Sunday, October 11, 2009

Facebook taking over...

This Saturday I spent an hour online that cost me a fair share of my weekly stress allowance, observing (and, perhaps, participating in) an event in a way I would never think possible even two years ago. (By the way, this event will most probably change the fate of my nation for the decades to come, at least.)

I had just logged on Facebook when the news broke: “The signing of the Armenia-Turkey protocols delayed indefinitely for unknown reasons.” And that’s how it all started. A large part of my Armenian “friend” population suddenly came to life with status updates and shared links, discussions and comments… I tuned in, and within seconds I was reading tweet and news updates on Facebook from reporters in Armenia and “on the ground” (i.e., Zurich, where the event was taking place), going through articles hastily put together by the wires, having protracted discussions through comments on friends’ Facebook/Tweet statuses and shared links… simultaneously watching (rather, listening to) two TV news live streams online, while skyping with a friend on the same issue. By the end of the hour, when the foreign ministers of Armenia and Turkey finally signed the much-debated and controversial agreement, I had updated my Facebook status five times, shared some ten-eleven links, and made dozens of comments and tweets… When I actually stopped and looked back at it all, this week’s readings started making more sense than ever. Within an hour I had probably communicated with more than thirty people, consumed and shared multiple media, smoothly fitting in the Armenian wave that swept the information sphere that day... all that without even leaving my chair.

Engagement and convergence: the key words this week. The digital media have indeed transformed the relief of the information sphere, not only flattening the industry hierarchies and empowering the reader to get active in the interpretation and discussion of the issues, but also indirectly making them participate in the entire production process. The beauty of it, however, is that anyone (given they have the means, of course) can take part, basically controlling what gets “out there” and connecting with people from virtually anywhere around the world. The trend seems to have started with mIRC, forums and blogs, but the boom of the social networking sites and various widgets gave it a whole new dimension. Of course, we cannot really measure the actual amount of consumption around the world, let alone its impact, but taking Facebook as the most successful and well-known example one can get a fair picture. Here are some of the official statistics on Facebook use:

- More than 300 million active users
- Average user has 130 friends on the site
- More than 6 billion minutes are spent on Facebook each day (worldwide)
- More than 2 billion photos uploaded to the site each month
- More than 2 billion pieces of content (web links, news stories, blog posts, notes, photos, etc.) shared each week
- More than 70 translations available on the site
- About 70% of Facebook users are outside the United States
- More than 15,000 websites, devices and applications have implemented Facebook Connect since its general availability in December 2008
- There are more than 65 million active users currently accessing Facebook through their mobile devices (and these users are almost 50% more active on Facebook than non-mobile users).
- There are more than 180 mobile operators in 60 countries working to deploy and promote Facebook mobile products

Revealing, to say the least. And that’s just Facebook. Web pages have started making active use of the “share” tool, many providing some 90-100 different share options and widgets (Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Windows Live Favorites, Yahoo Bookmarks… to name a few). So if you’re “connected,” it is basically impossible not to get involved, especially when sharing a valuable/interesting piece of information with friends is just one click away. And with the increasingly mobile global population, where despite the distance people can stay connected – virtually – means that the explosion in consumer digital technologies is here to stay (for a while, at least).

So what is left in the industry for the traditional media content producers? Singer is right to suggest that their roles are transforming from reporters and filters to monitors and managers of information flows. This basically ties in well with Toffler’s “prosumers,” whose product mainly aims to engage consumers and thus, induce further content creation. Consequently, despite transforming professional functions and tremendous shifts in the trends, approaches, and means of production and advertising, profits are there to be made as the industry has proven to be fairly resilient in adapting. As for the consumers… they run the risk of becoming tools themselves, just by engaging, acquiring virtual lives and identities, and, ironically, becoming ever more alienated despite being increasingly connected.

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