November 30, 2007

Facebook and Social Networking

Facebook and Social Networking

Introduction


At the beginning of this week when doing an introduction to the New Media Technologies Unit for OCR I asked a class of about 24 AS media students how many of them used social networking sites, almost all used one. It seems clear that this is very much a generational phenomena and one can expect these current users to be users in 10 or 15 years time. For them it is a normal means of communication whilst for older people including many parents, teachers and lecturers it isn't a normal means of communication. 

That social networking isn't seen as a normal means of communication and one that is growing in importance is problematic for many educational institutions. Many of their networks have a total block on the system. It is even difficult for students to research specific sites because as soon as they put a search term such as Facebook into the search engine then there is an automatic block set up.  Lecturers must now create resources to be viewed remotely from the institution.  For those of us working in the media and communications arenas this is making things particularly awkward and this is a case of a combination of technologies combined with cultural desires which are outstripping the abilities of older institutions to adapt quickly enough. Those teaching on A level media courses will have by now have noticed that the new specifications on several of the exam boards are increasingly geared towards the world of 'New' Media - although nowadays it isn't so new. This is shown by the fact that large and even giant media institutions are taking stakes in these emergent areas. Below I start to look at some of the issues which are arising as these "new" areas of media are becoming subsumed into conventional media channels albeit creating new and emerging models of audience and profit creating from those of 'old media'. Rest assured the main issue of profitability is not under any threat!

From an educational perspective it is now extremely important that colleges and schools work towards opening up their networks to social networking sites. With parents often being entirely ignorant of the dangers as well as the enormous potential of these sites lecturers and teachers need to start coming to terms with the implications of them. It is far better to learn about these things in a moderated and supported environment than to allow students to participate in ignorance. That is a recipe for danger and disaster for the more naive. This issue is covered briefly below. 


Media Institutions: Who owns it & what do they get out of it?


When dealing with media institutions whether in the world of 'old' or 'new' media one of the first things to get students to ask is "Who owns it?", "What do they get out of it". 

Rupert Murdoch  was as usual ahead of the game and incidently must be considered as a media entrepreneur still at the top of his game as he invested heavily - to much derision from competitors and media critics - in the social networking site MySpace. I don't think many will be laughing now, being a bright shade of green instead!

Google followed this lead about a year later with the acquisition of YouTube. This acquisition although worth $1.65 Billion was mainly done through a stock deal and not by cash! The owners of YouTube being rewarded with Google shares which have seen a  steady increment in value. google are still working on a way to 'monetise' of create YouTube as a profitable enterprise, however I'm sure they will crack it in time and in the meantime they have brought into a huge and growing audience.

The new Kid on the block is Facebook. Started by a Harvard graduate its initial audience was largely University students and younger lecturers however it is in the process of expanding exponentially. You will find architectural celebrity Zaha Hadid on Facebook for example. The success of Facebook has created interest from megacorporation Microsoft  who have bought into the company. This is another step in Microsoft's shift into a horizontally integrated company in a multimedia environment gradually turning from a software company into a mutli-media comany.  Apple are doing  a similar thing and this process will be covered elsewhere in due course. A BBC report from October 2007 notes Microsoft's move into the market:

Microsoft has paid $240m (£117m) for a 1.6% stake in Facebook that values the hugely popular social networking site at $15bn (£7.3bn).


BBC Video of Facebook founder.


Audiences & Social Networking




Facebook Screen

Facebook allows you to create a profile of "Friends". As the number of friends is available is virtually infinite this might mean that more precise definitions of 'Friends' is required. Friends and acquaintances network anybody?










Some key facts about Facebook from 2006 below. Writing now at the end of 2007 rest assured it has a considerably larger membership as well as having Microsoft as an important investor. 


  • Founded as an online social directory by Mark Zuckerberg in 2004

  • 7.5m people registered

  • Seventh most popular website in US

  • "Facebooking": checking someone's Facebook profile before meeting them

  • "Facebook official": really going out together

The website works around individual institutions. So if you don't have an e-mail account from the University of Oxford, you don't get into the Facebook for students at Oxford.(This BBC story posted in June 2006 gives us a sense of the recent history of the social networking site). 


Recent figures on Facebook usage  from The Times Online

Facebook is now the clear No 2 worldwide, with around 50 million active users, just below half of MySpace’s level. A year ago Facebook, which began life as a networking site for American students founded by Mark Zuckerberg, a college drop-out, had 12 million active users. The growth allowed it to raise $240 million (£117 million) from Microsoft, based on a company valuation of $15 billion.(My emphasis figures from the Times 13th December 2007)


As the Times article points out the audiences for Facebook have in the past been primarily amongst students however as the stories below (Aug & Sept 2007) indicate, Facebook appears to be moving into a new phase of expansion.

Kent Council Workers are banned from Facebook:

Workers at Kent County Council (KCC) have been banned from using the social networking website Facebook.

Certainly social networking sites have become popular at work. Use of the internet for non-working activities is on the increase. As a result institutional networks are become more controlling in terms of who is allowed access. Whilst we can criticise the NHS workers for wasting taxpayer money and not doing thier best for patients  this story  from  the BBC on Kent NHS highlights the popularity of these sites amongst adults as well as students and provides a clue about how the phenomenon of social networking is spreading. It isn't clear how far this is intergenerational from this story. 


