Question: If you were stopped on the street by someone conducting some market research and asked to spare a few minutes to participate in a survey, how much information would you be prepared to divulge?
Your age, your place of residence, your occupation, your level of education? No doubt most of us would have no problems providing this level of general information.
How about your religious views, political inclinations, relationship status, sexual orientation, salary details?
Perhaps this is encroaching a little more into your private world and you may feel less comfortable with this level of enquiry, but no doubt most of us would probably be fairly relaxed about providing a surveyor with this information.
So what if the marketing surveyor pried a little deeper? What if they asked about you and your friends?
If they asked you about their political orientation, the causes they support, the money they give to charity, the way they spend their free time, the games they play, the movies they enjoy, the holidays they take, would you feel obliged to withold this information and to protect your privacyand that of your friends?
Or would you happily answer these questions and more?
I imagine you would be slightly aghast and more than a little suspicious if some marketing guy were to ask you for this information.
After all, what business is it of theirs to demand such an in depth knowledge of your life and that of your friends.
Why should you provide them with information that will simply be used to generate the sophisticated consumer profiles corporations need to flog us all yet more consumer goods and services?
Faced with such a scenario you would no doubt politely refuse to answer any more questions and would walk away, perhaps a little annoyed at the sheer impertinence of your inquisitor. I know I would.
Or so I thought.
Then I joined Facebook.
According to its own introductory blurb, Facebook is “a social utility that connects you with the people around you” .
On the face of it it’s all rather simple and straightforward. You add your profile to the site, and friends, family and like minded folks from across the globe can hook up with you for a bit of online socialising.
So, prompted by a friend who had emailed me one evening to say that she was, at that very moment, setting up her account and wrestling with the photo album module, I decided to take a peek at the site myself and see what all the fuss was about.
I must admit that I had never even considered joining the site, or any other of its ilk. After all, I already have a reasonably flourishing web presence via my blog, my Flickr account and my e-mail, so adding a social networking presence to the mix seemed pretty pointless.
Glancing over my friends Facebook profile however, I started to notice the names of folks that I hadn’t heard from in years. Old acquaintances that we had once shared but with whom I had lost touch, while she, being a far better friend than I, had clearly maintained contact.
At a glance I could see what people were up to. Where they were living, what their jobs were, how many kids they had, where they had travelled, the books they were reading, the films they liked or loathed, the latest music they were into. In photo albums I could see how well or how cruelly time had treated us all. Better still, via the status update widget, I could see exactly what they were thinking and feeling on a daily basis.
It was great! And so, in a wave of nostalgic enthusiasm, I added myself to the mix and joined the Facebook crowd.
Immediately upon joining, the Facebook programme gizmo plundered my email address book and notified all my contacts that I was now a member. Instantaneously I was hooked up via this social network to my current friends.
This then triggered a domino effect whereby mutual friends who were not in my address book or with whom I had lost contact, could find me on Facebook and add me to their friends list.
Overnight I was connected to a host of folks from past and present. And I was happy.
Then it started. The “poking”, the movie quizzes, the “Funwall”, the viral movies, the song dedications, the personality quizzes, the graffiti, the causes to join, the virtual beers and cocktails to drink, the vampire biting games, the werewolf biting games.
An endless stream of fun, fun, fun.
And suddenly I wasn’t happy. Suddenly I was annoyed. Suddenly the connections seemed very superficial.
Sure I could check out my status updates and see at a glance how any given friend was feeling at any given moment, but if that was the extent of our connection then I was beginning to wonder what the point of it was. Surely it would be better, more friendly, more genuine, to write an e-mail, to correspond and really find out how they were doing and what they were up to?
Wasn’t I just being lazy here by keeping the contact so superficial and virtual?
After all, it was far easier to send someone a virtual beer than to get my coat on and actually go and meet them in the pub. And where distance separated us, the jotting down a quick status one liner to let people know what was on my mind was quicker and easier than going to the trouble of writing an e-mail.
In the end the e-mail facility of the site proved to be the one aspect of it I actually used. It was basically just another e-mail account as far as I was concerned. Another outlet to contact folks, make appointments or share news.
Quite why my friends and I used Facebook for this e-mail correspondence though was a mystery, a little quirky fad that would soon pass.
Still, it got me thinking. What is the point Facebook at all?
Why do I use it? Aside from the initial excitement and warm glow of nostalgia I felt upon seeing all those friends appearing and re-appearing in my life, what did I need it for?
Aside from some inital playing around at the beginning, I don’t dedicate songs to people, I don’t take movie quizzes, I don’t recommend films or books, I don’t set up campaigns or causes, I don’t pass on viral movies.
In short, I don’t do any of the things on Facebook that it is set up to do.
But millions of other people do.
And, this, I guess,is the point.
For Facebook is a marketing dream.
It is a vast network of people, conducting market research of their own volition. They are sharing music, films, games, jokes, books, images, ideas, fashion, politics. You name it, they are sharing it and recommending it. And all in one convenient place. This is marketing walhalla and the PR folks are already rubbing their hands with glee.
For where Facebook users may see a “social utility” site, the PR and marketing gurus see an opportunity to use the subtle power of recommendation as an advertising and marketing tool.
For if you can manage and exploit the relationships between people , if you can monitor their behaviour and utilise their connections and the trust of their friendships, then you have a very powerful tool at your disposal.
A point not lost on Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg.
Discussing the business potential of social networking at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, Zuckerberg noted:
“We’re talking about the set of connections that everyone has in real life. All we’re trying to do is take those connections and map it out. Once we have an accurate model, we can help people to share their information more effectively. But it’s going to take 30 years before this becomes a really mature platform
Quite where this accurate modelling will lead us remains to be seen, but it doesn’t seem too preposterous to assume that it will be used to target a whole host of messaging directed towards us, from adverts to politics to religion – and all via that most trusted of media, our own personal network of friends.
For now though the data must first be gathered and it seems we are all quite happy to divulge a myriad of details about our lives under the guise of social networking, that we would otherwise be very reluctant to part with under other circumstances…