Are there boundaries for behavior on social networking sites?

A sociologist argues that social networking sites have all sorts of deviant behaviors because of a lack of boundaries:

“Society’s sometimes obsessive use of social networking sites has led to the development of several long term social affects stemming from the idea that these virtual communities often minimize the importance of face-to-face social interaction, while enabling a tendency for users to be inherently comfortable with isolation,” said Coleman.

Coleman goes on to point out that society’s widespread use of social networking sites has also contributed to the creation of virtual worlds and online communities in which there are no boundaries, and often no regard for truth or the regulation of behavior.

“Offensive and threatening language becomes normalized, while photos of and statements by people engaged in dehumanizing acts are not condemned, but instead encouraged, ‘liked’ and commented on.”

I would agree that this negative and deviant behavior happens online but I would be interested in seeing some data. Some data I’ve seen from emerging adults suggests there are plenty of rules and norms governing SNS behavior. These emerging adults were well aware of these issues and most suggested they didn’t violate the boundaries.

One issue here might be what SNS we are talking about. Facebook, for example, is fairly regulated both by the platform and by users even as users can express a wide range of opinions. Other SNS offer more latitude. Other areas of the Internet, such as comment sections or personal blogs or chat rooms, offer all sorts of opinions and actions. Yet, many of these Internet places are not SNS in the technical sense.

Why a small minority of Americans don’t use Facebook

The New York Times has a piece looking at why some Americans don’t use Facebook:

As Facebook prepares for a much-anticipated public offering, the company is eager to show off its momentum by building on its huge membership: more than 800 million active users around the world, Facebook says, and roughly 200 million in the United States, or two-thirds of the population…

Many of the holdouts mention concerns about privacy. Those who study social networking say this issue boils down to trust. Amanda Lenhart, who directs research on teenagers, children and families at the Pew Internet and American Life Project, said that people who use Facebook tend to have “a general sense of trust in others and trust in institutions.” She added: “Some people make the decision not to use it because they are afraid of what might happen.”…

Facebook executives say they don’t expect everyone in the country to sign up. Instead they are working on ways to keep current users on the site longer, which gives the company more chances to show them ads. And the company’s biggest growth is now in places like Asia and Latin America, where there might actually be people who have not yet heard of Facebook…

And whether there is haranguing involved or not, the rebels say their no-Facebook status tends to be a hot topic of conversation — much as a decision not to own a television might have been in an earlier media era…

Some quick thoughts:

1. This is a relatively small percentage of Americans who don’t use Facebook. If 200 million Americans are on Facebook, that is the vast majority of people 13 years old and above. Roughly 15-20% of Americans are not eligible for Facebook (older 2000 figures here). The comparison made in the article is to the percent of people without cell phones which is roughly 16%.

1a. Because of its general ubiquity, perhaps it would be more interesting then to differentiate between people who it frequently (multiple times a day?) versus those who check infrequently (say once a week or less).

1b. Is this the activity Americans most share in common perhaps beside watching TV?

2. Privacy issues don’t seem to bother most Facebook users. Even though there may be little revolts when Facebook changes its privacy policy or makes a mistake, this isn’t driving people away in large numbers. And, as I’ve said before, if you want to remain private you should probably stay off the Internet all together. Another warning for non-users: Facebook may already have information about you anyway.

3. It would be interesting to see figures of how long people stay on Facebook. And speaking of getting people to see advertisements, this small study used eye tracking to see what catches people’s attention when they look at profiles.

3a. If Facebook does need to keep users’ attention, is there a line between always having to change things versus helping people feel comfortable with the site? I say this as we await the Timeline change and the inevitable negative responses.

4. As the article hints at by briefly looking at the pressure non-users get from Facebook users, there is a whole set of social norms that have arisen around the use of Facebook.

Facebook moving toward users being able to “treat their life as a 24/7 reality show”

Wired looks at some of Facebook’s recent changes and future plans and summarizes their intentions:

Combined with other Facebook recent announcements — “friend lists” that help you classify your contacts into groups, a Ticker that gives updates from your cohorts as they happen,  and changes in the newsfeed to make it more reflective of what your close friends are doing — Facebook is not so subtly doubling down on its ambitions to enable people to shed the pre-digital cloak of isolation and treat their life as a 24/7 reality show, broadcast to those in their social spheres.

