Category Archives: myspace

doing the math on MySpace and registered sex offenders

The Attorneys General – mostly angry at me and other researchers – have spent considerable time trying to publicly reject the ISTTF report that was published last month. This week, I watched as they blasted the airwaves with an announcement that 90,000 sex offenders have been removed from MySpace. This PR campaign is intended to provoke fears in the American psyche, to serve as “proof” that we were wrong. The underlying message is, “See, social network sites are dangerous!” Fear mongering by public officials is quite effective, but, once again, I’m frustrated to see the framing miss the reality of the data. For this reason, I want to challenge the message of the current PR fear campaign.

First, it is important to acknowledge that there are dozens of crimes that put people on the sex offenders list that have nothing to do with children. It differs state by state, but includes a variety of adult-adult crimes and even some crimes like indecent exposure in public. There is no indicator that the presence of those convicted of such crimes put children at risk.

Second, it is critical to note that it is not illegal for an individual who is on the sex offenders list to join a social network site unless it is part of their parole conditions (which constitute a very small number of cases). It is MySpace’s prerogative and they have been proactively engaged in removing these individuals as a private enterprise because they believe that it benefits the community of MySpace. Yet, many who are kicked off only learn that they are unwelcome once they are kicked off.

Now, let’s do some math. The National Alert Registry has over 491,000 registered sex offenders on its list. In data collected in December, Pew found that 35% of American adults are on social network sites. If sex offenders were a representative population, we’d expect that 172,000 of them would be on social network sites. Now, I know nothing of who is on that list, but if they were to skew younger or more urban, we’d expect even more of them to be on those sites. Regardless, the number announced by MySpace should not be unexpected or shocking.

One of the worst parts of dealing with quantitative numbers of any kind is our tendency to read into them what we want to read into them. We see a number like 90,000 and expect that it’s high and outrageous. But it is not more than would be expected by statistical patterns. And it’s not an automatic indicator of a problem. We need to know WHO those registered sex offenders are and WHAT they are doing to get a critical assessment of the risk. By focusing solely on the number, we introduce a red herring and, in doing so, miss the whole point of our report: there are children online engaging in risky behavior who desperately need our help. Blocking adults who have raped other adults, while likely desirable in general, does NOTHING to help at-risk kids.

Why are we so obsessed with the registered sex offender side of the puzzle when the troubled kids are right in front of us? Why are we so obsessed with the Internet side of the puzzle when so many more kids are abused in their own homes? I feel like this whole conversation has turned into a distraction. Money and time is being spent focusing on the things that people fear rather than the very real and known risks that kids face. This breaks my heart.

Update: Others have been responding to this issue with some very valuable and relevant content that I feel should be shared:

re: MySpace and sex offenders

Regarding the report that MySpace has obliterated 29,000 accounts that are linked to registered sex offenders, please read Stephanie Booth. Her analysis is spot-on and I couldn’t say it any better than she did. So go read it already.

For reasons that I cannot explain, the Attorneys General have far better PR machines than MySpace. What you are seeing in the press is what the AGs have spun out in their ongoing efforts to force legislation to ban youth from social sites. This is about throwing out numbers that will make people feel afraid; it is not about trying to paint an accurate portrayal of what’s happening. The construction and perpetuation of fear from our most powerful lawyers in the nation makes me sick. (Then again, the most powerful one keeps lying to Congress so what should I expect?)

DOPA is back under a new title

While i was off getting my eyes zapped, Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) introduced a new bill into the Senate called “Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act” (S49). It has all of DOPA in it and then some. This time, it’s squashed between some small changes to child porn legislation (upping the fines namely) and restrictions on the sale of children’s personal information for marketing purposes. It’s just as infuriating and i can’t stomach the idea of going through these discussions again. God, i’d make a terrible politician.

As Marianne Richmond says, this DOPA, Jr. is definitely DOPA Extra and just as dopey as the last one. Le sigh.

Anyone have any good ideas on how to make this one go away? When will people realize that this is a bad idea?

comScore misinterprets data: MySpace is *NOT* gray

Read the ComScore press release. Completely. Read the details. They have found that the unique VISITORS have gotten older. This is _not_ the same thing as USERS. A year ago, most adults hadn’t heard about MySpace. The moral panic has made it such that many US adults have now heard of it. This means that they _visit_ the site. Do they all have accounts? Probably not. Furthermore, MySpace has attracted numerous bands in the last year. If you Google most bands, their MySpace page is either first or second; you can visit these without an account. People of all ages look for bands through search.

Why is Xanga far greater in terms of young people? Most adults haven’t heard of it. It’s not something that comes up high in search for other things. Facebook’s bimodal population pre-public launch shows that more professors/teachers are present than i thought (or maybe companies are more popular than i thought? or maybe comScore’s data is somehow counting teens/college students as 35-54…).

Can someone tell me exactly how comScore measures this? Is it based on the known age of the person using a given computer? Remember that many teens are logging in through their parent’s computer in the living room. Is it based on reported age? I kinda doubt it but the fact that there are more 100+ year olds on MySpace than are living should make people think about reported data. Is it based on phone interviews? How do they collect it? This isn’t really parseable into English.

My problem is that all of these teen sites show a heavy usage amongst 35-54. I cannot for the life of me explain how Xanga is 36% 35-54. There’s just *no* way. I don’t get how the data is formulated but it seems like an odd pattern across these sites to see a drop in 25-34 and a rise in 35-54. Older folks aren’t suddenly blogging on Xanga. So what gives? My hunch is that comScore’s metrics are consistently counting teens as 35-54 across all sites. My hypothesis is that because comScore is measuring per computer and teens are using their parent’s computer, comScore can’t tell the difference between a teen user and a parent user. If so, maybe all this is telling us is that parents have definitely listened to the warnings over the last year and are now making their teens access these sites through their computer?

Finally, when we talk about data, we also need to separate Visitors from Active Users from Accounts. The number of accounts is not the same as the number of users. The number of visitors is not the same as the number of users.

All this said, there is no doubt that more older people are creating accounts. Parents are told that they should check in on their kids. Police officers, teachers, marketers… they are all logging in to look at the youth. Is that the same as meaningful users? Some yes, some no.

From my qualitative experience, the vast majority of actual users are 14-30 with a skew to the lower end. Furthermore, the majority of the accounts are presenting themselves as 14-30. To confirm the latter (which is easier), i did a random sample of 100 profiles with UIDs over 50M (to address the “last year” phenomenon). What i found was:

  • 26 are under 18
  • 45 are 18-30 (with a skew to the lower)
  • 10 are over 30 but under 70
  • 1 is over 70 (but looks less than 18)
  • 6 are bands
  • 11 are invalid or deleted
  • 1 is complete fake characters (explained in descript)

A few more things of note…

  • 18 have private profiles
  • Of those over 30, only 2 has more than 2 friends (one has 3 friends; one has 5)

This account data hints that the general assumption that approximately 25% of users are minors is correct. Of the remaining, the bulk is under 30. Qualitatively, i’m seeing the most active use from those under 21. Given account practices, i don’t think that i’m off in what i’m seeing.

I do suspect that MySpace is holding strong at being primarily for younger people but that older folks have definitely been checking it out a LOT more. Still, i’m still suspicious of the fact that 35-54 are common across all youth sites. I’d really like to see comScore’s data on something that we can check. Maybe LiveJournal?

(I’d really really really love to be proven wrong on this. If anyone has data that can provide an alternate explanation to the comScore numbers, please let me know!)

Update: Fred Stutzman and i just jockeyed back and forth to find something we could agree on wrt the comScore numbers. Here are some ways of making sense of the data of VISITORS:

  • Xanga is more of a teen-flavored site than MySpace, Facebook or Friendster
  • Facebook is more of a college-flavored site than MySpace, Friendster or Xanga
  • Friendster is more of a 20/30-something flavored site than MySpace, Facebook or Xanga
  • Of users going to these four sites, MySpace does not swing to any one group; it draws people of all ages to visit the site.
  • A greater percentage of adults (most likely parents) visit MySpace than any of the other social sites

This is all fine and well and confirms most intuition. The problem is that what we CANNOT confirm via this data is that more adults visit any of these sites than minors. Again, intuitive but the comScore data seems to indicate that adults visit each of sites more than their key population. This is really visible in their “total internet” users which seems to suggest that the vast majority of visitors to all of these social sites are adults. I cannot find a single person who works for one of these companies that believes this.

I’ve spoken to numerous folks since i posted last nite. Most believe that comScore gets this data by running a program on people’s computers. Young people are supposed to use a separate account than their parents. This data seems to indicate that comScore is wrong in assuming that people will do so. Most minors probably use their parent’s account to check these social sites. So, if we assume that, Xanga is obscenely a teen site, Facebook probably has nearly as many high school users as college users and MySpace swings young but is used by a wider variety of age groups than most social sites.

Finally, it’s all nice and well that Fox Interactive spokespeople confirm this data but i’ve watched over and over as FIM has confirmed or said things that were patently untrue in public. I don’t know if this is because FIM (the parent of MySpace) doesn’t know what’s going on on MySpace or if it’s because they don’t care whether or not they are accurate publicly. I don’t honestly believe that FIM has any clue about the age of its unique visitors. They know the purported age of people who have accounts and it would be patently false to say that 35-54 dominates account holders.

Frankly, i’m uber disappointed with comScore but even more disappointed with all of the press and bloggers who ran with the story that MySpace is gray without really looking at the data. This encourages inaccurate data and affects the entire tech industry as well as policy makers, advertisers, and users. I’m horrified that AP, Slashdot, Wall Street Journal, and numerous respectable bloggers are just reporting this as truth and speaking about it as though this is about users instead of visitors. C’mon now. If we’re going to fetishize quantitative data, let’s at least use a properly critical eye.

welcome to LA

When i heard about the ForBiddeN Playboy launch party, i decided that would be a perfect opportunity to see LA at some of its weirdest. I conned Xeni into coming with me to see the MySpace porn queen diva at her best. In responsem, she conned me into going to the Suicide Girls 5th year anniversary party (y’know – the one that Paris Hilton was at and got arrested for a DUI afterwards… and no, i didn’t manage to notice Paris). Xeni has a *fantastic* writeup of our adventures so i won’t bother repeating them here. (Also, definitely see her ForBiddeN-centric write-up at Wired).

Instead, i want to offer a few extra thoughts. First, and obviously (from my POV), Hollywood LA is *WEIRD*. I knew i didn’t have the clothes to prance around at this events so i chose the safe route: wear all black. I couldn’t help but giggle when i heard girls commenting on other girls’ purses and clothes pointing out brand names. One girl’s fake breasts stood straight out Tank Girl style and i couldn’t help but stare as she shuffled on mega-high heels and her boobs didn’t bounce a bit. And wow was everyone on the look at me plan. I’ve never seen so many people stand around and dance in a way that was meant to be photographed. Luckily, Xeni and i were on a “mission” which at least made me stick around observing for a while without feeling totally awkward.

Second, i’m completely fascinated by how ForBiddeN managed to use MySpace to propel herself into the land-o-fame. While her approach was very DIY, she was lapping up and asserting the traditional construction of fame (complete with meatheads who bullied me away from her because i was not VIP). There were fans lurking around everywhere, hoping to be noticed. The crowd outside begging to get in was impressive given the situation. So what’s next for Miss Playboy? Acting lessons. Glad to know that the desire to reach traditional celebrity-hood is alive and well.

Finally, i’m still fascinated by all of the different publics within MySpace. People definitely get their panties in a wad over porn queens’ presence in MySpace but the thing is that it’s just one small aspect of the site. Yet, it’s the extremely self-promotional aspect, the side that wants the glitz and glam that the camera has to offer, the people that desperately want your attention. And the funny thing is that they get it. Personally, i think that i’m done with the diva side – i’m much more comfortable with the awkward teens who are just hanging out. Hell, i’m even more comfortable with the missionaries who have been trying to tell me about Jesus. Of course, that’s not a media spectacle.

Study shows fear of MySpace predators is overblown

Prof. Larry Rosen, a psych prof over at Cal State, has just released data on MySpace and predators showing that the fear is completely overblown (duh). The press release is here. A longer report is here. Some of the findings are:

  • Only 7% of those teens interviewed were ever approached by anyone with a sexual intent and nearly all of them simply ignored the person and blocked him from their page.
  • Two-thirds of the parents were sure that there were many sexual predators on MySpace, while only one-third of the teenagers shared this concern.
  • When asked about media coverage, 66% of the parents felt that it was either understated or close to the truth.
  • Conversely, 58% of the teens felt it was vastly overblown.

(Tx David)

MySpace and Deleting Online Predators Act (with Henry Jenkins)

Henry Jenkins (Co-Director of Comparative Media Studies at MIT) and i were interviewed by Sarah Wright of the MIT News Office about the proposed Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA). Although they only used a fraction of our interview in the MIT Tech Talk, we decided to publish the extended version online. We feel as though our response provides valuable information for parents, legislators, journalists and technologists. It summarizes a lot of what both Henry and i have been trying to get across when interviewed by the media.

Discussion: MySpace and Deleting Online Predators Act

Please, feel free to share this. You are also welcome to re-publish this interview (or portions of this interview) with proper attribution.

NPR’s “On Point”

I was on NPR this morning with Doug Rushkoff, an Illinois detective, Saul Hansell (NYTimes) and a drummer from a band that has a profile. Needless to say, the topic was MySpace, but it was a much more balanced conversation than the typical coverage thus far. We talked about teens, bands, Murdoch, etc. I even got my own profile exposed on the air. For those who want to listen, there’s a stream and podcast online.

One of the things that made me smile is that P!nk’s “Stupid Girls” is one of the transition songs. Yesterday, in prep for the piece, they asked me about music consumption on MySpace. I talked about bands getting their word out and about how people were putting up videos. I mentioned P!nk’s latest video and how it made me happy to see that message spread. So, it made me quite joyous to see that come across on air as well.

On a different note, one listener wrote me and encouraged me to get public speaking training. ::sigh:: I’m still sad that i could never get into Barbara Tannenbaum’s speech training class back at Brown. I *know* that i sound ridiculous when i speak, but i’ve never known how to solve this problem. I just avoid listening to myself. So, does anyone have a suggestion for getting speech training?

is MySpace safe for predators?

Things on MySpace have taken a funny twist. At first, the media was all about the harm predators on MySpace could do. Yet, in the last month, the media has taken a new angle and is now reporting stories about how law enforcement has used MySpace to lure out predators and take a bite out of all sorts of other crimes. While Dateline’s perverted justice reports poorly convey the likelihood that teens will respond to predators, they do show just how stupid predators are about believing that they are talking to teens. Following this same model, LAPD and other police groups have been logging on, pretending to be sexy 14 and 15 year olds and happily responding to all sexual predators who approach them, without making their profiles private. I’ve lost count of how many predators have been lured out by these raids. Of course, my favorite is Brian Doyle, a high-ranking homeland security official.

I find this turn of events really cool because no cop could pretend to be a 14-year old and go see a priest or turn up in a school to see if they’d get molested. Online, they can! Cops: 1, Predators: 0. People often tell me that online worlds make it easier for predators to find kids, that they couldn’t lure kids in otherwise. Sadly, the arrests have showed us that this too isn’t true. So many of the people who have been arrested have been pediatricians, teachers, rabbis, etc. 🙁 They have access to kids and i don’t even wanna think about how many they’ve fondled. Luckily, the online arrests are stopping them both online and offline! I hope that the cops keep it up.

While predators have been arrested, i’ve stopped hearing about teens getting themselves into trouble. At this point, MySpace is safer for teens than for predators! This makes me smile. If anything positive can come out of all of this moral panic predator hype, it will be an increase in predator arrests and a decrease in the frequency in which predators reach out to youngins for fear that they might be cops. Predator arrests are making the world safer for teens everywhere. Tis a much better approach than asking teens to go further underground. MySpace is so much safer than the AOL/Usenet/BBS world of my day. I’m super glad to see both law enforcement and the folks at MySpace work to rid the world of predators rather than trying to stop online interaction. I really really hope that parents and legislators follow suit.

Of course, teens still do stupid stuff on the site. They bully each other, put up risque photos of themselves without realizing that teachers are watching, spread gossip, etc. There are also quite a few teens who are trying to get dates with folks in their early 20s, even when that’s illegal. But, for all of the fear of predators, things don’t seem to be getting worse.

Unfortunately, though, lying also appears to be on the rise. The problem isn’t the predators. With parents banning participation or stalking their kids’ profiles, teens are being smart. They’re creating new profiles and lying through their teeth. ::sigh:: An entire generation adept at lying to cope with super publics and fear of mom. (Of course, this is precisely what has saved my ass from the ghosts of Usenet past – mommy fear stopped me from using my own name and now you can’t find those old posts!)

On a related note, i want to take a moment to discuss Justin Berry. For those who don’t know he is, read the NYTimes article. Make sure you read the ENTIRE article. Seriously. I’m really stoked that he’s been standing up to Congress for how bad law enforcement is around child porn. That said, i’m a bit concerned that folks think that what happened to him can happen to anyone. There’s no doubt that he got himself way in over his head and that people took advantage of him. But the worst part is that his own father took the worst advantage of him, really pushing it over the edge to pimp him out, drug him up and make certain that the cash kept flowing. Prior to his father’s involvement, he wasn’t having sex on camera, he wasn’t doing cocaine, he wasn’t having sex with the men who who paid for his cams. He went to his father when he realized that he had gotten in over his head. Rather than helping him get out, his father pushed him down further. This sickens me beyond any of the webcam stuff. While we’re going after predators, can we please please please go after the sick parents who are molesting and taking advantage of their children too? This part of the story gets too little attention, but most molested children in this country are abused by the hands of their own family members.