Social Networking Sites and the Missing Half
Dana Boyd describes “social networking sites” as “web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system. The nature and nomenclature of these connections may vary from site to site.” (Dana Boyd: Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship).
Although this definition is accurate in defining social networking sites like Friendster, MySpace, Orkut and Facebook, I wonder how the definition relates to a new breed of platforms like Kiva, Microplace and MyC4 – three innovative platforms that share a common mission to lend a hand in ending poverty.
All three platforms make use of web 2.0 tools and allow users to set up their own individual profiles. To varying degrees these services allow users to indicate a list of friends, join groups, contact other members and explore member profiles within the network. And although these platforms are not as advanced as Facebook (in terms of online social networking possibilities) I think it is fair to say that all three platforms are working to build online communities. The three platforms share a clear interest to mobilize people towards the common objective – to help people in developing countries – yet this is where in my opinion more effort could be spent.
Kiva – (peer to peer) is an organization that allows people to lend money via the internet to microfinance institutions in developing countries which in turn lend the money to small businesses. The platform focuses on Latin America, South America, Africa and Southeast Asia. Kiva raised $25 million in its first two years by allowing individuals to earmark their loans to specific borrowers.
Microplace – (securities) is currently the only broker-dealer specializing in microfinance securities for retail investors. MicroPlace provides everyday investors with the ability to make investments in the micro finance industry that have the potential to earn interest.
MyC4 – (peer to peer lending) is an international non-governmental organization that facilitates microcredits via the internet to small businesses in developing countries. So far there is euro 4.5 million invested in more than 2,700 businesses in six African countries.
Note: These definitions were taken from Wikipedia.
Both Kiva and Microplace are American based initiatives. Kiva is older and more established of the two and focuses on a peer to peer lending model. Microplace is a broker-dealer model that targets investors interested in micro credit securities. It is relevant to note that Microplace was acquired by Ebay in 2006 and uses similar technology. The business look and feel of the site also reflects the different target audience.
MyC4 just celebrated its first year anniversary, as of October 1st 2008, and is a Danish venture with both public and private sector support. This platform has been the fastest growing and most dynamic on the European side of the ocean. You can see a recent interview I conducted with the Founder and CEO Mads Kjaer.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TvlbZ7y4IS4
Note: This interview was made with the Flip Video.
In most ways, these three platforms make use of the same ideas, tools and applications we see in traditional networking sites. At the same time there are a number of unique challenges that distinguish these three platforms from the ‘teenage hangouts’ described in Dana Boyd’s research (Dana Boyd: Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites).
On MySpace, Facebook, Orkut, Hyves and other social platforms, the social networking component is key to their success, vitality and health of the community. The more engaging the platform the more time we spend on them. And in turn, the more they become part of our lives. This social networking component is essential to a thriving community and is an important element that can be further developed on Kiva, Microplace and MyC4. To start, these online communities have to overcome a one-way communication process. By the very fact that the content is posted online means the content is only available to people with an internet connection. For the most part, the entrepreneurs and the communities profiled on the system do not have the means needed to participate. The unfortunate effect, is that this seriously limits the level of interaction, dialogue and discussion with arguably the community’s most important members.
This leads me to my next point. All three platforms make use of the profile functionality seen on Myspace, Facebook and other social networking platforms. However, instead of Dana Boyd’s teenager opening their own profile and uploading their own content, most of this work is done by the organizations (Kiva, Microplace and MyC4) themselves. The profiles are developed on behalf of the project or entrepreneur and in some instances without the entrepreneur or community even being able to see how they are positioned or profiled online. It is important to remember that if these organizations did not create these profiles, the organization, project or business would not be in a position to receive support. I also do not intend to say that these profiles are developed without the consent of the people and communities involved, but needless to say the user in the developing part of the world does not have the same level of control on their own presentation as does my teenage sister on MySpace.
As a result, the content posted online is more for the donors and investors. The profiles are used to illustrate the potential of a community based project or small business. The primary purpose of the profile in this scenario is not to engage in one on one interaction but to make a business case for needed support or investment. The profiles are also used as a tool needed to monitor the progress of an investment and act as an assurance to the user i.e. that the money and time invested gets to the right people and has the intended impact. And although donors and investors can interact with one another, and in the same way they do on Facebook or MySpace, they cannot interact with the entrepreneurs and communities they are trying to help.
Needless to say, the situation is the result of a serious digital divide, a term often used to describe the technological gap that exists between developed and less developed countries. Last week, Ethan Zuckerman, at Surprising Africa in Amsterdam, did a great job in breaking down this challenge into four key areas.
Power Divide – Africa is a dark continent when seen from space. Many parts of the continent lack good infrastructure and access to power remains a key challenge.
Connectivity Divide – Only recently was the continent connected by fiber optic cable, and then only the western seaboard. This situation is set to improve with two additional cables being laid on the eastern seaboard. Google’s investment in low orbiting satellites should help too. However, connectivity remains a major issue.
