My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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the disappearance of two girls

It’s been a weird week in the world of MySpace fear and i actually had the opportunity to watch a full cycle. On February 15, Alexis Beyer and Alexandra Dimarco disappeared and their parents went to the media to find them. They were completely and utterly convinced that they were abducted because of their use of MySpace. Beyer’s mother went so far as to say, “if I’m wrong about this whole thing, I’m willing to become the laughingstock of the city.” When folks at MySpace got wind of what was going on, they contacted the police to help in any way possible. Through IP logs, they found that the girls had not logged in for many days before their disappearance. Their profiles were filled with information about how they loved each other; they marked themselves as bisexual. The police were convinced that they simply ran away, angering their mothers. The mothers were scheduled to appear on numerous national TV shows when the two girls were found. They had run away. One came back voluntarily but the other was brought back forcibly.

Nothing has been written in the media exclaiming that the teens are safe.

Nothing has been written in the media to correct the link to MySpace.

Interesting.

Problematic.

I’m curious by what i don’t know. Did the mothers truly believe that it was MySpace or did they believe that screaming foul play due to MySpace would make the media broadcast their teens’ faces? If the teens didn’t log in for a week before their disappearance, can we assume that they were blocked from accessing the site by their parents? Dimarco’s mom indicated that she kept her daughter off her blog because older men would contact her, noting that her daughter would log in whenever possible on other computers. Reading between the lines of what i know, things don’t add up.

This makes me sad on many levels. My sad suspicion is that those kids are hurting and if one of them had to be brought home forcibly, i’m guessing she’s hurting pretty badly. I’m sad because i think that the mothers are either clueless of or the cause of the hurt; i’m hoping the former, but in either case, they probably don’t have a close relationship. And i’m sad by the media and the ongoing demonization of youth public places, particularly MySpace.

Many teens are frustrated by the press’ account of their behavior, but they have no voice. They are frustrated by their parents’ fear, but they have no power. Parents are scared, and their fear is misguided. There are more actions against minors in San Francisco on a daily basis than there have ever been in the 3-year history of MySpace. More and more cases are failing to pan out. Yet, there are more kids on MySpace than in any single state. I wish i knew how to reach out to parents and say, “It’s OK… your kids will be OK… just teach them trust and love.” In statistical terms, MySpace is safer than going to school. It is safer than being in a car with your parents. It is safer than going to the mall. And yet, we are more scared because we don’t understand it and we’re afraid. This makes me so sad because this kind of fear is anxiety producing and culturally dangerous. 🙁

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28 comments to the disappearance of two girls

  • anonymous

    A good friend of mine recently disappeared, and the ‘core’ family & friends definitely worked the media angle to their advantage. Vigils & redundant searches were planned specifically to get media coverage. I wouldn’t be surprised if the mother in this case was willing to do everything and anything to draw as much attention as possible to her plight to get her daughter back.

    Wouldn’t you do the same?

  • (Came via Waxy.org)

    I’d slap down Occam’s Razor here and favor what seems to be the simplest, most obvious answer: that they, like many parents, look to assign fault to a 3rd party…preferably one with a fluidly insidious presence in their life. E.g., something that they couldn’t possibly block and which is too seductive for their child to resist, therefore simultaneously vindicating their children’s character and their parenting.

    That is to say, these mothers cluelessly lashed out at MySpace and the general bugaboo of “The Internet” feels way more believable to me than these mothers being cunningly savvy about the power of scapegoating a currently hot topic in the media and then actually did so in a calculated “ends justify the means” sort of way.

    Anyway, I’m glad the girls are safe. Hopefully the incident will help their families to get a little closer in a fundamental way. No matter what happens from here on out, the mothers should at least thank their lucky stars that their daughters didn’t fall under the dastardly spell of Judas Priest.

  • Ktron

    Personally, I don’t have a problem with myspace getting a bad rep, I don’t approve of their website and the people who use it.

  • i had seen this before, and this story worries me. it’s SOOOO heavenly creatures. i’m just scared for those girls. and i always hope that people won’t have to go through with their parents this kind of pain and suffering.

