Facebook vs Ning – what is “social”?

By: Jan Bajec
On: September 29, 2009
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About Jan Bajec
Visual thinking has always been the way I responded to my environment. It engaged my interest in arts and eventually led to my enrollment in Visual Arts and Graphic Design studies. From 2001-2002, I had an unique opportunity to be a part of a creative team at S Team Advertising in Belgrade associated with SAATCHI&SAATCHI. From 2002-2003, I worked as a Graphic Designer at Ovation – BBDO. In 2003, wanting to pursue my studies further and get away from advertising I enrolled in Design Art program at Concordia University in Montreal. After graduation I decided to stay in Montreal and work as a full-time freelance graphic designer and web design consultant. I favor an exploratory, investigative approach to design. As I have been in the situation to design for specific cultural environments, I have felt how much of a social construction design really is and how cultural values, tools and technologies specific to each social milieu are reflected in it. This kind of experience demanded broader research ‘routine’ and triggered my interest in many other subjects: sociology, psychology, pop-culture, television, politics, new media. As I was switching my area of interest from print to web design I became more involved in this new platform for visual communication…


A social network is, according to Wikipedia, a social structure made of individuals or organizations, which are connected by one or more specific types of interdependency (friendship, kinship, financial exchange, sexual relationships, and relationships of beliefs, knowledge or prestige). Social networking has encouraged new ways to communicate and share information.

Social networking began to flourish as a component of business internet strategy, and businesses use it to create brand awareness, as an online reputation management tool, for recruiting, to learn about new technologies and competitors, etc. These companies are able to drive traffic to their own online sites while encouraging their consumers and clients to have discussions on how to improve or change products or services. Social Networking Services sell online advertising on their sites, and the deeper information that the site has on each user leads to better targeted advertising than any other site can currently provide. SNS are increasingly being used in legal and criminal investigations. Information posted on these sites has been used by police, probation, and university officials to prosecute their users. Social networking is more recently being used by various government agencies to collect information about the citizens and “as a quick and easy way for the government to get the opinion of the public and to keep the public updated on their activity.” One of these agencies, The Information Awareness Office (an agency of the US Department of Defense) had a goal to develop and apply information technologies that would counter security threats by achieving total information awareness. Luckily, the IAO was defunded by Congress in 2003, after being criticized by the public for the deployment of technologies that could lead to a mass surveillance system, but several of its projects have continued under different funding.

Social networks are defined in the first place by the term ‘friend’, but to be a friend with someone on Facebook, for example, means that “you either are, or you’re not”. There is no difference between levels and kinds of friendship, which goes against the basic way of how we socially interact in real life. Also, group functionality in Facebook is not a central aspect of the site, since there is a very limited functionality for developing effective social protocols to manage such a large number of users. In this sense, the individual is central to the Facebook site.

Some people claim that the neo-con views of Facebook`s founders could be the reason for this kind of site`s social structure. This would be a “libertarian vision of sociality centred around highly independent individuals rather than around strong communities bound by cooperatively developed social protocols”. Facebook also appeals to our vanity and self-importance – we can construct artificial representations of who we are in order to get approval, and there is also a disturbing competitiveness around friendship, meaning that the more friends we have, the better we are.

Facebook was initially conceived by Mark Zuckerberg, Harvard student at a time, but it was financially supported by Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley venture capitalist, futurist philosopher, and neo-con activist. He is also the co-founder and CEO of the virtual banking system PayPal, which he sold to Ebay. Thiel says that PayPal (a way of moving money around the world with no restriction) was motivated by the belief that value can be found not in real manufactured objects, but in the relations between human beings. Facebook could be another such “capitalist experiment” which tries to commodify human relationships and make money out of friendship. Once it comes into possession of this large database of people, Facebook then sells the information back to advertisers. “‘Share’ is Facebookspeak for ‘advertise’”.

The internet is so much appealing to people like Thiel because it creates (opens up) a world of free trade and laissez-faire expansion, without national laws and boundaries. It promises freedom in human relations and in business.

Another board member of Facebook is Jim Breyer, also on the board of Wal-Mart and Marvel Entertainment, and he is also a former chairman of the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA). This is the organization that “makes things happen in America”, because they invest in the new young talents, like Mark Zuckerberg, for example. On the board of the NVCA, together with Breyer, there was Gilman Louie, the first chairman of In-Q-Tel, the venture-capital wing of the CIA. In-Q-Tel was established by the US intelligence community in order to “identify and partner with companies developing cutting-edge technologies to help deliver these solutions to the Central Intelligence Agency and the broader US Intelligence Community to further their missions”. Recently, however, Facebook got another member of the board of directors, and it is Marc Andreessen, a co-founder and chairman of Ning.

Futhermore, Facebook privacy policy tells us that we don’t have much privacy: the terms can change anytime; posting content gives Facebook a license to do whatever they want with that content; Facebook can use and develop our ideas; it doesn’t guarantee security of third party applications; privacy is not guaranteed; you can’t delete your information even when you decide to quit Facebook and erase your profile, etc.

Facebook is not so much about freedom as it is “like an ideologically motivated virtual totalitarian regime.”

There are some other SNS available whose advantage is that they allow for the development and self-organisation of strongly connected social communities whose members collaboratively develop rules and mechanisms for their interaction. These protocols are not bound to a specific technology or space of interaction in the way that Facebook attempts to close participants within its site (“walled garden”).

One alternative to Facebook, which allows for such collective processes, is Ning. The best thing about Ning is that it gives control to its members to decide what rules they want to establish for their network and who they would want in their network. It focuses on the social network community, not on the individual. On Ning, our place in the network is determined by the communities we belong to, and the meaningful contributions we make to those communities – not by the number of friends we collect on our profile page. Ning also makes possible an easy integration of RSS feeds, Flickr photos, YouTube clips, and other materials. Furthermore, community interaction continues even beyond Ning, so the content on Ning is visible to other users on the Web – we do not have to be a member to access it. In order to push things forward, Ning has begun supporting Google’s developing OpenSocial API framework, which will try to detach social networking applications and activities from the sites and platforms they’re running on. 

So, Facebook or Ning? Even the name Facebook, for me, brings an association of a police dossier (a book of faces), mug shots, profiling, and photo robots. The word “Ning” in Chinese means peace.  But these are just words.

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