Remember when Time named “you” as the person of the year for 2006, before Facebook had swept across the planet? Here is how the story described the effect of the Internet:

It’s a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.

This is a more hopeful vision than what Wired offers where individuals can produce and star in their own reality show.

The fulcrum on which Facebook’s future might hinge is whether it is able to help people forge new connections  or whether people continue to hunker down in their existing social groups. The desire that Facebook users would forge new connections is not surprising if you have read sources like The Facebook Effect that highlighted the company’s goals of opening up the world. While research studies still suggest that the majority of Facebook contact and relationships exist between people who already know each other prior to Facebook, perhaps this will change due to Facebook’s interface changes as well as the growing cultural acceptance of conducting our social lives through this online realm. Or perhaps we are destined to live in a world where our highest goal is to become individual celebrities.

Become friends with your Toyota

Companies are looking for ways to leverage social networking sites for their own purposes. Now Toyota announces plans to create their own social networking service where you will be able to become friends with your car:

Toyota is setting up a social networking service with the help of a U.S. Internet company and Microsoft so drivers can interact with their cars in a way that’s similar to posting on Facebook or Twitter.

Japanese automaker Toyota Motor Corp. and Salesforce.com, based in San Francisco, announced their alliance Monday to launch “Toyota Friend,” a private social network for Toyota owners…

With the popularity of social networking, cars and their makers should become part of that online interaction, [Toyota’s president] said.

“I hope cars can become friends with their users, and customers will see Toyota as a friend,” he said.

There is the whole purpose of this: strengthen the relationship between customer and product. I wonder if Toyota owners would really flock to this concept. They might be loyal customers because of the value and reliability of Toyotas but is there a fervent fan culture that would want to be part of a social network?

But there is an interesting phrase in this article: “cars can become friends with their users.” Perhaps it was not intended this way but it implies that cars have agency. The article talks about how newer cars, such as plug-in electric vehicles, need more monitoring and so users will be open to getting more information from their cars. But in the end, these cars are just cars, machines that help people get around. We are a ways from having cars that could hold human-like conversations with their owners (see this recent piece on progress in tackling the Turing Test).

While some commentators have lamented the difference between off-line and online friends, perhaps this is the next controversial step forward: friendships with products. Right now, you can be a “fan” on Facebook but a friendship implies a closer and more interactive relationship.

Winklevoss twins continue lawsuit against Facebook

The key conflict in The Social Network (reviewed here and here) is the lawsuit that the Winklevoss twins bring against Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. This lawsuit is continuing as the Winklevosses seek a larger settlement:

If they prevail, their legal appeal would overturn the settlement, now worth in excess of $160 million because of the soaring value of the privately held company.

The Winklevosses won’t say exactly how much they would seek in their high-stakes grudge fest with the billionaire Facebook founder, but by their own calculations they argue they should have received four times the number of Facebook shares. That would make any new settlement worth more than $600 million based on a recent valuation of Facebook at more than $50 billion…

Facebook has won multiple court rulings, and legal experts say the Winklevosses are likely to lose this one too…

The controversial origins of Facebook — who actually founded it and how — have been the subject of renewed debate since Hollywood offered its dramatization of the conflicting stories from the Winklevosses, both portrayed in “The Social Network” by actor Armie Hammer, and former Zuckerberg friend and Harvard classmate Eduardo Saverin, portrayed by Andrew Garfield. In 2005, Saverin sued Facebook for diluting his stake in the company and reportedly reaped a $1.1-billion settlement.

Zuckerberg has called the film, which received eight Academy Award nominations including best picture, “fiction.” In it, his character tells the Winklevosses: “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.”

But that’s exactly what the Winklevosses said they did.

The article suggests that the Winklevosses can’t really lose here: if the courts say they shouldn’t receive more money, they still get to receive the initial settlement. We can ask how much The Social Network influenced the decision to seek more money. There were relatively few people in the media who concentrated on the veracity or one-sided nature of this story. For many who saw this Oscar-nominated film, Zuckerberg looks like a jerk.

Of course, this movie and portrayal should have little influence on the courts. And the Winklevosses say they have new evidence for the courts to consider. But I suspect the case was brought in part because of the positive portrayal of the Winkevosses in this film. If this case were in the court of public opinion (and perceptions), would the Winklevosses win?

Just how much did Facebook and Twitter contribute to changes in Egypt?

