching random people and posting in forums on the website saying that she had left him, but without explaining his part in the ordeal. He kept sending her messages through other students, and emailed her constantly until one of her friends threatened to report him to the police.  

It got to a point where she became paranoid about anyone approaching her because she wasn’t sure what version of the story they knew and what they thought about her.

While she still maintains the same openness that she had on the other site, on her MySpace page Robertson is careful about how much she shares. She does not accept friend requests from people she does not know and she has a photo of her current boyfriend prominently displayed in her picture gallery to deter any would-be admirers.

It remains to be seen how MySpace fares with such problems, of which only a few have been reported until now. For all the perceived threat, MySpace continues to be a networking phenomenon. The iGeneration is busy sharing away, creating a niche for themselves in the new reality of cyberspace.



© Marziya Mohammedali, 2001-2013