Friday, September 25, 2009

Facebook and the media: Opening the gated community

One guaranteed way to make a newspaper headline writer’s day is to find an event that has some tenuous connection with Facebook. If there is a remote chance that technology can be blamed for something, it will be. So it is hardly surprising that in the last few days alone we have Facebook murders, Facebook crime, Facebook rescues, Facebook bandits, illegal Facebook parties and even “Facebook for the dead”. This is all very lazy journalism though understandable that the media should want to tap into the Internet’s biggest phenomenon. (photo by jurvetson)

Facebook’s growth shows little sign of slowing down. Its founder Mark Zuckerberg said he still had big plans for the five-year-old application when he announced last week Facebook now had 300 million users which would make it the fourth largest country in the world. It is not difficult to believe it will soon overtake the US with its 3.1 million to leave only China and India ahead of it. Zuckerberg is so confident, he thinks the company may even make money in 2010!

Zuckerberg says his company mission is "to make the world more open and transparent by giving people the power to share information.” But while many have praised Facebook as part of the democratising trend of new media, there is a social exclusion aspect to it also. Facebook is easily the largest gated community in the world. Author Robert Putnam told fan culture guru Henry Jenkins that while engagement with Facebook was primarily a social activity, there is a real "participation divide" that creates varying degrees of Internet engagement. Putnam found that Facebookers practice what cultural anthropologists call "gating", the tendency to build physical/virtual, social, and cultural walls that are exclusive.

But within their own communities, social network users are very generous. Zmags’ Joakim Ditlev found Facebook is easily the most popular sharing tool among digital readers with 38 percent using it to forward content with Twitter well back in second place on 9 percent. This also means readers are more likely to pick up content from Facebook. Ditley says Facebook’s casual way of communicating “seems to apply well” for sharing digital content.

Facebook’s wide range of communication tools are also eating away at time spent on email, instant messaging and discussion groups. Activities that used to take place in email, such as posting videos or holiday photos are now migrating to Facebook. As ReadWriteWeb says Gen Yers “don't even think of email as the place to connect with friends and family - that's what social networks are for.”

But people are leaving an enormous trail of data that could eventually come back to haunt them. While embarrassing photos are an obvious problem here, a friend list can also reveal a great deal about the person. An experiment at Boston’s MIT found that simply by looking at a friend list, they could predict whether the person was gay. They did this with a software program that looked at the gender and sexuality of a person’s friends and made a prediction using statistical analysis. As the Boston Globe puts it: “if our friends reveal who we are, that challenges a conception of privacy built on the notion that there are things we tell, and things we don’t.”

In Australia, the notion of privacy has been challenged by a court case against prison officers who used a Facebook group to protest against changes in their industry to privatise prisons. In October last year, six NSW corrections officers created a private group called "Suggestions to help big RON save a few clams". But when Big RON - the NSW Corrective Services Commissioner Ron Woodham - found out about the suggestions he wasn’t happy and threatened to fire them for "bullying" and "harassment".

It did not take long for the media to label them The Facebook Six (though for some reason they preferred the more alliterative Facebook Five for a while). Last week Industrial Relations Commission decided their cases needed to be reheard after concerns of procedural unfairness so their fate is on hold for now. But the lesson to be learnt about Facebook, as academic David Perlmutter stated recently is that it is “a particularly dangerous weapon for self-injury because more than with many other social-networking sites, it is so easy to share an embarrassing admission or offensive quip.”

Despite the pitfalls, there are some who believe Facebook makes its users smarter. According to Dr Tracy Alloway from the University of Stirling in Scotland, the socmed site is doing “wonders for working memory [and] improving…IQ scores”. While it is doubtful that the thousands who sign on every day are doing it to become smarter, its versatility is one of its most attractive features. The downside is that it gives news editors even more things to place next to “Facebook” in their next headline.

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