On Friday, I wrote about a Black Dog Strategic's point of view on next generation social networks, and  declining participation in Facebook.

I don't find the decline at all surprising. Neither does it dissuade me from the belief that social networks are changing the nature of democratic action, of social intervention, of public policy formation, of grassroots activism, of organized advocacy.

Here are two criticisms of social networking that miss the point about its potential to cause harm or to extend influence, both of which should concern public relations and public affairs people. (For the full catalogue of complaints see Mr. Owyang's post from last week.)

Criticism One: Not all "friends" on MySpace or Facebook represent close personal relationships.

  • We all know this is true, but it doesn't mean that other kinds of political or socially motivated relationships can't be formed on the platform. The ability of the platform to facilitate ad hoc, issue- driven associations will be a critical factor in issue management strategies in the future.
  • The ties between "friends" on Facebook may be weak, and the infrastructure of the connections easily ruptured. But when something is sufficiently troubling for a community of interest, then there is a platform which facilitates connection and helps rally seamlessly and quickly a network of associations around common cause. That used to take a matter of days and weeks. Ask any activist. Now it takes a matter of minutes to begin a "campaign".

Criticism Two: According to Business Week "Besides the slowing user growth and declining time spent on these sites, users appear to be growing less responsive to ads, according to several advertisers and online placement firms."

  • Social networks may provide opportunities for marketers and advertisers, although frankly this doesn't interest me. If we think the only measure of their success and sustainability is the extent to which they can be used to sell products, then we'll miss their potentially more durable value as a demos, a place for the exchange of opinions and ideas. Not much has been made of this dimension yet except -- amusingly -- by U.S. politicians and social activists. However, the potential is there; it would be silly to give up on them yet

Here are three campaigns that may have made a difference, caused an organization harm or at least caught our attention for a time . . . and as such may be models for new  forms of activism:

  1. "Generation Facebook is using the Net not only to pledge online support for causes, but to take action in the real world." (Business Week, February 14, 2008)
  2. “Stop the Great HSBC Graduate Rip-Off” (Trend Hunter, September 4, 2007)
  3. "Stop animal testing in Nova Scotia" (Facebook Group)

Social Networking- The Academic Analysis

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