Q&A about online social networking services

20071206a.png I was interviewed during the summer for an interesting documentary about Bebo and online social networks (or “social networking services”) by the Multime Group from DCU. I prepared some answers for their questions, which I am sharing here.

What is your interpretation of an online social network (OSN)?

My interpretation is that it is a place where people can define their offline relationships to others – family, friends, schoolmates, etc. – online, and as well as defining existing real-world relationships, they can begin to form new ones or strengthen others with people they may have had less contact with previously.

Do you think users realise the public nature of OSNs?

No, most are unaware of how public OSNs are, especially through new social network search engines like Bigulo, Wink and other systems like Google (Ed.: And now Spock!), it’s very easy to deliberately or accidentally happen across someone’s profile, with all sorts of information there that they would not expect the public to be able to view.

Do you think users feel they are in control of their page? Do you think they actually are in control?

It depends on the OSN in use. Some offer very primitive control over what you can allow people to see – some just allow profiles to be public or private. Other OSNs offer more sophisticated access control, based on the number of degrees away that a contact is.

In research conducted you mentioned the need for “reputation management for the exchange of information in these networks”. Do you think there is a pressure for users to present a certain image in order to feel part of the community?

I should explain that the reputation management I mentioned is more a way for deciding which people can access the stuff that you are creating and sharing, but in terms of how you are being perceived, there is certainly a drive towards making yourself more interesting, and of course some people will go to extremes to make that point by posting pictures on their site that they definitely wouldn’t hand out to any old stranger on the street. As long as people remember that possibly anyone can see their profile, and if they are happy that the potential side effects outweigh the benefits of being in a particular community, well then there’s no more you can say…

Do you think that virtual reputation is becoming an obsession with OSN users, e.g., the hits counter on Bebo or “share the love”?

One of the most common ego boosters is the number of friends you have, and the number of comments or scraps that people are leaving on your profile. Luckily, most OSNs only allow positive increases in reputation – it’s the systems where you can add negative points to someone (like eBay, bulletin board karma systems) that really cause problems! Yes, it’s very important and as someone who often looks at others for potentially unconnected friends, I can understand the drive!

Do you think the interactions on OSNs like Bebo resemble real-life social encounters or is it just escapism?

Web interactions haven’t quite reached the level of real world interaction just yet, but features like being able to respond to people’s videos with video comments of your own (e.g., on YouTube) are going in this direction. Some theorise that some OSNs will eventually move towards 3-D worlds like Second Life, where networks of friends are interacting in much more realistic ways. 3-D gaming has had groups of people working towards common purposes for more than a decade, but they may never have met each other. But, I also believe that online networking can often lead to real-world group meetups, and if one strengthens the other, it should be a good thing.

Do you think people are bypassing the establishment of a trust model in favour of promoting themselves, e.g., Bebo’s “hottest babes”?

It depends on what they are trying to achieve by this. I’ve haven’t seen the Bebo section you mentioned, but if it’s being used as a quicker way of getting people to your profile rather than serendipitously happening across your profile via a friend or search, then some people will happily go for it and I’m sure those people may often not realise how persistent information on the Web can be. If you’re looking for a job in the future, well, maybe your OSN page has been edited, but services like the Web Archive or Google may well have a copy to show your future generations!

Do you think the image-centred nature of OSNs may lead to an unhealthy focus on the self and self-presentation?

It may be the wrong approach because you could probably attract better matches to your profile by expanding on your interests, events you liked, films you went to, or even by just blogging about yourself.

Do you think there is a ritualistic element to OSNs, e.g., entering daily thoughts on a community blog, checking on a daily basis, creating, what could be considered, a shrine in the form of their personal page?

For some, OSNs can border on addiction, as people have to login to check what has changed on their own pages and on those of their friends. Facebook have a nice system whereby you can see at a glance from your own friends list who has been updated, so they are making things easier (less clicking!). For those who are just trying to make themselves more popular, its not just important to contribute to your own page, but to drive people back to your own shrine, you must comment on other people’s sites and thereby create more backlinks to yourself. I don’t think people would continue to participate in some sort of ritualistic maintenance of their own sites without feedback from others, and luckily that means interacting with other people either online or offline.

Do you think OSNs like Bebo worship individualism? Is this community unique in this sense?

No, I think all social networks are now striving to allow people to express their individuality through widgets, skins and other “pieces of flair”. From the individual’s perspective, being able to customise your page like this means you can attract like-minded or random curious people to visit and keep on visiting your page, making you more popular in the process. From the service provider’s perspective, its driving up the revenues from the display of advertising on the site.

Do you think the social norm of the Bebo community, that is to say, the safety in the community, allows or affords individuals the right to be more ego-centric than in other situations (because ‘everyone is doing it’)?

I think that may be true in some respects – and the drunked photo phenomenon is a good example of this – but also, it can depend a lot on the personality of the individual. People will often say things online that they would not say face to face, but the reverse is true and others will not get the same buzz from interacting through a web browser as they would in real life.

Do you think OSNs present or reflect the fragmented nature of the postmodern society we live in? And if so, how?

(Ed.: I am no expert on postmodernism, sorry!) They say that OSNs are causing more young people to watch less television, so from that point of view they are no doubt causing people to become disconnected physically from families in the evenings while they are logged on. In the opposite direction, more conversations are being formed offline about what such and such put on their page last night – but I suspect that the extra time spent online outweighs that being spent offline as a result.

In your opinion, what are the best and worst parts of OSNs?

The best part is the fact that a community of like-minded people can group together and talk about things and interests that they would never have been able to do via phone conversations or e-mail. It’s a lot easier to get involved, and having these social networks centred around objects of common interest means that you can get the answers and chats you want about things you are actually interested in rather than switching on the TV and waiting for something interesting to come on. They are also great for networks of geographically-disconnected friends, who may have been in school but are now all around the world. They are very useful for getting in touch with someone who’s advice or skills you need, through the friend of a friend or friend of a friend of a friend. The worst part is probably the inadvertent uses that OSNs have been put to that they were never intended for: bullying, stalking and other types of abuse.

What do you think is the future for OSNs?

There are a number of things that are needed and that are already beginning to appear. The first is a way to manage your identities across all these social networks. Services like PeopleAggregator, 30boxes and Klostu are the first step towards collecting your identities, and then using systems like OpenID you can have a single sign-on to any of the networks that you are a member of. The second interesting idea is that of object-centered sociality, which says that people will only connect to others who have a shared object of interest – it may be content they create or tag together, it may be a place where they discuss their job or hobbies, or it may be some geographical or interest-related community they are members of.

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