Digging Deeper::MySpace, Wikipedia Cope With Growing Pains

    by Mark Glaser
    April 18, 2006

    i-76418b225f2128eb8c66cd41a72317c7-danah boyd.JPG
    When a TV show or radio program becomes a hit, the producer usually makes more money and everyone benefits. But when an online community becomes hugely popular, complications arise with the influx of a mainstream audience and trouble-makers who have no history with the site. That’s because TV and radio are broadcast or one-to-many outlets, while user-generated content sites rely on interactivity and many-to-many communication.

    Two high-profile examples of booming online communities are MySpace, the popular hangout and social networking site, and Wikipedia, the community-generated online encyclopedia. The former has tens of millions of registered users, and has been hammered by press accounts that sexual predators are preying on unsuspecting teens (the latest story is about sex offenders putting up profiles). The latter has grown to more than 1 million English-language articles, causing difficulties in the community in deciding what’s notable to keep and what should be thrown out as unimportant.

    Social networking scientist danah boyd (pictured here), who lowercaps her name, has done a lot of thinking recently about both of these online communities. boyd works at Yahoo Research in Berkeley, Calif., and is in a PhD program at UC Berkeley’s School of Information. She has done a lot of research on social interactions and online identity, including a master’s thesis at MIT Media Lab titled Faceted Id/entity: Managing representation in a digital world.


    “I grew up online — I was the first generation of teens who had this sort of technology,” boyd told me via email. “I’ve always been fascinated by social communities online and off. I got involved with social networks after recognizing that there were interesting things to be found in Usenet [early online communities] and email data back in 2001. I think it is important to understand why people do what they do, online and offline, and how the two intersect and make sense in people’s lives.”

    boyd became a more well known offline personality as she became an expert on social networks for Fox News, NPR and other mainstream outlets during the MySpace boom and panic. One of boyd’s friends posted an entry about her on Wikipedia, and then she had the strange experience of witnessing Wikipedians (as people in that community are called) arguing over whether her entry was notable enough to keep. Worse than that, she felt helpless when seeing her entry riddled with errors.

    Last Saturday, she wrote in her blog, apophenia, that her Wikipedia entry had her name misspelled and improperly capitalized, her birth year was wrong, and various other niggling mistakes came from erroneous mainstream media accounts of her life. But because she felt like it was improper to edit her own entry on Wikipedia, she only noted the errors on her blog — and the magic of Wikipedia is that the fixes have been made by now.


    “Now, I love Wikipedia,” boyd wrote. “But I think that there’s something broken here. Personally, I would rather my entry been deleted than have this very inaccurate…entry written. (Deletion would’ve been far more entertaining.) I think that this approach to notability [where people argue over what’s notable] makes Wikipedia look downright foolish. Personally, I’m embarrassed by this public representation full of mistakes. There has to be a better way to handle living people. The ‘no original research’ approach is really not working here.”

    Of course, Wikipedians also corrected boyd in her comments and noted that she can very well edit her own entry as an expert on her life. The problems with subjects editing their own entries were due to people trying to delete embarrassing facts or puff themselves up. Recently, Congressional staffers tried to turn their bosses’ entries into promotional bios. (Read the Wikipedia forum about edits on the entry for Rep. Marty Meehan [D-Mass.], for example.)

    Fellow academic blogger Adam Megacz explained to boyd that the question about what to delete from the collaborative encyclopedia has been a burning question of late.

    “It’s probably not much consolation, but all of Wikipedia has been having this problem lately,” Megacz wrote. “There appears to be a ‘deletion gestapo’ going around and nuking anything that can’t be validated using the first four hits from a one-word search on Google. Kinda sad. I stopped contributing regularly a while ago because keeping up with deletions/alterations by the librarian types got to be too much effort. These people cause real problems for any sort of material that isn’t taught in high school.”

    The ‘Moral Panic’ Over MySpace

    While Wikipedians struggle with the booming popularity of the encyclopedia and its legions of editors and contributors, the people who live at MySpace have had to deal with a massive mainstream influx of immigrants — kind of a “there goes the neighborhood” moment without the racist overtones.

    When I was pondering whether MySpace was just a passing fad — as Friendster was before it — I got in touch with boyd to get her expert opinion. Not only did she answer my simple queries, but she wrote an in-depth, utterly fascinating essay on the subject.

