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January 18, 2008
Can We Escape Facebook Stories Right Now? (or Facebook even?)
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?
...you 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.
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!
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?