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Social Networking Tools: Concepts and Practice

Social networking tools such as Facebook, MySpace, Bebo and Buzz are challenging the dominance of traditional media. Recently on radio 2CC in Canberra, I was asked to comment on the use of Facebook and Youtube by politicians, especially in relation to Queanbeyan mayoral candidate Tim Overall's posting of an election message on Youtube. Overall's foray into the realm of cyberspace adopted the use of traditional, or 'heritage' media, to draw attention to the Youtube advertisement. After making my comments, I reflected on the different approaches to using 'new' media and I document my thoughts here.

As a starting point, there are two distinct classes of new media users: (1) the digital native, or those who use social networking tools and Youtube on a regular, sustained basis. This class of user is typically young (or those who grew up using the technology), tech-savvy, and familiar with the integration of the various applications such as Blogger, Facebook and Youtube. Digital natives (especially in Australia) are likely to use Facebook for networking, Youtube for watching various home-made and non-commercial videos, and MySpace for listening to their favourite bands. While there are other applications, in my experience this pattern appears to best represent the current trend; and (2) the digital immigrant, those who adopted the technology later in life or who use the Internet as an adjunct to heritage media and more traditional means of communication such as email and telephones. These classifications are contentious as there are obviously tech-savvy people who might be classified as digital immigrants and digital natives who are not-so-competent. Nevertheless, the classifications are useful here to generalise about the way that the two classes actually use the Internet.

Overall stated that a 21 year old constituent had suggested that younger generations were more likely to see a political message if it appeared on Youtube, rather than in the heritage media. This prompted Overall to enter the digital realm as part of his campaign strategy. However, there is no obvious link to Overall's campaign advertisement from social networking tools or the other popular realms through which digital natives are likely to navigate. That is not to say that using heritage media to 'pull' people to new media cannot be effective. John Howard used this technique and attracted many viewers to a Youtube message in his unsuccessful election campaign last year. Nonetheless, this technique is more likely to attract, or be noticed by, digital immigrants rather than digital natives (or the target audience). Indeed, digital natives are more likely to listen to FM (rather than AM) radio. This means that despite his digital campaign, the approach adopted by Overall is inadvertently targeted at digital immigrants.

A similar scenario exists in the US election campaign. At the time of writing, Barack Obama has 1,702,531 supporters on Facebook while John McCain has (comparatively) only 297,646. Obama's Facebook page features prominent links to 33 Youtube videos, whereas McCain's page has fewer Youtube links which are located further down the page. Obama also has popular pages for supporters in many individual states, which means that digital natives have potentially more opportunities to see his messages. 'Pages' are a relatively new application in Facebook which overcome the problems associated with having individuals sign up as 'friends'. Enrolling 'friends' rather than 'supporters' was an issue for Rudd's Kevin 07 campaign because at the time he was limited to having only 5,000 friends per individual profile. Senator Bob Brown has taken advantage of Facebook 'pages' and leads Australian politicians with 6,169 supporters at the time of writing.

To be successful (if success is measured by the number of viewers or supporters), it appears that campaigns must do much more than rely on heritage media to 'pull' viewers to their message (at the time of writing, Overall's Youtube message has had only 125 viewers). My emerging theory on taking advantage of the viral nature of social networking tools is that the campaigner (or their teams) must become digital natives themselves. This means becoming active on the most popular social networking tools, blogging, and establishing a stable 'group' which can help to spread the message. This approach is very similar to that mentioned in much of the online learning literature about using contemporary communications technologies to develop a useful learning environment.

So how can campaign teams target digital natives specifically? It appears that the six degrees of separation phenomenon is a reality in cyberspace. I am constantly surprised by the number of people I see on Facebook who share several mutual friends with me yet I do not know them. I have also been surprised by the number of old high school friends - many I haven't seen in twenty years - who are friends with people I know now. This suggests that one can reach a vast number of people by engaging with people they already know, and then letting the viral nature of social networking take its course. However, much like systems theory's view (based on the laws of thermodynamics) one cannot direct a living system, only disturb it. This is problematic for those who wish to control the means of communication. Indeed, attempting to control a social network tends to dissipate the network as social networks tend to resist central control.

An approach which I have found useful is to start with a stable group of 'friends' and then provide interesting links to blogs, videos and invitations to events. Remembering that networks resist central control, it is better to rely upon people's natural curiosity and provide enticing snippets of information or updates to one's user profile which draw other users to the message. Approaches which 'push' the message will simply be regarded as spam and will not be popular with digital natives. The challenge, then, is not too different from the challenge which traditional marketeers face - how to get people to hear the message.

Digital natives are quite discerning and the last thing they want to see in cyberspace is the type of advertising currently seen on both free-to-air and pay TV - the constant repitition of annoying advertisements which are more likely to attract Homer Simpsons than thinking, discerning digital natives. Indeed, one of the reasons digital natives prefer cyberspace is that they can simply go elsewhere with a click if they don't like what they see. The trick is to give them something they want, rather than to use the 'we'll be right back after this message' capture technique. This annoying television habit simply doesn't work in cyberspace - there are too many channels and too many messages and, unlike digital immigrants, digital natives will know the difference.