    In the essay, boyd lays out a concise history of Friendster and MySpace, and explains how one faltered while the other soared. She says Friendster was a victim of its own success, because when mainstream folks started pouring in, and the site’s servers slowed considerably, the hip early-adopter crowd vacated. Plus, Friendster frowned upon people not following their top-down rules, while MySpace has let freedom (and chaos) reign. According to boyd, the “benevolent dictators” who run the two services have very different styles, with Friendster founder Jonathan Abrams being cold and corporate and MySpace founder Tom Anderson coming off as your friendly buddy.

    “People were hanging out on Friendster before they hung out on MySpace,” boyd wrote. “But hanging out on Friendster is like hanging out in a super clean police state where you can’t chew gum let alone goof around and you’re told exactly how to speak to others. Hanging out on MySpace is more like hanging out in a graffiti park with fellow goofballs while your favorite band is playing. That said, there are plenty of folks who don’t want to be hanging out in a graffiti park and they are not sticking around on MySpace as a result.”

    The problem with predators at MySpace has been recounted many times in the media, an echo of all the other Internet scare stories that have grabbed the media’s attention in the past. boyd told me in an email that the public panic over MySpace is overblown.

    “There are only a small number of cases where something bad has actually happened,” she said via email. “Remember: Most of what you are hearing in the press turns out to not be associated with MySpace at all. Just because teens do something stupid/bad and they have a MySpace account does not mean that they did it because of MySpace. Teens are more likely to be abducted at school than on MySpace. Teens are more likely to die in their parents’ cars than be killed because of MySpace. Teens are more likely to be raped at school or at home than because of MySpace.”

    In her essay, boyd argues that if lawmakers restrict the freedom of teens online due to the moral panic over MySpace, all of social networking will suffer and online communities will lose their free speech and anonymity. But she thinks that if/when MySpace loses its currency with teens, it will be because of the normal cycle of fads and generational desires and coolness factors. Her conclusion:

    The primary value [of MySpace] right now has to do with identity production and sharing [young people creating a public face], practices that are more critical to certain populations at certain times in their lives and it is possible that “growing up” will be marked by leaving MySpace (both for the teens and the 20-somethings). It is also possible that getting on MySpace will be marked as ‘uncool’ by the next generation (in the same way that fashion changes across generations).

    Feeling spammed and invaded by advertisers (or musicians) who seek friendship might turn off users and an increase in this could cripple usage. It is possible that the site will stop evolving with its users. It is possible that people will find new, more interesting ways to do identity production and sharing. It is also possible that the next blinky shiny object will attract users away in clumps, particularly if they better support users’ desires in an innovative way. But none of these are right around the corner.

    Though she didn’t mention Wikipedia (and it’s obviously a different animal), I wonder whether the online encyclopedia is suffering a similar fate right now as it becomes better known and flooded with all kinds of miscreants. The burgeoning popularity of Wikipedia and MySpace are perfect case studies in what happens to online communities when they outgrow their cult status and are exposed to the unwashed masses. How they both evolve in the coming years and deal with that influx will be critical to their survival as useful tools for knowledge or social expression.

    What do you think about the way online communities grow? Have you left any online communities because of the way they have changed over the years? Do you think Wikipedia and MySpace will evolve and thrive for years to come?

    [Photo credit of danah boyd: Paula le Dieu]

    UPDATE: Here are the other Wikipedia Week stories on MediaShift:

    Email Debate: Wales Discusses Political Bias on Wikipedia

    Believers, Negativists Debate Wikipedia’s Trustworthiness

    Is There a Neutral View on George W. Bush?

    • MartinMancino

      danah is a scientist? That’s curious. Her bio says she is a student. Have most of her papers been presented as opinion, as academic work or as research in peer-reviewed publications? Is it her employment at Yahoo that makes her a scientist? Is it the norm for young scientists to build their reputation by appearing in national media, such as on Bill O’Reilly’s show where the computer science graduate was represented as a cultural anthropologist? Maybe such loose attributions tell us something about the context in which PBS describes Glaser as an “expert” on new media.

      Not that Wikipedia is a reliable source — even she questions its claims about her — but according to Wikipedia, her avocation as a commentator grew from her publications on her own blog, not from her research published in juried journals.

      Glasser writes “when an online community becomes hugely popular, complications arise with the influx of a mainstream audience and trouble-makers who have no history with the site.” What this “expert” and the student scientist who is the primary source for his Web-log post didn’t tell us was that complications can also arise from an influx of experience that can challenge the new community’s presumptions. The influx can bring people with experience in more sophisticated social networks who are able to expose flaws and weaknesses of insular new networked associations.

