align=leftSo you are having trouble concentrating on your work these days, because you’re worried that you might miss your friends’ latest status update? You hardly pick up the telephone to call someone anymore because it’s easier just to post something on their Wall? And while you’re reading this you’re wondering which drink you should send your long-lost university buddy via Booze Mail?
align=leftThe bad news is that you are addicted to Facebook. As Arthur Goldstuck wrote in the September issue of The Media, South Africans have taken to social networking in a big way. Between June and July 2007, Goldstuck wrote, the number of South Africans registered on Facebook doubled from 90,000 to 180,000.
align=leftIf you are one of those 180,000 addicts, the good news is that you are not alone. More than 1,700 public employees in the UK have been fired or disciplined for email or internet misuse in the past three years, The Guardian reported recently. Studies quoted in the article show that up to Ã‚Â£130-million a day in productivity is lost because of employees spending time on social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Bebo instead of working.
align=leftAlthough Facebook and MySpace receive a lot of media attention, Bebo is still the most popular social networking site in the UK, according to the latest user figures (have a look at www.brandrepublic.com). In July 2007, Bebo registered 10.7-million unique users in the UK, compared to MySpace’s 10.1-million and Facebook’s 7.6-million.
align=leftAcross Europe, social networking has shown a significant increase over the past two years. A recent survey by the European Interactive Advertising Association, reported on in The Guardian, found that 42 percent of internet users regularly visit social networking sites, compared with 23 percent the previous year. Because users can contact each other using these sites, a decrease in email use has already been noted in the study.
align=leftThe report goes on to rank Italians as the heaviest users of the internet, followed by Swedes, French and British, with the Dutch last on the list.
align=leftPerhaps more interesting is the effect that internet use in Europe is starting to have on more traditional media. The study showed that the youth (16-24 year olds) now for the first time prefer spending time online rather than watching television. A total of 82 percent of 16-24-year-olds spend time online on between five to seven days of the week, while only 77 percent watch television for the same amount of time.
align=leftIncreasingly, employers are blocking their employees’ access to social networking sites. This clampdown is happening not only in the UK, but in South Africa as well. But it is not only employees who spend time throwing sheep at friends instead of working whose Facebook habit is getting them into trouble.
Anecdotes abound about workers landing in hot water after ranting on Facebook about their bosses or co-workers. In the social networking era, we might find ourselves living in the Truman Show – we are being watched constantly, and we have to guard our privacy more carefully than before. But it’s not all bad news for social networking addicts.
align=leftWhile Facebook, MySpace and Bebo can cost you your job, it can also help you find another one. According to The Guardian, employers are starting to use Facebook as a way to find candidates for jobs Ã¢Â€Â“ not only by advertising on the site, but also as an extension of word of mouth recommendation (a friend who knows a friend who knows a friend) and to do background checks on applicants.
align=leftThe report quotes a study by a UK recruiting company that 7.5 percent of employers are using social networking sites as a way to assess candidates. Looking at a candidate’s friend list can perhaps already tell you if such a person has good social skills, and if you have access to his or her full profile, you could tell a lot about a person’s interests, hobbies and habits.
align=leftSocial networking sites are also becoming more than a place to meet friends and share embarrassing photos about those big nights out way back when. Professional associations can use these sites to contact members, distribute information, post notices and announcements and build a network much more efficiently than email listservs can. Facebookers interested in media and journalism can join groups such as Journalists and Facebook or the International Journalists’ Network (IJNet). The latter group, boasting 1,037 members at the time of writing, posts training opportunities, fellowships, awards, media laws, codes of ethics and events of interest to journalists worldwide. The well-known Reporters Sans FrontiÃƒÂ¨rs also has a Facebook site, as does the famous Columbia University Journalism School and the Poynter Institute.
align=leftThe South African Mail and Guardian newspaper allows users to add an application that updates their profile with news headlines from the paper. Academic discussion listservs like the Media Anthropology Network and Theory.org.uk also migrated from email lists to Facebook profiles. And media academics have seen the advantages of taking their coursework to students who prefer spending their online time on a social network rather than a university bulletin board.
align=leftDr Tanja Bosch from the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Film and Media Studies is doing research into the educational potential of social networking sites. She found that UCT students use Facebook for social networking and community building, that tutor and lecturer engagement with students on Facebook is increasing as more and more courses offer Facebook groups, and that the demographics of UCT student use do not match statistics for South African Internet use, with a wide range of students on Facebook, regardless of race or class.
align=leftPolitically, however, Facebook Ã¢Â€Â“ like other media Ã¢Â€Â“ is not a neutral terrain. Instead of bringing radical change to social hierarchies, new media often confirm and amplify existing identities and social roles. While the democratic potential of the online public sphere is often celebrated in optimistic analyses, stereotyping, prejudices and hate speech often find an outlet in online media. This can also be seen on Facebook, where rightwing groups have set up pages like Ek mis die Ou Suid-Afrika (I miss the old South Africa), Boerevolk word Wakker (Boer nation wakes up) and Boeremag. There is even a page associated with an online rightwing radio station, Boervolk Radio.
It seems that whenever a new media technology emerges, a moral panic about its influence and effects ensues. Certainly we need to ask critical questions about the role that these technologies play in our lives, and even an ostensibly fun site like Facebook can have negative aspects. But rather than clamp down on it, employers, academics and users alike should learn to embrace new technologies and be creative in making them fit their purpose. As long as some fun remains – in the hectic 24/7 media world, we can all do with a little Superpoking now and again.
!_LT_EMDr Herman Wasserman teaches media and cultural studies at Newcastle University in the UK.!_LT_/EM
align=left!_LT_EMÃ¢Â–Â !_LT_/EMThis article first appeared in !_LT_EMThe Media!_LT_/EM magazine!_LT_EM.!_LT_/EM