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January 18, 2008

Can We Escape Facebook Stories Right Now?

Can We Escape Facebook Stories Right Now? (or Facebook even?)

Fabook Eye

Whatever else it is, Facebook has become the thing to discuss almost everywhere. With social networking sites taking the teen generation by storm - most of my students at thiws level subscribe to at least two- social networking is a social phenomena that seems set to stay and develop. Those who laughed at Rupert Murdoch for investing in MySpace are certainly laughing on the other side of their face by now. I have to say here the delightful naivety of those teens who subscribe to MySpace and think that "Tom" is the owner makes it worth teaching media studies as the surprised faces realise that they are subsribing to the business empire that owns The Sun and yes The Times. But I digress because the new enemy on the block perhaps far more unpleasant than the right wing anti-BBC stance of Murdoch are the hard-core youngish neo-conservatives who really own Facebook exposed by Tom Hodgkinson in the Guardian earlier this week whilst today the BBC has posted a story on the dangers around privacy concerning Facebook.  

Is Facebook Providing a Challenge to Alternative Systems? could have a Facebook account, and I suspect that this swamps number 1 or 2.  For social networking within the academic community, Facebook is all-conquering, and we observe a startling number of students who have a Facebook account before they arrive or get one soon after they start. And if you already have a Facebook account then it's not immediately obvious that you need another place to write about what you're doing, or another place to share your photos (hence the precipitous drop in the number of photos uploaded; they've all gone into Facebook instead).

With social networking being the new media phenomenon of the moment with every teenager wishing to have 'creds' subscribing to at least one (and often more) social networking accounts, and with Facebook specifically being the 'flavour of the month' traffic and enthusiasm for the less measured sort of social interactions on some other sites may be being reduced. The above quotation from a discussion on Warwick Blogs being a case in point.

Facebook along with other more established social networking sites are excellent examples of 'New Media' institutions becoming established. Either, as in the case of My Space (courtesy Rupert Murdoch), being owned by  rapcious established entrepreneurs or as in the case of Facebook by rapacious new entrepreneurs. The key shift in media provision by the owners is the relaince upon User Generated Content to allow everybody participating in one of these media environments to gossip about each other. It saves employing gossip columnists aprt from anything else. 

As social networking develops and matures it may well be that certain audiences start to move to different social networks which have a different demographic base. Facebook has clearly developed a target audience significantly different to Bebo. If this  continues to develop then  the advertising core behind these sites will start to become more social network site specific. Arguably there is a shift of Lifestyle magazines onto the net with the added advantage for the owners that they pay little or nothing for content provided by the users instead. (Here the net effect of the net is to increasingly push responsibility towards the users - think banking - and provide an environment). Perhaps social networking sites will increasingly focus upon specific demographic factors but provide a global audience for these common factors. Thus social networking could start to provide a huge boost for social and cultural globalisation which has to date still been more of an economic phenomenon. 

Where is it all going?

For cultural studies this raises issues of continuing hybridisation which is something that is probably being researched already. This kind of thing is likely to move into 3D virtual world's as they develop beyond the R & D stage into full media environments.  

Personally I have little doubt that an increasing amount of shopping for a variety of goods will move into virtual 3D environments such as Second Life. This will require a much more efficient broadband infrastructure than currently exists. This week's Economist has written a useful comparative article on the development broadband networks and useage in the World's more developed countries. 

Economist on Broadband

Easy access to cheap, fast internet services has become a facilitator of economic growth and a measure of economic performance. No wonder, then, that statistics show a surge in broadband use, especially in places that are already prosperous. The OECD, a rich-country club, says the number of subscribers in its 30 members was 221m last June—a 24% leap over a year earlier. But it is not always the most powerful economies that are most wired. In Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland, over 30% of inhabitants have broadband. In America, by contrast, the proportion is 22%, only slightly above the OECD average of just under 20%. (Economist Jan 19th - 25th, 2008)

Oddly on this analysis the USA is going to have to get its act together in terms of communications infrastructure. social networking popularity is only a low level phase in the development of Web 2.0. The issue is the development of interesting online environments which large numbers of people are going to be comfortable with and 3D environments are going to be the places to be. whilst some will be fantasy areas there will be a lot which are more like mirrors of the everyday in which leisure, value added services and business transactions will take place. 

