First look: Personalization and self-advocacy on Facebook, MySpace and Bebo

The social networks that students in Norwich are most likely to use are Facebook, Bebo or Myspace. I've recently heard someone suggest that the transition path for friend groups is Bebo > MySpace > Facebook but whether that applies here is an open question. Here's an excerpt from my Interim Report on this project:

Many tools and services designed for the personalisation of the online experience and the expression of the individual's voice in the context of the larger group only succeed partially when actual user behaviour is observed. For instance, ‘Groups' on social networks such as ‘Facebook' and ‘Bebo' usually serve more as a badge of membership or identification with a cause rather than effective platforms for the representation of an individual's voice.

A large number (probably the majority) of student groups I've looked at on Facebook and Bebo are moribund with last comments posted months up to a year ago. And even in cases where an issue group resulted in a change (such as a recent effort to extend library hours at UEA), the real work was done in the real world with flyers distributed and petitions signed by real people. UEA's flashmob group seems to be the only group successful at mobilising its members on a regular basis but the commitment required from members is minimal. Also, its activities are supported by a network of mobile phone texts. The same seems to apply to BeBo and City College groups. In other words, starting or joining a group on a social network is equivalent to signing a petition or distributing a flyer. The main activity on social networks seems to be primate-like grooming (a Facebook poke or Vampire bite maybe equivalent to picking a nit) in which hierarchies of group structure are established (cf. Dunbar's theory of language evolution). These hierarchies, of course, are essential to learning and transmitting of information but how can they be harnessed across 'universes' is something that we'll have to deal with in the future. The student voice, in this context, can only be heard representationally but the social network can provide the 'right' channels for transmission - in the same sense that social capital theorists imagine their relationships do. Whether similar benefits can be deduced from online social networks as from connections leading to social capital is something to look into in the future.