Social Networking

Social networking is transforming how people connect and advertising as an industry.

Two primary sites that have made social networks a part of daily lifestyle of millions of people is Twitter and Facebook. Twitter was a variation of the weblogging medium that catapulted blogging into a wide spread usage because it was a microblog. Limited to posting only 140 characters at a time, twitter encouraged people to share brief thoughts or a quick update on what they were doing in a sentence. Because this was very easy to do, many people would do it. 200 million people are using Twitter.

Facebook has taken the Internet social experience into new territory with a reported 750 million users worldwide. If the numbers are to be believed, one out of ten people in the world is on Facebook. There have been other social networks before Facebook, but none have grown to the size and usability that Facebook has. Half of all Facebook users are reported to visit the site every day.

Social networks are increasing the rate at which change can happen. As noted before, the printing press greatly accelerated the sharing of knowledge and the rate of change in society. Koch in his book, Superconnect: Harnessing the Power of Networks and the Strength of Weak Links, talks about how the printing press accelerated the rate of change.

Johannes Guttenberg and his co-inventors changed all that. The demand for, and supply of, knowledge increased faster than ever before – the renaissance transformed ideas, art, medicine and science. There was a tremendous outpouring of new writing and knowledge: as the Scottish anthropologist James Frazer (1854-1941) noted in The Golden Bough, the pace of innovation speeds up enormously with written books: ‘For literature accelerates the advance of thought at a rate which leaves the slow progress of opinion by word of mouth at an immeasurable distance behind. Two or three generations of literature may do more to change thought than two or three thousand years of traditional life.’ (Koch 99)

If the printing press had a dramatic effect on society, how much more will the Internet speed up the sharing of ideas and increase cooperation towards change. A book must be printed, distributed with expenses incurred, and people must read it often after word of mouth recommendation. But consider how much quicker knowledge can spread when someone shares a blog or video by informing everyone in their online social network. If others are moved by or like what you share, they also can instantly share that with their network. The right material can go viral and spread to thousands and millions very quickly. The right information shared with the right group of people can tear down people’s feelings of helplessness and move large groups of people to action.

It is a sociological reality that people influence each other emotionally. “Most of us are already aware of the direct effect we have on our friends and family; our actions can make them happy or sad, healthy or sick, even rich or poor. But we rarely consider that everything we think, feel, do, or say can spread far beyond the people we know.” (Christakis 30) “We can be deeply affected by events we do not even witness that happen to people we do know” in a social chain reaction. (30) Christakis cites several examples of crowds of people being swept along in fear of a mob mentality, not knowing why everyone was afraid, but simply imitating what they saw other people doing.

Christakis documents the spread of depression, obesity, STD, financial panic, violence and even suicide through real life networks of relationships. (31) He documents cases of wide spread psychosomatic illnesses, called mass psychogenic illness, where large groups of people believe they have been afflicted with an imaginary illness. One recent example occurred at the Warren County High School in McMinnville, Tennessee which had 1825 students and 140 staff. On November 12, 1998 believed she smelled gasoline and complained of headache, dizziness and nausea. Students seeing her reactions also began to develop similar symptoms. The school was cleared out and a hundred people went to the hospital that day. The school was thoroughly inspected by various agencies and no problems were found. (40-42)

How is it that whole groups of people can be influenced by other people? Christakis calls this emotional contagion, where emotions of all sorts, joy or fear, can spread between groups of people. “How you feel depends on how those whom you are closely and distantly connected feel.” (35) Anxiety spreads from person to person to person and people quickly lose the ability to be reassured. (47) Christakis explains the mass psychogenic illness as a fundamental nonpathological process in humans, that people have a tendency to mimic the emotional state of others. (48)

People tend to imitate and be influenced by the emotional state of the people around them. People tend to conform. People want to fit in and be accepted. People tend to fall into groupthink where “thinking when concurrence seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it overrides realistic appraisal of alternate courses of action.” (Aronson 15) If everyone else agrees, most people will conform. But if just one other person disagrees with the group, others are far more likely to disagree as well.(19)

In parts of the world today, fear of punishment or reprisal has been used by dictators and criminal groups to keep people in a state of fearful compliance. (29) When people feel isolated and powerless, they accept and conform to the status quo. Dictators and oppressors understand this and usually control the normal media channels like newspapers, radio and television to keep people from information and truth that would encourage or empower them to change things. But with the introduction of social networking, the world is witnessing mass demonstrations where people are uniting to reject the status quo and overthrow oppressive governments.

Oscar Morales was fed up. It was holiday time in his hometown of Barranquilla, Colombia, just after the 2008 New Year. The gentle-spirited civil engineer with a gift for computers was spending his days at the bucolic nearby beaches with his extended family. But despite the holidays, like much of the country his thoughts were dark, and occupied with the suffering of a little boy named Emmanuel. Emmanuel was the four-year-old son of Clara Rojas, who had been a hostage in the jungles of Colombia for six years. Her son had been born while she was held by the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials, FARC. FARC held a total of seven hundred hostages, including Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, kidnapped along with Rojas during the 2002 campaign.

