How Social Networks Have Changed, Are Changing, and Will Change the World
Most people have heard about Facebook. The Facebook Effect happens when people exchange information via social media in the digital world so they can do real things in the physical world. David Kirkpatrick’s book — titled “The Facebook Effect” — opens with the story of Oscar Morales, a 33-year old civil engineer from Barranquilla, Columbia, who created a Facebook group in 2008 called “One Million Voices against the FARC.” Morales was fed up with the narco-terrorist group’s depredations on his country.
So he organized a Facebook group, expecting maybe a thousand friends to join. 200,000 Columbians signed up overnight, risking the wrath of FARC, since Facebook requires people to use their real names. A month or so later, about 2 million people marched against FARC around the world. Once the political establishment saw the popularity of the movement, they did everything they could to make sure it succeeded. A frustrated young man’s impassioned midnight post helped facilitate a mass-movement.
Today political parties, educational institutions, and retail enterprises all need to have a social network presence. It’s estimated that only 11% of teenagers use email on a daily basis. Most prefer to send messages on Facebook. Facebook started 10 years ago as idea in a Harvard dorm room. The idea was to give college students an electronic way to flirt with each other and rate each other’s attractiveness. But soon Facebook grew into a networking utility, where people could hang out with each other online and forge whatever electronic connections they want.
Facebook was involved the “Arab Spring,” a wave of demonstrations and protests that swept across Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain in 2010 and 2011. Protesters would organize online and then take to the streets. Subsequent research on crowd dynamics and political movements has shown that social media function as a force multiplier — augmenting and strengthening social trends already in place. Facebook and Twitter played a big part in the “Green Revolution” in Iran in 2009 — although that didn’t go anywhere, in part because the Iranian government was so brutally repressive. And in spite of a strong online presence, the Occupy protests didn’t go anywhere. Social media can facilitate movements, but they can’t create them.
The Facebook Effect happens whenever people connect with each other around a common interest. Ideas can go viral quickly. When Columbians joined “Contra Las FARC” they were saying something about themselves, but that information also went into their friends’ news feeds, which could go out to other friends. By joining, people created their own news. The group became huge overnight.
In July of 2014, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge went viral, prompting hundreds of millions in donations to the ALS association: in five months they raised more than five times the organization’s normal annual budget.
But Facebook can have more pedestrian uses. My son’s high-school sports team uses Facebook to tell him about upcoming practices, coach’s comments, and other team news. When he injured himself and needed stiches, he posted the news and within minutes received dozens of encouraging notes on his “wall.” Facebook is an efficient way for him and his teammates to share and receive news.
Different social media have different strengths. Facebook can get peers to connect around school and sports; LinkedIn is a professional networking resource; Twitter is a cauldron of short-form ideas — although these may degenerate into cutting comments. Goodreads, Pinterest, Classmates and Medium organize specific content.
The ubiquity of social media has upended a host of business models. Traditional newspapers have lost help-wanted ad revenues to Monster.com and LinkedIn. With resumes posted digitally, hiring managers can search through thousands of resumes for key words and phrases, contacting potential employees proactively. There’s even a new site — Poachable — for people who aren’t actively looking for a new job but who might be open to a new opportunity.
It can be hard for traditional media to market their product. With people reading customized newsfeeds on their computers, tablets, and phones, there’s not as much demand for printed copies of conventional news. In 2008, Time Magazine produced 120,000 printed copies of each issue for circulation. By 2013, that number had fallen to 60,000. To be sure, traditional print media can create their own Facebook pages and Twitter feeds to get their message out. But they face the same obstacles as anyone else: they have to get followers and friends and likes. And they are, by their very nature, limited to general-interest news.
But it’s not just the media. Consider the effects of online reviews on retailers. Most retail sites, like Amazon, have sections devoted to product reviews. Reading the reviews is an essential part of making an informed purchase. Technically, Yelp and Amazon are not social networking sites. But reviews fill a social function —reviewers react to other reviewers, and reviews themselves are open to comments. Casual buyers can rate reviews as helpful or unhelpful. There have been scandals, as there always are, of companies “sponsoring” reviews — offering discounts or even cash in return for a positive rating. But these “false positives” can be screened out. When I read reviews, I look for the negative ones; those often have the most helpful information.
Recently a host of new firms like Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Parking Panda, and others have started up that are leveraging reviews and network effects in a “sharing economy.” These smartphone apps pair people who have under-used resources, like a vacant driveway, with folks who want to use them temporarily. An app like Rentoid allows people to rent out spare stuff. Things that might just gather dust in a garage can generate $10/day or more in earnings. And the homeowner putting up drywall doesn’t need to buy a full DeWalt tool set — it can be rented for just the time needed.
The Facebook Effect — people freely sharing information with others, and getting information in return, has made all this possible. This allows us to do real-world things with the digital information we’ve exchanged with others. As these social networking companies grow, they go through growing pains. Each company has to learn how to structure its business so it earns enough to support its services, and how to protect its users’ information — sometimes even protecting users from themselves.
Socializing and networks of friends have always been part of every human society. With billions of people online all the time now, our networks — and the utility they provide — have gotten a lot bigger.