6.2 Social Networks: Facebook and More

In mid-2010, Facebook announced it had reached an amazing milestone: 500 million signups worldwide. You may well be one of them. Almost without exception, my students are. So am I.

I should say at the outset that while I have immense respect for the brilliance of the Facebook founder and team, I’m not a huge fan of Facebook itself, for reasons I’ll explain in more detail later in the book; suffice it to say, for now, that I don’t like Facebook’s ever-morphing privacy policies and I especially worry that it’s creating a walled garden that diminishes the rest of the online world. But it’s hugely popular, in part because it does what it does so seamlessly and, for users, in a helpful way. Whatever I think of the service, it’s the preeminent social network—MySpace and LinkedIn are a considerable distance behind in sheer numbers—and it’s developed into an impressive ecosystem that clearly has staying power.

To create an ecosystem, Facebook encouraged third parties to use its software platform to create other products and services within the Facebook service itself: everything from posting pictures to sharing travel plans to playing online games, and on and on. You can spend a lot of time inside Facebook and get a lot out of the experiences.

The updating mechanism at services of this kind, called a “wall” at Facebook, is in its own way a news service, where the news and observations come from people you know or have “friended” there. The value of what you read (and see in photos and videos) depends, of course, on how useful or entertaining you find what others post. But purely for social interaction, there’s a lot to be said for using social networks as a way to stay in touch.

Should you “friend” everyone who asks? That is, should you agree to share your private information with other people more or less indiscriminately? Definitely not. Most people online, as in the physical world, are good. But enough are not that you should be at least somewhat cautious in how you approach social networks.

We need to take privacy issues extremely seriously. After Facebook made what I considered a dramatic change in its policies, I decided to quit and start over, as I’ll explain in Chapter 9. And as I’ll also discuss in the same chapter, privacy is at the core of what I hope will be changing customs in an always-connected age.

Again, while the rise of Facebook has been meteoric, and well-earned, it’s hardly the only social network. MySpace has a huge number of users, and while it no longer has its former cachet it remains highly popular, especially when used for its primary purpose: music discovery and promotion. I don’t visit it much, but researcher danah boyd has observed that MySpace still is one of the most widely used networks, second only to Facebook.

I use LinkedIn for much of my social-networking interaction. It’s aimed at the business community, but it’s a terrific network for finding people who share your vocational or professional interests. I tell my students, nearly all of whom have Facebook accounts, that they should have LinkedIn accounts when they head out into the job market. (I and many others have had great success using LinkedIn to recruit new colleagues.)

You can create your own social network without all that much difficulty, too. Ning.com does this brilliantly, with many of the best features of the big networks available out of the virtual box. I’ve used Ning for university classes, to keep students informed of events in class, and found one of its best features to be the ability to make the network entirely private among its members, invisible to the outside world. (As we’ll discuss later, though, it’s always best to assume that anything you create online for someone else—anyone else—to look at may someday escape out to the rest of the world.) Ning started off as a free service. It now charges, but I still recommend it highly.

Even blogging platforms, discussed in the next section, are becoming more like social networks. For example, the people behind WordPress have created BuddyPress, an add-on that brings social networking capabilities to the blogging system. It’s what I’m using now for classes, and while it doesn’t offer all the bells and whistles (yet) of other social networks, it works just fine for our purposes, even allowing us to keep things private.

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