      “unwashed masses” ???

      “niggling” ??? that would be the adjective perhaps related to “niggard” as in “niggardly”???

      “a there goes the neighborhood moment ” ???

      Is this really PBS ???

    • danah’s one of the most astute observors of the social media/social networking space, regardless of what label you wish to apply to her. I think her astute observations speak for themselves.

      Keep up the good coverage, Mark, of this important and evolving shift in the mediasphere.

    • I think it would be interesting to discuss how users identify themselves as part of a community. They may opt-in to email newsletters to stay informed, they may lurk on listservs, but not actually interact. Certainly all individuals long to be identified with some community and can build their own online personality, as opposed to their offline personality.

      I certainly see older individuals to be confused by these online communities because they don’t understand how they can be controlled.

      The growth is fascinating and the potential to engage is a marketer’s dream, but also a nightmare if they don’t know where to start.

    • MartinMancino with the Ad Hominem 1.0!

    • Martin,
      Outside of questioning danah’s credentials and my credentials (and some of my language), your main point seems to be that a larger audience for online communities might also bring in people “with experience in more sophisticated social networks who are able to expose flaws and weaknesses of insular new networked associations.”

      Can you be more specific? Who are these people and which sophisticated social networks are they coming from? I’m assuming you mean Wikipedia and not MySpace, and that the newbies on Wikipedia are exposing flaws of some sort. What flaws?

    • Bob

      The best we can hope for Wikipedia is that it just goes away. Blogs make a lot of sense in supplementing journalism.

      Wikipedia is a mudpit where entries can be edited endlessly by people with either agendas or misinformation. If someone with real knowledge of a subject attempts to edit an entry, they are viewed as biased. The subject is at the mercy of anyone with a web browser willing to register with wikipedia.

      People I know of who are subjects are choosing to just ignore the biased and inaccurate entry on them and encouraging people who know them to stay out of the mudpit.

    • Identity is hard when people know you in multiple contexts. My primary identity is as an academic.

      Perhaps my CV is the best indicator of my self-view. Three pages are dedicated to peer-reviewed papers, academic conference presentations, and research projects. I list peer-reviewed workshops and panels i’ve run, juried art shows in which my work has been displayed, courses that i’ve taught. I list all of the journals and conferences that i’ve reviewed for. I have a single line that states that i maintain a blog. I have another line that says that i’m called as an expert by mass media “including The New York Times, NPR, Wired and Fox.” There are three lines dedicated to my research at Yahoo! under “work experience.”

      I blog to let off steam, to get ideas out while they are still a work in progress. I don’t view this material to be formal documentation of my research, although i have found that many entrepreneurs, designers and technologists find great value from my musings. By the time that a peer-reviewed article comes out, it is often too late. Hell, my primary ethnography on Friendster still isn’t out due to the lengthy peer-review process.

      While i don’t situate my musings on MySpace in academic literature or discuss my methodology on my blog, my reflections on MySpace are coming from research that is very much academic. But when i’m blogging, i try to speak to mass audiences and try not to dive into how Warner challenges Habermas concerning the nature of publics. My dissertation will certainly cover this. Which is why i suspect that most mainstream media and businesspeople will never read it.

      Mainstream media certainly picks up on my blog commentary because it’s in-the-moment. When my Friendster ethnography finally gets published in 2007, i’m sure they won’t care about Friendster. But what i said in public does not contradict what i said in that ethnographic account. The same is true about MySpace. My hope is to get a book out by 2008. Perhaps we will still care about MySpace? Perhaps not. But i would hope that mainstream media realizes that the reason that i’m credible is because i have an academic track record. I am indeed still a student, and one who will hopefully graduate one day. But i am far enough along in my career that it’s not particularly fair to say that i know nothing. There’s a reason that i get to run academic panels, teach students (not just TA) and keynote academic conferences. It’s just that i’m not finished with my dissertation yet.

      As for whether or not i’m a scientist, ::shrug:: I don’t even know where to begin on the -ists. I’m certainly an ethnographer. Some would argue that makes me a scientist, others wouldn’t.

