UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Who Should Own The Social Networks?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 23 Jan 2008

“With friends like these …”

The Guardian recently featured an article entitled With friends like these … which Josie Fraser described as “a blistering critique of Facebook“. The article not only laid into Facebook but also social networks and communications technologies more generally. And, as can be seen from the concluding paragraph: “I want to reconnect with it. Damn air-conditioning! And if I want to connect with the people around me, I will revert to an old piece of technology. It’s free, it’s easy and it delivers a uniquely individual experience in sharing information: it’s called talking.” the author also seems to want to reject a whole raft of technologies including the telephone and letter-writing!

Josie has written a critique of the article entitled Facebook: Neo-con social experiment? in which she responds to each of the points Tom Hodgkinson made in his article. I would very much agree with Joan Vinall-Cox‘s comment: “Thanks so much for your rebuttal of Hodgkinson’s points“.

Rather than revisiting this particular debate, however, I would like to pick up on a point made by Frances Bell in her post on Tom Hodgkinson’s rant on (or should I say about?) Facebook. Frances commented that she “found Tom’s article to be quite informative in parts but tiresomely Luddite in other part“. Frances main point was that the issue that needs to be debated was the ownership of social networks and the related privacy issues. She picked up on the comment that “By using Facebook, you are consenting to have your personal data transferred to and processed in the United States .. [which may be shared] with other companies, lawyers, agents or government agencies“.

I feel that, along with Josie and Frances, social networks can be beneficial to our social, work and learning activities. And I would agree that there is a need to address these issues of ownership. Indeed I feel that this topics should be included as one of the topics in my recent call for a Web 2.0 debate.

Who should own the social networks?

So who should own the social networks which large numbers of our society are now using? Currently the popular social networks, such as Facebook and MySpace are commercial services with, put simply, a remit to make money for the owners. And it is this commercial aspect which is causing concerns for many in the educational and wider public sector – and not just those who have doubts concerning the benefits of social networks, but also those who feel social networks can be beneficial to society in a variety of ways.

But if we have concerns that such services may be owned by large companies (such as, in MySpace’s case, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp or, with Facebook, part ownership by Microsoft) or the uncertainties or private ownership (with Tom Hodgkinson’s article pointing out the links the venture capitalists have with the Republican party and the CIA), who should own the social networks? And as a follow-up, how realistic may such hopes be and how would a transition from private ownership actually occur?

The initial response may be that the government should own social networks. But (a) is this really desirable and (b) is it realistic? I would suggest that if social networks were provided by a government agency that the concerns over links with security forces would be of greater concern than they are at present. And can we really envisage, in the UK, a Gordon Brown government nationalising social networks? It’s not going to happen, is it?

Perhaps our organisations should run social networks for the employees? But surely an important aspect of social networks are the communications with people outside one’s host institution? And the notion that JISC could provide a social network for the higher and further education community could be difficult in working with groups outside that community and would probably fail to address the informal aspects of social networks which, it has to be admitted, have proved popular (although I’ve not played Scrabulous on Facebook, I know many people who have).

And we also have to ask ourselves whether the user community would actually be willing to use social networks which are provided by our organisations. How easy, for example, might it be to be critical of the organisation if the organisation owns the communications channels and is responsible for the rules and policing such rules?

The OCLC report on Sharing, Privacy and Trust in our Networked World, which I posted about recently, provided some interesting data which suggested that end users aren’t as concerned about privacy as we professionals think they should be (no surprise there) but, more surprisingly, they seem to be more willing to make their personal data available on commercial services (they understand that such data is needed to provide the services they find useful and, perhaps, younger people are more accepting of capitalist motivations than those of us who remember when the word ‘socialism’ was used at Labour Party conferences and can complete the phrase “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, …”).

The need for realism

It’s nice to be in opposition – all you need to do is to complain about things and suggested uncosted solutions, with no need to develop deployment strategies. But I think we need away from our comfort zone.

In particular we need to ask how social networks will be funded – such issues are raised in the context of commercial services, with some people suggesting that Facebook isn’t economically sustainable in the long term. But, if they’re not provided by the commercial sector, how would they be funded? And this question has particular relevance in light of the announcement made shortly before Christmas that Curverider were closing the Eduspace social networking service as ”Running a community takes a lot of time and hard work, which we have no longer been able to give EduSpaces, and in that light, it seems both unfair and unwise to keep the site going” (although subsequently a Canadian not for profit company has announced that it will now host the service).

Calling for the government funding (which really means calling for extra taxes) is unlikely not only for political reasons, but also in light of the recent shocks in the global financial markets, as described on the BBC News site:

… huge declines in shares across Asia and Europe on Monday, with London’s benchmark FTSE 100 suffering its biggest one day fall since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, gripped by fears of a US recession.