  • At AOiR We are talking a lot about this topic this week…come in!!

  • B

    So happy the girls are safe.

    danah – Rejoice, you have a world to save, a great social tool to defend and the whole American education to untangle. Best I can do to help your quest is to encourage you: keep on blogging.

  • These kids are creating their own culture, which to me is based on trust, respect and transparency of the rules of the game. There will always be people who cheat, but these communities seem to be able to self correct instead of imprison. You already stated the statistics, but believe is stronger than scientific prove.

    Every time I go to the US (Dutch by birth), it strikes me how implicitly and sometimes even explicitly superior most US citizens I meet feel about their culture. I even read that some 35% of US citizens are of a traditional kind that literally places ‘US’ culture (their 35% version of it anyway) above every other culture in the world and the rest of the world should follow this ‘superior’ example in all aspects. All will then be made well.

    This is off course complete nonsense (I am really reining in my language here), since there is no such thing as a superior culture. If you look at cultural development from the point of view of multiple lines of evolution then the US culture can learn something from the spirituality of the Tibetans, whereas they can learn something on the application of technology to improve living standards from the US, etc.

    Every culture is a prison with a key on the inside. That I think is the basis for the fear of the MySpace attackers. These kids are using the key! They are creating a new culture that they actually want to be part off, want to contribute to and that contributes value to what they do and who they are. This might very well replace the ‘superior’ US culture. If I were part of those who so believe, I would be scared too.

  • I agree with your remarks however, you do somewhat contradict yourself in a recent interview with Wired News where you were quoted as saying.

    “If you have a 50-year-old man connecting to a bunch of 15-year-old girls, that’s something you can look at”

    You’re just adding unnecessary fuel to the fire yourself with statments like that.

    More often than not, those men are harmless.

  • Glad they are safe. Where are the girls’ fathers?

  • Zac

    I’m going to once again make a call for proactive action…

    No media coverage regarding the return of the girls or the revocation of the MySpace link? My question is, did anybody do much of anything to get these messages out? Did MySpace do a press release following the closure of the incident? If not, I’m not surprised that there’s been little coverage. If not, MySpace is partly to fault – relationships with the media must be cultivated. And that’s not an indicator that “the media” is lazy, irresponsible, or evil. Most people working in the media are overworked, underpaid, and just too damn busy to catch some things unless someone out in the public brings their attention to it. If it’s not done via a press release from an involved agency, then it can be done via letters to media sources, or through alernative media, as danah has done by blogging about the incident here. Thank you, danah, for getting this information out. Now we, as part of the blogosphere, can do our part by furthering the spread.

    Now why haven’t the families done anything to correct the information? The families, now that the girls have returned/been returned, no longer have any incentive to court the media. They have no incentive to clear MySpace of previous allegations. The girls are back, and the media coverage is no longer necessary to prompt the search. They’re probably just (understandibly) interested in getting the hell out of the spotlight and, hopefully, figuring out what the hell went so wrong that the girls ran away in the first place.

  • Scott – i’m trying very hard not to help the media perpetuate the fears when i give interviews but that doesn’t mean that my words aren’t used by press to support them. Remember that press quotes don’t have the full context of the interview and it is plenty frustrating for me to see them take my words to go against the message i’m trying to convey.

  • Teens don’t just run off and have to be dragged back if they come from an environment in which they feel safe to talk to their parents about difficult matters. In fact, I’ll drop the “difficult matters” and hold at “safe to talk to their parents.”

    That the mother of one would block her daughter’s access to MySpace because older men would contact her electronically (I’m assuming they didn’t come to the house) strongly suggests that there was not an atmosphere of safe conversation between parent(s) and teen. That is the truly sad part of this story in my view; MySpace and similar venues are distractions for an ongoing national tragedy that grows dysfunctional adults from hurt and abused youth.

    I’m of the opinion that whenever a medium of connectivity is implicated in an actual, or would-be, tragedy, attention should be redirected to the lack of safety (of all types and all degrees) that many teens experience in their own homes.

  • Wow, first off Rudy’s comment about creating their own culture is one of the largest pieces of media theory crap I have read in a long time.

