Net Generation and Degeneration of Online Forums

A while ago I wrote a column describing what I felt was a Lord of the Flies situation in cyberspace, because young people (early teens) were spending a lot of time online interacting in venues where there was not only very little adult presence, but little or no established culture, and no mature role models.

Now I read about what's been happening in MySpace and other online venues, and it seems as though there now is a developing culture coming out of that, but--surprise--it's not the kind of culture most of us older folks are very comfortable with. Well, whenever was there any youth culture that was comfortable for adults? Actually, the mere existence of a youth culture may be relatively scarce in human history, since it d'es require a certain degree of affluence.

I will admit that I only last week registered at MySpace and have not spent a lot of time there yet, partly because I am too busy (Not a good excuse!) and partly because it seems so voyeuristic to spend time there. So when I refer to MySpace, I am mostly referring to articles I have read about it; not from much personal experience.

I was finally moved to visit MySpace, not because of news stories, but because of a debate going on in the DISCussion forum of the Professional Disc Golf Association(PDGA). What's happening there? Well, the PDGA recently limited posting privileges to dues-paid members only, because a number of nonmembers were using terribly inappropriate language and engaging in personal attacks on others. The PDGA figured that if it limited access to members, at least it would know who each poster was and have the ability to take some disciplinary action.

Unfortunately, even limited to members-only, a huge debate ensued about vulgar language. Quite a few, mostly younger, posters are unable to understand that the forum of a sport, which requires sportsmanlike conduct on the disc golf course, also requires it online. After one very long debate, recently, parsing out the meaning of certain words (I thought for a while I was channeling William Safire.) my statement that "in the forums I am mostly on, no one writes like that" I was told by some of the younger members that in the forums they are in, everyone talks like that.

Then I remembered the one or two times I have ventured to post, rather than just read, on some of the very right-wing, conservative forums online. I discovered very quickly, that expressing my opinions on those forums is met at once with disgust and vile language and accusations, no matter how nicely I write, followed in a remarkably short time, uniformly, with veiled and unveiled death threats. And those are adults.

So, I thought to myself that maybe I was arguing values--on the PDGA forum--with someone whose values about this were not only diametrically opposed to mine, but also based on his real world experiences. From what I have seen on MySpace, online behavior of young adults nowadays d'es not at all preclude regular and vulgar use of language.

Now, this presents a real dilemma for the PDGA. We have rules of play that are similar to what we call "ball and stick" golf, and they are quite strict on courteous behavior. On the course, an amazing number of players actually follow those rules. Acting as a marshal, officiating at those events, I make calls about discourteous behavior only occasionally and the players are nearly always contrite and apologetic. Really, without the courtesy rules, the game would become quite uncomfortable to play.

So, the PDGA says to members that it expects the same level of courtesy and demeanor online as it d'es on the course. But a growing number of our members don't get it. So the PDGA DISCussion forum may well end up being closed, because the adult leaders of the organization are worried about the sport's public image, both with potential players and parks owners, as well as with potential sponsors.

As many critics of MySpace and similar venues have pointed out, "sponsors" for the young people who post all sorts of (I think inappropriate) information about themselves and their lives, might some day be potential employers who have searched cyberspace about the job applicant. (The first thing I do when I review a job application is Google the person intensely. In the future, I will also try to find them on MySpace.)

I expect to spend a lot more time, especially after July, reading and exploring young people's networked behavior as I am co-editing a special issue of Innovate (peer-reviewed online journal about online education) that will focus on the 'Net Generation's expectations of and challenges presented to higher education institutions as they move on through our campuses. (The call deadline for manuscripts is July 30.) I'll share tidbits of what I see and learn here.

Meanwhile, as a former anthropologist, I am not at all sure yet that the behaviors we see are all that different from the behaviors (or desires) young human beings have always displayed or secreted. No matter what the history books want us to believe, I am convinced that humans have always been crude, vulgar, and outrageous--or wanted to be. Now we live in a world that includes space for us to act out as we wish.

Is that good or is it bad? Well, I definitely prefer vulgar language and outrageous sexual innuendo to killing people and burning embassies due to cartoons.

Or, for that matter, I prefer it above wealthy people paying large amounts of money to shoot (Excuse me, I meant to say "spray with bird shot.") domestically-raised young birds who are released from a cage only so that they can be followed through terrain they are not familiar with and "hunted."

Neither the burnings nor the fake hunting are, to me, anywhere within the realm of reasonable or sportsmanlike conduct. But, we are humans after all, not more highly evolved than other species but just differently evolved-we manipulate and create environments. And some of those are places where people can act like, well, animals.

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