June 14, 2007

The end of social networking?

The BBC loves it. Rupert Murdoch loves it. Even the government is falling in love with it.

But like Grandstand, Marathon bars, the Drachma and the Beatles, everything has a lifecycle.

Find a FriendWhat am I talking about?

Social networking.

MySpace, Facebook and Bebo have quickly grown to become some of the biggest websites in the world. Facebook’s growth has been particularly impressive: 400,000 just over six months ago is 2,000,000 today.

But how long can these websites (if we can call them that) continue to expand? And what will happen when they reach their peak?

One small event triggered me to wonder whether social networking sites are ultimately doomed: My mum joined one.

Now, I can cope with this. I’m a grown-up and I know she’s only joined so she can spy on the local trouble-making kids (ah, if only Facebook had net curtains).

I think most mums are probably as inquisitive as mine. And they’ve got better things to do than join their own special site for middle-aged people. They’d much rather jump on-board the kids’ version and use it to their advantage.

But what happens when everyone’s mum is on Facebook, MySpace or Bebo? How will the yoof react?

Facebook I find particularly troubling. The USP of Facebook was that it was an academic site, useful for arranging nights out or joining groups where you slag off your lecturers. But then they opened up to everyone. Not only does this make privacy an issue, but it also leads to PSD, or Parental Snooping Disease.

While I can still just about see a use to Facebook, I wonder whether the fact that everyone is on there – and the ebbing away of the site’s coolness that will follow – will be enough to tip people over the edge and back to their previously hermitic existence when they weren’t connected to their ‘mini-feed’.

Ultimately, we’ll find ourselves asking ‘Do I really need Facebook/Bebo/Myspace?’ and then asking ‘Is that need outweighed by the fact that having my mum on there is mortally embarrassing?’. The more time I spend on Facebook, the more I begin to think it’s like Big Brother (the TV show rather than the Orwellian concept, although the latter may also be true). It’s addictive to start with, and then you realise it’s just wasting your time.

This isn’t what big business wants to hear. They’re piling onto the social networking bandwagon faster than you can say ‘cash-cow’. The trouble is… might they arrive too late?

And if they are too late and social networking recedes, then what next? Will we find new and more involving ways to connect with people online, or will we rediscover the phone, texting, and even (whisper it) talking face-to-face?

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  1. In my opinion, opening up Facebook to the masses was their biggest mistake. In the short term the popularity explosion has given them a lot of publicity, most of it good, but in the long term… you’re right, privacy is going to be an issue. Of course, the privacy settings are wide and varied, and you can restrict much of your information to your chosen friends. But the problem is that for the most part, when it was a uni/college only site, the vast majority of users were at least an iota of intelligence about them. Now it’s open to any old riff-raff, it’s quite plain from some of the groups and discussions you see on there that rather than find out exactly how these settings work, people will just complain about their privacy being infringed. This happened when the News Feed and Mini-Feed were introduced and it particularly involved “no-network” Americans. At some point, even though they make reasonable provisions for privacy, Facebook will probably end up on the wrong end of a lawsuit and, knowing the seemingly random nature of Yank courts in such cases, how long will it be before their relentlessly expanding world comes crashing down?

    14 Jun 2007, 23:33

  2. My thirty something year old friends are a bit bemused by it, but signing up in droves… I await my granny signing up

    15 Jun 2007, 09:09

  3. Hadley Beeman

    One of the reasons that I think Facebook will outlast (or is outshining) the others is its granulated security—which also means that I, as a user, am not bothered by stuff that’s not mine. The ‘riff raff’ out there can do what they like, start whatever group or post whatever crazy self-promotional pictures and stories… it doesn’t ever cross my path.

    As for parents watching over, I agree it’s a potential threat to Facebook’s success. But I imagine that the average wily teenager will be able to set their limited profile appropriately and make sure that mum and dad only see the nice part of what their little angel is up to!