Of course one set of statistics only gives a very narrow framing of what is happening. As the US has the largest population in the above table then there are presumably a larger number of subscibers hence the mass customer / audience base to encourage future developments.  The BBC story on the Broadband digital divide is relevant here. Given the high cost of installing cabling networks clearly cities are going to become well served. In america with huge areas relatively sparsely populated there could be serious social divisons based around access opening up - to add to the other ones. Interstingly pysically small but quite dense populations such as Denmark and the Netherlands with a more social democratic committment to service provision to citizens are likely to gain significantly from high speed broadband development. No accident that they are already the countries which are most developed in this respect. 

The Net Effect 

One can only be speculative at this stage and comment on emrgent trends. Currently social networking is new exciting and gobsmacking because people can suddenly publish something and find a global audience, until a very short time ago unimaginable for an individual. Now mainstream media will increasingly be developing environments now the user generated thing is becoming established. what sort of environments people will want isn't yet clear but the current phase of Facebook et al is probaly only temporary. The question is what will the Rupert Murdoch's profits from MySpace advertising be reinvested into: 2nd Life or something similar?  You can bet he is watching the audience data closely!

As for the infamous Facebook, well I buy into Hodgkinson's arguments. I thoroughly dislike the fact that they keep information about you and you can't cleanly unsubscribe. They are also very snotty if you do try and shut down an account. I advise my students to approach it very cautiously. They push  everything thay can to the limit in the search for audience and the corresponding advertising contracts, Beacon and now "Scrabulous" as minor entrepreneurs trade on other brands. 

As for information and data privacy this is a serious breach of human rights and thankfully regulation is catching up!

The investigation follows a complaint by a user of the social network who was unable to fully delete their profile even after terminating their account.

several reasons to join me on Warwick blogs and forget Facebook!

Social Graphs (Up date September 2008)

An advert which appeared next to this page about Social Graphs led me to check out the term. I discovered a useful article on the Facebook hype from the Economist last autumn which explained exactly how social networks such as Facebook didn't in fact add network value, unlike postal and telephone networks. The latter operate under something called Metcalf's Law. The article seems to bear out my scepticism for this phenomenon:

But unlike other networks, social networks lose value once they go beyond a certain size. “The value of a social network is defined not only by who's on it, but by who's excluded,” says Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley forecaster. Despite their name, therefore, they do not benefit from the network effect. Already, social networks such as “aSmallWorld”, an exclusive site for the rich and famous, are proliferating. Such networks recognise that people want to hobnob with a chosen few, not to be spammed by random friend-requests. (social Gragh-iti, The Economist Oct 17th 2007)

It comes as no surprise that the rich and powerful want exclusive social networks. Virtual reality appears to be mirroring social reality. Well who would have imagined that?

December 30, 2007

Facebook: Galvanising the Power of Consumer Advocacy

Power of Facebook affects law

Internet law professor Michael Geist looks at how Facebook has the power to affect legislation.

(Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law.)

In this story Geist tells of how a concern he posted on Facebook about proposals to changes in copyright law to a few friends rapidly galvanised tens of thousands into action. Here he argues that this is perhaps the most important issue to takeaway from 2007 which has definitely been Facebook's year in terms of profile on the internet.   

December 29, 2007

Facebook still in the News

Facebook Still in the News

Facebook’s transformation from a quirky internet start-up into one of the most talked-about companies in Silicon Valley is sure to be remembered as one of 2007’s biggest technology stories.(Kevin Allison: FT December 28 2007)

In May 2007 Facebook announced that it would allow outside developers to develop applications for Facebook such as games and slide-shows for use in the site. This gained a very favourable response as Facebook has a large and growing market. As the Money Programme puts it below, however it asks searching questions which are related to to any media company either on or offline. How has it outstripped the opposition and will the audience remaion for as every media company knows audiences are fickle: 

Facebook seemed to come from nowhere to everywhere in 2007.

