What brings us closer also keeps us apart

Yohanna Figueroa

F or junior communications major Priscilla Barcelo, MySpace is a source of constant entertainment. “I probably go on it a couple times a day, she said. Pathetic I know, but if the computer is there, I will use it for MySpace.”

Barcelo said she spends hours in the music section. She uses the online community as a place to chat with friends without committing to a real- life conversation.

“It’s easier than talking on the phone because you can just type a period at the end of the sentence and stop talking,” Barcelo said.

Although Barcelo doesn’t remember how or when she was introduced to MySpace, it has become an integral part of her daily life, and she is not alone.

Friendster, DeviantART, Facebook, LDS LinkUp, YouTube, del.icio.us, MySpace, GAY.com, Blogger, flickr, and countless other virtual communities are examples of online social networking websites. They comprise a new wave of media that this generation has witnessed the explosion of in their daily lives.

Aside from a source of entertainment, online communities have slowly become incorporated into the way people socialize. The sites have profile features, complete with picture, description and personal information or stats of the user.

Social networking websites are also used as places to be unknown and mysterious because they can provide anonymity. You don’t have to upload a picture of yourself and write true statements.

Online communities allow their visitors to share personal experiences in the form of blogs (online journals) or vlogs (video blogs).

“I think it’s a fascinating medium to explore,” sociologiy professor, Melanie Klein said.

“Technology has altered the way we spend our leisurely time and online communities like MySpace are just a continuation of that trend.”

A member of MySpace herself, Klein was first introduced to the website through an “addicted” student.

In the beginning of last semester, Klein passed out index cards to her students for them to fill out their personal information. She did this in order to get to know her class better. On one card, a student introduced himself, as “Hi, my name is_ and I’m addicted to MySpace.”

“He would get on his Sidekick and check his MySpace all the time,” Klein said.

“He said that he had met girls in clubs and already knew them because of their profiles and that for him, MySpace is about secretly observing people without them knowing and trying to figure them out.”

The anonymous voyeuristic quality online communities provide can be one of its attractive features, Klein said. For example, introverted people can be extroverted online because they’re behind a “curtain” online and there is a sense of security which allows shy people to take the social plunge, Klein said.

Klein’s academic background is in gender studies, and she said she is very interested in “how young women portray themselves in online communities.”

“It’s not unusual for young women to seek validation,” Klein said. She explained that because MySpace, and online communities like it, have a tracking feature which allows you to see how many people have contacted, it gives many young women the sense of popularity and validation that they are craving.

Ellis Godard, assistant sociology professor, said that the effects of spending hours online can be dangerous.

“Something that involves socializing and talking to other people and is fun can easily be addictive,” Godard said.

“There are several books that talk about the amount of time some people spend online and the detriment that it has in terms of not going to work or skipping school, not interacting with their family, having illicit affairs when they’re married, not spending time with the kids, not exercising and forgetting to sleep,” he said.

With all the gadgets our society has, some say the effects of our generation using online communities are the natural effects of what happen when new media is introduced.

“There’s definitely a shift in attention (in) young people from older media (outlets) like television or radio to newer media like the Internet, cell phones and similar devices,” Godard said.

He said society will eventually not think of sites like MySpace as online communities, but instead as a part of their daily lives.

“I think the trend in terms of cyberspace is that it will sort of vanish as it becomes assimilated with the rest of our lives,” he said.

This shift is also visible in the way we communicate in online settings versus offline settings. For example, when people communicate online they feel the need to express their emotions, but it doesn’t have the same effect as it would on a one-on-one basis.

“Using smiley faces and ’emotion icons’ to soften a message doesn’t teach you to make eye contact or to pay attention to personal space, Godard said.

Research shows that people who spend time online gain confidence in themselves and overcome feelings of loneliness and isolation. It can be particularly beneficial for people with disabilities, those who have language problems, or those with tedious work schedules who cannot otherwise engage in social interaction.

“For some groups, going online probably increases their socialization and helps them become more stable contributing members of society,” Godard said.

According to a recent study done by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the time people spend online was not considerably taking away from one-on-one relationships. Some say the countless hours spent online can possibly pay off in boosting time offline due to planning get-togethers and developing an interest in something.

“MySpace has been used for the immigration protests last week by high school students,” Godard said. “That was really forceful, powerful off line behavior, that wouldn’t have happened without the online setting.”

These countless hours spent online can possibly pay off in boosting time offline do to planning get-togethers and developing an interest in something.

The power of MySpace to mobilize people offline may not be on everyone’s agenda in these online communities.

Myspace explains on its site that it’s goal is to be “an online community that lets you meet your friends’ friends, create a private community and share photos, journals and interests with your growing network of mutual friends! MySpace is for everyone.”

With a current network of close to 80 million people, MySpace is one of the most heavily trafficked websites at the moment.

The “open to the public” ethos of MySpace leaves some with an uncomfortable feeling, and looking for somewhere else to connect.

According to Chris Hughes, spokesperson for Facebook.com, which calls itself the “online space that tries to model “real-life” social interactions, “Facebook is the safest social network on the web.”

With a current member list of 7.3 million and 11 million visitors a month, Facebook handles safety with a “two-tiered privacy control system.” The random system of meeting people that MySpace and Friendster provide are eliminated. Facebook’s “access to users’ profiles” are restricted to only other members of their own educational community, because college users must have a .edu email from their school to log in.

Hughes assures that, “no one is ever ‘anonymous’ on the network.”

For some, like Barcelo, the apparent proximity is something they are still adjusting to.

“I don’t like how anybody can just look you up,” Barcelo said.

“I just use MySpace for friends and only friends but I get a couple of weirdos (on MySpace).”

People can be contacted via an internal MySpace email feature. MySpace also has security features that allow you to report a “suspicious profile.”

“I like weirdos like me (but) not the kind that say weird stuff and could possibly kill you. Weirdos who make me feel weird I do not want a friendship (with),” Barcelo said. “I just quickly delete t
hem.”

“I know MySpace isn’t needed, it’s just fun, anything can be abused, so I don’t think it’s healthy or not healthy,” Barcelo said.

“I don’t pretend to be a different person on MySpace than in real life, nope, I keeps it real.”

Yohanna Figueroa can be reached at mizrebelle@gmail.com