Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Virtually Done.

Social networking on the Internet really took off this decade, with the creation of MySpace (2003) and Facebook (2004). From their limited beginnings--in the case of Facebook, from just Harvard College, then just a few Ivy League colleges, then just students--they now can be used by almost any one or group.

I remember subscribing to Facebook in 2006 and my stepdaughter told me then to not go snooping around her profile. I had no idea what she was talking about at the time, and never went further than enrolling. Several months ago a friend, whom I met here in Barbados through our daughters being in the same class at school, mentioned at a kid's birthday party that Facebook was a great way to share photographs. I had struggled for years to be a sort of unofficial family pictorial chronicler, and had to deal with the clunkiness of trying to send images by e-mail (fine for a few, horror if many) or putting them onto a compact disc so that others could copy them. I never got into using things like Kodak gallery, where pictures are uploaded and then sent to an e-mail group. If I had, perhaps I would not have pursued Facebook. But once I discovered sharing the pictures on Facebook I discovered what others do, that you can discover other people, some of whom you knew a long time ago, and some that you are just getting to know.

But social networking is of course not new. As described in the language of intellectuals, it is a social structure formed of 'nodes' (points, made up of individuals, groups, organizations) connected by one or more specific types of interdependency, such as kinship, trade of goods and services, values, visions, ideas, financial exchange, friendship, etc. There should be no big mystery about networks. Families are great examples, as are neighbourhoods, which we can extend from the hamlet to the big city, to the country, to the world.

Networks have existed as long as more than one being inhabited our planet, and they are very evident and sometimes easier to understand and observe in the animal kingdom than they are amongst humans. Networks exist in other living things, and can be observed in the way that plants 'organize' themselves to either mutually support or find support from other things. Think about the way that plants use colour and pollen to attract insects to help propagation; or think about the way that certain plants can dominate a landscape. But let me put the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees to one side and focus on people.

As is common with language development, the current use of a word can often lead us to forget its true origin. 'Virtual' has its root in 'virtue', meaning strong (or in the old-fashioned world, manly) or true. So, it was once apt to say that the king was virtual, meaning he was strong and maybe morally correct. By contrast, saying the queen had virtue meant that she was chaste (NOT chased). Usage of the word has given 'virtual' the meaning 'almost something but not the real thing'. In one of its frequent appearances, 'virtual reality' means NOT real, and as science develops we can now don glasses that allow us to see a world other than that in which we actually live. A hologram is a good example of virtual reality, where you see the image of someone or something not the thing itself; like a dream but we can enjoy or dread the image while awake. But, more simply, one can think of photographs and books as representations of virtual reality--the words and images merely give an impression of what is or was. Some people still fear photographs because they think the are the real person extracted into a machine.

But 'virtual' has now become almost synonymous with things related to the Internet and what we affectionately call 'cyberspace'--the world of modern technology. Many of us greatly enjoyed the latest in virtual politics, when CNN's John King regaled us with his interactive political maps during the US presidential election campaign. There was no need to walk the streets to know what was going on.

In the past, social networks were kept together by many forms of contact: basically actual (eg, direct face-to-face meetings and visits), or virtual (meetings between surrogates, letters and other written communications). I use virtual here in the modern way.

But do we network socially in a different way through the space provided by Facebook? Someone posed this question with regard to its use by children (let's call these the pre-teens through to the twenty-somethings) and parents/adults. My own limited research amongst the friends I have who use Facebook suggests that the 'children' I know are very expressive both in terms of pictures and written content--foul language is not a barrier, nor are pictures that would surely embarrass if put out into a different public space. Adults and parents tend to be more circumspect, even intellectual, sharing pictures that are varied but rarely likely to embarrass now or later. Adults tend to share 'knowledge' about family and events, which may include articles from other sources or their own 'notes' that describe or comment on a range of issues, with or without their own comments, from which can spring sometimes a rich dialogue. But, children do this too, but with a different flourish and a lot of coded language. However, in essence, I do not find much real difference between children and adults except in content. It is hard to say if one group uses the space more than another, and looking at number of posts is not a good guide; frequency seems to be about individual time organization. Many of the children seem to 'chat' a lot through Facebook. Through Facebook it is easy to hold a 'dialogue' with whoever wants to read it.

