Those young years can be hard ones. The acne, the awkwardness, the angst. That may be one reason why, if you're between your early teens and your mid-twenties, you may already be making "friends" in the cozy cyber-confines of MySpace.com, the social networking website which bills itself as "an online community that lets you meet your friends' friends." At MySpace, each user can create a customized webpage or "profile," upload photos (only from your best angle and then photo-shopped to the hilt), blog around the clock, and -- most important of all -- court those "friends."
In an eerie reflection of the very world many MySpace scenesters undoubtedly plunge into cyberspace to avoid, the measure of success at the site is how much you can increase your page's popularity. You do this by posting attention-grabbing content, breathlessly soliciting other users, putting up provocative pictures to attract attention, sending out "bulletins" to your existing "friends," and asking them to "whore" you out to their list of friends. With its multimillions of "friends" to garner, the site is wildly popular -- and not just for insecure teens either.
MySpace has become a magnet for those that want, for one reason or another, to draw young eyeballs (and often young pocketbooks). Colleges, corporate products like Toyota's Yaris and the Honda Element, even fictional characters like Ricky Bobby. from the movie Talladega Nights or fast-food outlet Wendy's minimalist cartoon pitchman Smart have already gotten into the MySpace act.
Early this August, the site hit a major milestone -- 100 million profiles. Even including those corporate-sponsored sites and fictional pages, that's still a whole lot of would-be friends.
Recently, Fortune magazine reported that MySpace, bought up by Fox News mogul Rupert Murdoch in 2005 as part of a $580 million deal, "passed Google in terms of traffic" and now ranks second only to Yahoo in page views with one billion daily. Already "home to 2.2 million bands, 8,000 comedians, thousands of filmmakers, and millions of striving, attention-starved wannabes," the magazine reported that, on a "typical day," it signs up 230,000 new users.
While the site's meteoric growth might be slowing of late, it has shown special skill in recruiting people since its launch in 2003. In the same years that MySpace has become an Internet superpower, the U.S. Armed Forces have sustained substantial losses. Bogged down in unpopular occupations of two countries with no sign of victory in sight, the military has lowered its standards and now recruits, writes Brad Knickerbocker in the Christian Science Monitor, "more soldiers from the ‘lowest acceptable' category based on test scores, education levels, personal background, and other indicators of ability." Little wonder then, with 80% of MySpace users reporting they're over 18 years old, that the military has set its sights on occupying some virginal virtual territory in its search for fresh-faced recruits who might be thrown into the Afghan and Iraqi breaches.
In February 2006, the Marine Corps launched its MySpace profile. A thoroughly predictable page, it boasts a streaming video that might best be termed boot-camp-on-speed -- complete with clips of a stereotypical drill instructor barking out commands and a bullet-cam speeding toward a target on the rifle range. The site even offers downloadable desktop wallpapers, mainly Marine Corps "anchor and globe" emblems or photos of World War II vintage Marines. Conspicuously, there isn't a modern image in sight in any way evocative of the war in Iraq (deployment pressure from which recently caused the Corps to announce that it would force reservists to return involuntarily to duty due to a lack of volunteers).
By July, according to an Associated Press report, "430 people ha[d] asked to contact a Marine recruiter through the site… including some 170 who are considered ‘leads' or prospective Marine recruits." With Iraq sapping its strength, even those modest figures must be music to Marine Corps ears.
By mid-September, the Marines already had close to 21,000 MySpace "friends" endorsing their page, just below the 22,000 garnered by the "unauthorized" Noam Chomsky page and way below Yaris's 70,000. But a respectable number nonetheless.
In August, not to be left out, the Air Force launched its own page. Along with the already requisite downloadable wallpapers, the Air Force offered youthful visitors the opportunity to click to chat with an Air Force "advisor." Col. Brian Madtes, the Air Force Recruiting Service's Strategic Communications director, was blunt about the reasons in an "interview" with the Air Force's own news agency: "In order to reach young men and women today, we need to be in tune and engaged in their circles. MySpace.com is a great way to get the word out to the public about the amazing things people are doing in the Air Force."
One-upping the Marines, the Air Force also launched a cross-promotional effort with the Fox network television show "Prison Break." Visitors to its MySpace profile page were offered five slick "rough cuts" of Air Force commercials on which to vote their preferences. The winning ad ran during the September 18 episode of the prison-escape drama. The next day, in an abrupt about-face, the Air Force shut down its MySpace page over "concerns that association with inappropriate content might damage the service's reputation." As Madtes, told the Air Force Times, "The danger with MySpace is we got to the point where we weren't real comfortable with the potential for inappropriate content to be posted [on the page of] a friend of a friend. We didn't want to be associated with that and tarnish our reputation."
