Social networking revolution
Similar sites are developing rapidly all around the world. Some, such as Hyves (originally a Dutch site but now also operating in English, Spanish, French and Italian) also have millions of registrants.
The rise of social networking sites is perhaps the most significant Internet development since the creation of the world wide web.
Why have social networking sites become so popular and how can they used for Internet campaigning?
Note: this article is a summary of a longer report commissioned from Radagast Solutions by Greenpeace Netherlands.
Web marketing as video game
Social networking sites are based on three mutually reinforcing technologies:
The widespread availability of inexpensive digital cameras (both standalone and built into mobile phones) has it much easier and more affordable to take pictures and short video clips and created a need to have a place to display them. The need to have a place online to put "stuff" created other options that went far beyond photo album sites like Flickr, including music, blogs, and comment guestbooks.
The new kind of personal websites displaying digital "stuff" increasingly provide tools that allow people to find other people like themselves. This meant providing ways for people to describe their likes, dislikes, interests, career aspirations, favourite video games, geographic location and more.
Friends lists and the related comment guestbooks are key to the success of social networking sites because they turn web marketing into a kind of video game, scored by the size of the list and the number of comments. This matches the natural inclination of most people, especially younger people, to want to make new friends, provides a motivation to get existing friends to join the same system online and creates a completely new way of navigating a website by personal relationships – thus making it even easier to find people who might be similar to yourself.
These three components: digital stuff, eprofiles and friends lists are powerfully reinforcing. The more interesting "stuff" you have and the more detailed your eprofile, the more likely it is that someone will add you to their friends lists. A detailed eprofile makes it easier to find other people like yourself, and making them friends makes it more likely that they would make you their friend.
Helping your friends
Myspace.com has been used for a number of online campaigns – some successful, some not so successful. Here are some examples.
Bill HR 4437
The largest series of US protest rallies since the Vietnam war were organised in the spring of 2006 in response to a Congressional bill passed on 16 December 2005 that would make it easier to deport millions of illegal immigrants and make it a crime to assist them. Although much of the US mass media focused on extreme right Republican politicians who wanted even more draconian legislation, at the street level, a far more visible opposition came from the Hispanic community – the main target of the legislation – and thousands of their supporters. Millions of US residents participated in a series of protest rallies.
Since many young people knew fellow students with family or friends that would be affected by Bill HR 4437, tens of thousands became politically active for the first time in their lives. In several states, including California and Texas, a number of schools experienced mass student walkouts as students abandoned classes to resist the legislation and participate in protest events.
As a popular gathering place for youth, MySpace played an important role. Myspace sites such as Say No to H.R. 4437 and san anto against 4437 sprang up. Activists (including a band calling itself the "Revolutionary Party of Artistic Sovereignty") posted web banners attacking the legislation on their own sites and thousands of comments announcing anti-HR-4437 rallies and events on MySpace guestbooks. School walkouts were organised by sending announcements urging participation to friend's lists. Activists even circulated the URL of a website offering free legal help for students participating in walkouts.
The War on Lebanon
Joe Ashur, a recent business school graduate, Chicago-area Motorola employee and part time cab dispatcher, kept a typical MySpace site chronicling the activities of himself and his friends. The entries on his site turned in an unusual direction when he fell in love with a Lebanese woman and took an extended holiday to visit her and his own relatives in Beirut.
All of this changed in July 2006 when the bombs started falling. Over the strong objections of his family, Joe decided to ignore the ship sent to Beirut to evacuate US citizens and continue to chronicle daily events from his computer in Beirut.
Joe was just was one of many social networkers (often with family ties to the Middle East) who took action against the war on Lebanon. On Hyves, the Muslim activist Nadia created a "Stop deze oorlog in Libanon!" Dutch language group on 17 July which had almost 100 members in about one week. The MSN Spaces site About Lebanon began publicising anti-war demonstrations from around the world.
An Inconvenient Campaign
The campaigns on Bill HR 4437 and Lebanon were both based on identity politics - led by people or their friends whose families or even themselves were directly threatened with deportation or death. There was a clear role for young people to get their fellow students to participate in already organised real world events and the issue was motivated by an extremely strong media focus.
Another campaign on global warming was quite different.
Al Gore and MySpace teamed up towards the end of May for a three week campaign to promote Gore's An Inconvenient Truth global warming movie. The campaign culminated on 16 June with the ability for some MySpace participants to win free tickets to the movie in ten US cities.
MySpace donated some free advertising to the campaign and MySpace president Tom Anderson – who is automatically made a friend of every new registrant and thus has the most visible page in MySpace - placed a small web "badge" on his page urging everyone to "Pledge to see An Inconvenient Truth opening weekend".
Drawn by the lure of free tickets, 72872 people became friends of Gore's An Inconvenient Truth profile page. A few hundred left supportive comments – although comments seem to have been turned off after only 5 days, probably because the site was targeted by the usual US anti-climate-science whackos.
The nature of the MySpace response to global warming is very different than to Bill HR 4437 or the War in Lebanon. Although there are plenty of MySpace sites on global warming, they seem strangely passive and static and appear to be run by outside organisations with no real long term commitment to MySpace. The sites often feel like boring science lectures – the kind that MySpacers can find in most of their real world classes and a style of communication which most MySpacers are presumably attempting to escape when they meet friends on-line.
Despite all the interest from professional politicians and established organisations, it seems that the most successful social networking campaigns are being run by the young people who actually use the sites. These campaigns are often run against the opposition of their parents, schools, and even professional activists and are motivated by the desire to protect their friends. Perhaps this is not surprising – after all, making and hanging out with friends is what social networking is all about.
I'll be tracking social networks closely, so look for more articles on this crucial topic over the coming months.