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The Social Networking Titans: Facebook and MySpace

By Debbie Ginsberg and Meg Kribble, Published on April 4, 2008

Chances are you've heard of Facebook and MySpace. Maybe you already have an account; between the two, they claim over 165 million user accounts.1 Maybe you've seen the many news articles on social networks as changes in each service raise new concerns about privacy and security. Or maybe you've noticed that our students, lawyers, public users, fellow librarians, and other patrons increasingly rely on them to connect to their friends, associates, and professional contacts. Whatever your connection, librarians must now be aware of the impact these services have on our users and the tech world.

MySpace and Facebook are more alike than not. They both connect people and promote these connections and networks. Searching for former classmates and colleagues is easy.2 Users of both services may leave public messages for their contacts - called "friends' on both services. Both allow users to display their identity by joining interest groups and experimenting with add-on applications. They also provide privacy options that give users some control over which parts of their profiles are publically visible. Finally, both services are completely free to users and earn their revenue from advertising.

The services' differences are what drive users to prefer one over the other. The most obvious difference between MySpace and Facebook is in the format and appearance of user profiles. MySpace allows more control, but this control often makes the pages appear amateur. Facebook profiles are more uniform. Each service has its own way of forming networks, and each offers its own add-on applications or widgets (some useful, but most just for fun).

Most of these differences stem from the history of the companies and the development of the services. MySpace was initially created in 1999 and launched publically in August 2003. Its popularity skyrocketed early and it soon had more members than the once-popular Friendster.com.3 The first friend to join the network of every MySpace user is Tom Anderson, founder of MySpace. Anderson has been something of a controversial figure. He's advertised himself as a much younger start-up founder.4 The Silicon Valley gossip blog Valleywag published an article in 2006 claiming that Tom is "is more of a PR scheme. . . .designed to give a friendlier feel to a site created by a marketing company."5 MySpace was acquired by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp for $580 million in July 2005.6

MySpace profiles, or user home pages, usually include the user's name and contact information; a headline; interests (such as favorite books, movies, and music); hometown; education and employment details; religion, sexual orientation, and political views; links to the user's uploaded photos and videos; a blog internal to MySpace; a list of the user's friends in the network; and a comments section, where friends can write messages and embed pictures and video. Users can also send each other private messages or blast bulletin announcements that will be sent to all of their friends.

Many MySpace users use pseudonyms or hide their last names so connecting with old friends and colleagues can be challenging. To help locate friends, MySpace features searches by school or employer. Even then, it can be difficult to positively identify them, especially if they have a private profile and use something other than a portrait as a profile picture.

The appearance of MySpace profiles can be customized to a great degree, but this freedom is a double-edged sword. Many profiles on the site are unreadable due to poor choices in background images and colors and the text. Advertising on MySpace is conspicuous and often animated, adding to the cluttered appearance of many profiles. Many pages hark back to the early days of the Internet, around the time enthusiastic web designers discovered the "blink" tag.

MySpace is famous for promoting popular culture. Many bands have MySpace profiles that they use to promote their music and concerts. Many actors and reality TV stars have profiles, too. MySpace users are often easily able to "friend", or create connections to, MySpace's more famous denizens. Because adding friends is fairly easy, users have learned not to assume that all names in any given user's profile are close, personal friends.

MySpace puts no limits on what sorts of entities may join; the only criterion is the user must be 13 years or older. Libraries and other institutions quickly realized MySpace could reach non-traditional users. Many have set up profiles. Among law schools and libraries that have MySpace pages are the University of Baltimore Law Library, Valparaiso University School of Law, and Nova Southeastern University Law Library. The University of Baltimore site, mentioned in our last article, includes contact information, blog posts from the library weblog, and video research tutorials. Nova Southeastern features important library information such as hours, and Valparaiso advertises law school events. Similarly, lawyers and law firms are using MySpace to reach clients. Anicia M. Ogonosky-Gau, for example, uses her MySpace page to market her firm and expertise, attracting attention within days of creating her profile.7

Facebook was created by a group of Harvard students from their dorm room. One of them, 23-year-old Mark Zuckerberg is Facebook's CEO.8 Facebook's growth was slower than that of MySpace because it was initially limited to the Harvard student body. It slowly expanded to other Ivy League schools, then to other universities and a select group of companies. In early 2006, high school students were invited to join. Finally in fall 2006, Facebook opened to all users aged 13 or older.9

Facebook profiles contain most of the same basic elements as MySpace profiles - personal preferences, interests, picture, etc. Unlike MySpace, the culture and template at Facebook encourage the use of real and full names. Instead of a blog, users post notes and links. The Facebook "status," feature, where users note they're doing or feeling at any particular moment, is popular. (In a recent update, MySpace added a "mood" option to profiles that functions like Facebook's status.) Instead of comments, Facebook profiles feature a "wall" for exchanging public notes. Users can also privately message one or more friends. Facebook's profiles include a news feed. Controversial when it was first introduced, users are now treated to a random list of actions their friends on the network have recently taken as soon as they sign in.10

All Facebook profiles have a uniform and simple design: black text and blue links on a white background, with different sections lightly outlined. In May 2007, Facebook profiles became more cluttered when the company welcomed third-party developers to create applications that users can add to their profiles.11 Most of these applications are merely entertaining. Third-party applications include the popular Scrabble clone Scrabulous, movie quizzes, Harry Potter house placements, and Catbook and Dogbook for showing off pets. Other applications allow users to examine their Friends' networks in new ways. Friend Wheel, for example, creates a spirograph-like visual display of the connections among a user's friends.

