Monday, September 22, 2008

A Veiled Facebook

As reporters for media organizations become more likely to be members on Facebook themselves, the coverage of the popular social network sites has begun to change.

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times, "Facebook reflects struggle over Islam's role" demonstrates that the print media has begun to see such online social media venues as more that virtual reality playgrounds for teens and tweens, although one of the interview subjects characterized the demographic of his readership as "Sixty-seven percent . . . between 18 and 24."

Given that the current administration has expended so much time and so many resources to the proposition that the Internet and jihadist radicalism are related, a look at some of the most trafficked sites shows the role of pro-Western bloggers in shaping the discussion. It is also interesting to see coverage of the Facebook wars between the secularists and the fundamentalists manifesting the kinds of cultural dynamics that Geert Lovink has described in Zero Comments, in which distributed social media channels polarize political opinions and promote extremist views on either side. And yet, what the LA Times describes taking place in practice in the article, is often collective deliberation rather than bisected debate and civil exchanges between those with very different religious or political views rather than flame wars.

In contrast, another recent story analyzing the role of Facebook in the broader culture reinforces the idea that social network sites are something to be outgrown rather than sites of public rhetoric that could be exploited for professional or activist purposes. In "College Applicants, Beware: Your Facebook Page Is Showing," the Wall Street Journal reports that a surprisingly large number of college admissions officials are looking for virtual dirt online in sites that are often considered to be private walled gardens, at least to their occupants.

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