Saturday, April 14, 2007

MySpace, MyBusiness! 'm I right?

I have a MySpace - as does every Tom, Dick, and Harry, along with their mothers' dogs.

I enjoy my MySpace. I use it, and my Xanga blog, to keep in touch with friends and family who live far away (uh, like Switzerland). I have met some interesting people from all over the place through Xanga, engaged in intellectually stimulating banter with them, laughed out loud at their eloquent renditions of mundane, extraordinary, embarrassing day-to-day goings-on, and been exposed to points of view I never knew existed.

My students have MySpace accounts. I even found one of them once - his profile was set to "private" and there was no way I was going to blow my cover by "friending" him to verify it really was him, but I know it was. (If he put half a brain into it, he could find my page... but, as with his schoolwork, he lacks the motivation to make the connections and find me, even though he announced to the class he would.)

Mean Girls will just be Mean Girls?
One of the reasons I stopped eating lunch in the teacher's lounge is because I got sick of all the MySpace-bashing that went on in there. Most of the staff at my school (okay, all of them except for me and two other people) are married women would still be afraid of email if using it were not part of their job requirements. They have no idea what MySpace is, to them it is a big, evil club where students go to solicit sexual predators and say mean things about their classmates. Therefore, MySpace must be blown up. Yes, they have often agreed that the entire MySpace operation should be shut down and destroyed.

(Aren't you glad these rational, informed, open-minded women are responsible for educating our future?)

The main beef my elderly matron coworkers have with MySpace is the fact that our students can talk badly about and to each other through their pages. I guess I can see their point that it is easier to trash-talk someone from behind a computer keyboard, in the cozy safety of your room, than to the person's face; therefore students who would normally be too chicken to badmouth a classmate now have the electronic courage to do so, and they feel they have a right to exercise that bravery. The flaw in this logic is that kids trash-talk behind each other's backs all the time - that's what gossip is, it's not delivered to the person's face, it's whispered behind her back. Okay, so now the gossip is posted online for anyone to read, but, really, how different is it?

Yes, now the victim can see exactly what was said about him from the horse's comment page, and I guess seeing it "in print" hurts more than hearing it from what Sally heard Suzy tell Jamie in the cafeteria after school when Tommy and Billy were out in the playground flirting with Jenny.

(Couldn't we say that the victim now has the unfair advantage of being able to come up with a witty comeback in the stressless environment of her own cozy room, without a crowd of on-lookers breathing down her neck, letting her know when her time is "up"? And by "witty comeback" I actually mean a witty comeback, not just another insult - and the beauty of it now is that it is "in print," for everyone who cares to, to read and witness the bully's stupidity - because, really, bullies and their derogatory comments are pretty darn stupid - and the "victim's" clever retort... oh, wait. Sorry, I forgot - I'm not supposed to advocate for that.)

The thing about blogs, and all online content, is that you have to search for it. You have to make the conscious decision to go out there and read it. It's not going to come up to you the way a bully or Mean Girl will - if you don't ever go to Sally's page, guess what? You're never going to read what she wrote. No, really - it's true. Your computer's not just going to randomly pop that page open on your screen.

Okay, okay - so maybe it hurt Joey's feelings that Sally wrote that (because Joey's friend Tommy told him Sally had written that on her page). You know what? People are always going to be saying and thinking mean things about you - the guy who thinks you cut him off on the highway, the girl who hates you for being a size 2 and getting a double-scoop waffle cone at Marble Slab, the kid next to you who got a lower grade than you did on the vocab test. It's one of those things you're going to have to live with - sometimes people have a right to be upset with you (yes, you did cut that guy off on the highway, and if you hadn't been talking on your cell phone at the time, you would have seen him and not cut him off), and sometimes they just think they do. Maybe this is a good time for the kids to sit down and figure out the difference (did Sally say Joey is a rude jerk because Joey made that comment in music class about how Sally should be an opera singer because she's fat, like the lady they saw in the video? Or did Sally write that because she has a crush on Joey, but Joey went and sat next to Jenny at lunch today?)

You're going to have beef with friends, classmates, coworkers, and random people on the street no matter where, no matter when, no matter why. I find it's better to learn most life lessons early, because the consequences always seem to be less expensive earlier than later. Perhaps this is a life lesson these sixth-graders are getting at a special MySpace discount.

