I have been a computer teacher for the last 23 years. In this capacity, I have frequently found myself in the position of warning students about all sorts of things Internet related. I had a videotape of an old Oprah show that I showed to hundreds of kids; the topic on that particular show was about child predators. A young girl, 14 years old, disappeared with an older man she had been chatting with on the Internet. She was never seen again. I could always watch the looks on the kids' faces and see that the tape was making the impact I wanted.
We've come a long way since we first introduced the Internet into my school system. We now have all sorts of blocks in place to keep students on track and off of "bad" websites. Still, they spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get around these filters – primarily trying to access their MySpace and/or Facebook accounts.
For those three of you in the dark, MySpace and Facebook are websites that host literally millions of profiles where individuals – usually young people ranging in age from ten to thirty - can post anything their hearts desire.
My daughter explained MySpace to me a couple of years ago and then left her password saved on my computer so that I could peruse it in my own time. Through her "networks", I found numerous former students and learned a great deal of useful information about them – where they were now, what schools they had attended, what career paths they had chosen, etc. I frequently could even view photos of their new children with the grandparents, who were in some cases, my friends and peers who had no clue they were featured on the 'net. These networks are determined based on what the user puts in for schools, organizations, interests, and locales.
Thus, people Brooke had never met became a part of her extended network and could see everything she had posted, ranging from quotes to photos to travel itineraries. A wise person could mark their profile "private" – but even then, there is still a bit of information displayed on that person's home page, such as location, age, status (cheerful, lethargic, happy, angry, etc.) and the last time they logged in, which would, of course, verify that someone was on the computer at that time.
The other website, Facebook, was originally designed for college students only and was meant to be a way to find others in your classes and on your campus. You had to have a legitimate college-based email to even create an account. Otherwise, some of the concepts were quite similar to MySpace. Users can post personal tidbits, including courses taken, high schools attended, hometowns, residences, activities, hobbies and interests – in short, your whole life in bits and bytes. One other difference was that only those people who were within the network of your campus could view your profile. Eventually, if you saw someone you knew, you could invite them to be your "friend" – in some cases, giving them access to even more information. This is called an "add" - and rarely is a request for an add denied.
Eventually, Facebook opened its pages to high school students and business people as well. This angered the college crowd, as they were enjoying something that was theirs alone. Despite this, Facebook's popularity continued to climb; after all, it is free and it's a great way to share photos, right?
At one point, however, virtually all of the legions of faithful - college-age and younger students alike - were all up in arms with Facebook. What were they upset about? It seems that Facebook thought it would be a good idea to send notifications, known as a mini-feed, to all the friends of each subscriber every time a new message was posted. If you break up with someone, all 300 of your closest buddies know it immediately – that is, if you choose to change your relationship status on Facebook. There's also a chance it may go unnoticed, as the mini-feed is selected at random; it does not put a news item up for each and every tidbit that finds its way to a user's profile.
Once I figured all this out, I told Brooke she needed to remove the name of her apartment complex from both her MySpace and Facebook profiles. She said, "Oh, no one can see that but the people in my network, who all already know where I live."
She changed her mind last month after her apartment was burglarized and her brand new computer was stolen. She realized that she had drawn a map to the computer by posting photos of (a) the beautifully landscaped entryway to her complex, (b) Brooke entering her front door for the first time with the apartment number clearly visible behind her, and (c) the new computer that she was so excited about and its position in the apartment. Her next door neighbor had far more valuable items behind his unlocked door, yet his belongings weren't touched. We've determined that the Internet information advertised the availability of said computer, along with the hours that she would be away from home. They kicked in her door, grabbed precisely what they wanted, and scrammed. Very scary indeed. She has now removed all of those photos and has learned to refrain from enthusiastic postings like "I'm headed to the game for the weekend!"
Sometimes, the outcome is a bit less sinister, but packs a punch nonetheless. At my son's college, students regularly post messages about their classes and the professors who teach them. If you post that Professor So-And-So is a Class A jerk, everyone within that university's network will know it immediately. More than likely, a brown-noser will inform Professor S.A.S. (unless he has his own MySpace profile, which is entirely possible). Stephen also learns which instructors to avoid by visiting a website which rates the professors. Less than a 3, run for the hills!
I am amazed by how many students post incredibly personal feelings about ex-boyfriends or girlfriends, siblings, parents, etc. When a relationship breaks up, the injured party regularly tracks the profile of the offending party to find out what the root cause may really have been. They watch the relationship status to see if it changes from single to available or anything in between. It's better than the old-fashioned network of mouth-to-mouth gossip, and it frequently leads to drama of the highest variety.
Get a clue, kids! If you don't want your innermost sentiments to be made public, then don't make them a part of your MySpace page to begin with!! It would literally crack me up that they are all upset if I didn't find it so sad that they are unable to see their own responsibility in all of this.
I love the Internet, I really do. What concerns me is that individuals are choosing to let it substitute for real, face-to-face friendships. As long as they are behind the safety of the monitor, they feel they can express their innermost, deepest, darkest secrets without repercussion. I fear they are losing the ability to develop the emotional connections that can last a lifetime.
And a footnote from Brooke, without whom this article could not have been possible and would not have been written:
I think this is definitely an article that needed to be written. I am not at all mad that you wrote about this and I think you should use my stupidity to teach others a lesson. You've learned a lot about MySpace and Facebook already just by looking around on it but here is some info that I think would really help (wiki knows what they're talking about on this one):
Both of those "Rate your Professor" sites are sites that I've used and know are somewhat common. The MySpace and Facebook articles on wiki are really good and even address some of the controversies and issues with safety.
I really do think that Facebook and MySpace can be a good thing, but with all good things come bad things. Sports are great, but you always run the risk of getting injured. It's the same way with sites like these. Having always hated the phone, I've found that it's much easier to keep up with my friends that live away from me through these sites. I think I really would feel much more alone now that I'm out on my own if I couldn't glance into my college friends' lives every now and then.