Escaping the Control Loops
Understanding MySpace
by Geert Lovink
Surveillance and control are limitless, there is never enough of it. Continuously new techniques and fields of intrusion immerse that have not yet been covered. Against this ‘modernistic’ growth scenario we could put the ‘kynical’ view which states that control is always limited and cannot move beyond its own technocratic horizon. There are no systems without blind spots. It’s just a matter of time before the bug is found. Software can only read what the programmer of that software instructs the software to detect. There is not more to know once you have found out everything there is to record and watch for. Once a location or behavior has become transparent, there is little chance to detect deviance. One can go into detail and focus on tiny aspects of the classified information, but that does not increase the control over the subjects.

So far activists have protested against new control and surveillance methods through legal means, setting up campaigns to pressure politicians to change the law. Instead of curbing the power over controlling bodies, the most common strategy of concerned citizens, there is another mentality of relative freedom on the rise that ignores the power of control and its do-good activists that fight in the name of people’s privacy. The question that I pose here is the following: Is it possible for tactical media makers, activists and artists to move beyond the critical enlightenment paradigm, to take an amoral position and see control as an environment one can navigate through instead of merely condemn it as a tool in the hands of authorities?

This essay is a reworking, a remix if you like, of Danah Boyd’s findings. This US-American researcher, who holds a PhD from UC Berkeley and works for Yahoo is doing research into youth culture on social networking sites such as Friendster and MySpace. Her findings have interesting implications for the usually passive way we complain about the rise of control technologies. Below I primarily use Danah Boyd’s speech at the I American Association for the Advancement of Science of February 19, 2006 called “Identity Production in a Networked Culture: Why Youth Heart MySpace”.

According to Boyd hanging out has moved online. Teens chat on Instant Messaging (IM) for hours, mostly keeping each other company and sharing entertaining cultural tidbits from the web and thoughts of the day. The same is true on MySpace, only in a much more public way. MySpace is both the location of hanging out and the cultural glue itself. MySpace, IM and SMS have become critical tools for teens to maintain ‘full-time always-on intimate communities’ where they keep their friends close even when they're physically separated. Such ongoing intimacy and shared cultural contexts allows youth to solidify their social groups, says Boyd. The paradox that we have to deal with here is that the highly public and open Internet is used to create intimate exchanges amongst friends and peers. All these conversations can, and will, be stored and indexed for decades to come.

Danah Boyd notes that adults often worry about the amount of time that teenagers spend online, arguing that the digital does not replace the physical. Most teens would agree, says Boyd: “It is not the technology that encourages youth to spend time online - it's the lack of mobility and access to youth space where they can hang out uninterrupted.” In this context, according to Danah Boyd, there are three important classes of space: public, private and controlled.

“For adults, the home is the private sphere where they relax amidst family and close friends. The public sphere is the world amongst strangers and people of all statuses where one must put forward one's best face. For most adults, work is a controlled space where bosses dictate the norms and acceptable behavior. Teenager's space segmentation is slightly different, and this is where Boyd’s theory starts. Most of their space is controlled space. Adults with authority control the home, the school, and most activity spaces. Teens are told where to be, what to do and how to do it. Because teens feel a lack of control at home, many don't see it as their private space.”

Activists have not yet dealt with this complex reality and might, as an initial response, condemn the pro-corporate media attitude of mainstream youngsters as naïve, immature and consumerist. While there may be some truth in this picture, such moralism often has little effect and is in fact irrelevant. A Chomsky-style lecture how evil the Rupert Murdoch empire, owner of FOX and MySpace is, will not result in less MySpace visitors. There is something wrong with media ownership and the dubious roles of venture capitalists and investors in Internet start-ups, not in the need for social networking sites as such. Non-profits should take the lead and not be the last to ask what a wiki is.

In order to get a better grip on the unprecedented success of MySpace and other social networking sites we have to see such Web platforms as social spaces, and only secondary as media. According to Boyd “private space is youth space and it is primarily found in the interstices of controlled space. These are the places where youth gather to hang out amongst friends and make public or controlled spaces their own. Bedrooms with closed doors, for example. Adult public spaces are typically controlled spaces for teens. Their public space is where peers gather en masse; this is where presentation of self really matters. It may be viewable to adults, but it is really peers that matter.”

In countries like the USA teens have increasingly less access to public space. Classic 1950s hang out locations like the roller rink and burger joint are disappearing while malls and 7/11s are banning teens unaccompanied by parents. Hanging out around the neighborhood or in the woods has been deemed unsafe for fear of predators, drug dealers and abductors. Teens who go home after school while their parents are still working are expected to stay home and teens are mostly allowed to only gather at friends' homes when their parents are present. Parents respond to the perceived situation of danger by driving their kids around town in their car up to high school age or even beyond, thereby establishing a vicious circle in which teenagers do not learn to distinguish between a threatening situation and the ordinary dark sites of street life.

Danah Boyd explains that structured activities in controlled spaces are on the rise. “After school activities, sports, and jobs are typical across all socio-economic classes and many teens are in controlled spaces from dawn till dusk. They are running ragged without any time to simply chill amongst friends.” By going virtual, digital technologies allow youth to (re)create private and public youth space while physically in controlled spaces. Instant Messaging serves as a private space while MySpace provides a public component. Online, youth can build the environments that support youth socialization.

