Facebook: A twenty-first century revolution

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Introduction

Since being founded in 2004 the popularity of Facebook has continued to grow. Facebook can boast to have a massive 300 million active users (Representing people who have returned to the site within 30 days) and this figure is still growing to date. In January 2009, Compete.com ranked Facebook as the most used social network by worldwide monthly active users. It has become extremely popular within the general public, but the main demographic of users are students; from high school up to post graduation level. People may think that users of Facebook are scattered across a group of random individuals, but Hargittai (2007 p.276) states that 'a person's gender, race and ethnicity, and parental education background are all associated with use'. Hargittai (2007 p.276) also points out that 'additionally, people with more experience and autonomy of use are more likely to be users of such sites'. This adds to the argument that when you are surfing the internet, you are not just another statistic, as Hargittai (2007 p.277) also writes 'offline identities very much carry over to online behaviour'.

This essay will be discussing how much of an impact Facebook has had on the 21st Century, more interestingly, how it's changed and revolutionised people's interactions with each other on a daily basis.

I have had a Facebook account since early 2008, which was mainly set up due to peer pressure. This is because between the start of 2007 and early 2008, the majority of people I knew were using MySpace as their primary social networking site. A social trend had begun where many of my friends were deleting their MySpace profiles and creating profiles on Facebook. This created a domino effect, that because friends were moving to a new social networking website, I felt I had to do the same. The Collins English Dictionary defines 'Domino Effect' as; 'If one event causes another similar event, which in turn causes another event, and so on, you can refer to this as a domino effect'. A real world example of the domino effect in action is referenced in Freund (2007 p. xvi) by which she is talking about countries joining trade unions; 'there is a domino effect and as more countries join a union non members face increasing incentive to join'. This can be related back to my experience of moving from a MySpace account to a Facebook account.

Facebook is a product of the post-modern society that we live in today. We utilise the internet for many resources; up to date news, shopping, business and entertainment, the list goes on. This way of life that the internet has given us is now prompting us to socialise online too.

The Impact on Society

The website does what it says on the tin, it brings people together in social communities. It allows you, for example to join a network related to your University, find fellow friends and classmates, upload photographs, join groups associated with personal interests and send messages amongst many other things. It can be seen as a big social networking playground.

Additionally, many businesses use Facebook to promote and advertise their products and connect to a younger demographic audience. Another example of product promotion on Facebook is music bands setting up accounts to advertise and promote themselves. I have set up an account for my band allowing us to share the latest news, pictures, videos, song uploads and to set up 'Events' allowing us to invite fans and friends to, thus creating a virtual guest list and giving our band and gigs a virtual presence on the internet.

For the above reasons, plus many others, people see Facebook as having a positive impact on society, with its many uses and applications; but some have voiced their concern over Facebook's social impact.

It only takes a quick search of a news website, such as http://news.bbc.co.uk, to reveal many stories about cyber-bullying. Has this much praised internet phenomenon become another way for bullies to extend their reach and harass their victims? It would appear so. Although, it can be said that technology does not create bullying; it has just made it harder to ignore.

Many companies that are researching job applicants are using Facebook as a tool to get a better look at the individual in question. As is stated in Brandenburg (2008 p.598), 'Employers who hire graduating students are steadily discovering that social networking sites allow them to learn more than they ever could from reading an applicant's resume and cover letter'. Can this be seen as having a negative impact on individuals looking to get ahead in their career? If an individual was refused a job based on their Facebook profile activities, then many would strongly agree.

This leads me onto another strong aspect of Facebook's social impact, security; how do companies manage to research and view your Facebook profile even if you have implemented security measures on your account; and just how secure is your information?

Facebook & Security

Facebook always stated that the security of their website has always been a top priority, but increased public awareness of identity theft, online fraud and data breaches is making them think hard about their security measures. (Facebook Factsheet 2009)

Employers use many tactics to circumvent security measures and gain access to job applicant's profiles and information. They use current employees Facebook accounts. As is stated in Brandenburg (2008 p.602), 'Not long ago, some of the employees now involved in making hiring decisions for their companies were students with their own Facebook profiles. Graduates can keep their profiles and maintain connection to their colleges' social networks, thereby maintaining connection to the college students who make up the next wave of employment hopefuls'.

Another tactic they adopt is the hiring of current university students, as is stated in Brandenburg (2008 p.602), 'current students who can access their peer's social networking profiles and effectively circumvent any privacy setting a potential hire may have put in place to attempt to restrict unwanted persons from accessing their profile.'

Is our data really safe online and are the people who we trust it with doing all they can to keep it secure?

These arguments led me to source out a journal called 'Facebook's Privacy Trainwreck' (Danah Boyd 2008). This journal focuses on privacy concerns following the September 2006 launch of the 'News Feeds' feature on Facebook. Even though this does not directly relate to the security questions that I raised above, I decided it was relevant as it was discussing a different type of security threat.

The journal points out that when 'News Feed' was launched in 2006, many Facebook users were very unhappy and felt that their privacy had been invaded. Boyd (2008 p.13) says 'Upon logging in, users faced a start page that listed every act undertaken by their friends within the system'. 'None of the information displayed through this feature was previously private per se, but by aggregating this information and displaying it in reverse chronological order, News Feeds made the material far more accessible and visible'. This was the main reason why users were unhappy; every single action they performed on Facebook was reported to every one of their 'friends'.

