“With friends like these …”

The Guardian recently featured an article entitled With friends like these … which Josie Fraser described as “a blistering critique of Facebook“. The article not only laid into Facebook but also social buy zithromax no prescription networks and communications technologies more generally. And, as can be seen from the concluding paragraph: “I want to reconnect with it. Damn air-conditioning! And if I want to connect with the people around me, I will revert to an old piece of technology. It’s free, it’s easy and it delivers a uniquely individual experience in sharing information: it’s called talking.” the author also seems to want to reject a whole raft of technologies including the telephone and letter-writing!

Josie has written a critique of the article entitled Facebook: Neo-con social experiment? in which she responds to each of the points Tom Hodgkinson made in his article. I would very much agree with Joan Vinall-Cox‘s comment: “Thanks so much for your rebuttal of Hodgkinson’s points“.

Rather than revisiting this particular debate, however, I would like to pick up on a point made by Frances Bell in her post on Tom Hodgkinson’s rant on (or should I say about?) Facebook. Frances commented that she “found Tom’s article to be quite informative in parts but tiresomely Luddite in other part“. Frances main point was that the issue that needs to be debated was the ownership of social networks and the related privacy issues. She picked up on the comment that “By using Facebook, you are consenting to have your personal data transferred to and processed in the United States .. [which may be shared] with other companies, lawyers, agents or government agencies“.

I feel that, along with Josie and Frances, social networks can be beneficial to our social, work and learning activities. And I would agree that there is a need to address these issues of ownership. Indeed I feel that this topics should be included as one of the topics in my recent call for a Web 2.0 debate.

Who should own the social networks?

So who should own the social networks which large numbers of our society are now using? Currently the popular social networks, such as Facebook and MySpace are commercial services with, put simply, a remit to make money for the owners. And it is this commercial aspect which is causing concerns for many in the educational and wider public sector – and not just those who have doubts concerning the benefits of social networks, but also those who feel social networks can be beneficial to society in a variety of ways.

But if we have concerns that such services may be owned by large companies (such as, in MySpace’s case, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp or, with Facebook, part ownership by Microsoft) or the uncertainties or private ownership (with Tom Hodgkinson’s article pointing out the links the venture capitalists have with the Republican party and the CIA), who should own the social networks? And as a follow-up, how realistic may such hopes be and how would a transition from private ownership actually occur?

The initial response may be that the government should own social networks. But (a) is this really desirable and (b) is it realistic? I would suggest that if social networks were provided by a government agency that the concerns over links with security forces would be of greater concern than they are at present. And can we really envisage, in the UK, a Gordon Brown government nationalising social networks? It’s not going to happen, is it?

Perhaps our organisations should run social networks for the employees? But surely an important aspect of social networks are the communications with people outside one’s host institution? And the notion that JISC could provide a social network for the higher and further education community could be difficult in working with groups outside that community and would probably fail to address the informal aspects of social networks which, it has to be admitted, have proved popular (although I’ve not played Scrabulous on Facebook, I know many people who have).

And we also have to ask ourselves whether the user community would actually be willing to use social networks which are provided by our organisations. How easy, for example, might it be to be critical of the organisation if the organisation owns the communications channels and is responsible for the rules and policing such rules?

The OCLC report on Sharing, Privacy and Trust in our Networked World, which I posted about recently, provided some interesting data which suggested that end users aren’t as concerned about privacy as we professionals think they should be (no surprise there) but, more surprisingly, they seem to be more willing to make their personal data available on commercial services (they understand that such data is needed to provide the services they find useful and, perhaps, younger people are more accepting of capitalist motivations than those of us who remember when the word ‘socialism’ was used at Labour Party conferences and can complete the phrase “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, …”).

The need for realism

It’s nice to be in opposition – all you need to do is to complain about things and suggested uncosted solutions, with no need to develop deployment strategies. But I think we need away from our comfort zone.

In particular we need to ask how social networks will be funded – such issues are raised in the context of commercial services, with some people suggesting that Facebook isn’t economically sustainable in the long term. But, if they’re not provided by the commercial sector, how would they be funded? And this question has particular relevance in light of the announcement made shortly before Christmas that Curverider were closing the Eduspace social networking service as ”Running a community takes a lot of time and hard work, which we have no longer been able to give EduSpaces, and in that light, it seems both unfair and unwise to keep the site going” (although subsequently a Canadian not for profit company has announced that it will now host the service).

Calling for the government funding (which really means calling for extra taxes) is unlikely not only for political reasons, but also in light of the recent shocks in the global financial markets, as described on the BBC News site:

… huge declines in shares across Asia and Europe on Monday, with London’s benchmark FTSE 100 suffering its biggest one day fall since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, gripped by fears of a US recession.

To revisit the questions which I feel need to be answered:

  • Who should own the social networks?
  • Should ownership of social networks be any different from other software services we use in our institutions (including VLEs such as Blackboard, Web 2.0 services such as Flickr or  blogging services such as Edublogs Campus)
  • How should a transition to a change of ownership take place?
  • How realistic is the transition strategy?
  • How do you know what this is what the users actually want?
  • How will social networking services be funded under alternative ownership resources? And if the answer is increased taxes, how will you get that past the Daily Mail readership which seem to be influential in informing policy discussions for both the Labour and Conservative parties?

And if you manage to solve this issue, perhaps you could suggest how we could reclaim our football teams from ownership of billionaires from the US, Russia and Thailand whilst, of course, still ensuring that you team gets into the Champions League (local self-made billionaires are probably acceptable).