Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Censorship is alive and well in South African Companies

South African companies are beginning to follow their international counterparts in blocking workers' access to popular social networking site Facebook.

They cite concerns over productivity -- but some experts defend the site, saying it holds huge potential as a business tool.

Standard Bank is among those who have moved to include it on its list of the company's blocked leisure sites to prevent people spending non-productive time on non-work related issues, said bank spokesman Erik Larson.

And, according to Absa, the banking group has done the same although it will consider access based on individual requests.

"We don't see any business need for Absa staff to access the site," said a spokesman.

"Under certain circumstances we do grant permission to have access, but look at each case on merit so they are not totally cut off."

Facebook users also report that Wesbank and a number of smaller companies are following this trend.

According to the site's own research, its 31 million active users spend an average of 20 minutes a day interacting with their "friends".

But, most newcomers to the phenomenon, which has at least 170,000 users on the South African network, say they are addicted and spend far more than that interacting with their "friends" locally and globally

Website traffic monitor ranks Facebook as the second most visited website in South Africa, next to Google, and Facebook ranks South Africa in the top 10 user countries.

"I can completely understand why they are restricting access to Facebook and Youtube (a video sharing site, also popular)," said Alan Levin, chairman of the Internet Society of SA.

"They can be incredibly addictive and in 99 percent of cases it is not productive. Corporate companies are grappling with the decision (to block it)."

The impact on infrastructure could be established by determining which business model a company has chosen -- whether they have a constrained pipeline or a system capable of handling higher traffic volumes.

But, said Levin, Facebook forms part of the global knowledge economy, and compnies are beginning to recognise and explore the possibilities beyond the purely social, for their own uses, as well as the potential it holds for research and development.

The site gives users a chance to list their likes, dislikes, interests, religious and political beliefs, schools, colleges, workplace and profession, as well as birthdate and hometown.

A keyword search for "journalism" for example, will bring up a list of all Facebook members who have included journalism in their profile details.

The user can then opt to ask someone to become their "friend".

This can be accepted or denied by the targeted friend and if accepted, they are listed on a group of friends with an accompanying picture -- and can communicate with each other on their common interest.

It began as a social network within the US's Harvard university, accessed through a student number, and has been rolled out gradually internationally.

Users can reconnect with long-lost friends already on the network by joining existing groups -- like an old school group -- or create groups where they interact with people with the same interests by writing on a "wall" or through private messaging.

People selected as friends can also see each other's personal details and wall posts, although privacy settings can fine tune that.

Users can also use or create a group and invite others to join. These range from ex-university pals and support groups, to quirkier groups like the local "Harry Pather and the Order from Phoenix" or "I don't care how comfortable Crocs are, you look like a dumbass".

"There is such a big market -- Facebook's target market is 18 and 35 --and this market is highly desirable. These issues have to be weighed up," said Levin.

Eric Edelstein, who runs an affiliate networking company said: "It can hamper productivity, but, it is also a fantastic marketing tool."

He related a story of how he had tried unsuccessfully to make contact with a potential business partner in the US. As a last resort, he searched for the person's name on Facebook and sent them an instant message.

"Within five minutes he replied," said Edelstein. "It allows you to find the right person in a company very quickly. A lot of people are now using Facebook as a means of contacting people for the workplace."

He added that when he is about to meet a new business partner, he looks them up on Facebook and reads their profile to prepare for the meeting.

He also enthused about the possibilities the Facebook data base holds for companies, and the way the site allows outside users to add their own applications.

One of these has just been launched by local company Fontera which, through an application called Nudgemii, allows Facebook users to send free SMS messages to their friends all over the world.

Steven Ambrose, who heads the strategy division of technology researchers World Wide Worx, likens Facebook to the village fountain where people gathered to chat.

"It's taken off like crazy in South Africa," said Steven Ambrose, who heads the strategy division of technology research company World Wide Worx.

"It's in everybody's face."

Although its function is still mainly social, companies are making a lot of contacts and getting a lot of information from it.

"Companies are establishing a presence on Facebook which makes it quite compelling -- it's all part of the new interaction on the web," said Ambrose.

Regarding productivity, he points out that this needs to be compared with other time-consuming work-time activities like smoke breaks.

The biggest impact is bound to be on the company's bandwidth but, if users are just chatting, the impact should be minimal.

However, loading videos and songs could have a huge impact. It would certainly help chew up the limited bandwidth available for home use.

As with all networking sites, privacy is an issue and concerns have already been raised about possible risks to minor's safety.

"Young and vulnerable people shouldn't have totally uncontrolled access to the web," advised Ambrose.

Meanwhile, a quick search reveals that my deputy editor is on Facebook --mmm better quickly check my wall posts...

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