"Copy, Paste, Remix: Profile Codes on MySpace"

Dan Perkel and danah boyd (UC Berkeley, School of Information)

Presentation at the 2007 International Communications Association Conference
Panel on "The Rise of Remix Culture: Identity, Power, and Imagination"
May 26, 2007
San Francisco, CA USA

(These are the notes for the talk. The actual talk probably deviated a bit, though not too much.)

Introduction

Today, we want to talk about MySpace profiles. I don't know how many people here have actually seen teenagers' MySpace profiles, but most of the teenagers' profiles we've seen are embody a particular aesthetic. They are often flooded with images, photographs, videos from YouTube or other sites. They can be loud. They contain sex quizzes and personality tests. They are often super-saturated with color; sometimes the text is unreadable unless you use your mouse to highlight it. And worse yet, they can often seem to scroll endlessly in both directions.

We don't want to be too snobby here, but since I've heard teenagers make fun of their friends' profiles we won't feel too bad about it.

We should make sure to note that we believe that there are historical continuities between this practice and still popular activities of decorating bedroom walls and high school lockers with photographs, cut outs from magazines, posters, and other cultural artifacts.

The key to customizing a profile seems to be a rather simple technical act. It involves the copying and pasting of code. Copy-and-paste is part of the vernacular of MySpace customization. Teenagers' MySpace pages are collages of images, photographs, music, games, and text found from all over the web. But underneath it all is HTML and CSS code that holds everything together. Sometimes barely.

What is interesting about this story is that profile customization is a classic case of an engineering bug being turned into a feature. It was an engineering mistake not to strip HTML codes out of form fields. Once people started doing it, though MySpace opted to let it happen. How and why is an interesting question, but not one that we can properly answer, though we believe it is an important part of the big picture. We are here to talk about some of the results of that decision.

So, we ask some questions: What's going on here? How does this work? How do teenagers describe this process and what does it mean to them? And finally, what are these MySpace profiles "cases of" theoretically? Remix culture? Or something else?

First I want to say a quick note about where this data is from. I have been working at two different after-school programs in the Bay Area both observing mostly lower-income teens use of MySpace. danah meanwhile has been traveling around the country get a much broader perspective. We have also spent time online looking at profiles, reading forums, and following other conversations about the site.

"My"Space?

We can look at the question of how customization "works" from two points of view: the point of view of the medium and then the point of view of the teenagers. Both indicate to us the same thing: a MySpace profile, despite the nice little word "My," is the production of a collective, social process. The individual's "control" is in constant tension with the efforts of others.

From the medium's point of view, three things affect how a profile looks. First, there is the underlying layout, which includes background images, colors, fonts, and so forth. These either come from one of hundreds of 3rd party layout sites that have sprung up or the layouts come from "profile generators" which are like wizards that people have created to give you a step by step guide to building up your layout. Either way, the ability to customize profiles through codes has led to a nice cottage industry.

Second, on top of these layouts and around any text you might have on the page, you can riddle the profile with virtually any type of media you may decide to lift from another site, like YouTube or Photobucket. And of course sites like YouTube and hundreds of others have made this a key part of their offering.

Finally, there are the comments, which also can and often do contain all of the same kind of media. The only difference is that it is your friends or spammers making decisions as to what to plaster on your profile.

So what are the teenagers that we have talked to doing?

First, with respect to the teenagers we have talked to, it is often the case that someone else is usually involved in the first time they have gone to customize the profile. There are not "features" to support customization so it's not obvious how to do it. Sometimes someone hand holds them through the process. Sometimes, as in the case of the after school programs I've been to many people get involved responding to pleas for help.

Finally, sometimes someone else actually does, as in the case of Alex (17):

Alex (17): I didn't know nothing about HTML. So I got one of my girls to do it.

Q: What do you mean, "one of your girls"?

Alex: Remember the one I told you earlier, the one I was talking toŚthe one that introduced me to it? . . . She did it for me. She said, "Do you have a myspace?" And I said no. "Really? So go to myspace." I went to myspace...

Alex: So I gave her the password and the login name. The next thing I know I got a brand-new profile. It was tight.

Second, profile layouts and the media that sits on top of them are not usually created through careful planning, but more from browsing layout sites or finding a video that strikes a teenager as particular funny and deciding to stick it on your site. Of course, it's important to point out that some people do add content that they created, such as personal photographs or videos.

Q: I'm trying to figure out how you actually decide "I'm going to put this on the page and I'm going to go through the whole process of finding something and putting it on there..."

Carlos (17): I pretty much don't... I just go to a certain website and if it looks like it has a lot of funny stuff I just go through that whole page and if I find something I like I just copy, paste it and put it there. And I won't save it or nothing; I'll just keep on going through the website and copy and paste until I got anything I want. And from there I just save it.

Finally, very few of the teenagers we have talked to actually have messed around with the HTML code they are using. Some teenagers we have talked to described the codes as "confusing." Some have managed to change little things, like a color, as in the case of John (17) who definitely did not want anything "pink" on his website and scoured his layout until he found the word "pink" and replaced it with "yellow." But after that he said it that the code made his "head hurt."