It may be obvious that digital publics are fundamentally different than physical ones. They introduce a much broader group of peers. While radio and mass media did this decades ago, MySpace allows youth to interact with this broader peer group rather than simply being fed information about them from the media. The big challenge, says Boyd, that online youth publics mix with adult publics. While youth are influenced by the media's version of 20somethings, they rarely have an opportunity to engage with them directly. Boyd: “Just as teens are hanging out on MySpace, scenesters, porn divas and creature of the night are using MySpace to gather and socialize in the way that 20somethings do. They see the space as theirs and are not imagining that their acts are consumed by teens; they are certainly not targeted at youth. Of course, there are adults who want to approach teens and MySpace allows them to access youth communities without being visible, much to the chagrin of parents. Likewise, there are teens who seek the attentions of adults, for both positive and problematic reasons.”

That said, the majority of adults and teens have no desire to mix and mingle outside of their generation, but digital publics slam both together. In response, most teens just ignore the adults, focusing only on the people they know or who they think are cool. When Danah Boyd asked a teen about requests from strange men, she just shrugged. "We just delete them," she said without much concern. "Some people are just creepy." The scantily clad performances intended to attract fellow 16-year-olds are not meant for the older men. Likewise, the drunken representations meant to look "cool" are not meant for the principal. Yet, both of these exist in high numbers online because youth are exploring identity formation. Having to simultaneously negotiate youth culture and adult surveillance is not desirable to most youth, but their response is typically to ignore the issue.

Parents also worry about the persistence of digital publics. Most adults have learned that the mistakes of one's past may reappear in the present, but this is culturally acquired knowledge that often comes through mistakes. According to Boyd, “most youth do not envision potential future interactions. Without impetus, teens rarely choose to go private on MySpace and certainly not for fear of predators or future employers. They want to be visible to other teens, not just the people they've friended. They would just prefer the adults go away. All adults. Parents, teachers, creepy men.” It is through issues of moral panic such as contact between youth and adult inside MySpace that legislation and control systems are being put into place.

Danah Boyd concludes that while the potential predator or future employer don't concern most teens, parents and teachers do. “Reacting to increasing adult surveillance, many teens are turning their profiles private or creating separate accounts under fake names. In response, many parents are demanded complete control over teens' digital behaviors. This dynamic often destroys the most important value in the child/parent relationship: trust.”

A US student, Fred Scharmen, has responded to Boyd’ theses. He writes: “Boyd’s central thesis is that teenagers are moving to a venue that is outside of the control that adults exercise in the real space of a teenager’s everyday life. I would argue that it is exactly control in the Deleuzian sense that these teenagers and other users of Myspace are submitting to." One could hold against this ‘theoretically correct’ view that teenagers are less bothered by Deleuzian control compared to the constant ‘care’ of their parents and teachers. If Deleuzian control is perceived as a relative gain in freedom, then who are we to take a superior stand and educate these youngsters? As we know, Deleuzian control is active and processual, dynamic and invisible, positive and educational in spirit. It is ‘correct’ and done with the best of intentions—and needs to be criticized for that. It is one thing to point at power operating within decentralized networks, it is another to set up autonomous technical infrastructures as a counter strategy.

There is a serious problem with (academic) Deleuzian and Foucaultian analyses. They see power and control at work everywhere, but fail when it comes to designing answers to these new challenges. How can we resist control in a medium as transparent as the Internet? How can we raise mass awareness amongst next generations to remain outside of corporate and state control? Why aren’t there alternative versions of social networking sites (yet)? Why are code activists primarily focused on free software for geeks and still have little understanding of what non-technical youngsters are looking for online? There is no alternative culture that even claims to be alternative to Flickr, YouTube and iTunes. That’s our late-Deleuzian tragedy. Activist networks have stopped at the level of Indymedia and with the exception of a few inspiring wireless network initiatives there are no autonomous, non-corporate platforms to speak of that can claim to have a hegemonic strategy aimed towards Generation Next. It is in fact questionable if anyone who’s using the Internet can avoid ‘Deleuzian control’.

Another respondent to Boyd’s thesis, Anne Galloway, doesn't understand why in the hype around MySpace user appropriation of technology is considered some sort of final step in technological production. This is a valid point of criticism. It is in the interest of the owners and management of ‘open networks’ to let users work for them, giving the users the illusions that they are in charge. Users of social networking sites are not so much under surveillance. The control aspect, if you’d prefer to use that term at all, ought to be allocated in the harvesting of data bodies. The product that MySpace sells is a detailed analysis of its user profiles. According to Galloway the Web 2.0 story “ends with public users, as if they can finally stand firm and free on a platform like Flickr or Ning, or even a city, and we can forget about them. Sometimes, the biggest problem with user-centered design is that use and user are be-all-and-end-all. When appropriation is understood to be an individual act, then we train our sights on individual actions, and often exclude collective flows or assembling forces.”

If we are truly concerned about Deleuzian-style control over the MySpace generation, we should better ask ourselves why there are so few freely available public services that are ‘cool’ enough for tens of millions of young Internet users to gather in a (more or less) control-free environment. Technically, and even financially, there are, in the West, no obstacles for affluent actors to start-up such sites. The know-how is there, perhaps the political will as well. What’s missing is cultural competence to jump over the walls that have been built between disciplines and generations. So-called user-generated content is not high on the activist agenda that got stuck in 90s formats such as the portal and the email mailinglists. Why have cultural entrepreneurs like the founders of Flickr, YouTube and so no competition from NGOs, local community media and social movements? Before we disdainfully dismiss the naïve MySpace generation, we should better get our act together.


Danah Boyd:
Anne Galloway:
Fred Scharmen: