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The missing link between MySpace and TikTok

"Social media makes a lot of parts of teenagers’ lives visible which weren't previously visible."

Welcome to Extra Garbage Day! These Thursday issues are typically paywalled interviews with people I think are on the forefront of tech and web culture. 

Much of the way we talk about platforms comes from Facebook. It launched its News Feed product in 2006 and there is now an entire fields of study and disciplines of journalism focused on what feeds and the algorithms that power them do to us. 

But because Facebook is the starting point for a lot of this work, I feel like many of problems of the internet before 2006, or outside of the Facebook orbit, are left out of the conversation. It feels especially on point to be writing this on the day it was announced that Something Awful founder Richard “Lowtax” Kyanka died. There’s a good argument to be made — and many have — that his web 1.5 message board has shaped the sociopolitical evolution of both the global internet and global democracy more than even Mark Zuckerberg. I’m inclined to agree. 

I think that era of MySpace, big message boards, Flash cartoons, and LiveJournal drama is in desperate need of a reevaluation through a modern lens. Particularly because TikTok, in many ways, may not be the direct descendent of Vine as many consider it, but actually a glimpse at what an algorithmic MySpace would have looked like if it had been able to achieve Facebookian scale. 

I’ve gone digging for good research on MySpace done during its peak and while there were some who were trying to take a critical eye to the platform — this is one of my favorite papers of that era — most of what I’ve read doesn’t really line up with our current understandings of networked online behavior. Most of the writing about MySpace has a very dismissive attitude about it, treating it like a teenage fad, rather than a content distribution system shaping and creating culture.

Which is why I was so excited when I discovered “To Catch A Predator? The MySpace Moral Panic,” a study by Alice E. Marwick from 2008. Her study on how MySpace was influencing behavior felt completely in line with how we now talk about TikTok. I actually ended up citing it in a recent Garbage Day and was even more excited when I found out Marwick was a reader! And then I was over the moon to hear that she’s now working on similar issues surrounding TikTok. This is it folks. This is the missing link I’ve been looking for. We had a long chat this week about MySpace’s legacy on the internet, the moral panics of the TikTok age, and, of course, custom HTML layouts. The following has been edited for pacing and clarity.

Hilariously, you are one of the few people that I have found who were writing really presciently about MySpace 15 years ago. Especially in light of everything we're now learning about TikTok. I would love to just start by asking you what are some of the biggest similarities you see right now between TikTok and MySpace at its height?

Well, they're both deeply populated by young people and youth subcultures. They both are these kind of centers of cultural creation and communication. So I think that there are not only lots of people involved with youth subcultures on TikTok, I think we're actually seeing these subcultures change and evolve and morph using TikTok, which is the exact same thing that happened with MySpace.

It's interesting to me that there's a kind of effect happening where everything gets uploaded to TikTok and then immediately changes and combines and splits apart. And I was wondering if you ever noticed that sort of thing happening on MySpace. Though, obviously, at a slower speed just because of the way the internet worked.

So the thing with MySpace is that when you actually look at what the site could do, it wasn't very much. You could post on people's walls, you could, what we would now call, “DM” with people, you could pimp out your page. We wouldn’t use that term today, but that's what everyone called it. And that was very busy backgrounds, spinning GIFs, very loud My Chemical Romance MP3s, stuff like that.

So on one hand, you've got that kind of audio/visual customization. And TikTok obviously is like 10 generations later, but it is about these specific visual and audio aesthetics. TikTok is unique, I think, with the audio and sounds. I think it’s something that makes TikTok an intrinsically participatory and iterative platform. And MySpace wasn't exactly like that.

