MySpace: the final frontier

21st July 2006 at 01:00
What is my teenage daughter doing at the computer four hours a day, every day, when she should be writing to her French exchange pal or completing the environment project set up between her school and a school in Finland?

She's addicted to the website MySpace, that's what. She downloads music and links up with young people in various countries who share her tastes. She has put up her own web page profiling her interests, shares music tracks, uploads photographs, blogs regularly, and holds live chats.

Sometimes she swaps home-made video clips (captured on her mobile phone) of herself with her schoolmates. Sites such as MySpace, Friendster, Bebo and Faceparty initially revolved around music. When Rupert Murdoch bought MySpace some months ago, it seemed just another way for American pop culture to dominate the world. But teens are now discovering way-out Asian bands (Thai rap, anyone?). It has become cool to strike up online friendships with teens in out-of-the-way places.

At a south London boys' school, 15-year-olds trawl MySpace for someone in Algeria - successfully. What does he think of Zidane's antics? "What's the French for head-butt?" one shouts. Their own school is buried in paperwork to set up an EU Comenius-funded sports partnership with schools in France and the Czech Republic, the groundwork painstakingly laid by a dedicated head for the past year.

My daughter's school is at the early stages of setting up a China link, which will lead to teacher visits in 2007, and hopefully pupil exchanges the year after.

At home she is on MySpace, typing: "What do you think of Zhang Ziyi?" A live chat about martial arts is in progress with a "friend" in China. Who knows how long MySpace friendships will last - but if the stated aim of school links is to internationalise and help pupils to feel part of a wider world, MySpace already goes there. Can teenagers who are used to instant communication wait a year or two for their school to set up a link, or will they find their own way to international partnerships in the meantime?

School links with Zimbabwe ground to a halt after some Zimbabwean teachers sought asylum on their return visits to the UK in 2002-3, but the south London boys have connected with a Zimbabwean teenager on MySpace. "What do you pay for a CD now?" they ask, and marvel at the extra zeros compared with three months ago. "2,000 per cent inflation, go figure!" one of the boys yells.

Most chats start with, "You have good taste in music" - just as emails between linked schools tentatively probe musical tastes as an ice-breaker.

To me, much of the conversation seems inane, but my daughter tells me it is the excitement of finding someone you can relate to out of the blue that drives the addiction. She has some 120 MySpace friends, and communicates regularly with about 40. "Regular" is every other day or more. "Sometimes I have MySpace on while I'm doing my homework, or all day at weekends - just in case my friends respond," says my daughter's friend, Amy.

She's not in touch with her French exchange, even though they were "matched" by their school according to their stated interests.

Psychologists believe the speed of information exchange online is changing the way young people think and learn, absorbing and processing far more information than their parents and teachers. A digital gap is emerging between generations. Online, they control the information they send and choose who to chat with.

By contrast, school links seem cumbersome and paternalistic. This could be bad news for school links, but it does not have to be. It may well make pupils even more enthusiastic and could democratise school linking. Pupils will want to connect on their own terms, suggesting their own links.

School links will still be valuable. MySpace is still a fad among well-off kids in developed countries. But the non-profit organisation One Laptop Per Child has been developing a pound;60, sturdy, bright orange, wind-up laptop for children in poor countries. The Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo has already budgeted for a million of the devices. Thailand, Egypt and Brazil want to be pilot countries. Other countries might want to raise literacy and bring water or electricity to their villages first, but the laptop will certainly widen the digital community of networked kids.

In the not-too-distant future, the digital divide now between rich and poor countries may soon be between teachers and pupils.

Yojana Sharma is a journalist and international affairs specialist

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