Fooling Oneself?

A look at the doublethink of being “private” online: MySpace or OurSpace?

The past few years have seen an explosion in the number of schools taking to the Web to find out what students are saying and doing. And punishment has followed, from a Pennsylvania school that suspended one student for creating a parody MySpace profile of his principal to a California school that suspended 20 students simply for viewing one student’s MySpace profile, which contained threats against another student. And some public school systems, like Illinois’ Community High School District 128, are even taking steps to monitor everything their students say on sites like MySpace. According to the Chicago Tribune, under new guidelines, students who participate in extra-curricular activities will need to sign a pledge in which they agree that the school can discipline them if it finds evidence that they have posted any “illegal or inappropriate” material online. Even some police are beginning to patrol MySpace, seeing the site as an effective tool for catching teenage criminals.

All of this new scrutiny poses a vital question for MySpace, which claims 76 million users and is now the largest of all the Web’s social networking sites: What will happen to the site if and when users no longer feel safe expressing themselves there? And in an age where teenagers are accustomed to living their lives online, what will happen when they learn that what they thought was private is, in fact, public, and not without consequence?

“I never thought [this] would happen,” Arethas says of his suspension. “I figured only my friends would see my profile page.”

[…] Dimitri Arethas also feels his rights were violated. “A home page is basically as private as it gets,” he told the Observer at the time of his suspension.

When asked recently if he still felt that way, his answer was much the same.

“Private like exclusive to only your friends? No, not that kind of private,” he said. “[But] someone has to personally seek out your name and find you in order to view your MySpace, which is what stirs me up. That’s where I got some sense of privacy. I could have never imagined someone printing out my profile page and then turning it in.”

Later: For Some, Online Persona Undermines a Résumé

Even later: Editorial: Online Party Crashers