Saturday, May 20, 2006

Social Networking: Baby or Bathwater?

Kenton Ngo, as we have come to expect from him, has a perspicacious comment on proposed legislation to force schools and libraries to use filters to ban "social networking" sites from their computers.

As explained in the Allentown Morning Call, a Pennsylvania congressman is leading the effort, although so far he has found few followers:

Bucks County Republican Mike Fitzpatrick is at the fore of an election-year effort in Congress to limit access to popular ''social networking'' Web sites such as MySpace.

Just 15 House colleagues have signed on to Fitzpatrick's bill prohibiting anyone under 18 from accessing the sites on school or library computers.
(According to the "Power Rankings" derived by Knowledgis, Mike Fitzpatrick is the 266th most effective member of Congress, which -- aside from the lack of merit for this bill -- may explain the small number of cosponsors.)

As Kenton correctly points out, this bill is merely feel-good legislation that will not produce the desired effect:

This bill will do nothing to protect stupid teenagers, who are the only ones vulnerable (come on, smart teenagers don’t respond to sexual propositions and post slutty pictures of themselves). Only good parenting and brains will do that, and this legislation does neither. Their solution is to restrict access (which never works) in limited subsector of internet use.

Crazed efforts to parent America’s children from Congress’ election-year pandering will do nothing to protect children, give the illusion that action is being taken, and won’t dissuade the stupid from doing stupid things, such as putting up a pictures, like a Denver teenager who is now being slapped with felony charges, of yourself smoking a bong.

But, more than that, should the legislation pass, it could also have a deleterious effect, essentially throwing out the social networking baby with the putative predator bathwater.

An article by Brian Satterfield on the Digitial Divide Network points out that the numerous social networking sites -- they are not limited to MySpace, which has been getting a bad rap through tabloid TV these days -- are important tools for charities and other non-profit groups to do their good works.

Satterfield, a staff writer at TechSoup, notes:
Social networking platforms give nonprofits a forum for meeting like-minded organizations and potential supporters, and provide a medium for spreading their messages beyond the immediate community, says Alan Rosenblatt, Executive Director of the Internet Advocacy Center.
He explains what "social networking platforms" are:
Online social networking involves connecting and sharing information with other like-minded people via the Web. Internet message boards and Yahoo Groups fall under the general category of social networking, as do social bookmarking tools like and Technorati, applications that let users add their own keywords (or tags) to Web pages and blogs. (For more information on tagging and social bookmarking, read TechSoup's article What Is Web 2.0 Anyway?)

On the other hand, friend-of-a-friend (FOAF) social networking sites such as Care2, MySpace, and Friendster are specifically designed to connect individuals and groups directly with others who share common interests and goals.

A typical FOAF network will display a directory of people or topics. When you find someone with similar interests, you can send them a message asking to be added to their contact lists. This in turn allows you to meet other like-minded folks in that person's network, theoretically expanding your organization's contacts more efficiently and quickly than you could in the real world. Your network grows exponentially with each person you add, and you can interact with others using tools such as public and private messages and discussion forums.

There are hundreds of FOAF social networks on the Internet, each with its own user base and communication tools.
He then lists some of the most popular sites (some of which I have not previously encountered): Care2, Flickr, Friendster, Gather, LinkedIn, MySpace, Ryze, and Tribe. (He doesn't mention Facebook in this list, one of the most popular sites among college students.)

Satterfield then points out how these sites are useful to non-profits:
While many people regard social networking tools as a fun diversion, some nonprofits are leveraging them to accomplish serious goals, such as increasing their visibility, helping constituents find jobs, and raising awareness about time-sensitive issues.

For instance, Interplast, a nonprofit that provides free reconstructive surgeries to persons in developing countries, uses Flickr to help publicize its work. Interplast Communications and Technology Coordinator Seth Mazow initially began using Flickr in March 2005 when he was looking for an easy way to add images to Interplast's blog. Through Flickr, he quickly realized the benefits of sharing photos online. "Flickr is a very powerful tool," said Mazow, "one that Interplast uses to spread the message about our life-changing surgeries."

Eventually, Mazow began to experiment with Flickr's tagging feature, which has increased the visibility of Interplast's photos in Google search results. He points out that one of the top results for the search term "cleft baby" is a photo from Interplast's Flickr page. Mazow also started a Flickr group called International NGOs so that persons or organizations interested in international aid could share pictures, stories, and ideas.
I recommend reading all of Satterfield's article, which does not address political efforts to limit access to social networking sites. Given the information he provides, however, it is clear that, should Congressman Fitzpatrick succeed in getting his bill passed, a large number of people and organizations will suffer for it -- especially low-income people who use library computers to seek out assistance from non-profit groups that use social networking platforms to reach out to potential clients (as well as financial contributors).

Fitzpatrick's bill limits not only teenagers and so-called "predators" from access to these sites, but also the type of civil society organizations that make it possible to reduce the size and scope of government -- which, I would think, is Fitzpatrick's goal as a Republican Member of Congress.

But then, reducing the size and scope of government does not seem to have been on the radar screen of the Republican-led Congress in a long, long time.

Update: Vendetta Studios has produced a very funny video about the intersection of MySpace and life. It's called "My Space: The Movie." (You'll need Macromedia Flash to watch it.)

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