    • I’m not convinced its “growing pains” as you put it. MySpace was put together on the coat-tails of Blogger and LiveJournal, by utilising the popularity of MSN Messenger, which in turn was on the coat tails of ICQ. MySpace is as unoriginal as they come. And whilst all of these “originals” were fairly well planned out, and put together with some degree of intelligence and looking towards long term goals, MySpace was just pushed together and there you have it. Of course there are going to be problems. If you don’t plan something, it is ultimately going to fall apart. Being popular is nice for a while, but if you’re just popular for the sake of being popular, its not good.

      In a similar way, Wikipedia came about as a spin off of Nupedia. Nupedia itself was the idea of a free online encyclopaedia, with the quality and accuracy of Britannica, World Book and Encarta, that used peer review models, with a group of experts getting together. But then Larry Sanger had the idea of utilising wiki software to quickly bash together a few entries. And Wikipedia became the fun side project of Nupedia.

      Except that when Wikipedia became more popular than Nupedia, and especially once Jimmy Wales gave up on Nupedia, people forgot that nobody was ever supposed to take Wikipedia seriously. And Jimbo, craving popularity, retrospectively pretended that Nupedia didn’t exist, that it was his idea and not Larry Sanger’s, and so forth. He wanted popularity rather than accuracy. And rather than aim at an actual encyclopaedia, the aims instead became to reach the masses and change history.

      There are no growing pains going on. These are ultimately doomed projects. Neither project had a real end goal. And you can’t sit back now and think that hey we can plan towards an end goal now, when we didn’t do any planning to start with. The only solution is to start over.

      They will both continue of course, and people will use them, and see them for what they are. But ultimately, what will happen, with both projects, is that someone with a bit of forethought will plan the projects properly, and make new, rival projects. And these projects will work, while the less competent MySpace and Wikipedia will lose popularity and fail. But right now, while we are waiting for someone to make an alternative, we are left with no choice but to look to these failed ventures, and choose either to go with them or to have nothing.

    • A couple misconceptions. Jonathan Abrams is not a cold person, he just isn’t. That’s not what danah boyd says about him anyway. She says he was offputting and harsh on his users. Standing alone this is a simplistic, and largely irrelevant, explanation for why Friendster stalled while Myspace grew. What about, say, Friendster’s scaling problems thta caused it to run very slowly?

      Myspace is way out of control in multiple ways — policing minors’ Internet usage and privacy, copyright violation, spam level, etc. If they don’t start shoring things up it’s going to become unusable and then crumble sooner or later. Admittedly, stories of pedophiles using it as a hunting ground are, though probably true, probably blown out of proportion. Anyplace where adults and children meet without external supervision runs some risk — parks, schools, the family home, etc., and I haven’t seen any argument that Myspace is worse than anyplace else in this regard. My guess is it’s just press sensationalism. Before chat rooms the boogeyman was satanic cults and heavy metal music, before that Dungeons and Dragons, before that, the soda fountain or rock n roll and Hoola Hoops.

      boyd’s other comments are perceptive and ring true.

      From a poster: “The best we can hope for Wikipedia is that it just goes away.” A strange comment about the greatest and when properly used most reliable general reference work in the world. Merely pointing out that it’s possible to influence Wikipedia is not a proof that this has happened in a widespread way, much less a sound argument that the service is bad. Any reference work can be manipulated — do you really think that magazine editorials, newspaper stories, blogs, search engines, and print encyclopedias are immune to bias, error, hoax, influence, and so on? An entire industry, public relations, is based on the opposite. The remarkable thing about Wikipedia is that it has a very public self-corrective mechanism. Whether or not it will maintain its quality as it grows and evolves is another question. My guess is that it will fall victim not to hacks and spoofs, but to concerted and widespread efforts at spin control. But the mainstream press — and human consciousness overall — have already fallen victim. I doubt there is any long-term stable idea space free from attempts to control public perception.

    • Shivani

      The article is good and states the problems that people face on social networking and information sites. But the immense potential this concept portrays is lost. Sites like orkut are doing wonders in Brazil and India.
      Professional Networking sites like linkedin and siliconindia network in India are doing a great service by getting professional advice all free online.

    • Kim

      Both Myspace and Wikipedia suck and have become the abode of losers. It took time for the “unwashed masses” to find them and it will take time before they realize people like me have left them. It’s a shame but the net in general attracts too many guys who wish to exploite the anonymity of the internet and ruin the online experience of people with more positive and productive intentions. Will craigslist, myspace & all the rest become a library of “dic” pics and obnoxious statements?

    • hode stevens

      @ BOB : you are wrong. information from ANY source can be wrong. footnote surfing is what to do, erasing the wikipedia site is a silly idea.

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