Social networking and social media — sites such as MySpace.com and YouTube.com — are often written about as though they are universally a good thing. And there’s no question that it’s great to have places where kids can socialize online, so to speak, and share blog posts and photos and music, or where they can go and watch video clips of people trying stupid bicycle tricks or kittens trying to get out of Kleenex boxes or whatever. But as my friend Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 is fond of pointing out, there is a dark side to these kinds of networks.
A couple of stories I came across recently reminded me of that. One was actually fairly comical: a university student posted a picture of a teacher’s dog on MySpace, along with a note saying that he planned to kill the dog — which got animal rights activists and others all in a lather. However, it turned out to be part of a media assignment in which students were asked to do whatever they could to make the teacher’s dog famous (I would have said the student should have won hands down, but threatening the dog was not allowed).
Another story involving students and teachers saw some high-school students set up a MySpace page that they pretended had been set up by their teacher, confessing that she was a lesbian, etc. She is suing two students for defamation and libel, and one of the students is facing criminal charges. And another story that just recently broke in Toronto involves high-school kids videotaping each other having fist-fights and then uploading them to YouTube.
Obviously, these kinds of stories are just the tip of the iceberg. Others have written about adults trolling for sex with children on MySpace, and the social-networking site has been sued by the family of a 14-year-old girl who says she was sexually assaulted by a man she met through MySpace. And some critics of YouTube have argued that having a forum to upload video of people fighting or engaging in other questionable behaviour can encourage that kind of behaviour.
True? Who knows. It’s possible that YouTube and MySpace and VampireFreaks.com (the social-networking site for goths and emos that was associated with the recent shooting in Montreal) are just making it easier to discover things that have always existed, but were harder to come across before the Internet. In any case, I expect we’ll be seeing more of these types of stories — but the potential liability of MySpace or YouTube in such events remains a big question mark. And if you’re a parent, think about what the parents of Amanda Wenk went through — a high-school senior, she uploaded racy photos of herself and her friends and they spread around the Internet like wildfire, until she had become a quasi-celebrity.
Pete Cashmore at Mashable says Bebo — which is even more popular than MySpace in Europe — is cracking down on bullying and other behaviour.