This past week my graduate program development course considered social network design for use in prevention and intervention programs. We viewed Howard Rheingold's Social Network Classroom ideas and read BJ Fogg's Mass Interpersonal Persuasion and examined the efforts by the Open University to build a social learning platform.
At the beginning of the discussion I think we were all skeptical of the idea that social networking would work in changing behavior. We gave examples of the various silly activities that were possible in Facebook-- playing games, putting objects and slogans on Facebook walls and so forth and noted that although Facebook could be playful, fun and entertaining with friends and acquaintances it was just not a place that one expected to do anything very serious like thinking about changing behavior or learning something new. Despite Fogg's description of a model for how persuasive strategies could be widely disseminated in a social network environment, we were not convinced that the evidence was there to explain how someone would change a difficult interpersonal (e.g., try an alternative to spanking) or personal behavior (e.g., get more exercise). Also, knowing the demographic profile of social networking (young, better educated, etc.) we were doubtful that many of the people most in need of information and ideas of change, were not likely to have the time or access to this technology.
But then we began to think more cleverly about how we got information through social ties to other people and the fact the challenge of getting people's attention to address real issues in their lives. Most of us acknowledged that we were more likely to try something or pay attention if a trusted friend recommended it than if a stranger suggested it. This reminded us that just getting us to pay attention to an issue in our lives was a challenge that social networks might overcome. We also reflected on a central challenge which was engaging people to think about issues within relationships and families and began to explore ideas for using music and photos as fun ways to begin to explore relationship ideas and information. We mentioned that quizzes about a television show or some life experience (How well do you know your partner?) could often be interesting and prompt us to compare ourselves with others or begin an exploration of an idea. Generally, we began to warm up to the idea that it might be possible to create social communities on the web that captured our attention and fun and interesting ways and drew us into deeper conversations and activities that could change behavior. We haven't seen examples of these types of efforts, but we left thinking that this was possible.