I cannot tell if people use Facebook for more illicit things. We have read of cases where organizations have consulted Facebook to investigate behaviour (see Princeton's Public Safety admission). But, given that there is really no censorship, illicit images can be posted easily and the site can be used for illicit purposes.

One of Facebook's features is messaging, but as far as I understand these are private (at least to the Facebook public) if limited to direct contact with another user. But like everything on the Internet, the trace is there on a server somewhere, and someone may be watching or at least able to see, if the desire or need was there. So, as they say so often with e-mail exchanges, 'If you would be embarrassed to see the message in print don't send it'. Wikipedia reports a lot of cases where Facebook has been used to investigate crimes, including possible murder.

Facebook has 'walls': a space on every user's profile page that allows friends to post messages for the user to see. A user's wall is visible to anyone who is able to see that user's profile, which depends on their privacy settings.

Facebook has 'news feed', which appears on every user's homepage and highlights information including profile changes, upcoming events, and birthdays related to the user's friends. Initially, the this feature caused dissatisfaction among Facebook users; some complained it was too cluttered and full of undesired information, while others were concerned it made it too easy for other people to track down individual activities (such as changes in relationship status, events, and conversations with other users). In response to this dissatisfaction, Facebook issued an apology for the site's failure to include appropriate customizable privacy features. Since then, users have been able to control what types of information are shared automatically with friends. Users, if they so desire, are now able to prevent friends from seeing updates about different types of activities, including profile changes, wall posts, and newly added friends.

Facebook has 'notes', a blogging feature that allowed tags and embeddable images, like photographs.

Following one of my mottoes, "Only connect", I use Facebook to connect people whom I know know each other but seem to have not found each other on Facebook.

I was fascinated to find out yesterday that some parents are not friends with their children on Facebook because the latter do not this that is 'cool'. I don't know if I am odd in being friends with my children, and even using them as a source of finding other friends amongst children I know from earlier days.

I do not do a lot of searching for friends, though if I make a contact I ask if the person is on Facebook. But I have been found by, and found, old friends through Facebook, the strangest being someone I knew when I was 6 years old, who still lives in England. His daughter found me. A Google search will now let you know if someone has a Facebook profile.

Most things that happen on Facebook can be followed by e-mail, with notifications, which can be transferred to a mobile phone, so one can remain connected to the Facebook activities without being at a computer.

Limitations are important. I use 'friends only' as my default and then decide if within that group I want to customize to only a few people; somethings are not really for all friends to share. But, some of what I share with my friends they may wish to share with their friends, and as far as I can see there is nothing within Facebook to stop that. Generally, that's not something I do, but I note that while those who are not friends cannot get access to my profile, what I do need not be seen or read by them. Maybe someone will develop some autodestruct software for such transfers.

People can see when you are online, which is better than a phone, and use a messaging feature, but it seems to work only when online. A lady who helped me last week about whom I wrote last week sent me a message, but I was offline and never received it.

Most of my generation grew up in places where the telephone was the main way to connect quickly to people one could not see or visit easily; though we know that many used the phone in place of direct contact. In earlier times, the speediest things were letters and telegrams, and depending on where you lived, they could move quite slowly. I remember the hullabaloo when a telegram arrived, as it usually meant really important news like a death or a birth. Letters were and still are great to get, but most of my generation do not write letters but exchange constantly and sometimes at length by e-mail. The computer allows us to replace the telephone with features that allow us to talk to others connected to their computers (using software such as Skype, Gmail, Yahoo Messenger, etc).

If you are well-travelled and have friends and family dotted all over the world, modern technology, including networking sites like Facebook, shrink the world. I have managed to stay in touch with lots of developments with my family (Canada, US, Jamaica, Tortola, UK, Barbados, and wherever they travel) and friends (France, Guinea, Vietnam, US, Canada, Barbados, Trinidad, UK, Belgium, Madagascar, Senegal, and wherever they travel). We cannot talk on the phone with convenience because of time differences, work schedules, school schedules, moods, state of health, and other restrictions and limitations, but we have managed to share a lot about developments in our lives. I feel very connected to these people. If we are so inclined, the information is there to be consulted at our leisure.

The virtual is not real, but it can help us greatly enjoy the real. The virtual is not all virtue, but what is? The virtual is not more sinister in its intrinsic form than anything that someone wishes to misuse. Nevertheless, it is not for everyone to embrace, but those I know who have embraced the social networking in this virtual form seem to be very content with its results.

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