MySpace had this very, very strict format that people found a way to completely circumvent to customize and make their own. Like a lot of the HTML customization was mostly just kind of accidental. It's not like MySpace itself was providing tons of tutorials to people on how to do this. I did this big research project on what I call the MySpace secondary market, which was all of these startups that sprung up at the time to basically include features that MySpace didn't have. Like slideshows, for example, or like better MP3 players, or there were young people who were selling MySpace background and customization services or animated GIFs or GIF generators, who were making like actual money off of doing that. So that's facilitating the customization. But you know, a lot of what was going on on MySpace was really just kids talking to each other without oversight, which is something that always leads to a very rich subcultural… I don't know what the word would be, but like a “crucible”. It creates this kind of bubbling effect where things start going in all these weird directions because there's no oversight by parents or teachers or marketers. It's just kind of going its own way. And sometimes those are directions that parents, marketers, and teachers don't like at all, which is where you get the moral panic stuff.

A funny aside here, but I had a friend in high school who built a custom HTML MySpace that would load so many images that it would crash your browser. 


His MySpace was unloadable. It was very funny. So you touched on this with the connection between teenagers using the internet to socialize and grow out subcultures without any adult involved leading to a weird culture of moral panics. Do you feel like that is just innate? Is that just something that we're gonna be dealing with when the first teenagers go into the metaverse? We're gonna have moral panics about VR helmets giving kids brain damage or something? Or is this a thing that is specific to the way MySpace or TikTok or Vine work? Are we always just going to be freaking about teenagers on the internet? 

We're going to be freaking out about teenagers and media. When you go and look at the history of moral panics around communication technologies, it goes back to Penny Dreadfuls. There were these novels that were published during the Victorian era that were really lurid. So they'd be the equivalent of slash fiction or really gory horror fiction. And there was a lot of social anxiety about the rise of literacy from the working class at the time during the Victorian era. And so you have this anxiety that gets displaced onto these novels. You have these courts that are basically blaming delinquent behavior from teenagers on the fact that they're reading these Penny Dreadfuls. And you see this cycle repeating itself constantly, every decade for several 100 years at this point. No matter who you talk to, if you ask them, what was the moral panic around teenagers and pop culture in your youth, they'll come up with something.

When I was a kid, it was heavy metal and Satanism. That kids were sitting around listening to Slayer records backwards. And somehow this was making them into Satanists or something like that. Now all those people who are the parents of these Gen Z kids are freaking out about them using TikTok. So I think, in general, people worry about their kids. We live in a moment right now where there is this extremely intense culture of parenting, where parenting — especially middle class and upper-middle class parenting — requires more and more resources and requires more and more oversight of children. So you have, in some cases, this kind of hyper-suffocating culture that teenagers are under. Everyone thinks their kids are getting human trafficked, which is total bullshit. They don't let the kids out of the house, practically. There's COVID. So the kids are stuck in the house already. And so they're using social media as one of their only outlets. And this was true during MySpace too, even in the 2000s, you still you already have this hyper culture of parental education and this decrease in kids’ freedom. They just weren't allowed to go outside and do stuff.

There's tons and tons of evidence and research on how kids’ lives have become more structured. There's not really any latchkey kids anymore. [Ed. note: I was one and that’s why I write about memes all day!]

This is super class based. You're taking these norms that generally apply to middle and upper-middle class kids and you're trying to universalize them. I could go on and on about the impacts of this because it's generally bad, as you can imagine. So you have these parents who have this pressure on themselves to be hyper-involved with their kids’ lives. And then you have social media, which makes a lot of parts of teenagers’ lives visible, which weren't previously visible.

I came of age in the early 90s. And so the shit that my friends and I got up to, our parents couldn't see. But on MySpace and TikTok, you could see what kids were doing. And it was the same stuff, right? Like kids are kids. I'm sure there's some new stupid shit that kids get into, but for the most part, the behaviors are the same. But the fact that they're now visible means that people can freak out about them a lot more easily. And I think there's also this deep distrust of the fact that, for technologies that are targeted to young people, where young people are the early adopters, young people are often much better at using them than adults. This is not by any means universal. There's a wide variance in internet skills among people of all age groups. But when you have something like TikTok, it's, I think, a little baffling for a lot of older people. And so they see it as this unknown thing that they don't understand. And their kids are really into it. And it's this worry: what is this site doing?