To revisit the questions which I feel need to be answered:

  • Who should own the social networks?
  • Should ownership of social networks be any different from other software services we use in our institutions (including VLEs such as Blackboard, Web 2.0 services such as Flickr or  blogging services such as Edublogs Campus)
  • How should a transition to a change of ownership take place?
  • How realistic is the transition strategy?
  • How do you know what this is what the users actually want?
  • How will social networking services be funded under alternative ownership resources? And if the answer is increased taxes, how will you get that past the Daily Mail readership which seem to be influential in informing policy discussions for both the Labour and Conservative parties?

And if you manage to solve this issue, perhaps you could suggest how we could reclaim our football teams from ownership of billionaires from the US, Russia and Thailand whilst, of course, still ensuring that you team gets into the Champions League (local self-made billionaires are probably acceptable).

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13 Responses to “Who Should Own The Social Networks?”

  1. It’s interesting (read: bewildering) that trusting the government is often offered as a good alternative to trusting companies. It would be much better if the risk of privacy problems were mutual, your first question could be re-posed as: “Who has most to lose from abusing data privacy in social networks?”.

    This thought exercise quickly excuses the UK government; appalling data privacy breaches don’t even seem to lose them much face, let alone enough votes to matter.

    In the UK I suppose this inevitably leads opening up the market in social networking, and to OfMyBook – the government regulator for social networking sites. It worked for the trains!

  2. PeteJ said

    At the risk of pedantic hair-splitting (shurely not, Pete, I hear you murmur), I think you are referring to the ownership not of social networks but of social networking services (and/or of social graphs which describe/represent social networks? But I think here your focus is the services).

    My social network is made up of a set of people (or probably more accurately personas) and (typed) relationships between them. It isn’t owned by Google or Zuckerberg. I can choose to describe (model, represent, whatever) that network in the form of a (social) graph. (I wrote about the graph/network distinction in http://efoundations.typepad.com/efoundations/2008/01/graphs-networks.html)

    Facebook, Orkut et al are services which operate on the (social) graphs (describing social networks) which subscribers make available to those services (and which subscribers develop/extend/merge/annotate etc through the use of those services).

    Google & Zuckerberg et al certainly own the services like Fb and Orkut; the ownership of a particular graph is probably dependent on the terms of the specific service; but I don’t think they own my social network(s).

    I know, I know, this probably sounds like pedantry, but I do think there are important distinctions to be made here and we need to be careful with our terminology.

  3. My personal view is that social networks will be owned by commercial companies and people will use them (to a greater or lesser extent). But we will need legislation (or enforcement of existiong legislation) – and this is likely to haappen after a series of scare stories in the press (young girls stalked on social networks – if fact I could a brief snippet about suicide and Bebo on the Today programme an hour ago).

    So I suspect we will see something like OfMyBook (OfMySpace?!). How aboput the Office for Social Information Networks (OFSINS)?

    More seriously, a description of OFCOMS is available on Wikipedia which describes OFCOMS as “the independent regulator and competition authority for the communication industries in the United Kingdom”.

  4. Interesting post, but once you have accepted private ownership of the networks that carry the bits that make up the social network, I think that horse has bolted. I’ll have to think about that a little more…

  5. Agree with Pete, as usual… :-)

    I agree with Brian that there is certainly a need for safeguards… and the legal frameworks for most of those safeguards are already in place (if under-used). Probably more important is network literacy… and Ofcom, the BBC and others have clear roles to play here… without going so far as mandatory social networking classes in school, between cookery and national anthem singing. We needn’t entertain the frankly terrifying prospect of the public sector ‘running’ or ‘managing’ these things, either. I don’t want to be in BathBook. I want those people at Bath with whom I choose to engage to become part of my wider network of acquaintances. The institution should adapt to suit me. The days of university-mandated email clients, IM protocols and the rest should not be allowed to spill out into the social networking environment. (Maybe) there were reasons for those requirements yesterday. There really aren’t today… despite what the institutions might say.

    The market is pushing the social networks toward data portability. Some are moving more slowly than others, but they’re all moving.

    Legislation, rules, and Big Brother oversight are premature… and (hopefully) unnecessary. Most of the media-hyped stories we’ve seen haven’t actually been about the medium, despite the media’s desperation to paint them in that light.

    There are bad people. There are stupid or careless people. There are also lots of people who just get on with it, quite safely and happily. Certainly police the bad and protect the stupid or careless. But we don’t have to disadvantage everyone else in the process.

