Ecstacy and Tribulations of Social Networks

by Bongs Lainjo

By Bongs Lainjo

Wikipedea defines social network services as follows:

A social networking service is a platform to build social networks or social relations among people who, for example, share interests, activities, backgrounds, or real-life connections. A social network service consists of a representation of each user (often a profile), his/her social links, and a variety of additional services. Most social network services are web-based and provide means for users to interact over the Internet, such as e-mail and instant messaging. Online community services are sometimes considered as a social network service, though in a broader sense, social network service usually means an individual-centered service whereas online community services are group-centered. Social networking sites allow users to share ideas, pictures, posts, activities, events, and interests with people in their network”.

The definition is quite extensive and inclusive. And because of this inclusiveness, the last time I checked, there were over three hundred social networking websites globally; excluding dating websites. And all of them have one thing in common: sharing information among users.

Some of the five most popular sites in North America include:

  • Facebook at the top of the list with 1 billion users (open to 13+ age group;
  • Google+ with .5 billion users (age group 13+);
  • Tweeter with .5 billion users (open to all age groups;
  • LinkedIn with .3 billion users ( age group soon to include 14+ according to latest reports and
  • Myspace with .3 billion users (age group 13+)

The level of replication (some users have multiple accounts with different suppliers) notwithstanding, these numbers are not only astounding but impressive and will leave most of us in awe. With Facebook topping the list with the next site with half as many users, there is every indication that the demand to get informed and its consequences on our way of thinking and providing instant feedback have reached unprecedented levels. Facebook in its own right is definitely ahead of the curve. And its recent strategy (no county left behind) to extend “free access” to developing countries will significantly increase these numbers.  The snowball effects of this can be very extensive. For example, how do suppliers safely and effectively store these amounts of data and at the same time making sure they are easily accessible by users?

Cloud computing that has been gradually gaining momentum plays a crucial role in solving many of the storage problems and challenges. The medium is now in strong demand and users vary from email users to social network clients to air lines to governments etc.

But who are these social network users? Before we explore the distribution of users and their different categories, let’s define the different user-groups. In the interest of simplicity and consistent with many authors, I have grouped the user-population into four mutually exclusive groups. These are presented in chronological order as follows:

The digital generation (writer’s nomenclature), those born after 2000; X generation (Gen X), those born between 1982 and 1999; Y generation (Gen Y or millennials), those born between 1969 and 1981; boomer generation, those born between 1945 and 1960 and pre-boomer (writer’s  nomenclature) generation,  those born before 1945.

There is no doubt that these different categories will respond to information technology in general and social networks in dramatically different levels. For example, when one looks at demographics in one study conducted by the Pew Research Center, the figures speak for themselves. In this survey conducted in May 2013, 72 per cent of online adults use social networks with 18 per cent using tweeter. By comparison, in the preceding year (2012), 67 and 20 per cent used social networks and LinkedIn respectively.  By age-group, the findings reported were as follows: 89 per cent of 18-29- group use these sites; with 78 per cent of the 30-49 group; 60 per cent of the 50-64 group and 43 per cent of the 65 and older group.

This distribution without doubt and not surprisingly is substantially skewed by the Gen Y cohort. The figures also illustrate a strong and negative correlation between users and different age groups. That is, the older the group, the likelihood of limited desire to use social networks. Using this as a proxy to overall utilization of information technology, this trend suggests that level of aversion to information technology increases with age.

 A category that has been excluded in this survey for obvious reasons is what I call above the “digital generation”. In an attempt to find out more about this group, I discovered very promising findings. For example if one looks at the 50 percentile (lower median) of this group, the future is not only bright, it is also very unprecedented. In a book review (“The big disconnect, by Catherine Steiner-Adaire) published in the World Street of September 1, 2013, Amy Finnerty presented an interesting scenario of the dynamics of information technology in this group. In the book and according to findings by the Kaiser Family Foundation, one in three under three American kids have a television in their rooms. In another survey 30 per cent of Gen Y mothers encourage their two-year old kids to play with smart phones. This suggests as presented earlier that the high awareness among the Gen Y cohort will be transferred to their kids at the very earliest opportunity; a strategy that will dramatically increase access to and utilisation of information technology in this population. The other message here is that to those parents who continue to monitor their kids and technology practices, moderation, openness and caution are a more successful way of bring up their kids. Let the kids decide on their own curfew!