Language Divide – The continent boasts a population of nearly one billion people. Needless to say there is an incredible diversity of people, language and culture. For example there are 11 official languages in South Africa alone. The number of different groups spread across the continent make it incredibly difficult to engage.
Relevance Divide – Technology, tools and content interesting to a western audience might not have the same relevance to someone living near Arusha, Tanzania. In these places someone might be more interested in where he can sell his crops, the market offering the best price, as opposed to watching funny videos loaded to YouTube. A different context will require a different approach and different tools.
Each of these challenges needs to be tackled if we are going to get the same kind of social networking dynamic we see on more traditional social networking sites.
As the infrastructure and technology improve it will be interesting to see how the content generation process changes and evolves. More specifically, what kind of content will an entrepreneur be posting about his or her own project ? How will the text, photo and video change when the local person is in full control of their own online identity? Again I see a parallel with Dana Boyd’s observations in this area.
“A MySpace profile can be seen as a form of digital body where individuals must write themselves into being. Through profiles, teens can express salient aspects of their identity for others to see and interpret. They construct these profiles for their friends and peers to view.
While what they present may or may not resemble their offline identity, their primary audience consists of peers that they know primarily offline – people from school, church, work, sports teams, etc. Because of this direct link between offline and online identities, teens are inclined to present the side of themselves that they believe will be well received by these peers.” (Dana Boyd: Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites)
There are two parts of this quote I find interesting. First is the idea that teens sometimes present themselves differently online then they do in the offline world. I wonder if a small business man or entrepreneur would act any differently? And if this is the case then what does this mean for the ‘quality’ and ‘reliability’ of the profiles seen on the platform? This creates an interesting dilemma for these new and emerging social networks. On one hand they will increasingly need to become interactive and social with all members of the community and on the other hand the participation of the entrepreneurs might lessen the quality and reliability of the content. Or maybe it is the other way around and the quality of the profiles will actually improve and become more reliable for the rest of the community to use. The idea that more information of better quality improves the chances of finding a partner.
The second point relates to users offline relationships. In the above quote, Dana Boyd explains that the primary audience for a teenager online consists of a network of people they know in an offline world. In the case of Kiva, Microplace and MyC4 this is not necessarily the same case. An entrepreneur in Tanzania most likely does not know all of the users visiting his profile or project online. In this way the entrepreneur is less connected or associated with the network and might feel less obligated to engage it in an honest way. And from the opposite point of view, this distance might have an opposite effect and encourage members of the network to invest even more time and energy in creating an accurate online presentation. Both points raise interesting questions.
One area where I see a lot of potential to bridge this gap is with the mobile phone. Here is an article that was already posted in 2007:
MySpace announced it’s releasing a free advertising-supported mobile beta version of its popular social networking site. The mobile version, which can be accessed from cell phone browsers at mobile.myspace.com, offers up many of the features you can find on MySpace.
MySpace says you can send and receive messages and friend requests; comment on pictures and profiles; post bulletins; update blogs; find and search for friends; and view or change mood status. You can’t upload pictures directly from your phone, however.
I tried it out this morning and I’ve had trouble pulling up my friends’ pictures. I’m not sure that’s going to be the best use of MySpace Mobile anyway. It’s better to just keep up with messages or check out your friends’ moods. (The Tech Chronicles)
I think the final observation is the most interesting to me – the idea that the best use of the MySpace beta application was to check on the “mood” of your friends. This seems like such a trivial piece of information at a quick glance. But what happens if we take the ability to check “mood” and we replace it with the ability to check “price” or the ability to receive a question? i.e. would you be available to meet in Nairobi next week to meet with a possible partner? Do you have an extra 20 units for a client in Kampala ? I have a friend who has done some research on pesticides, would this be interesting for you ? etc. etc. etc. And what happens if a farmer in Tanzania is not only able to engage the online profile and an audience in Europe or the US, but a fellow farmer dealing with a similar issue in Cameroon? The possibilities clearly grow exponentially from here.
It is clear that mobile phones have developed far and beyond the ability to place a simple phone call. More and more we see mobile phones evolve into handheld computers. Some of our reporters at Africa Interactive already use them to collect text, photo and video. The reporters even conduct simple formatting and editing procedures on the phone before they upload the content to AfricaNews.com. Although the technology and the process are not perfect, I do believe this is an early example of some interesting developments to come.
Mobile reporting does a great job in terms of creating and publishing content. However, one of the key issues moving forward is figuring out better ways to get elements of online content (and other forms of data) back to the person holding the mobile phone. The communication process has to be two way if it is really going to add valuable interaction. To some extent this process depends largely on the development of infrastructure, technology and the cost of information services. But the potential is quite clear and applying versions of mobile reporting to these community websites only seems like a logical next step to me.
Note: If there are mistakes, corrections or things you feel I should add to this post feel free to contact me. I would be happy to make the amendments or include perspectives, ideas or services I might have overlooked. I also want to say that I support the mission of these three organizations and their effort to develop new ways of engaging less developed parts of the world.