Facebook and New Social Movement Theory


Social networks can be used as powerful cultural and socio-political tools. This story from the BBC points out how students organising via Facebook managed to change the policy of HSBC one of the World's largest banks and a player on a global scale:

Students putting pressure on bank


Instead of using leaflets and loud-hailers, this student protest is gathering support through Facebook, with the Stop The Great HSBC Graduate Rip-Off group so far acquiring almost 3,500 members - an increase of about 1,000 since the weekend. (Taken from story linked above August 2007).

Social networking and the ability to mobilise sentiment possibly at a global level in a viral form leaves the possibility of new highly fluid political movements which are extraordinarily dynamic. With climate change increasingly dominating the global political agenda it will be intersting to see whether and  how social networking sites are able to mobilise and utilise people's sentiments in entirely new ways with limited objectives being applied at any given moment. This means that new chapters will need to be written in the social theory of New Social Movement theory and Resource Mobilisation theory. 

The IDRC (International Development Research  Centre) has a useful but heavyweight summation of these theories here. The Wikipedia explanation is briefer but still helpful.


This Guardian Blog suggests that there is a dark side to the political activity on Facebook with the British National Party becoming involved in a big way. It certainly attracted some BNP supporters in the comments box too!


Here's an extract from the Open Democracy site. It seems to think that there needs to be a 'civic hacking' application. Perhaps the social networking sites are this application... 

So, a sensible strategy would start on this principle. But the people it should be connecting are not citizens and parliamentarians, or voters and civil servants. It should be connecting ordinary people with other ordinary people. And there should be applications that help these people to help each other. A programme supporting civic hacking can do this.

This should become the ethic of e-democracy: mutual-aid and self-help among citizens, helping to overcome civic problems. It would encourage a market in application development. It would encourage self-reliance, or community-reliance, rather than reliance on the state.

Facebook and Cultural Studies Research


The phenomenon of Facebook and social networking in general is becoming so widespread in advanced industrial countries that it is beginning to become an importan area of cultural and social research. The comments below from this Nottingham 3rd Year student doing Geography (presumably Human Geography are indicative in this regard:

Facebook has become a phenomenon at Nottingham University, so much so that I've decided to do my geography dissertation on it. Am in the process of just starting, and was worried that Facebook would just be a fad and my dissertation would be left high and dry, but it looks set to stay. Let's just hope I get to talk to the right people concerning it.
Sally, Nottingham
( Comment left on this BBC story)


How Dangerous are Social Networking Sites?


One of the key issues surrounding social networking sites is the rank naivety by allowing oneself to be recorded in a 'candid' situation. This BBC story makes it clear that there are dangers that potential employers can search for applicants on the web. This can lead to severe set backs for some people and raises the issue of changing models of social surveillance:


Here is a link to the Information Comissioner's Office (ICO) dealing with protection for young people. The ICO  is an important regulatory institution which has recently developed to deal with data protection and the rapidly increasing social and cultural moves into Networked Society. In the Webliography there is also a link to the ICO's data safety 'toolkit' which is a PDF that social networkers should consult carefully.
This BBC story below about Oxford University using Facebook as a surveillance tool to identify unruly behaviour amongst its students also shows that these new media tools are 'double-edged'. If you are being posted up or doing it yourself beware!!!

Above the dangers of silly or even criminal behaviour being recorded and becoming used as evidence against you are highlighted. There are of course other dangers within  the social networking environment.  Moral panics aside the possibility of these sites being used to organise bullying / harrassment are possible and have been used to these ends as the screen below displays.

Facebook bullying


Facebook used to bully Librarian  

I have dicovered a useful blog which discusses the issue. In the comments box the subject of the bullying who was actually a postgraduate student provides more information about the experience. What is particularly worrying is that Facebook did NOT actually respond immediately and remove these students:

Facebook DID NOT close the group. They told the University of Kent that they did not accept complaints from institutions, only from individual members.

Of great concern as well is the continuation of the report which cites University of Warwick Students doing the same sort of thing. something that all civically conscious users of any social networking site should be doing is haranguing the site to ban those who act irresponsibly. Facebook has other criticisms to face which will be dealt with in a later posting. But it is very difficult to unsubsribe from and potential users of the site should be aware of this.

So as we can see real society is of course represented with its good and bad faces. It is up to users to self police where possible but this should be backed up by repsonsible policies from the site owners and ultimately there should be a good independent regulatory body. 

As with any other form of social networking individuals of all ages are exposed to a variety of social risks which need to be managed. Just as people need to learn to get 'streetwise' so they need to learn to get 'cyberwise'. There are always opportunities for the opportunistic and unscrupulous within any social and cultural environment. Taking sensible precautions should obviate these. 

Conclusion


This posting has begun to cover some of the issues associated with social networking sites with a particular focus upon Facebook. Topics have coverd social cultural and political research and usage of these sites, the 'dark side' of the sites and some initial comments on the audiences for these sites and the links to larger media instituions which are developing as the importance of these sites increases at an almost exponential rate. Some introducroy comments are also included about the need for educational institutions below university level to take a more proactive stance towards this new forms for to block them arguably leaves students at greater risk than by teaching about these environments. Furthermore responsible institutional useage in monitoring student activity on them can reduce the potential for the dark side to emerge.  


Webliography 

Protests force Facebook to change

Information Commissioner's Office

Information commissioner's Office (ICO) Data Safety Toolkit (PDF)

Thinkuknow Teachers and Trainers Area

BBC story on student protests against HSBC


See Can We Escape from Facebook on this blog for analysis and links to the people behind Facebook.


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