The Rhetoric of MySpace

We have each been given a space. A space to call our own and decorate as we please. We can choose to post pictures from our childhoods, broadcast music by our favorite bands, show videos of our lives, express our general interests, adopt online pets, recall our favorite memories or even flat-out lie about who we are. The possibilities for our space are endless because this space is ours and this space means that we belong.

Everyone has an inherent desire to belong. MySpace is “a place for friends,” as it states so clearly in its trademark blue banner. And who cannot identify with being a friend? If there is one place in the Other that we have all identified with throughout most of our lives it is the place of a friend. Therefore, MySpace is a place where everyone can belong.

The MySpace social network was founded in July 2003 by Tom Anderson, an English and rhetoric major from UC Berkley with a Master’s degree in film studies from UCLA. The site was partially owned by a company called Intermix Media, which was bought in July 2005 for $580 million by the parent company of Fox Broadcasting. Since its inception three years ago, the MySpace community has grown to include over 80 million users.

A basic MySpace profile consists or two standard blurbs – “About Me” and “Who I’d Like to Meet.” Profiles also contain a place to describe general interests, music, television, books, movies and other personal details, such as marital status, physical appearance, occupation, age, schools and income. Profiles contain a weblog and a place to upload photos and videos. While all MySpace profiles contain the same basic information, the possibilities are endless when it comes to customizing a page. Websites have popped up all over the Internet that provide free HTML codes to personalize MySpace profiles with background images, colors, extra photographs, music videos, etc.

MySpace enables users to collect and maintain contact with friends (other users) on the network. Profiles also include a place for the user’s “Top 8” friends (with a link to a list of all of the user’s friends) and a section where friends can leave comments and messages for anyone to read. MySpace users gain friends by sending a “Friend Request” to people they know or would like to know. Whereas making friends in the real world involves lengthy conversations and the investment of time, making MySpace friends is as easy as clicking a button! MySpace has both an instant messaging feature and a private e-mail feature, yet the trend has been to use the comment section as a forum for most messages, making most users’ personal communication visible to everyone.

MySpace and some of the less successful social networks that preceded it have had a profound effect on social behavior. A new communication outlet has been created that anyone can use – a method of communication that blurs the lines between online and real-world interactions. MySpace provides us with a forum for flaunting all of our identifications to the world. In the real world, we can only use physical forms of communication to express ourselves to one another and we can only use thoughts and words to determine who we are to ourselves. However, as we create a MySpace profile, we can use all of these words, images and thoughts together to create an interactive display of ourselves in a virtual world to enhance our ability to identify ourselves in the real world.

While our place in the Other is completely ambiguous in the real world, MySpace creates a physical Other – one that we can see. This Other welcomes us to forge a place of our own and identify with whatever and whomever we choose. We have the freedom to express our identities through language, music and images using as much – or as little – information as we see fit.

The Other that is MySpace is a virtual community constructed of millions of users that have the same basic profile to adapt as they please. While hundreds, or even thousands, of these users may become our friends in the MySpace community, we feel as though there is a certain distance from them because MySpace is about us – it is about our identity and the I – not them. Because of this distance, we gain the ability to express our I more thoroughly and clearly in this Other because we are less afraid of experiencing the abject in the virtual community of MySpace than we are of experiencing it in the real world.

The profile pages we create for ourselves on MySpace may represent our identities, but we do have the ability to separate ourselves from them if we want, thus making the abject a less likely possibility. MySpace gives us a novel opportunity to decide how the opinions of others affect our identities. In the real world, negative opinions from our peers may urge us to make changes in our identifications. However, in the virtual world, when we experience a negative comment or attitude towards us, we can either choose to make a change or ignore the comment by distancing ourselves from it. We may think, “This is not the real world – this is only a virtual world and it has no effect on my true identity.”

This freedom from abjection has encouraged teenagers especially to take advantage of the Other that MySpace has created. As teens experience the limbo between childhood and adulthood, it becomes increasingly important for them to express themselves and construct an identity that is socially acceptable. Teens crave the acceptance of those around them, and MySpace has provided them with a public place to identify themselves and reap the praises of their peers via messages, bulletins, comments and picture comments.

