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Getting past the echoes
Jon Lebkowsky, 6 Aug 07
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Facebook's success and evolution says a lot about the maturation of the web-based social network scene and the changing ecology of online data and services. Everybody I've encountered on the various prominent social network systems (Ryze, Friendster, Tribe, Orkut, Yahoo 360 et al.) has turned up by now on Facebook. Though many lost interest in those other services pretty quickly, that's not happening with Facebook, which got the message that "friend of a friend" just isn't enough to sustain interest.

It was enough when the first social networks appeared, because we were just past the era of the Internet where, per the famous cartoon, "no one knows you're a dog." Early members of online communities were often shocked and amused when they actually met the people they'd been talking to, often intimately, and found how wrong were their idealized images. You'd have a >>ding<< moment when you realized the 20something you'd been hanging out with was actually a fiftyish greybeard.

Ryze, the business-focused social network site that inspired Friendster, was compelling because you could upload digital images. and I'm convinced that user-contributed digital images were key in driving early social network adoption. Hard to imagine now, but being able to see the faces of the members of your community was a big deal.

Besides easy image uploads, Ryze and other early social networks accommodated easy group-forming, messaging, and offline meetings, but that was never quite enough to keep people engaged. People tended to drift away. Flickr was an exception, a sustained success because it placed the social network concept in service of an engaging activity, in this case photo sharing. Flickr was a good example of what Yuri Zengstrom calls "object-centered sociality."

Zengstrom says that "the term 'social networking' makes little sense if we leave out the objects that mediate the ties between people."

Think about the object as the reason why people affiliate with each specific other and not just anyone. For instance, if the object is a job, it will connect me to one set of people whereas a date will link me to a radically different group. This is common sense but unfortunately it's not included in the image of the network diagram that most people imagine when they hear the term 'social network.' The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They're not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object.

Recently Facebook announced that an interface that would allow application developers to plug their applications into the system. This was a brilliant move to enhance Facebook's already "object-rich" environment. Facebook is not just a place to hang out - you go there to do things with your online friends, and there's more and more that you can do.

What kind of people are using Facebook? danah boyd's written an insightful analysis of class division, actually fragmentation, between Facebook users and Myspace users. She's focusing particularly on teens, high school students that are beginning to show up on Facebook, but I think her analysis has broader implications.

She says that

the goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other "good" kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college. They are part of what we'd call hegemonic society. They are primarily white, but not exclusively. They are in honors classes, looking forward to the prom, and live in a world dictated by after school activities.

MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, "burnouts," "alternative kids," "art fags," punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn't play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm. These are kids whose parents didn't go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school. These are the teens who plan to go into the military immediately after schools. Teens who are really into music or in a band are also on MySpace. MySpace has most of the kids who are socially ostracized at school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers.

boyd's essay has been getting the usual kind of blogosphere attention, cascading comments pro and con, but it's hard to make a definitive assessment because it's high level thinking and not finished work (though inspired by her deeper academic studies). I'm wondering how a broader view (not just focused on teenagers) might look, whether the perception of class fragmentation would be less pronounced when you factor in older uses. My own thought is that Facebook vs Myspace might be an apples to oranges kind of comparison, when you consider the difference in how the sites have evolved.

They're both social network platforms, but at its genesis Myspace focused on an audience much broader, with somewhat coarser comercial intentions. A controversial Myspace history by Trent Lapinski calls the platform "Spam 2.0."

On the other hand, Facebook was originally created for a narrow audience, intially ivy league college students, and it has only recently expanded, first to high schools, then to the general public.

No need to get into the business and marketing differences and implications here, but with any online social network environment, you've got a combination of the platform and the community that uses it. The platform creator/operator doesn't create the community, it emerges as users are drawn into the space. However decisions about the platform obviously emphasize community development, and boyd's analysis gives us an idea how the Myspace/Facebook communities (and and shared ecology, since these are just points in "Web 2.0 space," there's some flow from one platform to another, and some members use both) have evolved culturally.

What's interesting to me is that the hegemonic Facebook seems so much more engaging than the subaltern Myspace - Facebook members have community activity in their faces constantly; the landing page is an aggregation of all the activities within your particular community of friends. While Myspace has conversations and group-forming, community is not particularly compelling at the level where most of us engage the system (the home page). You have to look for it.

Are these systems the way they are because of who they serve? Or do they attract members based on how they're built? If Myspace was built like Facebook, would its communities become more robust, or would current members flee?

What the social activist in me is interested in seeing is a system as engaging as Facebook, or even more so, that brings the "hegemonic" and "subaltern" cultures into a single environment, and creates a conversation between the two worlds. What assumptions would we have to make, and what challenges would we have to meet, in order to create this kind of space? In an era where can't bring key hegemonic tribes (Democrats and Republicans) to some kind of civic engagement, how hard would it be to create a conversation that includes conformists, nonconformists, and anticonformists?

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I've just joined Facebook and MySpace, and these comments hit some good notes. MySpace feels like stumbling into a teenager's bedroom and Facebook feels like meeting all your friends in a board room. When someone gets the right balance between usability, smart design, and design open enough to allow easy creative embellishment that doesn't break usability... Something more interesting might happen.

Posted by: Gyrus on 6 Aug 07

Here is another social networking site, based on sharing the objects of "green consumber goods" and "sustainable living habits."

Good analysis of FB and MS. MS really doesn't seem to have community down, while Friendster is somewhere in between the two.

Posted by: Ken on 7 Aug 07

Here is another social networking site, based on sharing the objects of "green consumber goods" and "sustainable living habits."

Good analysis of FB and MS. MS really doesn't seem to have community down, while Friendster is somewhere in between the two.

Posted by: Ken on 7 Aug 07



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