Saturday, September 26, 2009

Who is monitoring who in a world of online social networking?

This article is the first in a three part series raising issues arising from the proliferation and increasing usage of online social media. Recently Nielson research reported a tripling of the time Internet users spend on social networking sites in the space of a year, with social networking now accounting for 17% of time spent online. Similarly, based on the statistics from, the combined daily reach of 3 popular social network websites (, and is 24% of daily internet consumption with accounting for 17%. This magnitude of growth alone, suggests a significant impact of these networks on the lives of individual members.

Recent reports by both Comscore and Nielson appear to show that social networking and social networking sites are now the most popular online activities;

"social networking was the second most popular online activity in the U.K. based on average time spent per user (4.6 hours), trailing only instant messaging (8.6 hours)" (Comscore, 2009).

Recently released research for the US by Nielson (2009) found that americans spend over 4 1/2 hours (on average per month) on facebook, more than any other site (of the top 10 brands) on the Internet. Thus, both the Nielson and Comscore reports say that Social networking, in particular facebook, is the most popular online activity in both the UK and the States. There is some difference though with Nielson and Comscore regarding time spent on these with Nielson quoting 6 hours for Facebook and Comscore quoting 4.6 hours for social networking sites in aggregate. But if you look at the nielson figures, its shows only facebook manages 6 hours with myspace, bebo hovering around 2 hours. Thus, in reality, the figures for both studies would seem to correlate. And, it seems to indicate that UK users of facebook spend more time on facebook than those in the US.

These figures demonstrate the need for substantive social research on the emerging role of social networking and social media on individuals and society. The next article entitled 'symbolic violence on facebook', will look at facebook through the lens of social capital and cultural capital theories. To begin with though, this article will briefly raise some possible issues and concerns regarding the phenomenon of individuals having increased available 'evidence' of their social network and it's activity.

There are a host of new capabilities emerging with the social web. What technology may now be facilitating is a nation of procumers (granted the figure still ranges between 1 and 5%). For the majority however, what we are now mostly seeing is a nation of monitors. This may even go beyond monitoring the 'background noise' of ones social network, seen as vital in sustaining virtual communities and enhancing offline social relations (Komito, Bates, 2009). What I wish to highlight at the extreme or 'ideal type', are a group of users in surveillance and gathering explicit analytical data; on those interested in their online identity or 'ego', often unbeknownst to the users interested (granted this is not the case for the vast majority of users). It has historically been the case that companies with an online presence should monitor and analyse traffic to their sites for pragmatic instrumental goals of optimising service, targeting users for products. However, now even beyond bloggers catching on to the practice of analysing site traffic, personal users with an online presence are now analysing traffic emerging from within their; 'personal networks' (see Wellman, 2001, 2002, 2003) or 'networks of sociability' (see Castells, 2004). This inevitably opens up questions as to how technologies (imbued with social and cultural values etc.) are in tandem with users; changing the nature of social relations?, changing privacy? and changing the nature of mind, consciousness and identity?. There is indeed a significant and growing body of academic research and literature addressing such questions as the 'impact' of technology on society from a macro to micro level. What I specifically wish to tackle in this article concerns the ability for individuals to explicitly, quantitatively and continuously survey and analyse their social position, social relations and those of others within personal networks. This may go beyond the traditional social monitoring, reflecting and theorising which individuals have (to various degrees) practiced on ones social network. Individuals for the first time in history, now have recorded evidence of their social networks activity, right there in front of them.

For instance, social network sites, now mean individuals can monitor online the relations that one's alters (ties such as friends, acquaintances etc) have with each other. McGuinness (2009) suggests that perhaps this provides an alternative to gathering information on ones ties, through hearsay and gossip. Could this in-turn reduce tainted or biased information that would come from alters? This would indicate increased information certainty. On the other hand, having exposure to tie communications that one isn't a part of, may increase uncertainty about ones importance and stature in one's social network? The issue here is that online social networks may have consequences for social relations on a level previously unseen in society and could make redundant sociological understandings about the dynamics of social relations. But this can go even further:

To take the case of twitter. Users now have several means of monitoring traffic to one's profile and the impact of their tweets. For instance, one can set up an account with one of the tinyurl companies and track traffic to ones posted links. Secondly, individuals can track whether status updates affects the number of people following them. Individuals can watch the diffusion of popular tweets through 'Retweets'. Users can monitor and use analytic tools to analyse their follower count and the demographic data etc. on those followers. This kind of activity by some users on twitter, is likely strongly correlated with their particular use of twitter. For instance, those who take the time to analyse and monitor activity to their profile, likely do so, because there is some value to them beyond mere curiosity. Nontheless, we can see trends emerging, such as programs on facebook that can sidestep privacy rules, by using apps to analyse available data for; 'popularity', 'friends interest in your profile' etc. Such statistics are based on who has posted on each others walls and commented on photos etc.

A larger and larger proportion of Internet users are becoming techno-savy and adept at using available Internet services. The increased interconnectedness of individuals disparate data on the web, and a crop of advancements in online technologies facilitating this, means that individuals can have easy access to information on individuals not in their everyday lives ( etc.). It is not uncommon for individuals to google a first date, or to monitor those they no-longer see. The past may importantly ground the present, but there may be times when its more helpful to leave past physical relationships in the past. Individuals may diminish consciousness of their present situations, their immediate experience. Here, the consciousness of place gives way to the 'space of flows' (see; Castells, 1998). Individual's attention can be more easily stretched across time and space.

Beyond recorded evidence of ones social relations and alters, we are now seeing software such as twitanalyser emerging that allows individuals analyse online identities. There is the potential for psychological traits, truth, consistency etc. to be gaged based on available information on the web. For the moment, the phenomenon of analysing online identities has been mainly confined to micro-blogging sites 'status updates', but there is no reason why it will stop there. Such information might be of interest to recruiters, workplace managers, schoolground bullies and prospective friends and colleagues. Previously, this kind of analytic data was available on website traffic of interest to those managing websites, whereby e-commerce sites and others found value in having data on traffic locations, referrals etc. Now, everyone can 'know' this kind of information 'if' one wishes.

Questions of the possible consequences of monitoring and quantitatively analysing our ego-centric networks arise:
-Curtails our own intuition and imagination?
-Makes us more instrumental in our social relations?
-Makes us more instrumental to ensuring social presence online?
-Addiction to checking our social network's 'background noise'?
-Reduces the expressive and affective nature of communication?
-Adds complexity to managing our social lives?
-Adds the potentiality of paranoia and uncertainty with ones close ties?
-Means we become grounded in the reality of our social position, reputation and social capital rather than our perceived or imagined position and reputation?

These are just a few of the myriad of possible questions which arise and which can be seen as perhaps positive or negative. We are principally dealing with the potentiality of users having more explicit hard information on others, and ones relations with others. Furthermore, we can now observe how ones action affects those relations in new and altered ways. This seems to point to the notion of a more individualised atomised person, with perhaps greater attentiveness and 'sense' of control(ing) of their relation with 'their' world, inline with trends theorised by Wellman and with observations by Putnam.
references to follow shortly...

Copyright © 2009 Shane McLoughlin. This article may not be resold or redistributed without prior written permission.

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