When MySpace becomes media’s Facebook

Roopinder Singh

The 22-year-old could well have believed she was anonymous. She was identified as “an American, petite, very pretty brunette, 5 feet 5 inches, and 105 pounds.” and by the code name ‘Kristen’, the spotlight was on the New York’s Governor, Mr Eliot Spitzer, not on the woman he had trysts with, and was comfortably away from the scene of crime, so to say.

Journalists from The New York Times tapped in all their sources, and someone checked out the popular Internet social interaction site Facebook, and put a face to the person for whose company Client 9 (the Governor) paid $1,000 an hour!

Ms Ashley Alexandra Dupre was, till the scandal broke out, an unknown, aspiring musician. Journalists and others could not have dug up so much about her and her life, so soon, had it not been for the fact that she had herself put many details online on two of the top Internet social networking websites MySpace and Facebook.

The image, taken from FaceBook that was used by the media to put a face to ‘Kristen’

In Paris, recently police arrested a Societe Generale employee as part of their investigation into an alleged rogue trading scandal at the French bank. The man was not identified immediately, but it was revealed that he was listed as a friend on the main accused Jerome Kerviel’s Facebook website page.

For a cyber user, MySpace is her or her space in the social networking world, but it is also a public profile. MySpace has over 100 million and Facebook 64 million active users worldwide. Social networking websites are increasingly playing an important role in dispensing information about individuals, and if they happen to be in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, these websites become a trove of trivia, and sometimes real information, for the media and at times, law enforcement agencies.

Often we are reminded that the cyber world is an extension of the real world, with actual consequences.

Ms Dupre, understandably, did not reveal her life as an escort online; she wanted to focus on her music. As we go online, the “prostitute” of headlines becomes a person who has given the following description of herself, edited to save space:

“I am all about my music, and my music is all about me… It flows from what I’ve been through, what I’ve seen and how I feel. I live in New York and am on top of the world. Been here since 2004 and I love this city, I love my life here. But, my path has not been easy. When I was 17, I left home. It was my decision and I’ve never looked back. Left my hometown. Left a broken family. Left abuse. Left an older brother who had already split. Left and learned what it was like to have everything, and lose it, again and again. Learned what it was like to wake up one day and have the people you care about most gone. I have been alone.

“I have abused drugs. I have been broke and homeless. But, I survived, on my own. I am here; in NY because of my music….I can sit here now, and knowingly tell you that life’s hard sometimes. But, I made it. I’m still here and I love who I am. If I never went through the hard times, I would not be able to appreciate the good ones. Cliché, yes, but I know it’s true.”

When the New York Times broke the story, Ms Dupre faced a harsh media spotlight, she went through her sites and deleted a number of friends and some other information, but at the same time, she kept her profile on both the websites. She knew that the media and the world at large were viewing her profile, so she edited it, but by that time a lot of damage had been done.

Bilawal Bhutto Zirdari did the same, apparently blanking out a Halloween costume photograph that portrayed him as a “devil”. Being a political figure, even if he was only 19 and a student at Oxford University, he did take the precaution of registering under a pseudo name, “Bilawal Lawalib, (Lawalib is Bilawal reversed).

When the news of his assuming the chairmanship of the Pakistan People’s Party broke out, another profile came online on Facebook. “Bilawal Bhutto Zardari” profile and his opinions were widely quoted by the media, but it was later revealed that the profile had been created by a prankster called “Tonay”.

The media had neglected to relate the profile to the person by digging up further, which the New York Times did when they called Ms Dupre and interviewed her, thereby confirming their conjecture.

The Internet often gives a false sense of anonymity to its users. You are not invisible when you are using the Internet, and certainly, what you post online can be checked and is visible. Increasingly Indians are blogging, putting their profiles on sites like MySpace and Facebook. It is therefore important not to presume that the date you post, and the photographs that are posed online are private. They are accessible to the public. So what do you do? Be mature in selecting what to reveal about your life, keep private things private, just as you would in real life.

Getting back to Ms Dupre, she modified her profile but kept it on. In her note, she says: “I have experienced just how hard it can be. I can honestly tell you to never dwell on the past, but build from it and keep moving forward. Don’t let anyone hold you back or tell you that you can’t…because you can. I didn’t and here I am, just listen to it…. “What we Want” is my latest track…..

Perhaps Ms Dupre wants to change tracks now. If so, her profile and the publicity have really helped her, and she knows how to exploit her instant fame. She has even created her own Facebook fan page to promote her music and groups dedicated to her have sprung up. They include “I want Ashley Alexandra Dupré in the oval office!”, “Ashley Alexandra Dupre is the next American Idol”, “I don’t care WHO or WHAT she did, Ashley Alexandra Dupre is effin gorgeous!!” and “Ashley Alexandra Dupre, On her side.”

She has posted her two songs in her profile and she is selling the songs online through a website called Amie Street, which prices tracks based on popularity. The songs are being listened to and presumably downloaded by lakhs of curious Internet users. A few days ago, if anyone wanted, he could have downloaded the songs free. Today, the going rate for the songs, “What We Want” and “Move ya Body,” is 98 cents a download. Her latest song, “Unspoken Words” is priced at $1.96. Many would argue that cannily trading my space for Facebook is a good bargain. Ah! The fruits of notoriety.

A shorter version of this article, titled When private becomes public in cyberspace was published in The Tribune on March 18, 2008.