Recently, as MySpace has become more and more prevalent in pop culture, adults and parents who have been unfamiliar with the site until now have begun to check up on teens. Most react negatively and are appalled at what today’s youth are posting on their profiles for anyone to access. It is not uncommon for the profiles of naÃ?¯ve teenagers to contain personal information or promiscuous photos. Some parents and schools have even begun to ban the site because of the potential dangers of online socializing. However, although there are potential dangers and the possibility of teenagers posting inappropriate material, MySpace seems to have a positive overall effect on the ability of teenagers to begin discovering their identities and claim a place for themselves in the Other that it has created.

The perceived distance between us and our friends in the virtual world encourages us to step outside our boundaries and express ourselves in ways that might seem unacceptable for us in the real world because of our fear of experiencing abjection or rejection by our peers. These portrayals of our identities on MySpace are different because we do not experience the reactions of our friends face-to-face. Most of our friends will either react with a positive comment or not react at all. On the off chance that someone should react with a negative comment, MySpace gives us the option of either changing the identification or expression that drew that comment or simply deleting the comment and acting as if it never existed. Thus, MySpace prevents us from having to deal with the physical discomfort or self-consciousness that occurs in other social settings.

On the other hand, MySpace, like any other form of Internet communication, provides a forum for us to pose as something we are not. Instead of using a profile to accurately represent who we are, we may create some sort of alter-ego or even use a profile to represent someone completely different. However, the use of MySpace for such misrepresentation is extremely controversial because of its interactive nature. Herein lies one of the major drawbacks to the virtual world – what you see may be very different from what you get. Yet, this has increasingly become an issue since the early days of online chat rooms and instant messaging, and should not overshadow the abundance of benefits a network like MySpace offers.

MySpace gives us the unique ability to identify ourselves with our favorite musicians, celebrities and role models. Almost every band, actor, porn star, bar, comedian and author has created a MySpace profile by now. MySpace give us the opportunity to befriend those who might otherwise be out of our league or unreachable. We can send a friend request their way and know that we will make the best possible first impression – because what better first impression can we make than the one we have created on our MySpace profile?

Furthermore, MySpace is providing an open line of personal communication between celebrities and their fans. For actors, this means an opportunity to promote movies and television shows. For bands, this presents an opportunity to announce and promote tour dates and new album releases. Through bulletins, comments, messages and profile updates, bands and celebrities can maintain constant contact with their fans. This personalized communication shows appreciation and strengthens relationships between these performers and their fans. MySpace has created an Other where we can have a place right next to the place of our role model or the person we look up to the most, which is very rare in the real world and one of the enticements that has drawn over 75 million users to MySpace over the past few years.

Not only does MySpace cater to musicians and celebrities, it has also become one of the most effective advertising websites in the world. The network has the unprecedented ability to bombard us with advertisements in ways other advertising outlets cannot. MySpace does display the typical banner advertising that other sites often feature, but there are other more credible ways to advertise through MySpace. Bars, restaurants, products, stores – all of these commercial entities have the ability to make a MySpace profile, and all of a sudden an advertisement has gone from an intrusion to just another friend sharing our place in the Other.

In its simplest form, a MySpace profile depicts the basic traits and identifications that make up a person’s I. However, there is so much more to the tangled web of millions that make up the social network. Over the past decade, the Internet has evolved to provide us with so many modes of communication. The most popular forms of Internet communication – e-mail and instant messaging – have evolved, taking the place of physical letters, phone conversations and even face-to-face meetings. Online communication has culminated in the development of social networks like MySpace that incorporate several methods of interactive communication at once. These communication outlets have inevitably brought rhetoric into play.

As we have been overwhelmed with more and more methods of communication, we have had to learn to almost market ourselves in the virtual world, while interpreting the language and symbols that represent everyone else around us. While it may seem as though the Internet has provided us an outlet for more clear, concise communication, the reality is that it is quite possible to be more ambiguous in the virtual world than in the real world. The language and symbols present on sites like MySpace are left there indefinitely, able to be analyzed by anyone who wishes to read. Yet, the online hangout is so personal that users are just as hasty encoding messages displayed on their profiles as they are in person.

MySpace is a place in the Other where we can archive our lives and show them off to the world. However, despite granting us the ability to delete and replace information as we change and shift identifications, MySpace is just the latest form of artistic, communicative media we can utilize to express ourselves – not unlike many forms of art that have preceded it. MySpace has given each of us a vehicle in which to place our I in the Other. Yet, as the human race continues to exist and evolve through the decades to come, will future generations look upon symbolism presented on the Internet and MySpace as just another form of writing on a cave or pyramid wall?

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