Sympathy and sadness about the plight of FARC’s hostages was an ever-present fact in contemporary Colombia, as was fear about what the powerful and murderous revolutionary army might do next to disrupt the country. But the case of Emmanuel had lately acquired out-sized prominence in the popular press. For some time President Hugo Chavez of neighboring Venezuela had been attempting to negotiate with FARC about releasing Betancourt and others. Then abruptly in late December the guerrillas announced that they would soon turn over Rojas, her son Emmanuel, and another hostage to Chavez. In a nation exhausted from a decades-long battle with the violent guerrillas, this was a rare piece of good news. “People were longing for a gift, for a miracle,” says Morales, thirty-two. “And Emmanuel was a symbol. The whole country was feeling the promise: ‘Please let Emmanuel get his freedom. We would like that as a Christmas present from FARC.'”
But as the New Year arrived, Emmanuel still hadn’t been freed. Then, in the first days of January, Colombian president Alvaro Uribe went on national television to deliver the shocking news that it appeared that Emmanuel was not even in the possession of FARC! It turned out Emmanuel had become seriously ill some time earlier, and FARC had taken him away from his mother, Clara, and dumped him with a peasant family. He was now, unexpectedly, in the government’s hands.
Morales wanted desperately to do something. So he turned to Facebook. Though the service wasn’t yet even translated into Spanish, Morales spoke fluent English, as do many educated Colombians, and had been maintaining a profile there for over a year, posting his own information in Spanish and connecting with old college and high school friends. Spending time on Facebook was already a daily ritual for him.
In Facebook’s search box he typed the four letters “FARC” and hit enter. There were no results. No groups. No activism. No outrage. Groups devoted to almost everything under the sun were common on Facebook. But when it came to FARC, the citizens of Colombia had become used to being angry but cowed. In effect, the entire country had been taken hostage, and this had been going on for decades.
Morales spent a day asking himself if he was willing to go public on Facebook. He decided to take the plunge, and on the 4th created a group against FARC. “It was like a therapy,” he says. “I had to express my anger.” He wrote a short description of the group’s simple purpose—to stand up against FARC. A self-confessed “computer addict,” Morales was skilled at graphics tools, so he designed a logo in the form of a vertical version of the Colombian flag. He overlaid it with four simple pleas in capitals running down the page, each one slightly larger than the last— NO MORE KIDNAPPINGS, NO MORE LIES, NO MORE KILLINGS, NO MORE FARC. “I was trying to scream like if I was in a crowd,” he explains. “The time had come to fight FARC. What had happened was unbearable.”
But what should he call his group? On Facebook it’s conventional to give groups names like “I bet I can find one million people who hate George Bush.” But Morales didn’t like such titles. They were juvenile. This was not a contest. This was serious. Yet he liked the idea of a million. A famous Spanish song is called “One Million Friends.” One million people against FARC? The word voices sounded more literary. One million voices against FARC—Un Millon de Voces Contra Las FARC. That was it.

After midnight on January 4, Morales created the group. He made it public so that any Facebook member could join. His personal network included about one hundred friends, and he invited them all. He was tired. At 3 a.m. he went to bed.

At 9 a.m. the next morning he checked his group. Fifteen hundred people had joined already! “Woooooooo!!!” Morales howled in delight. This was an even better response than he had expected! That day at the beach he told his extended family about the group and asked them to invite their own Facebook friends to join. Most of them were avid Facebook users as well, and they hated FARC, too. By the time Morales returned home in the late afternoon, his group had four thousand members.

“That’s when I said to myself, ‘Okay, no more beach, no more going out.'” He was ready to get serious. “I felt, ‘Oh my God! This is what I want! A committed community around the message.'”

A Facebook group has a “wall,” where members can post thoughts, as well as discussion forums that allow organized, long-lasting conversations among many members. Morales soon bonded with several people who were posting there with special vigor. They exchanged instant messaging and Skype addresses and cell-phone numbers so they could continue their conversations offline.

As more and more Colombians joined the group, members started talking not only about how mad they were about FARC, but what they ought to do about it. On January 6, just the second full day, a consensus on the page was emerging that the burgeoning group should go public. By the time it hit eight thousand members, people were posting on the discussion board, over and over, “Let’s DO something.”

Late on the afternoon of the 6th, his newfound Facebook friends, especially two he was speaking to by phone, convinced Morales that he should propose a demonstration. When he did, the idea was received on the wall and discussion board by acclamation. By the end of the day the group, still operating only out of Morales’s upstairs bedroom, had decided to stage a national march against FARC. It would be February 4, one month after the formation of the group. Morales, who was used to being left out of things since he lived in a provincial city, insisted the march take place not only in Bogota, the capital, but also many other places throughout the country, including of course his hometown of Barranquilla.

