I see some schools are blocking access to Myspace and other blogging tools. The blogosphere, some people seem to believe, is just a bunch of people looking to exploit teenaged girls.
Sure, blogs can be dangerous. So can cars and jobs. I think the Myspace phenomenon exposes weaknesses in upbringing more than anything else.Blogs have only been around for about 9 years so there haven’t been a lot of sociological studies of them–especially since blogging has only been hot for the last couple of years. But there are precedents.
I was very active in a lot of online communities as a teenager. Teens like me were a minority, but there were enough of us. I’m still friends with a couple of people I met online back in those days.
And I’ll tell you something straight up: I ran into a lot of women who were older than me. A lot of, um, lonely women who were older than me. A lot of them had the wrong idea about my age. One asked me where I went to college. But you see, I hadn’t gone yet, because I was only 14.
And in case you’re wondering, it didn’t go any further than that. I’d been taught right from wrong, and I carried myself that way, both online and in person, so the topic never came up.
There were other dark sides of this online world. Software piracy was usually the gateway. And yeah, I’ll admit I downloaded some software that I didn’t pay for. Mostly I stuck to things that were no longer commercially available. And without Amazon.com and Ebay, it was difficult to buy out-of-print stuff. So I wouldn’t have been able to buy the majority of it even if I’d wanted to. That didn’t make it legal, but to my teenaged mind, it sounded moral enough.
Of course most people were interested in the new stuff. And that could lead down a slippery slope. St. Louis wasn’t exactly a hotbed for the latest new releases, so to get the zero-day warez, you had to call long distance. But remember, most of us weren’t 16 yet, so we didn’t have jobs and we didn’t have a lot of money. So I knew an awful lot of people who got into phone fraud. And it often got worse from there. Phone fraud led to credit card fraud, and I heard stories of people who got caught, slapped with the huge bills they’d run up, and turned to dealing drugs to make the money to pay it back.
All so they could be the first one in St. Louis to have the Commodore 64 version of Grover’s Magic Numbers. Yes, there were people who risked all of that to have something that lame-sounding. And no, it didn’t sound any cooler then, but people did it.
I talked with a number of people who were caught up in that. There was a guy in Chicago who called me on a pretty regular basis for a little while. No, he didn’t dial 1-314, if you know what I mean. One day he quit calling, and not long after that, I heard the Feds caught up with him. There was a rumor that he ran away to Colorado after he got out of juvenile detention. Whatever the case, I never heard from him again.
But I never made any fraudulent long-distance calls. I had a 3.6 grade-point average, was in National Honors Society, and I was in Who’s Who Among American High School Students all four years. And I sold my first magazine article before I got my driver’s license. I wasn’t going to throw all that away just so I could make long-distance phone calls on someone else’s dime.
So why was I having anything to do with those people? Simple. We talked programming. Nothing I learned from those guys is remotely useful to me today, but it was interesting then. Sure, those guys made a lot of mistakes, and yeah, they sure did break a lot of laws, but they weren’t entirely bad.
I’m sure if my parents had known everything that was going on, they’d have gotten rid of the modem or at least severely limited what I could do with it. But they couldn’t stand over my shoulder all the time.
And besides, there wasn’t any need to worry. They’d taught me right from wrong, and what I had to lose if I stepped too far out of bounds. Sure I pushed the limits, but that’s being a teenager for you. Come to think of it, I still push the limits sometimes now, even at 31.
The primitive online communities that existed in the late 1980s and early 1990s were social communities. The only difference between that and the mall was distance. The computer took away the geographical boundaries. In that regard they’re the same as Myspace and other online communities today.
There’s potential for problems today, just like there was 17 years ago. But looking back now, there’s no question why I went online back then. It helped me deal with being a teenager. I could talk with other teenagers who were like me–there were only one or two others like me at my school, and one of them was a major-league jerk. And I could get advice from adults who were further removed from the situation and could give me advice without conflicts of interest. Whether the struggle of the day involved a soldering iron or a girl, I knew at least one person who knew the answer.
I can think of lots of things I’d change if I could go back, but that isn’t among them. So I don’t believe isolating kids today from online communities solves anything. Kids will be kids. Hopefully they know right from wrong and what they can lose if they choose wrong.
Blocking those who would choose wrong doesn’t solve a lot. They’ll find another way to choose wrong.
Denying an important resource to those who would choose right is a greater loss. It’s much easier to find another way to choose wrong than it is to find another way to get wise counsel.