    MySpace is not that radically different than kids hanging out at a mall, playground, school or whatever. whenever people hang out rules and protocols exist, but lets not be all high falutin’ about it.

    Do we need a paper on teen behavior at a food court?

    Also, the media didn’t report on MySpace not being related with the teen’s disappearance because they didn’t have to.

    MySpace was blamed initially as a theory. Because they got to say that it ‘may’ have been myspace-related, they don’t have to issue a new story. Since when has a news organization (or even just a normal person) admitted blame for something when they didn’t have to.

    I do blame them for jumping on the MySpace as evil site bandwagon, but when has news or local news really been principled. There is a reason why scenes on ‘Family Guy’ where the local reporters say ‘Popular Soft Drink Will Kill You Instantly! Find out which one at 11.’ are so cutting.

  • There is a lot of misguided and unfounded fear in the American culture, whether it is recent or historical is debatable.

    I am currently going to grad school at Trinity College in Dublin, Irelend. Tonight, I went to an event that Google.ie put on for the computer community and grad students where Vint Cerf spoke. Walking on my way back home at 10pm, I passed a street in a run down part of town where two girls about 4 or 5 years old where out playing on the sidewalk with a flashlight and a tonka truck. All the house doors were shut, as it was about 33 degrees F, and the girls were having a blast. They showed the flashlight on me and demanded to know where I was going.

    The American side of me wanted to knock on every door and demand why the parents were letting these little girls play on the street after dark without supervision. The part of me that has been in Ireland for nearly 6 months now, realized that that was usual for this society which does not have the same fear level as the US at all. I watch parents let their toddlers walk 10ft ahead or behind them on a busy street all the time.

    All that is to say, it is time to break the culture of fear in the US. When I was a teenager ((old-codger-talk-now)), back in the dark ages of 80s punk, my family let me go to LA for shows and felt as long as I kept my grades up and was home by dawn, all was well. It was my crazy punk friends who convinced me to stay in school and go to college (Thank you, Patricia Morrison). I am well now and don’t regret my teen years.

  • X

    Zephoria,

    With these posts, you are ever more becoming a ‘culturalist’; ie. You already have the “perspective” from far heights: now you are “plumbing down” into the world’s rarified and esteemed areas – its radiant infrastructure.

    So quickly are you ‘descending’ in your flight(the good kind of descent whereby we learn and cull) that:

    Your great winds

    ‘spire even flowers to kill..

    “Nothing is sacred with the creating of ‘the new’ when past ways have been felt.”

    “For the noble, it’s worth life and beyond, for the world’s ‘success via stretching'”.

    (A little[figurative] Poetry for your transition(s))

  • my kids’ schools have recently held, or are planning to hold, parent information nights on myspace and “internet safety.” both my sons are avid myspacers, have in a world of superhuge schools actually made more friends at school via myspace than f2f (but the myspace relationships convert in realtime to simply expand the schoolfriends they both have), have networked with kids at nearby schools to expand that way as well —

    it’s a forum for both selfexpression and socialising. we learn about and from each other (my kids and i) by parsing each other’s blogs.

    as a parent, am i afraid of adult predators in online spaces? (this is the biggest thing tv psa’s and school talks want us to fear) um, not really. my kids are savvy online, and they are not lonely people looking to meet up with strangers. they’re in a domain populated with ppl they already know, where all the new friends/contacts are publicly available to all the old friends (“who’s that?” “oh right, yeah, ok”), so there are certain social checks in place.

    just a sad series of stories about myspace — the one you mention, danah, but also the recent article in the chronicle of higher ed about schools using myspace and/or other such sites to police/monitor students. just sad, all of it.

  • Gina

    This is the most ignorant post i have ever read! Do you know why there has been no coverage since they have been found?? well I DO because one of those girls is my little sister. It hurts to see people like you reacting in this way. What my sister went through was terrible. My mother and sister are very close and she certainly wasnt at fault. Myspace is not the issue here- what happened to those girls was. They have had enough trauma already so stop being so cruel and give everyone a break.