So Morales created an event called the National March against FARC. He and his co-organizers, several of them already as consumed by the project as he was, immediately got pushback from unexpected quarters. Members in Miami, Buenos Aires, adi id, Los Angeles, Paris, and elsewhere argued that it should be a global demonstration. Morales didn’t even realize people living outside Colombia had joined the group. These Colombian émigrés were on Facebook partly to stay in touch with things back at home. They wanted to be involved in this movement, too. So it became a global march.

What ensued was one of the most extraordinary examples of digitally fuelled activism the world has ever seen. On February 4, about 10 million people marched against FARC in hundreds of cities in Colombia according to Colombian press estimates. As many as 2 million more marched in cities around the world. The movement that began with an impassioned midnight Facebook post in one frustrated young man’s bedroom led to one of the largest demonstrations ever, anywhere in the world. (Kirkpatrick 1-4)

This event in Columbia is one of several recent events where young people have rallied using Facebook as a social networking communication tool to overcome oppression. The press covered plans for the upcoming demonstration because Facebook was a new thing in Columbia and this helped Morale’s gain attention. “Though Morales and his co-organizers were mostly in their early thirties, the country was also captivated by the possibility that younger people were not cowed by FARC.” (Kirkpatrick 5) The Colombian president saw this Facebook uprising and  he did everything he could to make it successful. The army provided Morales with bodyguards and a car. Mayors and city governments worked with demonstration volunteers to grant march permits. “By the day of the march there were 350,000. Despite decades of fear and intimidation, Facebook gave Colombia’s young people an easy, digital way to feel comfort in numbers to declare their disgust.” (6)  On the Saturday before the march the guerillas announced that they would release three hostages, all former Colombian congressmen.

The Columbian march is a great demonstration of how Facebook enabled one man to communicate and overcome the sense of powerlessness that many felt. That fear had kept people in conformity and helpless. But when one man spoke out from the relative safety of a Facebook web page, millions of people united to publically march and demonstrate that they would no longer accept the fearful status quo. The sheer numbers of people coming together gave people courage. Social networks connected people and helped them to unite and overcome their fear.

This is not the only example of this happening. This same phenomena has been turning the Arab world upside down as young Arab citizens have been uniting and rallying in large peaceful demonstrations of civil disobedience. The Egyptian government was overthrown in January of this year through peaceful protest. “It was sparked on social-networking sites, and inspired by a revolution in Tunisia. In 18 days, it grew into something astounding – a leaderless people’s movement that at every turn outsmarted a government with an almost unblemished 30-year record of suppressing dissent.” Washington Post (Fadel)

Wael Ghonim is an Egyptian young man and a Google executive but like many of his generation had lost hope that things could change in a society permeated for decades with a culture of fear.  Wael spent several years helping his generation understand that they could affect real change. “He quickly grasped that social media, notably Facebook, were emerging as the most powerful communication tools to mobilize and develop ideas.” (Elbaradei) Wael helped his people understand that the regime would only listen when citizens exercised their right of peaceful demonstration and civil disobedience. Wael was instrumental in initiating a call for a peaceful revolution. “The response was miraculous: a movement that started with thousands on Jan. 25 ended with 12 million Egyptians removing Hosni Mubarak and his regime. What Wael and the young Egyptians did spread like wildfire across the Arab world.”  Time (Elbaradei)

Both Wael and Oscar have demonstrated that social networking can mobilize millions and even overthrow oppressive governments. “The Columbian thing,” says Mark Zuckerberg (the founder of Facebook), “is a very early indicator that governance is changing and of how powerful political organizations can form.” (Kirkpatrick 6) Social networking is changing governments and it is also changing advertising.

The old days of pushing ads into people’s faces who aren’t particularly interested is being changed by the social networking approach.  Advertising on social networks targets people who have expressed an interest already in the topic, genre, or product. Because they have listed their interests or joined a group, advertising and information can be delivered to people who are more receptive.  This is the principle on which the Columbian march exploded to 10 million people in months. People joined and were interested, so influencing people to act on their interest was much easier.

Ben and Jerry’s ice cream created a Facebook group and asked people for their input on new flavors. This is a glimpse of the future of advertising. Creating a conversation between the business and the consumer based on interest. This kind of advertising and connecting will yield greater results because the interest is already there. And those who are interested will pass along information they like to their friends who they think will also be interested. These are just some of the ways governing, advertising and education are being changed by social networking.

Recommended Reading:

Aronson, E. (2004). The Social Animal

Christakis, N. A., & Fowler, J. H. (2009). Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.

Kirkpatrick, D. (2010). The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World.

Koch, R., & Lockwood, G. (2010). Superconnect: Harnessing the Power of Networks and the Strength of Weak Links.

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