  6. pdanderson said

    Glad to see that a debate is starting about the ownership of social networking data. The issue of the huge amounts of data that private technology companies are collecting through services was covered in last year’s JISC TechWatch report on Web 2.0. Tim O’Reilly is quoted in the report as saying: “the race is on to own certain classes of core data: location, identity, calendaring of public events, product identifiers and namespaces”. I think we can add ‘who knows who’ to that list.

  7. shaidorsai said

    In Ownership of Social Networks? or the data we give them? I suggest that as long as we can get the data off these networks, the ownership is less important.

    I very much like Pete J’s comparison of network v. graph – and I liken Facebook/Orkut to the pipes which we run our graphs over…

  8. […] of his latest posts touched on ownership of social networks […]

  9. How much does it cost to run a social networking service? Okay, the share valuation of social networking companies may be astronomical, but how much would it really cost? I can’t see it being a significant amount of money per taxpayer. So why even contemplate the hypothesis of the possibility of tax increases in connection with this topic?

    Maybe a more fruitful question is how social networking services could be incentivised to follow the pbwiki/wikispaces model, where educational users don’t get shown advertising but have the option to pay for increased services.

  10. Hi Martin – I would agree that the funding issue neeed not necessarily be the clinching factor – a charitable foundation, for example, might provide funding. But there will still be issues of ownership and control (would you join a network funded by the Geoge Bush foundation).

    But as shaidorsai has said in his blog in response to my post:

    As an employee of a *huge* telecom/ICT firm, the idea of any state ownership of social networks seems faintly odd. If we trust private firms to provide the infrastructure that these social networks run over – because, of course, we can always switch to another supplier – why *wouldn’t* you trust private firms to run the social networks?

    There’s an interesting discussion taking place in shaidorsai’s blog.

  11. For me, this discussion is coming much more from the Enterprise 2.0 field, an area which has taken Web 2.0 and matured it towards interactions with organisations.

    It seems to me that there are two fields here – the tools on the web for the individual, and the tools on the web for organisations. I don’t really see much of a problem with an individual organisation running certain tools, either hosted, fully outsourced or SaaS. These can work with people outside of the organisation as well, with different access levels. I also think that if the likes of OpenID and other connected technologies become ubiquitous in such tools, you can use your ID from your home site to access other social networks. It would then truly become the Web inside the Web!

    I think Governments or bodies like OFCOM getting involved in funding or legislating these days is an utter non-starter. Given the rampant opposition to the likes of ID cards from all ages, do you really think anyone would put ANYTHING (except possibly out and out lies) into a Government run social network? Personally, with the likes of Facebook, I can see the pros and cons of the walled garden and am on the fence (pun intended) when it comes to data portability.

    I think we need to part the social network and web 2.0 tools from the organisation network and enterprise 2.0 tools. I think this solves the commercial issue, and it also solves an issue which maybe isn’t being raised enough: the organisation’s ownership in Web 2.0. There has been much concern that has been raised in the likes of this report:

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/11/29/web20_microsoft_antitrust_comment/

    and in this KPMG report:

    http://www.kpmg.co.uk/news/docs/E2.0%20The%20Benefits%20and%20Challenges%20of%20adoption.pdf

  12. The network isn’t the means of production like capital, land, or machine tools, it’s a means of communication, like language or literacy. As such, the attempts at privatisation of the backbone are only temporary setbacks. If we can’t do what we need to do on facebook, twitter etc then we will find other channels, as long as the infrastructure remains in a working condition. But the infrastructure is dependent upon a very small number of computers to host the master index of IP ranges.

  13. Mark –

    I think your post points to the much larger issue that there is a lot of noise out there when it comes to Web 2.0/Social Media/Enterprise 2.0, much like the American “Wild West” – only there’s no sheriff. As Executive Director of a neutral, third-party, non-profit entity that is devoted to the forward movement of what we call the Relationship Networking Industry, our members, too sit on the fence.

    On one hand, there is the need to derive income (and profitability) from one’s efforts to forward the industry, but not even LinkedIn, Xing or Facebook have been able to do that.

    On the other hand, we all intuitively know that people thrive on connection (business and social) and that it is key to survival. With books like the Cluetrain Manifesto and the populism of the internet, many of our members believe that ultimately it’s the people that own such networks.

    As one who comes from a training and education background, I find it hard to seperate business/professional networking from social networking, much like it is impossible in today’s world to separate one’s profession from one’s personal life.

    My belief is that even OpenId or Google’s OpenSocial platform can be seen as suspicious to some. Nonetheless, it is important to develop standards now and retrofit them to those social networks that continue to proliferate yet build upon shaky foundations.

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