Even a few people who have been interested in looking under the hood, even those who know something in advance about HTML, have been reluctant to change anything. For example, Sharon (15), who was quite proud of the fact that she had taught herself HTML, said that she didn't want to mess with the code she put on MySpace:

Q: Before MySpace, had you ever seen or used code before?

Sharon: You mean html? Yeah i tried teaching myself html for a while it got boring.. Oh by the way (i like to brag about this because not many people know about it) i taught myself mostly everything about this computer...when i was in 5th grade

Q: Have you ever tried tinkering with HTML on MySpace?

Sharon: Somewhat...but i was afraid of screwing up the whole thing.

The point is that there are actually two levels of content mixing going on. On one layer, teenagers seem themselves as mixing different media together by using code. But what they are actually doing is mixing code together. And these are two very different things. They are not taking media and putting it up in lockers or bedroom walls. What they are doing is embedding links to media on their profiles. Those images and videos live on someone else's ervers. And this means that someone else controls the way it looks, whether or not that piece of material stays available, or whether or not what you think you put it up is actually what you put up.

Tensions in remixing

This tension between the mixing media on one level and the reality of mixing code embedded with links to media on another can create some unfortunate situations for MySpace users.

Sometimes media that appears on a profile is hosted by someone who realizes that his image is being downloaded thousands of times. This can be an annoyance because it owner is not being credited or, perhaps more importantly, because it actually costs him money. This is known to some as "bandwidth stealing" and the consequences can be disastrous.

People have responded to bandwidth stealing by pranking those people who have used the material. They swap the images out for something a bit more offensive, say pornography, or perhaps something just gross as in this example.

Poor "Steve-O" here, a "99 year old," MySpace user who has a nice background image of a dirt bike:

Well, the photographer of that dirtbike image found a picture that he took of his cat's poop one day and here's what happened to Steve-O's dirt bike one day:

Comments compound the problem. Someone else's decision to put an image that wasn't really theirs to use up on this profile resulted in similar situation, as in the case of this anti-communist license plate.

And, here's the after shot:

Finally, just two months ago, someone on John McCain's campaign team was putting together the MySpace profile and used a layout that had been carefully designed by a web designer. Well, when that designer found out, he decided to have a little fun and make a point, by swapping out one media file for another:

It may be hard to tell what is going, but basically part of the profile is used to announce McCain's reversal for his position on gay marriage in a somewhat mocking way.

It is important to realize that sometimes these media files are being pointed to by preconfigured layouts found on one of those layout sites, so the people who are using those layouts are even further removed from the source in terms of the process.

Is this "Remix Culture"?

So, what is all of this a case of? Is it some aspect of "remix culture"? Of course, this depends on which profiles we are talking about and what we mean by "remix."

(Please bear with my "fun with PowerPoint" artwork for a minute.)

When I read accounts of "remixing media" it usually implies some symbolic and material reworking of products to produce something "new."

But, in the case of MySpace, that's not quite what is going on. Other people have control over the material that you have supposedly "remixed" even in its produced form. The profile points at the media:

And, once your friends get in on the action, you realize quickly how what may resemble the remixing of music or videos on one level, totally breaks down on another:

Remix, it seems, cuts in every direction.

Media theorist Lev Manovich recently wrote that he likes the term "remix" to other possibilities because of how it accounts for the blending of code that I have described (Manovich 2007). While I think that what is going on on MySpace involves remixing, I tend to like the term "appropriation" to describe what is going on MySpace because it can subsume a narrower definitions of remix and it can call attention to so much more.

And, just as I don't want to suggest that everything we see on profiles is "new," I don't want to neglect the outstanding work prior to this little project that sheds interesting perspectives. There is quite a bit of academic literature from those who have studied appropriation from a variety of perspectives that all may be relevant to studying the different layers of media and code use on MySpace and the resulting relationships between the stakeholders in this process.

Some perspectives on Appropriation

Literacy and language: Bakhtin 1986, Dyson 2001, 2002

Culture and media: de Certeau 1984, Miller 1988, Willis 1990, Jenkins 1992, Silverstone 1994

Technology: Mackay and Gillespie 1992, Dourish 2003, Eglash et al. 2004, Bar et al. 2007

I don't want to do the dive into theory here, but what this combination of this literature tells me is that appropriation can be a multidimensional theoretical concept and therein lies its strength. Thinking about appropriation can lead you to think about issues ranging from the symbolic re-use of ideas to the material re-working content. With respect to technology it is described as the intersection between design and use. It also can address issues of social power and resistance.

Finally, the literature points to the multi-directionality of appropriation, it is a process of continual dialogue and negotiation between many parties. We may appropriate some technology, re-invent if for our own uses, but then the ball is back in the court of others to decide how to deal with our appropriations. In the case of MySpace, profile customization went from a bug to a feature, a unique strength of MySpace at the time, and created a huge cottage industry. However, with the rise of competitors, like Facebook for example, where decisions have been made explicitly not to allow profile customization (at least not the kind allowed on MySpace), it is not clear where the cycle of appropriation leads next, whether profile customization of this sort stays around, and what becomes of our notions of "remix culture."

Acknowledgments

Thanks to funding from the MacArthur Foundation, the members of the Digital Youth Research team, all of the participants in our research, and all of the work that we have appropriated in putting this talk together.

Digital Youth Research project
MacArthur Foundation Spotlight blog