I agree with all that and it makes total sense to me, but 20 years ago, we were living in the age of, “yeah, the internet, it's probably not really as crazy as we think it is. You wouldn't download a car,” kind of hysteria, like we had with video games. But now we are have a more nuanced idea of how algorithms influence our brains or societies or democracies. How do you not cause a moral panic while also saying maybe Instagram is giving teenagers body dysmorphia?

Well, the number one thing is you don't put the blame on the kid. I think for the moral panics, what often ends up happening is that people try to regulate what the kids are doing and they blame the children. Things like, “the kids today are so rude,” or “they're so weird,” or “they use pronouns,” or “they're getting texts,” or whatever it is. And rather than saying this is a really, really difficult time to be a teenager — it's so difficult to be a teenager at any time, but right now is a horrible time to be a teenager. So rather than giving kids a break, and just being like, “hey, kids are dealing with this stuff the best that they can.” A lot of the time, it comes down to people being like, “oh, I'm going to ban my kid from using TikTok,” or “I'm going to make fun of these kids I see on TikTok,” or “I'm going to judge kids I see on TikTok,” or “I'm going to talk smack about Gen Z because I think they're weird.”

They're dealing with their own struggles. Let's put the blame where it matters, which is on the social platforms and the fact that they're making like enormous amounts of money off people who are sometimes quite vulnerable.

So I remember the moral panics around MySpace. I remember the Daily Mail in the UK saying that emos were all going to kill themselves. But I don't remember this thing that I see on TikTok a lot now, where the young users seem to be in on their own moral panic. And they seem to sort of be spreading their own fear and hysteria. Like conspiracy theories that a toddler’s car seat on the side of the road is a child trafficking symbol.

Or the AstroWorld vaccine thing?

Yeah. There's a wave of internal peer-to-peer hysteria that's happening inside the community. And I think that feels interesting and new to me, but I don't know why it's happening.

That's a really, really good insight. My main beat these days is disinformation. That's what I spend most of my time studying. And so on one hand you have a world in which conspiracy theories are at a fever pitch. It's become a pretty mainstream part of a lot of public discussion. So all you have to do is spend five minutes in any kind of anti-vaccination space, scratch the surface, like even the tiniest bit, and you get conspiracy theories that are not just about Big Pharma trying to make money off you. It's like lizard people are microchipping you.

I think some people just like conspiracy theories. They just kind of think they're fun and interesting. I was a big X-Files fan when I was in college. So I totally get that. It's just urban legends, like excavating weird culture. It's the kind of stuff that I think really appeals to teenagers or young people in general. But I think the problem is that this is coinciding with this desire for people to do their own research and to kind of figure things out for themselves and to reject expertise at a lot of different levels. And so what ends up happening is you have this creation of this shadow world of expertise by a bunch of people on the internet that builds up a body of knowledge and understanding that it's just absolutely completely wrong. And also somewhat crazy.

I was watching a conspiracy TikTok thing the other the other day where the guy was like, “Do you remember that movie Stargate? Well, stargates were real.” His evidence was an IMDB page that some military guy had been a consultant on Stargate and a bunch of like historic photos that look like some kind of giant gate thing.

The thing about TikTok is because it's visual, and you can stand in front of it. You've got to walk people through your argument and support it with all this evidence. That's in the background. But you have no idea where this evidence is coming from. And sometimes these things are super persuasive.

I think that's really appealing to a lot of people. The idea that they're able to see the truth. But the problem is that if you believe in conspiracy theories, even at all really, it means you basically can’t trust authorities and you believe that people are lying to you strategically. And that means everybody is lying to you, your parents are lying to you, the media is lying to you, politicians are lying to you. And if you believe that, the world is a very scary place.

If you’ve been forwarded this email, welcome! You can check out a full list of the previous Extra Garbage Days here. And here’s a short list of who I’ve interviewed recently:

And, lastly, here’s four minutes of Never Shout Never beefing with BryanStars. (There are parts of this that really have not aged well AT all, but it is wildly fascinating as a historical document.)

***Typos in this email aren’t on purpose, but sometimes they happen***

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