Sunday, June 11, 2006

Candy from Strangers and MySpace.com

There have been a number of stories about Internet predators using social networking sites like MySpace.com to find and ensnare their victims, but this recent one about a 16-year-old girl who was persuaded by 25-year-old man she met on MySpace to fly to his home in another country caught my attention because of the similarity to the plot of my forthcoming novel, Candy from Strangers.

Fortunately, the girl was intercepted before she could make contact with her "friend," but as coverage of the story has pointed out, unless the man explicitly solicited the girl for sex, there may be nothing illegal about him engaging in a dialog with her or even in inviting her to visit him.

I've found as I've started to talk about Candy from Strangers in the signings I'm doing for my other books before Candy's release in October that there is a lot of concern and fascination associated with MySpace.com—and by extension the sort of scenario contemplated in Candy.

I don't think MySpace is an inherently bad thing. Like a personal web site or a blog, it provides a place to "brag" a little about oneself, one's activities and interests, but unlike a standalone site or blog, it provides tools and community to easily network and “meet” people of similar interests. LinkedIn.com is a similar sort of service, with the only difference that the bragging and the networking are about professional accomplishments and career aspirations instead of what bands you like and whether or not you ride horses.

In my opinion there are two aspects of MySpace that encourage or contribute to the potential abuse. The first is that the barrier to meet and interact with someone is much lower than it would be in real life. Difference in social backgrounds, geographical separation and even shyness are all reduced or removed as obstacles to meeting, and the act of becoming someone’s “friend” is boiled down to a couple of steps in on-line transaction.

The other aspect that I think encourages abuse is the fact that everyone who joins MySpace is made to package him or herself like a commercial product. Pictures, videos, personal information and even the way you “decorate” your space with web formatting are all part of the marketing you do for yourself as a product. You are “selling yourself” as you would do on a resume, and the problem is that it encourages the “buyer” to lose sight of the fact that he or she is dealing with a real person—and in some cases, a very young and immature real person at that.

In Candy from Strangers, I try to explore this objectification process in particular by showing its impact on the motivations of the characters whom private eye Riordan thinks may be to blame for the disappearance of the kidnapped girl.

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