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April 18, 2006

MySpace or yours? Social networking sites can give a false sense of security

As his boyfriend Zac Dreyer wrote in a blog on his Myspace.com page, April 6 wasn’t a typical Thursday for Jason Johnson, for several reasons. Dreyer was in town — Williamsburg, Ky., at the University of Cumberlands — visiting. The 18-year-old Eastern Kentucky University student and his 20-year-old boyfriend had come from EKU earlier in the day, and Johnson was on his way to a music class, running a little late. Dreyer just figured to sit in on the class, after which the two would go on about their day.As soon as they reached the music building, Johnson was summoned to the Office of Student Services. There he was told he would be leaving the university.Jason Johnson’s name is well-known news by now. He’s the student who was expelled from a Kentucky Baptist school for being gay. He posted messages on his Myspace.com account outing himself and talking openly (and quite lovingly) about his relationship with Dreyer. Johnson wrote about the close-mindedness he experienced at the university. He wanted to transfer, go to a more socially progressive school with a better theater program (his major). He even wrote about wanting to get kicked out.Taking in the barrage of stories about the incident, one might get the impression Johnson just decided one day to fire up a Web page and declare his gayness. That’s not really the case.For the uninitiated, Myspace.com is a social networking Internet vehicle that allows users to create free personal Web pages that can get fairly detailed. Users make “friends” — linking other peoples’ pages — and can post messages, trade photos and so forth. This is not particularly new technology, and it’s wildly popular among the young, which is partly why News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch (who owns, among other things, Fox News) bought it in July 2005 for $580 million.Part of the Myspace.com lure is that it gives the impression of an intimate relationship without actually having one. Users can make friends across the world, share deep secrets and desires, and suffer no actual repercussions. Just like the digital world at large, Myspace.com serves as a mighty buffer, social networking without really being social.If you read Johnson’s Myspace.com page, he doesn’t simply announce he’s gay. When he writes about the things going on in his life — much like Livejournal.com, Myspace.com is also a repository for the daily humdrum of Young Modernity — he casually mentions his boyfriend, a past relationship and life at school. He writes in praise of his mother, for instance, when she helps facilitate a visit with Dreyer.Likewise, when word of his situation got out, comments from his Myspace.com “friends” poured in, both on Johnson’s page and Dreyer’s. Most of the comments are supportive, from simple declarations of support to a Harvard Law student’s take on the legality of the situation for the university (see box). Johnson has a lawyer and is considering legal action against the university. He posted a message just two days after Dreyer’s announcement, saying he can’t comment, but is receiving and appreciates the messages. He quoted Martin Luther King Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com