  • Gina – I’m sorry if this message comes across as cruel; it is not meant to be at all. I’m trying to understand what is happening and why things played out the way they did, how to help teens without placing the blame in the wrong place. Did your mother believe that MySpace was at fault? What gave her this impression? In talking with the police after your sister was found, they said very explicitly that she had run away. Was this not the case? You say that she experienced enough trauma already – this completely contradicts what i heard from the police. I don’t think anyone here is trying to be cruel, but we are trying to understand issues that we can only see from afar. If you want to talk to me via email, feel free to contact me at zephoria [at] zephoria.org

  • Chandrasutra spring break picks!

    danah boyd monitors the media misinformation around youth social spaces and underscores the need for a more nuanced response –

  • RD

    I think the comments ‘blaming’ MySpace.com are not completely off base. MySpace is not the problem as a whole at all, but they are currently not doing enough to be part of the solution. My wife and I met on the internet over nine years ago before there were any famous dating sites or networking sites or almost anything like that so I know there are great people to meet and talk to and sometimes get involved with.

    However, last summer our (then) 15 year old daughter ‘chatted’ with a 24 year old man who she ended up sneaking out of the house to sleep with on two occasions. He may face statutory rape charges and will at least have the arrest on his record for anyone to find in a background search for the next 7 years.

    My problem with MySpace is it still looks as though they are not doing their ‘due diligence’ with regard to protecting younger users. They say 14 and 15 year olds profiles are private and accessible only by invitation. Kids invite people all the time and our daughter simply lied that she was 16 to get a public profile. I’ve seen multitudes of young-looking profiles with ridiculous ages such as 101 or 88 and such to get around the private restriction.

    Which brings up the question of why _all_ profiles under 18 are not private and heavily restricted? The age of consent in several states is still 18 and that is also the age at which we expect fully ‘adult’ behavior from our youth.

    Some dating sites I’ve seen offer the option of sending in a copy of a state-issued ID to become “verified” – people know that’s you and you’re the age you claim and you haven’t just culled somebody else’s pic off the internet. MySpace doesn’t have to be the fake ID police, but they’d be doing more than just taking millions of teenagers’ word for it! The utilization of verified, but uncharged credit cards that many adult sites use seems to be reasonably effective also.

    But probably the biggest oversight MySpace is making is not screening uploaded photos. Again the examples of dating sites shows that no one dies of delayed gratification from having to wait maybe 48 hours to have uploaded pictures checked for “acceptable” content. And some of these dating sites allow photos of sex acts so you can imagine their definition of ‘_un_acceptable’!

    Surfing just a few clicks from my daughter’s MySpace profile I run into breasts galore and genitalia of both sexes in various states of arousal as well as acts of penetration etc, all in violation of their policies. MySpace takes those down when notified but really, who out there is going to surf past an attractive erotic picture and say to themselves “that’s gotta go!”?

    MySpace will remove it, but why can it get there in the first place?! It even occured to me that MySpace is flirting with charges of child porn because ultimately it is _their_ responsibility for the content on their website! That may not bite them in the rear until some prosecutor looking to make a name for themselves goes after them. MySpace would almost certainly win against such charges, but the old saying “there is no such thing as bad publicity” is not always true.

    Unfortunately, like many businesses, they seem to be taking the path of least expenditure by not hiring the extra staff and spending the money on security technology solutions despite HUGE growth and profits. I hope they wise up before some tragedy occurs that really _CAN_ be placed largely at their doorstep.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am completely against any form of internet censorship for those who can prove they are 18, but younger ‘surfers’ are not being protected from their own naivete and lack of experience, sometimes to their detriment.

