In December 2007, I wrote a piece about how the Maltese were embracing Facebook, using comments from my online friends as the primer for the article. Fast forward two years and those twelve thousand subscribers have grown more than ten-fold, to around 120,000. Malta is right up there with the top 20 countries in terms of proportionate take up of the leading social media network.
In the past 12 months, what's been perhaps more significant than the number of local social media users is the way people have started to use the new Web 2.0 tools to go beyond just interacting with friends. There has been an exponential growth in the number of local Facebook groups and pages promoting events, businesses and a raft of social issues and causes. In many instances, it has been a set of new voices rising above the parapet - not just on Facebook, but also on blogs, YouTube and Twitter.
We enter 2010 on the crest of an increasingly mainstream social web. In many countries, the recession has spurred consumers to adopt social technologies to become more market-savvy, improve their overall education and brand themselves better to find new jobs to replace the ones they have lost. Many corporate brands waded into social media marketing as core budgets got slashed, seeking innovation and better return on their investments in new media campaigns.
Results have been mixed, as businesses continue to struggle with two-way, interactive communication media that challenge the traditional one-way broadcasting model. The larger social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn have started to share data, raising concerns about online privacy and data ownership - but also helping consumers social experience spread from site to site, enabling them to access their friends’ opinions, and recommendations in real time. We are living in a new era of disintermediation and user-generated content, where citizen journalists are more trusted and influential than traditional broadcasters. In many US cities, newspapers have folded and people increasingly rely on the 'read-write web' for the most basic of information. Real-time data is now searchable by the major search engines. People produce content, connect and share with each other at an increased pace, increasingly relying on mobile devices and getting closer to the smart mobs envisaged by Howard Rheingold.
What does this mean to the way we live our lives on these islands? Particularly to the way we interact with individuals and institutions? How deep are the changes that social media appears to be triggering? Are the local rumblings online about censorship laws, politics, religion, murtali, customer service and bad restaurants the tip of the iceberg, the shape of things to come? Or will the Maltese simply end up using social media in the way Neil Postman postulated about TV all those years ago, to 'amuse ourselves to death'on Farmville or some other online application? To what extent can social media enable an alternative model of living, working and networking for people in Malta, and contribute towards a change in power structures on the islands?
These questions are at the heart of my research. We unconsciously think of Malta as a 'special case'. We're islanders, a law unto our own, deeply stubborn, conservative, seemingly entrenched in bi-polar, traditional, enduring power systems. You can attribute this to our size. Or to our success story - we're survivors with an enviable 'quality of life' that continues to attract new tribes. We now have access to new tools that can enable the opinions of those we trust to potentially matter more than those of our traditional intermediaries - print media, TV, radio, the Church, people in traditional positions of power with corresponding real life networks and social capital.
Will the social web lead to an eventual flow of power from a small band of people in Malta to a much larger number of individuals who are web literate? Or will we just subsume what is now alternative into the mainstream or the mundane?
It's going to be an interesting couple of years.