TheFacebook and a call for open social inter-networking

August 26th, 2005 by

Today, Here and Now tackles theFacebook, the latest social networking system to cause a cyberspace ripple. Admittedly, I questioned the relevance of this network for some time. In my eyes, it seemed just another derivation of Friendster, the dominant social networking tool of my undergraduate years. Recently, though, I have changed my opinion. A student at Northeastern estimated that more than 80% of her fellow undergraduate population is listed on the site. Founders say that there are 100,000+ users logged in at any given time. Last year, a Boston paper reported that even the president of BU was profiled on the site. Relevant? Yes.

According to current undergrads, theFacebook does not have the nerd stigma that has deterred their classmates from joining Friendster or Myspace. To this end, it is interesting to explore the comments by Adam Weinberg and John Palfrey concerning privacy and social networking. Is it safe to assume that students fearful of a geek outing are less sophisticated in dealing with the persistence of information transmitted online? A quick perusal of profiles on any of the dominant social networks will reveal a surprising number of photos depicting PG-13 behaviors. What will the future Senate confirmations hearings be like if pictures of the nominated Justices downing 40s are stored on archive.org? Will this lead to a more tolerant culture open to a leadership of pluralism and light transgression or will we see a desperate litigious scramble by citizens in their late-20’s to sue away embarassing photos from their youth?

During my time as an undergrad, walking through the quad on a springtime afternoon at Assumption, one would see the frisbees, smell the suntan lotion, and hear the acoustic guitars and boomboxes characteristic of an American liberal arts institution. What might surprise an alum is the ubiquitous doorknock sound reverberating off of the brick dormitory walls. AOL Instant Messenger was a required piece of software for my classmates, more reliable than the telephone and less intimidating than a coversation in the dining hall. Parties were advertised via away message and to be blocked from a friend’s Buddy List was deeply disrespectful.

A caller to Here and Now worried that undergrads using social networking technologies are missing out on an education of discomfort once required for first year students. According to the 2002 American College Health Association national survey, 66% of college students indicated that they felt overwhelmed by all they had to do in the last year, and 46% reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function.1 Widespread adoption of tools that help these students to cope with the alienation and stress of today’s postsecondary experience will result in stronger graduates and a better educated citizenry. Any first date is going to be an awkward experience regardless of how many messages the couple swaps online. Students can now explore their curiosities and exercise control over many of their public expressions in a safe, cyberspace environment with tight realspace integration.

The question that lingers for this writer is definitely one for those unafraid to represent their nerdiness. When will we see an open standard for social inter-networking? It seems that a single XML schema could cover all of the basic data common to Friendster, MySpace, theFacebook, Orkut, Everyone’s Connected, BlackPlanet, MiGente, AsianAvenue, etc. etc. And wouldn’t a supernetwork like that really define relevance?

Readers looking for further discussion should check http://comm472.typepad.com/, a blog on social networking edited by college students.

1 Castronovo, Neil. “The Challenge of Parenting College Students.” Assumption Magazine, Summer 2005.

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