Picking on the Principal
The reason this particular topic has been on my mind is because earlier this week a fellow blogger posted a link to an article about a student whose principal suspended him for posting something "bad" about the principal on his MySpace page. The student appealed, claiming a violation of his First Amendment rights, and returned to school on day two of his 10-day suspension. (The link my fellow blogger posted was to a very uninformative article. Googling, I found this, if you want some further reading - I assume it's the same student, unless this trend is more rampant than I thought).

When I first heard about this, I adopted the same attitude I had about the gossiping - so what? So they used to do it orally, to their friends. Now they do it online, on their dinky MySpace pages (where half the layouts are so elaborate they take forever to load, so half their potential readers are lost in the mere wait, and the other half have to struggle to read the illegible text against the background on a half-naked Orlando Bloom... seriously, who has the time?)

As a teacher, one who could be potentially flamed on MySpace, I tried to put myself in the principal's spot. I had a hard time doing that. Perhaps that's because I've been on the poster's side of the fence, and I had a hard time jumping over. Maybe it's because I see MySpace comments the same way I see a student's notebook or textbook cover - random, often misspelled pointless drivel. [insert "whatevah" emoticon here]

The above-linked article did give me something to think about when it compared a student writing derogatory comments on MySpace to the same student writing a derogatory article for a local or community newspaper, and printing it. That made me think about it a little bit more - until I realized that a local or community newspaper has its copy run through an editor before it prints, and that is what gives the newspaper its credibility. The article would never run, unless there were some validity to it.

MySpace has no authority, and no credibility. When all those "rate-a-professor" websites popped out a couple years ago, did any colleges go after the students who posted mean things about their profs on those sites? Anyone visiting those sites knew the people writing were lame college students. If the comment was positive, the student probably passed the class. If the comment was negative, he probably failed the class.

I agree that public education (under-18) students and college students are two different beasts, but my point still stands - it's just a kid venting. So what if the medium has changed? I also agree that a principal (or a teacher) is a figure of authority, and the student should show respect for this person. Posting "mean" things about him or her on your blog is not "showing respect." Neither is talking bad about the principal, or the teachers, to your friends, to your family, to the people at your church, etc. Why should we start suspending students for writing something on a blog, when we let it go in the other cases?

Putting the "Parent" Back in "Parenting"
Now, I'm not saying kids should run rampant online cussing out their classmates, teachers and principals. What I'm saying is that it's not the school's business if they are.

My principal doesn't have the right to tell me to shut down my blog(s), and he doesn't have the right to tell me what I can and can't write about, in my own personal time, on my own personal computer. As long as I don't write anything about the school, or the students, he needs to stay off my back because that is my own personal business - not school business.

Same with the kids - what they do at home, on their own computers, is not school business.

We the educators of the United States of America are merely that - educators. Math, science, social studies, reading, writing - yes, that's my responsibility. I need to do that for them. People skills too, since the vast majority of the time the students spend around other people (non-family) is within the walls of my classroom, making it the perfect setting for that training.

Parenting, though... that's actually the parent's job. Oddly enough. I know that's not the popular trend these days, what with the complete and total lack of personal accountability Americans like to display so violently (Oh, I have lung cancer? Those cigarette companies! It's their fault I bought and used their product! Wait - I'm fat? I'll sue McDonald's!)

I, the teacher, am not responsible for what your kid does at home, on your computer, through your Internet connection. If Sally pulls Joey's hair in class, yes, then I'll deal with it. I'll talk to her, send her to the principal's office, yadda yadda. If Sally writes something mean about Joey on her MySpace... I'm sorry, Mrs. Joey's Mom. You're going to have to call Mrs. Sally's Mom to talk about that. MySpace is not MyJurisdiction.

Parents should be the ones instilling in their kids morals and values, and letting them know that gossipping and bullying, whether online on in your face, are not okay things to do. Insulting your principal or teacher, whether online on in her face, is not okay either. This is not something the school, or the principal, should have to address.

I know there are all kinds of extenuating circumstances - single parents, working moms, etc. You can't be there 24/7 to monitor your kid. But you know what? Password-protecting your computer isn't that hard, really. Neither is making up a fake screenname to get on MySpace and look at your kid's page - hey, it's not "snooping" or "spying," it's posted on a website, for cryin' out loud! Oh, so Sally's going to Suzy's house and getting online there? Well... guess she's not going over to Suzy's anymore, now is she?

Of course, if you have to resort to those measures, it's a pretty sad situation you've raised for yourself. Dealing with this issue should have been taken care of way long ago, way before Sally started typing. Even if we did "blow up" MySpace, wouldn't it be nice if you had raised little Sally to respect others and be nice to the people around her?

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