Third party applications also help make Facebook pages more useful and interesting. RSS feed applications can automatically mirror posts from a library's blog. Worldcat and JSTOR both offer add-ons to search those databases without leaving the Facebook environment. Some tech-savvy librarians have created applications for searching their OPACs. MySpace has just begun to allow developers to create applications for its users12.

Until recently, Facebook was strict about limiting profiles to individuals and quick to delete institutional profiles. Institutions that wanted a presence on Facebook had to start a group page. Groups were less than ideal both due to customization constraints and because updates to the groups do not show up in users' news feeds. Happily, Facebook launched a "pages" feature in January 2008. Bands, businesses, celebrities -- and libraries -- can now have an integrated presence in Facebook. The pages feature is specifically designed for institutions. Personal pages in MySpace and Facebook require information such as age and sex that makes no sense for a library or other institution. The new pages feature allows users to enter information like hours and location.

To date, at least 12 law libraries and 19 law firms have Facebook pages. These pages provide basic information about the services they provide and an easy way for Facebook users to contact them. Some use add-ons like the Worldcat and JSTOR search boxes. Users can also become "fans" of the libraries and firms and the institutions can send updates directly to their fans. The pages feature even allows libraries to use some of its specialty applications. The page for the Harvard University Law School Library, for example, uses Bookshare to highlight items in its collection.

Law firms, meanwhile, have been creating their own networks. As discussed in our last article, these networks often include dozens of attorneys, staff, and firm alumni. They can be used for legal research education, to promote firm-wide events, and to connect lawyers among diverse locations.13

Like MySpace, Facebook users "friend" each other to form connections. In addition to friends, however, Facebook users can also be part of larger networks based on schools they attend or have attended, geography, or employer. When users sign up for Facebook with an email address connected to an academic institution or employer, the user is automatically enrolled in that school's or employer's network. Everyone in that network can automatically view other profiles in that network (this can be restricted). Facebook users can join other networks if they have access to email accounts related to those networks. For example, Meg was able to join the University of Illinois alumni network because she had a free alumni email address. Similarly, Debbie's Facebook profile uses her Brown University alumni email address. They can both see most profiles of faculty, staff, and students at the schools where they work. Every Facebook member can also join one geographically based network, usually the user's nearest metropolitan region.

There is some debate about whether librarians, teachers, and faculty should be promoting their services and trying to connect with students on social networking sites. Some students view Facebook as their private playground and prefer not to have their instructors in that space, finding such interaction creepy or weird.

While some users have accounts in both MySpace and Facebook, many critics perceive a divide between the two networks. Danah Boyd, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center, postulates that there is a class divide between the two major social networks. According to Boyd, Facebook is the networking home for middle/upper-class college and college-bound students. Meanwhile, MySpace is a gathering place for "marginalized teens, teens from poorer or less educated backgrounds, [and] subculturally-identified teens."14 That Facebook includes large networks of technology employers (and tech-savvy employers) will likely exacerbate this trend.

The user divide is not the only issue which has caught media attention. Both Facebook and MySpace request a great deal of detailed personal information, information which can be easily abused. This information can also be bogus, as MySpace users were reminded recently when an adult used a fake profile to harass a teen girl who later committed suicide as a result.15 Moreover, private information is often not as private as users assume it should be. Facebook users have created at least two groups demanding that their private pictures remain private and should not become the intellectual property of Facebook itself. Librarians who wish to use MySpace and/or Facebook to promote services should be mindful of these issues whenever using social networks.

While many libraries and employers have begun to see some of the networking possibilities of MySpace and Facebook, others have been slow to embrace them. Some corporate and academic IT departments have blocked access to Facebook and MySpace because of their impacts on bandwidth and productivity. The current trend, however, is moving away from blocking. Last year Britain's Trades Union Congress suggested that such concerns be dealt with instead by creating acceptable use policies and trusting employees to act responsibly.16

The popularity and increasing versatility of social networking sites over the last few years means they are here to stay. Studies have shown a strong correlation between typical college orientation timing (and email account distribution) and Facebook account creation rates.17 Users who sign up for social networks during their high school and college years are building networks containing hundreds of friends and acquaintances18 that they will carry with them into law school and their legal careers. They'll be using these networks as resources and, even if we're not ready to dive into social networking ourselves just yet, we librarians will need to understand exactly how these resources work.

Recommended Links:

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MySpace

Footnotes

2. This is especially fun for those of us who went to school or began working in the dark days before social networking sites rose to prominence--or before there was any Internet! Both authors have been delighted with how many classmates we've been able to reconnect with in just a few short searches.

14. Boyd, Danah. 2007. "Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace." Apophenia Blog Essay. June 24. http://www.danah.org/papers/essays/ClassDivisions.html

18. A non-scientific review of nine of Meg's cousins who joined Facebook in high school or college revealed an average of 193 "friends" per school network.