Thoughts on Social Networking from Offline to Online @ TEDxSentosa

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The TEDxSentosa (meaning independently organized TED event in Sentosa), thanks to Meng Weng Wong, has happened on 11 July 2009. Prior to this event, I have spoken in TEDxKL in Malaysia. For this evening, I will not use any slides but rather deliver a short talk about social networks and will put a short slideshow with the transcript in this post. The talk will be about my thoughts on social networks from offline to online, and an insight which I recently derived from my book project with Nicholas Khoo and Michael Netzley (SMU). Also check out the twittering with the hashtag #TEDxSentosa.

Thoughts on Social Networking from Offline to Online

Here is an idea that I would like to share with all of you here today: the concept of social networking in human society from offline into online. The question I like you to think about: What has really changed in social networking from offline to online and how it impact our lives?

Since no man is an island unless you are stranded alone on one, the concept of a network naturally comes to mind when you interact with people. Many of you here will know that I dabble in online social networks. Prior to that, I have delivered a seminar entitled Business Networking in NUS Business School many times or I should call it, offline social networking. The talk comprises of the positioning, the techniques and how one should prepare before the session, do during the session and follow-up after the session. In fact, some interesting insights may be drawn from this offline activity. Let me take you through five simple steps in how an offline social networking session resembles the online one by looking at the analogy when you attend a networking party.

  1. The invite to the party: You are invited by the organizer to attend the party. In the online world, you are sent an email from either the online social network owner or your friends within the network.
  2. Registering to attend the party: You register your name and get the name tag to walk into the party. In the online world, you register your username, password and provide profile information to the network. There is only one distinct difference here which is the ability to stay with a pseudonym or be totally anonymous.
  3. You walk into the party to meet and interact with people around the party: You can introduce yourself and make friends with people, or you get an introduction to another person via a friend that you know. In the online world, you can do exactly the same, by checking out friends profile, and then connect with people who are linked to your profile. In most cases, the online social networks of today will suggest people that you might know by examining the list of friends within three degrees of separation.
  4. You share information and discuss issues with people within the party: When you are engaged in a conversation with people in the party, you naturally share information and discuss issues with people depending on their interest. Usually, you establish a degree of affinity with the person or stranger that you talk to. In the real world, you know that you cannot be best friends with everyone, so you will have the tendency to put your relationships within your social circles of preference. However, in the online world, the story is slightly different. You are connected to friends of different affinity all at one go. With privacy controls these days, you are able to decide what information you like to share with others and what you won’t share. The sharing of information and discussion of issues goes in the forms of shared links, comments on forum discussions, status messages similar to Facebook and Twitter via the activity feed. The activity feed in most online social networks today offers any user a clairvoyant view to what is happening to his or her friends even if they have lost touch for many years. I have not met up with my secondary school classmates, but since we are connected on Facebook, when I see one of them just become a father, my natural instinct is to send a congratulatory note to them.
  5. You leave the party and follow up later with the people you meet in the party: The party ends and you will decide who you want to follow up. You can do that via email or in the older days, by telephone or letters. Of course, in the online world, you log off and if you feel like coming back to the social network, you log on again. The analogy of the networking party goes further than just a group of business associates gathering. For example, during Barack Obama’s inauguration as president, a lot of people gathered in the online, sharing links and information about the event via Facebook. So, in some sense, that can be an interpretation to an event.

So, what has really changed from offline to online?

  • The scale of reaching out to people within your social circle is much larger: In the past, you might have to make many phone calls to friends to tell them some happy news, but now you can do it all at one go by sharing the information online. If the information is news worthy, your news may go viral and reach out to a much larger audience within a short span of time. Just as the ability to share information in a network becomes so fast, the same goes for the misinformation, but here’s my retort to those who is worried about that: On the Internet, you can easily spread lies but you can never stop the truth. That ability to scale gives the local populace the ability to galvanize quickly for any causes, as we can see both China and Iran have to find ways to stop their people within Facebook to coalesce.
  • Interactions on Online Social Networks are beginning to mimic those that are offline to online: You can now engage in an activity with a few friends and strangers in a game of Texas Holdem or join a third party application to play quizzes similar to how the engagement in real life looks like.

You may think that some things have changed from offline to online but some things don’t change. Online social networks are fragmented because our post-modern world prefers a pluralistic viewpoint, particularly in Asia. I like to highlight three observations to you:

(i) Online social networks in East Asia are controlled by local players, e.g. Korea and CyWorld,

(ii) Online social networks in Southeast Asia and India are dominated by western-based players such as Orkut, Hi5 and Facebook, and

(iii) all local based social networks seemed to have problems expanding outwards despite garnering a strong local following.

world-socialnetworks

Most pundits will postulate that language, culture and socio-political conditions are the causes to the first point but failed to explain the second point. Some other mechanism must be at work. While working on a book project with Michael Netzley and Nicholas Khoo on social media and web in Asia, I have found an interesting argument with the data that might be able to tie up all three observations that complements with language, culture and socio-political conditions. The argument is the underlying economics in these countries, i.e. how people in these countries makes economic transactions. I like to share this fresh out of the page insight with you today.

In East Asia, micro-transactions thru mobile or prepaid cards are dominant and the social networks in these countries utilizes these features to entice users to come back to the social networks. As a result of that, the social network will customize more and more of their functions for the local populace, and in the end, the social network becomes integral to the society because of this mass customization. The mass customization will successsfully monetize the social network but make it difficult for the social network to expand outwards. That will explain why some countries in Southeast Asia have no local players because these prevailing micro-transaction mechanisms are not preferred. In fact, India and Malaysia are beginning to warm up to this form of microtransactions. Hence it helps us to explain why online social networks in Asia are fragmented in such a state.

I look forward to come back some day to tell you about the completed framework in our book project and thank you for your kind attention.

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist

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