It’s not what I post on facebook; but the fact that I post, that counts

Mark_zuckerberg_facebookpic source: Paul Sakuma / AP File

I’ve been wanting to write a post on social networking for a while now but it’s taken me ages, mostly because I’ve been mainly engaged in rampant friendgeneering.

let me explain.

about a month ago I joined facebook, an act which quickly and forever changed my internet browsing habits.  it became and remains the first and last site I visit in any online session, and keep it on in the background whilst tabbing thru other sites.  a straw poll suggests that I am not alone.  this is significant.

the other key behaviour I noticed myself adopting in the early weeks of facebook was some very serious (and along with my housemate, competitive) ‘friendgeneering’ – a term coined by my colleague and friend John V Willshire in his Artrocker Blog, to describe:

"the accumulation of friends that everyone goes through … because (a) it’s like engineering in it’s very methodical, processed, designed nature, unlike making friends in real life and (b) I have too much time on my hands clearly, and can sit around thinking of terms like ‘friendgeneering’"

now whilst it’s certainly true that John has too much free time – the phrase actually very succinctly captures the various acts of friend-collection I went through, and only stopped when I felt that a certain critical mass had been achieved (note: I don’t know why I felt I’d reached my personal critical mass – would be interesting to find out if other users had similar experiences).  I felt uncomfortable until ‘enough’ of them were there with me, and feel a great deal more comfortable now that they are there.

it’s a concept Faris Yakob – writing on his blog TIGS – described in a post in which he termed continuous partial presence:

"…everyone is always there. The most important feature of instant messenger programmes, in some ways, isn’t the actual messages – it’s the buddy list. With your buddy list there, you’re always in a group, you’re friends are always present, whenver they’re online. This is why it was so compelling, to begin with, to younger people – kids are far more likely to hang out in large social groups. This continuous partial presence is oddly satisfying, and also a feature of services like Twitter and Jaiku"

in her book Watching The English, Kate Fox describes how the mobile phone has had a similar effect:

"The mobile phone has, I believe, become the modern equivelant of the garden fence or village green.  the space-age technology of mobile phones has allowed us to return to the more natural and humane communication patterns of pre-industrial society, when we lived in small, stable communities, and enjoyed frequent ‘grooming talk’ with a tightly integrated social network of family and friends"

what both of these commentaries identify is the fact that the content of the status updates, photos, and now videos (and more) I put on facebook, aren’t as important as the act of putting them up there in the first place.  it’s the contemporary equivelant of "good morning, send my best to X" that was typical of times gone by, and just as reassuring.  indeed – as Fox suggests – the origins of my ‘comfort’ at having my friendgeneered buddies continually partially present, may be ancient indeed…  as old as the highly communal nature of homo sapien society itself.

this last fact alone is reason enough for advertisers and brands to take facebook and it’s rapidly expanding contemporaries very seriously indeed. it fulfills and deeply ingrained social need, and I fully anticipate that I will become as inseperable from my social network of choice as I am from my mobile phone.

but the reasons go beyond human social need…  the act of media planning in many regards is – at it’s basest – the identification and communication to, aggregated audiences (for obvious reasons I exclude direct forms of marketing from this description).  between October 06 and April 07, facebook increased it’s base from 500k to 3.69m; over the same period readership of the Sun dropped from 3.1m to 3.0m (source NRS).  facebook and social network sites per se are big, growing and committed aggregations of audience.

to that end, you can try putting an ad on facebook, but I wouldn’t recommend it; facebook is a place and space for friends, and a pushed media impact from a keen brand is an invasion – unless a brand suceeds in rewarding my just for watching it (for example Virgin Media feeding me live Big Brother updates, rather than a banner asking me to sign up now)…

the commercial model aside (till another day), other ways exist for brands to capitalise on this bigger-than-the-Sun audience (globally) of which I am a proud and active part; a facebook group created around your brand – or something for which it stands – is a great deal more involving that a bit of flash, and also acts as a badge for a social network user should they choose to join.  plus, with the opening up of application development to third parties, brands should be asking themselves what applications they could develop to graciously and appropriately feed and enhance online activities.

brands that understand how to talk to an audience in this way understand that it’s not how many friends you can reach; but how you talk to them, that counts.

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