    My money is that their usage model is sustainable. Facebook may not last forever, but it won’t burn out soon. Watch this space.

    15 Jun 2007, 09:54

  4. Robert O'Toole

    “Now it’s open to any old riff-raff” – rather like higher education in the UK then.

    What is really interesting here is the current obsession with privacy, with being able to do things out of the view of your parents, the media, the Big Brother panopticon. That, I think, marks out a significant difference between the current generation of students and my generation (Warwick Philosophy 91-94).

    15 Jun 2007, 15:33

  5. Disclaimer I should have put in earlier: “Riff-raff” was, by the way, a tongue-in-cheek remark not intended to cause any offence to anyone, just in case anyone is thinking of taking any…

    16 Jun 2007, 06:43

  6. Nick Howes

    Aside from users’ constant misunderstanding of Facebook’s T&C and privacy policy*, I think it has the best model in terms of what you get to see. Yes, if you want to you can search for and be bombarded by groups related to a Neighbours character or “lost my mobile lol” but in normal usage, you only see your friends that you’ve added, and anybody else is basically invisible to you, so the issue of allowing global registration is not really an issue. Without it a lot of my friends who have already graduated wouldn’t have been able to join. Compare this to myspace where every and any unknown stranger (and bot, ARGH) can add a comment to your profile linking to their website to boost their google rank.

    As long as both society and the Internet continue to exist (of which I’m reasonably confident), there will be social networking on the Internet. A few networks will die, but there will always be the ones that do what users want (Facebook) or are backed by very rich news corporations (Myspace).

    *there are countless Facebook groups complaining about the T&Cs of the Facebook Platform, as if it’s a machine harvesting all your personal information, when it’s actually just the backend for the user-written apps, which give no more information to users than they can get through the web interface. It’s depressing to see people unable to read a paragraph of text and understand what it means.

    24 Jun 2007, 11:38

  7. Sue

    I’m a mother and have never considered joining anything like Facebook mainly because I have an aversion to getting too wrapped up in the internet and quite honestly I don’t even know what it is. As any of my friends would testify I’m one of the least nosey people they know, I’m only interested in things that people want me to know but I would draw the line at that sort of random involvement with other peoples lives. A friend said to me only this weekend “If you’re not embarrassing your children you’re not having enough fun” (so you should be pleased for your Mum, Chris Doidge). And another thing in our house we have CSD (child snooping disease) which is not being able to go out without them saying “where are you going, when will you be back and are you sure you’re going to be alright?” Which I get from my grown up son and I secretly rather like.

    25 Jun 2007, 07:21

  8. my mum is on facebook but i don’t think for stalking purposes but rather as a more efficient e-mail system. She knows I’ll pick up a facebook message quicker than an e-mail or dare I say it post!
    Ohh i love post, why does no one write me?

    27 Jun 2007, 23:50

  9. lily

    i’ve managed to put my mother off facebook by telling her how very complicated it is and she wouldn’t understand it anyway. for now. sadly my friends persist in sending her invites so i fear she may succomb. I hate self-censorship and the arrival of my sisters on facebook means i’ve already had to tone down my profile page, remove sex jokes, make sure my wall is clean etc. if my mother came i’d have to make sure no pictures of me smoking or looking rather drunk filtered unto her mini-feed. this is the main problem, as one of her likely only friend on facebook every one of my moves would make it to her mini-feed page. blast. to me facebook is a place i formerly could relax in under the safe knowledge that just my friends could see my profile. i can hardly rfeuse my mother as my friend though can i.

    05 Jul 2007, 13:23

  10. ian rose

    hello all of you.

    I am a producer on The Money Programme on BBC
    Two and we are looking for people who have been
    in exactly this situation. They’ve joined Facebook
    and then their parents have signed up.

    If it’s happened to you please contact me via email
    the address is ian.rose@bbc.co.uk

    many thanks,


    05 Sep 2007, 14:31

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