  • chip navarro

    been there done that,,,,my space and clone, tagworld, is filled with naked lesbians, some 17y.o.,,w/older women be-friending them through ‘friend’ links. trolling has taken on a whole new meaning..and the guys?? just got out or are about to go in,,prison, that is……..
    mom’s better beware,,we all should…thnx

  • Rachelle

    Myspace, I believe, started out like many things, with good intentions. At first it was the big new thing to do and everyone for one reason or another had a certain level of curiosity about it, whether they would openly admit it or not. Myspace has made it’s big splash and has apparently left some serious watermarks behind to which I believe a good amount of caution should be applied to.
    Age limit? Should there be one for young people who want myspace? Perhaps. But do i think that odd things happening would still take place? Yes i do.
    I think knowing what’s going in a child’s life is the first step to understanding what’s going on for them personally. Do i believe that myspace served as those two girls’ ultimate demise? Maybe yes and yet maybe no. I have a hard time believing that the same parents who raised these two young ladies from the time of conception until their adolescent years, had no clue that their daughters were spending extra time on the computer. I am not placing the blame entirely on the parents at all. But to some extent, one has to wonder, why do parents choose to get involved seriously only after something detrimental happens?
    I pray for both of these girls’ safety. I hope that everything works out in the end, i really do. I really wish that we lived in a world where things like this didn’t happen. But we do, and therefore I hope that we all are endowed with the gift of wisdom.

  • I am not surprised that the news media did not cover the responsible role that MySpace played in this. The kids being safe and a dot.com being responsible wouldn’t generate ratings, sell papers or make a great HBO adaptation.

    If you substituted the words MySpace for Elvis Presley or rock n roll the story could have been written 50 years ago. Whilst times change, the publics taste in news and their fear of new cultural phenomena doesn’t. MySpace is in a classic part of media/sub-cultural adoption curve that video games, rock music, the beat poets, acid house (in the UK at least) and television have all been through.

  • The media gets it wrong. Surprise.

    Recently I’ve had a chance to follow some stories in the media, where I had inside information, as in I KNOW what’s going on.

    In every single case, the media version has differed significantly from what I know to be true. Not just on the details, but on the basic issues.

    My sad and troubling and entirely unsurprising conclusion: The news media are no longer trustworthy.

  • RD – here’s a question for you: if people use a site to date, even if that’s not the designer’s intention, should the designers be forced to treat it as a dating site and put the kinds of safety restrictions you’ve suggested? The reason why dating sites have ID checks is that you have to pay to participate. It is a closed membership, private space and people pay dues to be there.
    The vast majority of people don’t use MySpace to get dates, although some certainly do. Of course, the thing about dating is that people will use any medium to attract dates if that’s what they’re looking for.

    Try seeing MySpace as a digital public and imagine if you had to give an ID to go to a park because some people happen to meet in parks to go out on dates. Of course, i worry that this is the direction our government is going in in physical spaces as well – random identity checks and national IDs. But is this something that we should promote? Something we should set as a precedent digitally?

    The folks at MySpace do look at the 1.7M photos that are uploaded daily, but they’re scanning for porn and illegal material, not trying to check for ages. They are dealing with the same kinds of illegal behavior that cops stop in the park.

    What is the value for asking for identification? What are the costs? I would argue that it puts an undue burden on people who simply want to go outside and hang out. Your suggestion also puts a huge undue burden on minors who don’t have IDs, on people from foreign countries (especially minors). I totally understand that it might help prevent teens, but is it really the best way? Does it not limit more than it protects?

    Do structural restrictions really help people learn to grow up and make wise decisions? Or does it just make the problem appear to go away? 21+ IDs for clubs and alcohol purchasing have certainly not stopped alcohol consumption by minors. I would argue that it has made it worse.

    I worry about the ways in which we try to restrict freedom online out of our good efforts to prevent horrors. Unfortunately, bad things will happen. But the actual magnitude is very small. Do we want to lose more freedoms just for the hopes that we might prevent a fraction of those bad situations? Or can we use education to build trust and social responsibility back into our society so that people can be free and safe?

  • MySpace is fine…if you just talk to your friends that you know only! If you put up fake info abi=out yourself like being (Bi) that’s your problem, but MySpace is Fine to me.

  • No Name

    i have a myspace. i do not add people i know. i dont even add people i sort of know.. i have no clue why there is this whole anti myspace

  • Paprents shouldn’t assume that myspace is always the problem parents get scared because they hear myspace on the news well there are millions of members and the % is not very big. Young users should never add people they don’t know just there friends.