With the resignation of Hosni Mubarek, there is more talk about how the Internet, specifically social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, helped bring down a dictator in Egypt:

Dictators are toppled by people, not by media platforms. But Egyptian activists, especially the young, clearly harnessed the power and potential of social media, leading to the mass mobilizations in Tahrir Square and throughout Egypt. The Mubarak regime recognized early on that social media could loosen its grip on power. The government began disrupting Facebook and Twitter as protesters hit the streets on Jan. 25 before shutting down the Internet two days later.

In addition to organizing, Egyptian activists used Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to share information and videos. Many of these digital offerings made the rounds online but were later amplified by Al Jazeera and news outlets around the world. “This revolution started online,” Ghonim told Blitzer. “This revolution started on Facebook.”

Egypt’s uprising followed on the heels of Tunisia’s. In each case, protestors employed social media to help oust an authoritarian government–a role some Western commentators expected Twitter to play in Iran during the election protests of 2009.

This article, and others, seem to want it both ways. On one hand, it seems like social media played a role. But when considering whether they were the main factor, the articles back away. Here is how this same article concludes:

It’s true that tweeting alone–especially from safe environs in the West–will not cause a revolution in the Middle East. But as Egypt and Tunisia have proven, social media tools can play a significant role as as activists battle authoritarian regimes, particularly given the tight control dictators typically wield over the official media. Tomorrow’s revolution, as Ghonim would likely attest, may be taking shape on Facebook today.

Or it may not. Ultimately, we need more data. For example, we could match Facebook or Twitter activity regarding Egypt with the level of protests on specific days – did more online traffic or activity lead to bigger protests? This would at least establish a correlation. Why can’t we match GPS information from people using Facebook or Twitter while they were protesting on the streets? This would require more private data, primarily from cell phone companies, but it would be fascinating to look for patterns in this data. And how exactly do these cases from Egypt and Tunisia help us understand what didn’t happen in Iran?

These questions about the role of social media need some answers and perhaps some innovative insights into data collection. And a thought from another commentator are helpful to keep in mind:

Evgeny Morozov writes in his new book, “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” that only a small minority of Iranians were actually Twitter users. Presumably, many tweeting about revolution were doing so far from the streets of Tehran.

“Iran’s Twitter Revolution revealed the intense Western longing for a world where information technology is the liberator rather than the oppressor,” Morozov wrote, according to a recent Slate review. In his book, Morozov writes how authoritarian regimes can use the Internet and social media to oppress people rather than such platforms only working the other way around.

Perhaps we only want it to be true that social media use can lead to revolution. If there are enough articles written suggesting that social media helped in Egypt and Tunisia, does it make it likely that in the future social media will play a pivotal and even decisive role in social movements? Morozov seems to suggest this is a Western idea, probably rooted in Enlightenment ideals where information can (and should?) disrupt tradition and authoritarianism.

Your social network might lead to disease

A study of the passing of swine flu among a set of schoolchildren found that the disease was primarily spread through one’s social network:

A new study of a 2009 epidemic at a school in Pennsylvania has found that children most likely did not catch it by sitting near an infected classmate, and that adults who got sick were probably not infected by their own children.

Closing the school after the epidemic was under way did little to slow the rate of transmission, the study found, and the most common way the disease spread was a through child’s network of friends…

The scientists collected data on 370 students from 295 households. Almost 35 percent of the students and more than 15 percent of their household contacts came down with flu. The most detailed information was gathered from fourth graders, the group most affected by the outbreak.

The class and grade structure had a significant effect on transmission rates. Transmission was 25 times as intensive among classmates as between children in different grades. And yet sitting next to a student who was infected did not increase the chances of catching flu.

Social networks were apparently a more significant means of transmission than seating arrangements. Students were four times as likely to play with children of the same sex as with those of the opposite sex, and following this pattern, boys were more likely to catch the flu from other boys, and girls from other girls.

This sounds like a very interesting dataset as it was collected in real-time as the disease spread. Hopefully, we will get more data like this in the future so that we aren’t left with the problem of trying to trace a disease’s spread after the fact. But getting this kind of data would require more intense observation (or records) of a specific group of people.

If closing the school is not the answer, how then should authorities respond in order to slow down the spread of disease?

Sounds like another advantage for Social Networking Sites where you can interact with your friends with only the threat of a computer virus…