The popularity of social networking sites such as Facebook and My Space is beyond question.  Their significance – for those who are part of them and for society more generally – is less easily understood.  Whether explicitly intended or not  (and ‘not’ seems much the more likely), they entail an approach to managing identity and personal presence and to the concepts of friendship and relationship which are new and uncharted.

Ben Hammersley, a savvy bloke who clearly understands some of this stuff, has made a programme for Radio 4’s Analysis series, With Friends Like These, exploring "whether social networking sites have changed our notion of privacy and if so, what the consequences for society might be".  You can listen to or download the programme – but for inscrutable BBC reasons, probably only for another couple of days – or read the transcript.

It’s a slightly odd experience.  Right at the beginning, Hammersley talks to some LSE students who all tell him that they live their lives on Facebook.  The rest of the programme is all about how if they really understood what they were doing, they probably wouldn’t do it – threats to privacy, the risk of identity theft, the formalisation of not being somebody’s friend any more, the oddity of knowing a lot about somebody without ever having actually met them all get covered.  But as I listened, the image kept coming to my mind of western social anthropologists studying and trying to describe primitive tribes in New Guinea, with participant observation always keeping an analytical detachment.  The question of why, despite all the risks and dangers being described, so many millions of people persisted in using these networks was left unanswered because the attractions and benefits of being members – and above all the voices and opinions of the users – were absent after the first few minutes. 

The point of all this is not to get at the programme – it’s an intelligent piece, well presented and well worth listening to.  But it prompts some thoughts on both content and process:

  • ‘Online’ never was a single place, but it is becoming an ever more varied one.  Crude measures of internet access and internet use do not begin to capture the richness and variety of people’s engagement.  Designing for the lowest common denominator is unlikely to be a winning strategy.
  • Attitudes to identity management and data sharing underpin approaches and attitudes to many public (and other) services.  Understanding how those attitudes operate in other contexts and how they might be changing is pretty important.
  • Customer understanding comes from understanding customers.  Thinking and talking about customers is important and necessary.  But it isn’t sufficient.