The omnipresence of broadband, combined, at least in Trinity, with a paucity of computing resources, have resulted in a massive increase in student ownership of laptops, combined with resultant student familiarity with the web; ditto the use of email as a communications tool. Five years ago you’d never have arranged a party with an email – you couldn’t have been sure if any of your guests would check their messages that month, never mind the geeky stigma clinging to the medium. These days, you can post an event invitation on Bebo, or rival social networks like Facebook, and send a group email – and be guaranteed an RSVP by the end of the day.
As I mentioned in my previous Bebo article, social networks like Bebo can act as addiction paradigms. This was most especially effective during Bebo’s recent burst in popularity, as it lacked any search engine, meaning that users had to click through the ‘friends lists’ of their friends, or manually surf hundreds of pages of students from their school or college, in order to attain the ‘reward’ of finding a friend (or a cute stranger) – effectively conditioning repeated clicks. In another way too, Bebo acts to condition it’s users, as the ‘response cost’ of not checking the latest comments, hits, and ‘white board’ drawings added to ones profile, acts to weaken the inclination to spend time logged off. This explains why Bebo LLC has been so proactive in working to stop users receiving emails when they get ‘hilarious’ forwarded message through Bebo’s internal mail system – each annoying message decreases the likelihood that users will bother to check next time; in the words of the godfather of behaviorism B.F Skinner “behavior is followed by a consequence, and the nature of the consequence modifies the organisms tendency to repeat the behavior in the future”.
From an evolutionary perspective, services like Bebo already provide a mechanism for the measurement of peer group status, mate seeking display, and the attainment of social regard – teenagers love this stuff – they can count their hits, proudly display conversations and compliments which indicate their popularity (or the popularity / attractiveness of their friends), while delegating negative comments; and can and list their interests and friendship allegiances – which of course define them (sic).
As fun as this is, it will all become cliche rather quickly, we’ll soon see more distinctive and highly developed web presences – with increased social connectivity – integrating video clips of nights out – uploaded from mobile devices, games – and unified identities users can carry across sites, start to emerge. As it stands, social networks are difficult to monitarize, and relatively unattractive to advertisers. The smart thing would be for mobile providers to produce such services – in open, cheap and omnipresent forms. They however are in love with expensive limited access walled garden approach, with which they hope to pay off their vast investment in 3G licenses. So the next step is unlikely to come from them.
This week’s LA Times reports a bill has been introduced to the US congress, seeking to ban social networking sites like Bebo from public libraries and school computer labs. Simultaneously, the FCC, always eager to expand its remit to the internet, have released a consumer alert about the dangers of social networks. These responses are reminiscent of the boy with his finger in the dyke, and as likely to succeed. The nature of the web is changing, returning to the interactivity and content creation potential envisioned by Tim Berners Lee – sites like Digg.com, Wikipedia, Flickr, and Creative Commons are handing the knowledge generation process back to users. Social networking sites (including Bebo) are but the least exciting examples of this trend, which is fast becoming ubiquitous. Tabloid panics be damned, best of luck banning social networking as every site moves to contain its fundamental elements.
Bebo, MySpace and the like are primitive second generation social networks, of trivial impact to a few students, by comparison to the networks we’ll see developing in the near future. Bebo’s successors will make use of the omnipresence of the GSM mobile networks, to ‘hook up’ users based on real world location. Already services like ‘Meetro’ are bringing a knowledge of real world context to online messaging – letting users know about like minded individuals within a given proximity. Imagine this functionality paired to GSM triangulation and the location reporting built into 2G and 3G mobile networks – concepts already tested by Finland’s project CELLO. According to Demos, ‘Location awareness’ will be a significant feature of future mobile phone services, and it’s easy to see why; the usefulness (and potential dangers) of automatic updates of the locations of friend and offspring are instantly apparent – never mind the numerous business opportunities for “What’s on nearby” services.
If social networks like Bebo are raising hackles, imagine the tabloid hue and cry when parents realise their offspring are broadcasting their physical locations!
In reality such mobile social networks will use permissions to restrict location data to close friends and family – the real problems (aside from the obvious privacy implications) will be in the negotiation of location data between parents and their children.
It’s likely services will emerge using statistical analysis of proximity and messaging data to produce much more sophisticated friend of a friend networks. Imagine receiving a ‘gossip subscription’ message to your integrated Bebo – mobile service, ‘Jill and Jim have been spending a lot of time together this week…’. Lists of the post popular (read interconnected) users, most likely couple etc, will make social networks vastly more addictive and omnipresent than at present. Once location aware social network data becomes a common social currency, the ‘response cost’ of not being a member will rise accordingly.