People only have a select few friends that will be concerned with the daily running of each others lives, these were the people who would visit friend's pages and be interested in their recent activity; the information was public, but not broadcast in the faces of people who didn't want to know. All this changed in September 2006.

The aftermath of this meant that Facebook had to implement new privacy tools so that users could choose what information was shared to the News Feed feature. Regarding these new privacy tools, Boyd (2008 p.16) states 'When the default is hyper-public, individuals are not simply able to choose what they wish to expose - they have to choose what they wish to hide'. This raises an interesting question of why Facebook decided to go down this route of displaying everything, until users told them what they did not want displayed. Surely if they were really listening to the outcry of the users, they would have structured this the other way round by choosing what the user wanted the public to see.

This shows that total security on Facebook cannot be guaranteed, but by having so much personal information stored in one place, the risk of identity theft, fraud and invasion of privacy are all very high, thus highlighting a possible negative impact on society through the use of Facebook.

So has the creation of Facebook brought about a technological revolution or just another influence that hinders people's right to privacy?

An interesting debate that has recently taken place is over who owns the content on Facebook? If an individual chose to upload a personal photograph to Facebook, does the individual continue to own the rights to the photo or does it then become the property of Facebook to use as they please? According to Facebook after they amended their terms of service agreement on February 4th 2009, all content that is shared on Facebook is owned by Facebook.

This outraged many Facebook users which then caused Facebook to revert to their old terms of service, which state that 'You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook, and you can control how it is shared through your privacy and application settings.' (Facebook Terms of Service 2009)

Brown (2008 p.11) states that transferring ownership of copyrighted work must be 'in writing and signed by all of the owners of the copyright interest transferred'. This also extends to websites that host user generated content (UGC for short); surely websites cannot just acquire ownership of user generated content by it being uploaded to their website, they must gain strict permission from the copyright owner; Brown (2008 p.11) goes on to say that 'If a UGC service provider desires to obtain a valid transfer of UGC, the provider must take care to comply with the law applicable to the transfer of copyrights and include language allowing further transfer.'

I personally believe that all content that is uploaded to websites such as Facebook should stay the property of the owner, and permission is granted to the website to use the copyrighted property, as long as they have the owners consent and it has not been deleted off the website by the owner. All content used by a 3rd party (not a copyright holder) such as Facebook should be current and not stored in a website's cache.

Facebook & Politics

Facebook can be used in many different and creative ways; one of the more interesting examples was President Barack Obama's use of the social networking site during his election campaign. During the last few decades, political figures have always found it difficult acquiring the support of young voters, but during the 2008 Presidential Elections a unique connection was made between the two parties, that connection being Facebook. This was a unique step in the world of politics and showed politician's willingness to connect to a younger demographic audience using an unconventional means of communication.

Many young voters took the opportunity with open arms and became members of Barack's official campaign page and even creating groups of their own to invite friends and rally support for the would be President. Obama currently has roughly 4,300 groups devoted to supporting his Presidency (A search on Facebook using the term 'Barack Obama Support') and almost seven million supporters.

Obama uses Facebook to post notes and updates providing a transparency to the US Government which promotes accountability and gives information to citizens on what their Government is doing for them. This continual updating to Facebook supporters helps to create a tighter bond between those 'hard to reach' younger voters and their Government and aids in keeping their support for the next election.

Conclusion

As with any new media or communication technique, there will always be a positive and negative impact on society, but the difference with Facebook is that I personally think the positive outweighs the negative. It can be seen as magnifying the good and bad points of today's society in a light that everyone can see. The importance of Facebook in the post-modern world that we live in is invaluable as can be seen in many contexts.

So has Facebook had a larger impact on the digital world than anyone thought possible? Some may argue for and against this question, but it all depends on which angle you look at.

Has any one social networking website ever been able to amass over 300 million active users that can interact, discuss, join groups, and show their support for real world discussions & topics? Will any marketing campaign ever be able to match the effectiveness of advertising on Facebook and being able to reach a global audience? Would potential Presidential figures have been able to capture the votes of many young voters without the use of such an effective tool?

I think all these questions have answers that are a two sided coin, many arguments for and against, but overall, I think that because of the huge reception Facebook has had, it has become a driving force in today's technology. It has definitely had a significant influence in the world of communication in the 21st Century for many different reasons, revolutionising the way people can connect and share information with each other.

References

  • Boyd, Danah (2008) 'Facebook's Privacy Trainwreck', in 'Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies', Vol 14(1): 13-20
  • Brandenburg, Carly (2008), 'The newest way to screen job applicants', in 'Federal Communications Law Journal', Vol. 60, no. 3, pp. 597-625
  • Brown, Jeremy (2008) 'Legal Implications of User-Generated Content: YouTube, MySpace, Facebook' in 'Intellectual Property & Technology Law Journal', May 2008
  • Facebook Fact Sheet 2009, accessed 17th Nov 2009 <http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?factsheet>
  • Facebook Terms of Service 2009, accessed 17th Nov 2009 <http://www.facebook.com/terms.php>
  • Freund, Caroline. ed. 2007. 'The WTO and reciprocal preferential trading agreements' Vol 12: Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd.
  • Hargittai, Eszter (2007) 'Whose space? Differences among users and non-users of social network sites', in 'Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication', Vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 276-297

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