 In another related development published in The New York Times of September 3, 2013, MIT has recently developed a computer programming language called Scratch for kids eight years and older. The free program is currently used by 150 countries and thousands of schools. Over 1500 animations and games are uploaded to the Scratch community daily. A simpler version called Scratch Jr. with a target audience of kids in kinder garden through second grade is currently at the pilot stage. The future plans include making it available to iPad users. So the information euphoria is systematically spreading across every age group. One case at a personal level will confirm my assertion.

 On the other end of the spectrum, one of my very close friend’s father who is over 80 and an information technology neophyte recently received an iPad from his other half. He has since spent so much time on this machine that one day the wife asked him to choose between her and the iPad. Talk about one becoming a victim of their own strategy!  He has become so sophisticated that he now provides technical support to my friend and her siblings on how to use Facebook.

 The proliferation, ubiquity and easy access to these sites have had both intended and unintended outcomes. They have motivated users; generated unprecedented levels of euphoria; encouraged information sharing (and flaunting personal information in some cases); increased user level of awareness by keeping them instantly informed and being connected to their “friends” and love ones with the click of a button.

 If current global user population is any indication, the tipping point remains anyone’s guess. The reality though is that, the constant demand and utilization frequency of these sites have continued to astound the general population. And as such it is safe to say that on a balance of probability it’s been and continues to be a win/win venture for both the service providers of these sites and their respective users.

 Like many new discoveries, the advent of social networks has also introduced challenges including mind-boggling behaviour, complacency to invasion of privacy and the ability to control and limit abuse by unscrupulous users.

 Every social network user is aware of how by joining these groups they have very substantially compromised their privacy. And in most cases there continues to be very limited degrees of concern. They know for example that there is a price to pay when they exposed themselves to these “free” sites. Social network service providers make a fortune, scammers and hackers have their own share and of course “big bother” calls the shots in most cases. Governments can either directly access user accounts with impunity or demand user information from suppliers using court orders. And almost every user who is willing to “share” personal information remains resigned, subdued and receptive. For instance, in a survey conducted by CrunchGove in August 2013, most Americans (58 per cent compared to 38%) believe that investigating terrorist threat is more important than not intruding on their privacy. In the preceding years, these figures have remained in the above 60 per cent range for the former with a peak of 68 per cent in 2010. The latter on the other hand stayed in the upper twenties and thirties with minimum of 26 per cent in the same year.

The level of abuse, misuse, and personal attacks continues to rise. And there is the likelihood that unpleasant, disgusting and outrageous posts will continue to dominate these networks. The apparent quality control mechanisms and monitoring not withstanding some people are always trying to look for ways to bypass these oversights and post unacceptable and uncivil posts as a way to vent their frustrations or pay back in some circumstances. There are documented copious examples of abuse ranging from peer pressure, to bulling to derogatory racially motivated rants. A disgusting example that seems to be gathering momentum is teenage girls committing suicide because of bulling by their peers via Facebook. Another recent example that was printed in the economist magazine was the attack of Dr Kyenge, Italy’s minister of racial integration, an ophthalmologist by profession. In his attack, Cristiano Za Garibaldi, deputy mayor of Diano Mariana, a small town in the Italian Riviera posted a page on Facebook implying that Dr. Cecil Kyenge frequented an area used by prostitutes. Ironically, he apologised on August 25th blaming “stress” for unacceptable behaviour.

These and other numerous examples highlight the down side of “freedom of speech”. And streamlining these online dynamics is no easy task.

 For the future, the jury is still out with the following highlights serving as some of the scenarios:

 A more informed and educated potential cohort;

  • More extensive personal and institutional challenges regarding free access to information, freedom of speech and invasion of privacy;
  • Increased vulnerability at the personal and institutional levels;
  • Limited relevance of print media and an unprecedented escalation of social news media;
  • More sophisticated levels of scammers and hackers.

Bongs Lainjo