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Social networks and Vincentian society

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19.MAR.10

This weekend, 250 Editors and Publishers who are members of the Inter American Press Association will meet in Aruba for its Mid-Year meeting.

Of course, the perennial topic of press freedom, and the controversies arising from alleged abuses of it in the region, will be on the agenda.{{more}} But interestingly, also high on the list of topics to be discussed is online social networking and the effect this has had on traditional media, particularly newspapers.

The 64-year-old organization, with members from North and South America and the Caribbean, will look at how to put social networking to work for relevant journalism, the effect of the Internet on advertising markets, whether newspapers should charge for their online content and the integration of print and online operations.

Online social networks like Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and Twitter have experienced phenomenal growth over the last few years. In fact, Facebook alone boasts over 400 million active users, with about 70% of these being outside the United States of America.

Persons here in St. Vincent and the Grenadines who are not part of this modern form of social interaction might be surprised at how large and vibrant is the Vincentian component of the online networking civilization (to modify a frequently used expression), particularly Facebook.

Just as is the case in real life, much of the discussion taking place right now among Vincentians online has to do with the upcoming General Elections and related issues. The online social networks are very much like the popular radio call-in programmes, with contributors revelling in the fact that their posts do not have to pass through the filter of any Editor who would bring his or her judgement or bias to bear on the suitability or lack thereof of the contribution for publication.

The discussions on Facebook were particularly vibrant during the lead-up to the November 25, 2009, referendum on the Constitution, together with all the information and mis-information that characterized the discussions in the real world on the radio stations and at street corners. As it is on radio, where there are only a dozen or so regular callers to the different shows, on Facebook, most of the discussion is led by a small number of very vocal, passionate souls, with hundreds of other Vincentians just lurking on the periphery, some chiming in occasionally with the odd remark.

While the Internet and online social networks were used extremely effectively in the Obama Presidential campaign, it is difficult to gauge the reach and effectiveness of online social networking in influencing opinion and action on the Vincentian political scene. What is well known, however, is that among some social groups here, there is no more effective way to announce personal milestones or developments or to seek information or advice. Within minutes of publication, the new development in a person’s life is known by hundreds around the world. Just this week, one Vincentian poster on Facebook, when informed by someone that rain had fallen in St. Vincent, said he couldn’t help but realize that fact, as almost every Facebook member living in St. Vincent had already notified him via their posts.

So if personal news spreads so rapidly among Vincentians on Facebook, it is reasonable to assume that political developments and opinions do too. Both major political parties, the Unity Labour Party and the New Democratic Party, as well as the People’s Movement for Change, each already has a presence on Facebook and have both been using it to different extents to push their particular agenda. The impact will be greatest on new voters, those who have not yet formed any strong loyalties to any one party or the other, and who, Facebook official statistics state, spend an average of 55 minutes a day on the social network.

Just as the traditional media are looking at ways to take even more advantage of online social networks, the political parties should as well. The International Telecommunications Union put the number of Internet users in St. Vincent and the Grenadines at 66,000 in June 2009. This means we have an Internet penetration of 63.1%, which is a huge jump from just seven or eight years ago when it was just 12%. We can no longer afford to ignore the “virtual” component of our Vincentian civilization. It would be more than interesting to analyse the impact on our next general elections when the results are known and the examinations made.

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