In February of this year, the Army also expressed reservations over MySpace, and canceled an advertising contract with the site after just one month, due to reports of "child predators approaching youths via the site." In fact, MySpace is entangled in a $30 million lawsuit brought by a "14-year-old girl who says she was sexually assaulted by another user of MySpace.com." In a recent speech, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales called attention to an incident in which a man "used ‘MySpace.com' to lure an 11-year-old girl into having illicit sexual relations" and the House of Representatives passed a measure to ban MySpace.com and other social networking sites from schools and libraries, by a lopsided 410 to 15.
This summer, an Army sergeant, based in Fort Drum, New York, was caught in a sting operation soliciting a sheriff's detective, posing as a 15-year-old girl on MySpace, for sex. He pleaded guilty to "criminal solicitation and attempted rape in the third degree."
Despite these developments and the Air Force's hasty withdrawal, the Army has decided to embrace MySpace in a bigger way. In early November, it's slated to launch a profile, according to Louise W. Eaton, the service's advertising media and web chief. The change of heart occurred, she said, when they received "a lot of assurances from MySpace that they're taking a more proactive approach to controlling the environment… and protecting the privacy of people under eighteen."
In a phone interview with Tomdispatch, Eaton said that MySpace production teams are working with Army web designers and a team from McCann Erickson, the Army's ad agency, to create an interactive site complete with downloads, videos, access to blogs, an RSS feed, and "several ways to contact a recruiter." While the Army's designers are primarily after the eyeballs of 17-24 year old "enlistment prospects," she recognizes that a younger set may also be taking a look. "It's alright for younger people to see it, it's not propaganda," she commented.
According to Eaton, the Army's MySpace.com profile page is entirely devoted to shuttling people to its official GoArmy website. Taking a page from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's book, she defines success -- in this case on-line, not in Iraq -- in terms of "metrics." For her, three are key: page views, people who contact the Army for "more information," and traffic to GoArmy.com. "We'll be very interested to see how many people register as our friend," she confesses, suggesting that she expects them to be "very, very, very many in number."
MySpace proved impossible to contact on their work with the military, refusing to respond to multiple messages, but Eaton was expansive when it came to what was on the Army's future online drawing board. Her service, she assured me, was "not just interested in the enlistment prospects, the young people… We're also interested in their parents." Unlike the military's debut on MySpace, this isn't in itself news. After all, the Army already had parents in its online sights last year through Today'sMilitary.com, a slick website that professes to
"to educate parents and other adults about the opportunities and benefits available to young people in the Military today" with nary a mention of war, injury, or death. What is news is the Army's coming venture in targeting grown-ups through America Online, where it will launch "a social networking site for parents."
The Army's eyes are also on "the blogosphere." Eaton notes that "many, many military people unofficially participate and we're studying that and trying to figure out where to go with that." And don't forget about YouTube.com, a video-posting site that bills itself as "a consumer media company for people to watch and share original videos worldwide through a Web experience." "YouTube is doing some cool things," says Eaton. "We don't know where it's going to go, but we're watching it closely."
Even while meeting its current recruiting goals this year, the military is feeling the heat and pulling out all the stops to attract potential recruits and fill the ranks. Like their sponsorships of the Professional Bull Riders, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys' Association, and NASCAR, their use of specially engineered video games, and snazzy television commercials, the Pentagon's new focus on finding "friends" on social-networking sites is a symptom of how hard-pressed its officials really are. Increasingly desperate to recruit and retain bodies, the military continues to invade new media territory, from text-messaging to Pentagon podcasting.
Today, sexual predators aren't the only ones trolling the internet for young bodies. MySpace claims to be taking steps to safeguard children from a certain type of cyber-stalker, while, at the same time, facilitating the efforts of another group just as interested in putting those young bodies in truly uncomfortable situations. With MySpace "friends" like these, who needs enemies? After all, what kind of "friend" looks to enlist you in a potentially life-threatening enterprise already considered a catastrophe by most Americans?
The militarization of MySpace is just the latest Pentagon effort to occupy a new realm that will put the military product in front of ever more young eyes. The role of "friendly" MySpace.com, taking a desperate military's money to target their hordes of young friends searching for popularity online, is troubling. But it's also typical of the business-side of the military-corporate complex, because it's the civilian firms -- producing everything from weapons to websites -- that allow the military to function as it does. In the case of MySpace, the friendly firm is deeply involved in producing the Army's page and will, says Eaton, be "doing the daily maintenance" on it.
If bios at the site are to be believed, there are young Iraqis on MySpace. What if you, an American kid with an Iraqi MySpace "friend," check in with that friendly Marine Corps recruiter, enlist, and are sent to Iraq by your MySpace military "friend," and the latter "friend" calls on you to kill the former? Does MySpace have any reservations about setting up a system where such a scenario could become a reality?
Nick Turse is the Associate Editor and Research Director of TomDispatch.com. He has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Nation, the Village Voice, and regularly for Tomdispatch. He has recently co-authored a Los Angeles Times series, The War Crimes Files. An adaptation of his last TomDispatch article was just published in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Copyright 2006 Nick Turse