Facebook’s Mexican Wave effect shows power of social web


6 Aug 2009

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As companies complain about employees wasting time on social networking sites and with some asking if it is a good idea to follow the US Marine Corp’s lead and completely ban access, UCD-based tech entrepreneur Maurice Coyle demonstrates the power of the social web.

Maurice Coyle, co-founder of UCD-based interent search start-up HeyStaks is in the business of working with the social web but he only hit upon one of the many alternative applications of social networking sites after finding a lost camera at the recent Oxegen music festival.

"Since ironically enough I couldn’t find the lost and found area and at the time I didn’t see a Garda, I decided to use the internet to reunite the camera with its owner, specifically via Facebook.

"I put the photos onto a group that I created and told all of my Facebook friends about it and asked them to pass it on.

"They did, and over 600 members later, I handed the camera back to its owner a few days ago," he explained.

If the Mexican Wave effect of connected individuals on social networking sites can act as powerful search tools then do they warrant the criticism they receive?

"Certainly the ‘time-wasting’ allegation is valid to some extent, though it applies to the web in general rather than just social networks. At least a company can restrict access to a particular site such as
Facebook, whereas filtering out time-wasting content from the whole Web is a more onerous task!"

"In general I’m never sure if people who criticise social networks as a bad use of technology have engaged with one and/or if they fully understand them," says Coyle.

One thing that he feels is vital to ‘get’ these social technologies is that you have to use them to see what they have to offer.

"I think the fact that each user chooses their level of engagement with a technology is important so that some people share all their photos with everyone on Bebo, some only make ‘friends’ with their family on Facebook, some users tweet what they had for breakfast and some users search with HeyStaks every day.

"You can choose who you interact with and how much you do it and I think that’s important so that users can find their own comfort zone within the social network."

Unlike leaving an item in lost & found, reporting it to the Gardai or placing an ad in the local paper, Coyle was much more certain that a Facebook group would find the owner, showing how powerful huge social portals like Facebook are. People are more likely to connect the dots online.

"Working on HeyStaks and my PhD, I’ve been reading about social technologies and their associated network effects for many years now.

"Coupled with all the research that’s been done regarding the ‘6 degrees of separation’ phenomenon such as the small world experiment, social networks like Facebook have immense power for connecting people and spreading information and ideas," explains Coyle.

"I think a campaign like this where participating requires very little effort and the motive of reuniting someone with their lost property resonates with people and motivates them to pass it on was very likely to demonstrate this power, so it wasn’t so much that I wondered if I had a chance of finding the camera’s owner, but rather I’d have been extremely surprised if I hadn’t been able to!"

Coyle says that the most interesting aspect of the journey to find the owner was that when they finally got the owner’s name and place of work they still failed to contact him and had to rely on Facebook to give more clues.

This intrinsically human-powered use of web technologies for better decision making and search results is the thinking that powers Coyle’s HeyStaks social search engine.

His research found that up to 70pc of web searches are seeking information that the individual or a friend or a colleague has previously found.

HeyStaks incorporates a social element into web searches as well as helping you to better manage and sort your search experiences.

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