Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Ofcom's social networking report

There have been many developments in social networks recently. It all started with the likes of Friendster and Friends Reunited. Now we have Facebook and many more people hoping to mimic or eclipse the success of Facebook's creator, Mark Zuckerberg. The positives and negatives of this variety of website were looked at in Ofcom's recent report called Social Networking: A quantitative and qualitative research report into attitudes, behaviours and use. This blog post is an analysis of that report.

What were the objectives?
  • to set social networking sites in the wider media literacy, online and communications context
  • to profile the use of sites
  • to understand people’s use of sites
  • to investigate concerns about privacy and safety
Looking at these makes me think that Ofcom didn't make any large assumptions before conducting the research. They will also be looking into one of the most important issues that has been talked about recently - security, which makes the report relevant. One concern I do have is that they are using significance testing. There is an argument against this as it can require a lot of benefit for very little benefit. You could quite easily create this report and ignore statistical signifcance.

Research methodologies
This is an area of the report where I have major concerns. It is absolutely vital to get the methodology right. If you don't, there's a risk of the data being misinterpreted and it being unrepresentative. This social networking report makes use of multiple methodologies.

The work that was done especially for this report has a sample size that is far too small (52). That means that the outcomes are likely to be unrepresentative of the UK's opinion. There is also an unfair weighting given to the users of social networks (39 of of that 52 are users). It would be much better if the ratio was 1:1. People who have used social networks before also had to complete a small task beforehand. We have no idea of what that task was, or if there was a time limit. Another thing is that we don't know if the experience of those who are users is equal. Finally, the observation is done using pairs, groups of three and groups of four. I see no point in having anything other than the pairs.

For complete descriptions of the methodologies in the other sources, look at Annex 1 of the report. Here are some of the problems I have with those sources:
  • In the report Ofcom Media Literacy Adult Audit research, they class adults as 16+, which is completely wrong of courses and means that an inappropriate group of people are used in the results. The sample size is bigger (2905), but it's not necessarily representative. There is also no specifics of the weightings used on the old census data and we don't know the diversity of the sample.
  • In the Ofcom Communications Tracking Survey, adults are incorrectly defined as 15+ and we don't know the specific of the weighting system that they state is used to make the data representative.
  • The Ofcom Young People and Media Tracking Survey is used, but we aren't told about the weighting and data is used from 2001 (the census).
  • Third party research is also used and I don't know about the methdologoies used there. I wonder if they're up to standard!
Engaging with social networks
This section looks at internet usage and rules imposed regarding the use of social networking. It therefore means that the reader will have a better idea about how popular social networking is at what it's limits are.

An early part of this section uses this article as a reference. The article is about Trasport for London stopping it's employees from using Facebook.
"UK users spend an average three hours 11 minutes on the site each month, according to data from web monitoring firm comScore, slightly lower than the global average of three hours 41 minutes."
This might be true, but what if the employees complete their work to the required standard, despite their usage of the site. 11 minutes isn't a lot. Also, how much of that 11 minutes of use was during work hours? You also have to remember that this decision was based on "concerns", rather than 'evidence'.

It's interesting that the people who noted this used F.W. Taylor's Scientific Management model. That's the one that states money is the most important thing and determines whether an employee works hard. Elton Mayo performed the more recent Hawthorne Studies and found it's not necessarily the most important factor. He found that a pleasant work environment that has the occasional break is important to. Maslow discovered (using his hierarchy of needs research) that both structure and socialising are crucial. Surely these two studies prove that employees shouldn't be banned from using social networks and providing that they don't use them 24 hours a day, that break from work could actally improve overall performance.

Other rules are generally imposed on children as some parents feel that too much internet usage can have negative effects. Section 4.6 of the report states that rules include not being allowed to meet someone in person after you have befriended them online and revealing personal details. I can understand the one about befriending people online though because some children may not realise that some of those people could be paedophiles.

Attitudes and usage of social networks
Sections 5 and 6 concentrate on these areas. Section 5 focuses on the types of people who use social networks and the reasone why some sections of the public don't use them. Apparently, the categories that the users tend to fall into include "Alpha socialisers" (those who like making new friends at every opportunity), "Attention seekers", "Followers", "Faithfuls" (those use use the sites to strengthen existing relationships) and "Functionals" (these are the people who use a site for a specific purpose, such as finding out information about a potential employee, or looking at upcoming events for a local band).

The report states that those who don't use social networks are people who think they're a "waste of time", think there are too many security issues or are people who don't have enough IT expertise. This information is both interesting and useful.

The report mentions that these benefits include being "a tool to build confidence", "an easy way to link up with old friends" and being "an efficient way to manage existing relationships". It also points out some negatives though. For instance:
"Some younger respondents who were committed users of these sites reported using them ‘to get back at people they had fallen out with’, by posting rude or abusive message on their sites or even going so far as to set up a fake site in the person’s name and posting obscene messages about them."
I don't think that section 6 tells society anything new at all - it simply confirms what we already know.

Privacy and safety
Section 7.3 of the report lists the following risks:
  • Leaving the privacy settings ‘open’ as default
  • Giving out personal information
  • Posting personal photographs
  • Becoming online friends with people they did not know
  • Meeting people they didn’t know
The report (correctly) states that these problems often arise due to a lack of expertise, lack of reasoned judgement or a feeling of invincibility (particularly relevant with young children and teenagers). It is also true that registration procedures for some websites are totally ineffective. For instance, without an image of a randomised code for the user to enter during the signup process, it easy easy for 'bots' to enter a site. It is also easy to work out what birth dates would mean you are above the minimum age to use a social network.

However, not everything is the fault of the social network. Many make great efforts to provide help systems, technical support and customisable privacy settings. It's up to the users to take notice of these before they consider using a service - it's common sense.

This report gives the reader plenty of interesting information in a well structured document. There are plenty of fairly useful facts and statistics, but I don't think it tells us many new things (e.g. we already know there are privacy concerns). I am also really worried that they haven't taken care with the research methodologies, which risks making a lot of the work useless.

So, what do you think?

Technorati tags: Social Networking, Ofcom, Internet, Privacy