The Noble Savage. Social Network Sites Display The True Goodness Of Web 2.0

Today's article picks up on some of the noise being created about social networking (SN) sites. A quick scan of the Hitwise data indicates that MySpace, Bebo and FaceParty are clawing an incredible number of hits per day and NMA last week had an interesting piece by Heather Hopkins (typically aimed at advertisers) which detailed some of the differences between the sites in terms of their audience reach. MySpace is popular with the music-oriented and represents a wider age demographic, Bebo focuses on the school, college and undergraduate communities and FaceParty is a bit of a mix between the two. Towards the end of the article, Heather picks up on a particular characteristic of these sites' users, that they tend to be multi-channel and multi-media aware. Elsewhere I have read and heard about the tendency of SN users to be fantastic brand advocates, taking brand items and 'hacking' or customising them to fit within their creative space.

And so we reach my point. But before I get to that, a bit of historical parallelism. Let's consider a bit of 18th Century sentimentalism. Working from ideas first espoused in literature (eg. Dryden's "The Conquest of Granada" (1672) or Rousseau's Emile (1762) ) and developing out of circumstances and media hype surrounding the voyages of Cpt. James Cook, a culture of primitivism took hold. The essence of this was personified by the indigenous peoples of the Pacific and Americas who, in the minds of the Christianised world, represented an Edenic humankind, unencumbered by civilisation - the Noble Savage. Their simple behaviour, carefree manners and proximity to the fabric of nature - the very essence of life set them apart from their corrupted European colonisers.

To me, SN sites are populated by today's Noble Savages. Unencumbered by the 'rules' and self-regulation of web design and development, the teachings/preachings of Tognazzini, Nielsen and the corporate homepage, these SN pages are simplistic, innocent (c.f. below), disdainful of ostentatious luxury. They demonstrate a natural awareness of the technology of the web - apparently without much if any formal education and just because it's executed without much sense of order it is more often than not, perceived as inferior. It's not a parallelism without it's flaws, of course it would be wrong to say that every person with a MySpace page is an Omai, a Man Friday or Chingachgook. There is imorality to be seen, there is bullying and selfishness; even today as I flicked through someone else's ghastly Daily Mail I read a contrived piece about grooming on MySpace.

In addition, much of MySpace - perhaps in keeping with its recent purchase by Rupert Murdoch - is increasingly being hijacked by corporate brands, music publishers and so on with the express reason to sell. Just as in the 20th Century my perception of the exisitence of the true Noble (Web) Savage is becoming ever more flimsy and could be seen as bordering on the patronising. But dig deep enough and you'll find it. The intelligent blog-links, the vodcasts, the del.icio.us linkings, Folksonomies, Flickr postings etc. etc. They may not be the easiest sites to use (though I'd wager that a teen/tween would navigate them at a phenominal level of efficiency) but they're doing things and using things that those of us on cultured sites have some way to go before deploying.

The fact is that, in MySpace's defence, the design doesn't matter. People who know me will often here me refer to FriendsReunited as an ugly site that works. It, like MySpace, works in-spite of it's looks simply because it does the job it set out to do - connect people. If everyone in your class is on Bebo, you will be too. If you want to find an ex-school-friend you'll go to FriendsReunited, to hell with the interface. The kids that use SN sites have all the time in the world, they'll wade through the black text on grey backdrop because it might link somewhere, they'll put up with the blinking animated gif because their favourite song is playing on the page... Joshua Porter explains this well and his post attracted some intelligent comments too.

Of course, I'd love to explore some more by setting up my own MySpace/Bebo/FaceParty pages but frankly I know i'd get no social-linking and I'd fret about the interface. In the same way that Captain Cook probably knew when he was out of his depth I'm not prepared to go on there and get into any hot water...

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