One person in eight in the UK has become a registered member.Why has Facebook been so successful against stiff competition from other social network sites?And as the company tries to turn its popularity into profits, will its millions of members stay faithful? (Facehooked BBC Money Programme)

Comscore an organisation which tracks webtraffic estimed that Facebook received over 92 million unique visitors in November 2007.  This compares with 104 million unique visitors for MySpace in the same period which is a far more established company. The rate of growth for Facebook since November 2006 has been an impressive 400% compared to MySpace's 26%. Whilst an impressive rate of growth from a relatively low base is easier to achieve in a short time clearly if these figures were to continue Rupert Murdoch's MySpace as  the foremost social networking site is under threat.

Business interst in Facebook is underpinning this growth and gaining widespread interst amongst the business community. Given that Facebook's audience is amongst university students soon to be embarking upon successful careers the potential for longer term audience retention and the possible growth in advertising revenues can hardly be ignored. As reported in a previous posting Microsoft made an initial investment buying up 1.6% of the company. This was closely followed by Li Kashing a Hong Kong businessman of $60 million.

Comscore Chart

Above Comscore chart of Facebook usage pattern from Aug 05 - Aug 06. Unsurprisingly for a site devoted to university students usage goes down in the holidays. Roll on more wireless internet laptops under the sun umbrellas!

Overall these deals value Facebook at $15 billion. This can be compared to the price Google paid for YouTube of around $1.65 billion overall. In general terms then social networking sites with an established audience are becoming increasingly valuable. These figures also help to put the value of Linden Labs Second Life in perspective. currently the number of residents of about 11 million with aroud 38,000 online at any one time is still not attracting the bigger players. Microsoft is clearly intersted in audiences numbering tens of millions. 

Allison analyses the three constituent groups who comprise the audience and instituional combination which defines the media equation of the site but who have competing desires:

  • The users whose social connections power the site
  • The developers whose applicationskeep people interested
  • The advertisers upon whom Facebook is reliant for making money
“Facebook has these three constituent groups and it’s a really difficult balancing act, especially when you are trying to be innovative,” says Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst at Forrester Research (Cited Allison ibid)

Two groups have been frustrated over the past year. Users have become concerned over privacy issues - to be dealt with later- whilst  software developers have found the frequent changes to the site's software through tweaking awkward to deal with requiring immediate tweaks of their own. Currently the situation is very fluid as the key perspective from the viewpoint of Media institutions is how to monetise the assetts of social networking:

“We are in an early stage in trying to monetise social media,” says Jeremy Liew of Lightspeed Venture Partners, a venture capital group that is an investor in RockYou, one of the leading makers of Facebook applications. Speaking of Facebook’s trouble with Beacon, Mr Liew says, “there are bound to be mistakes made” as social networks experiment with new advertising models.(Allison ibid)

Social Networking and Advertising Futures

Liew is confident that in the medium term a stable model of advertising driven social networking sites will emerge and that looking between 5 or 10 years this will have happened however over the coming few months there is still likely to be a lot of experimentation. Unlike audiences who may be preparedto put up with a few issues if they are changed rapidly in response to audience feedback marketers who are putting the money up front are unlikely to be so tolerant.

What does seem certain is that social networking is going to become a massive creator of adertising revenue. The content will be user generated but oiled by useful and entertaining applications. Rupert Murdoch renowned for being media-savvy and being able to develop and influence trends was certainly perceptive to invest in MySpace. The fact that Microsoft has made a move into this niche market after years of experience in networking with MSN shows that this is likely to be the fastest growing area of advertising revenue in the coming years. As Gabriel
Ready from the Open University has commented there is no such thing as a free web-trip or (lunch in cyberspace):

As Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg explained, quite simply, these sites are based on a business model of selling targeted advertisements. Targeted advertisements, unlike traditional broadcast adverts, rely on information about their targets. And we--the users--are the targets. It's inevitable that companies like Facebook will want to gather more and more information about us as users, because it is that rich mine of data about us that advertisers are willing to pay for. (My emphasis, Ready: OU Open2.Net)


Facebook set for a delicate balancing act

November 30, 2007

Facebook and Social Networking

Facebook and Social Networking


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. 


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.  


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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