A Post by Michael B. Spring

(A list of all posts by M.B. Spring)

Facebook and Ethiopia (August 15, 2012)

I spent a couple months in Ethiopia this summer working with the Department of Information Science at Jimma University. It was a wonderful visit to a growing country with a wonderful culture, optimistic people, and dedicated citizenry. The graduate students were phenomenal and the faculty were hard working and dedicated. The country and its people are struggling to move forward economically and socially. The University is bursting at the seams as it works hard to produce the next generation of intellectual leaders.

My task, in part, was to provide some instruction and guidance in the areas of advanced web technology, information architecture, and archive and library automation for the next generation. No simple task. Even in countries like the US we are struggling to understand how digital information will impact venerable institutions like libraries, archives, museums, schools, and universities. It is perhaps more difficult to understand how that transformation will proceed in places where the full blown technology come not gradually, but like a tsunami into a more traditional culture. The internet has been slowly emerging in the US for more than four decades. The killer applications of the internet -- I select email and the web -- have been with us for 40 and 15 years respectively. Yes email is close to the same age as the internet. In contrast, Facebook is less than a decade old, and its modern form might be described as less than 5 years old -- the 1 million Facebook users in January of 2005 grew to 6 million a year later and 13 or so million at the beginning of 2007. Through 2007 and 2008 it was doubling as quickly as once a month. By the end of 2008 there were 150 million users. Now, we are closing in on a billion users. For the vast majority of Facebook users, it is a phenomenon less than 5 years old. Facebook has become the killer app of the web, which has become the killer app of the internet. That said, we need to keep in mind that the story is still unfolding.

So what is the connection between Ethiopia and Facebook? The answer lies in the assertion that Facebook is the killer app for the great unwashed. OK, I put it that way to get your attention, now let me make an assertion that is little more appropriately worded. Some of you will recollect that many people felt that the killer app for the PC was lotus 123 -- the spreadsheet. Word processing played a role, but when managers got there hands on a spreadsheet that allowed what-if calculations on small data sets and translated those calculations into graphics, we found a definite role for the microcomputer in the workplace -- and started a nightmare of decentralized collection of data. Few people would suggest that those early spreadsheet users understood little about the computer. Quite to the contrary, they were tormented by DOS commands and the 123 application programming languages. While 123 was a break through language, it still required some significant learning. Even today, the differential knowledge is clear. Think about the Microsoft Office Suite. It has several parts, but Word, Outlook, PowerPoint, Excel, Access are the major common components. The first three are used by significant parts of the populations. The last two by a small minority. I could dwell further here about how "competently people use the first three, but that's another piece. The fact is that those early PC users were power users who learned a lot about the computer to make use of those programs. Today, many people have been seduced into using computers with little if any knowledge of how they work beyond the steps needed to get to Facebook and write their posts, read their wall, or play their games. Again, put simply, Facebook has a following that is using the technology for a singular purpose and is generally uninterested in the other aspects of what the broader technology brings to bear.

This is what became so painfully clear in Ethiopia. In one assignment, I asked these graduate students to comment on my forthcoming book on the digital information revolution. Almost all of them made some mention of Facebook. The one that haunts me the most is that Facebook had to be blocked at many universities. The Universities had the best connections to the internet, but those collective connections (for a University of 30,000) had less bandwidth than I have to my home. Facebook wasn't blocked because it was bad. It was blocked because Facebook users were using all the available bandwidth. People could not get to email, or Google, or Wikipedia, or information about programming because every bit of bandwidth was absorbed by people looking at what thier friends were doing on Facebook. We devote a lot of bandwidth to Facebook as well, but it does not impact e-commerce in general, or e-business, or e-scholarship, or e-government, etc. In Ethiopia it has. On the positive side, it has created a ground swell and a demand for a better internet infrastructure. On the negative side, it might be compared to an invasive species that chokes out all other life. In and of itself, it is simply another plant. But, if the nation of Ethiopia requires e-health, e-government, and e-business to reach its national goals, and if these plants are being choked out by e-socializing, it might not be such a good thing.

Some of the other comments made by these intellectual leaders of this emerging nation were equally compelling. One young man talked eloquently about the impact on dating and traditional social processes. We know theoretically that there are positive and negative aspects of online social communities, and I don't have any desire to condemn or promote them. I observe only that they are different and we don't know what their long term impacts will be. Will families disintegrate or become stronger? Will these be ways for kids to become more isolated and bullied or mechanisms by which extended families grow stronger? Will literacy decline, grow stronger, or emerge in new forms? Another student talked explicitly about his fear for family and cultural traditions. Explicitly, he felt that the great respect young people had for their parents and grandparents was beginning to suffer in this new digital world. I can't say what the outcome will be. I am watching and I am both hopeful and frightened. As professionals, as scientist citizens, as parents, we need to be aware that there is something dramatic occurring, both in teh U.S. and in Ethiopia

A Postscript

I spend the majority of my time writing distributed and web applications and doing research related to them. We build enterprise wide e-commerce and e-business systems. We "crawl" social networking sites and try to glean information from them. What kind of things are people doing, what makes sites magnetic, what kind of "wisdom" can we find in the crowds? Is there evidence of "collective intelligence" manifest in the web? I spend very little time using social networking sites -- just enough to make sure I have some sense of what people are using them for and how they are working in practice as well as theory. I spend a lot of my time working with mathematical representations of structured documents, my first love, and social networks, my most recent interest. The theory surrounding these phenomenon can be quite abstract and removed from the end user experience. At the same time, there is increasing evidence that our models are able to uncover patterns and predict outcomes. That is to say, we are learning what makes people come back to a social networking site, what makes them contribute, what makes a video go viral. From game theory to sociometrics to network theory, we are finding ways to describe, predict, and in some cases cause outcomes. I have no doubt that our own understanding and progress is less than what has been achieved behind closed corporate doors where researchers have millions of dollars to do studies provided by the wealthy web entrepreneurs. Don't panic, but don't doubt that we are being carefully watched and increasingly manipulated.