Has Rupert Murdoch made a mistake about the internet? Jeffrey Cole, Director of the Centre for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California, thinks that he has.

Last year Murdoch paid big dollars for the phenomenally successful social networking site, MySpace.com. It looked like a shrewd move. Nielsen ratings estimate that social networking sites reach about 45% of all Web users and are growing fast.

But Cole told this week’s Ninemsn Digital Marketing Summit that Rupert might find young people on the internet to be more fickle, and more resistant to big media corporations, than the old media audiences he is used to.

“These communities are like nightclubs and when the uncool kids find out about them or your parents know about the nightclub you’re out of there and you’re at the new place. And for members of these communities it costs nothing to go from MySpace to your space to their space.”

And as though to confirm his words, there is evidence to show that perhaps MySpace is already not the coolest site on the block. Research by Sandra Hanchard, the Asia-Pacific head of the Internet research company Hitwise, shows that in New Zealand MySpace is less popular than the rival Bebo.

Social networking is obviously a key internet function, but will Rupert Murdoch or anyone else succeed in cornering the market? The only “glue” that keeps young people sticking to one site rather than another is that all their friends are there. If they want to move they must either leave their friends behind or convince them to move too.

All this is part of a bigger question – the same question that is behind the network neutrality debate in the United States. What is the internet? Is it a public space, or shopping mall? The open highway, or a tollroad?

Teenagers have always needed public spaces to hang out in. It used to be parks and gardens and more recently shopping malls, but today these are seen as less safe and less socially acceptable, at least by adults. So now young people hang out on the Web, where they are vulnerable to those who want to sell them stuff, or worse. (One of the social networking sites’ main problems has been dealing with paedophiles and other sexual predators.)

How will young people respond to the attempt to commodify the fundamental adolescent need to seek self-definition through interaction with peers? Surfing the social networking sites suggests that it won’t be easy for the media moguls to corner them. The sites contain groups devoted