[Posting this from my Xbox.]
Mark Tighe wrote an article for today’s Sunday Times in Ireland (26th March 2006) about the Bebo.com craze and its banning in colleges around the country, including NUI Galway. I was interviewed for it on Thursday.
Colleges put stop to Bebo.com craze
RECRUITING 6,000 new Irish users a day, the latest internet craze to engulf Irish schools and campuses has become a victim of its own success. IT managers in colleges are blocking access to Bebo.com, the social networking website that claims more than 500,000 Irish users, because of the site’s unprecedented popularity.
NUI Galway, Carlow IT, Waterford IT, Dublin Business School and Queen’s University, Belfast, have all blocked access to the site after receiving complaints from students who were unable to access college computers for course-work due to hundreds of other students jamming PC suites to log on to their Bebo profiles.
“We had a significant number of students come in to our user support centre complaining that they couldn’t access a computer when they went into PC suites,” explained Kieran Loftus, director of computer services at NUI Galway.
“I’ve never seen anything that was as popular as this craze. And that’s what it is — a craze. It’s like Hula Hoops back ages ago, it’s a cultural phenomenon of our time. There were cases where 35 out of 40 students in a suite were logged into Bebo, which obviously is not defensible as an educational activity. We have to police the resources here and had to take action.”
Loftus said he recognised that Bebo was a popular site for students but blocking access was the only solution. “We aren’t China,” he said. “College is about being curious and we accept that. There are issues here but our job is to ensure facilities are available for educational purposes.”
Bebo is aimed at the “hard to reach” 13- to 24-year-old demographic beloved of advertisers. Its success — more than 22m users worldwide have signed up since it was founded in San Francisco last July — is due to the provision of free, fully customisable websites for users. Members can upload pictures and movie clips, draw pictures on friend’s pages (whiteboard) and create personal quizzes for their friends to take.
Bebo is one of a number of sites that aim to bring communities of like-minded individuals together and mirrors the success of MySpace, Friendster, Facebook and other virtual meeting places.
“All these social networks have this attractor of ‘how many friends do I have?’ ” said John Breslin, a postdoctoral researcher at the Digital Enterprise Research Institute at NUI Galway. “When you go to these sites you see a little number beside someone’s picture that says they have 20 friends, (then) you want to have 20 friends as well. It’s almost like a viral thing.”
Jennifer O’Brien, a postgraduate student of the master’s in journalism course at NUI Galway, used Bebo to share her Father Ted clips and to keep in touch with friends. “I’m able to find out about my friends from primary school and secondary school. And I’m able to keep in touch with friends who graduated last year and are all over the country and all over the world now. It’s free and I’ve no money so it’s perfect.”
The popularity of Bebo reached epidemic proportions in colleges when the facility to pool users from Irish schools and colleges was added to the site. Donna Cummins, a second-year medical student in NUI Galway, said she checks her Bebo page when she wakes up. “I’m totally a Bebo-nut. I have a few exams coming up but I’m always on it. I’d definitely say about three hours a day, it’s pathetic. I think I’m getting competitive about how many friends I have. I’ve about 80 or 90. I think I know most of them but there are a few randomers that I’ve picked up along the way.
“The great thing is you can link through people from secondary school and see the profiles of friends of friends.”
Cummins is one of the lucky student Galway Beboers who has internet access at her home but despite this the blocking of Bebo in NUI Galway did not go down well with her. “At the beginning I was enraged. I was saying, ‘How dare Kieran Loftus and computer services . . .’ But the people who did complain had a very valid reason.”
Not all colleges are blocking Bebo. Sally-Ann Fisher, of Trinity College Dublin, said it does not censor or ban websites. “Although there is considerable usage of Bebo, our IS (information systems) services are working with the Students’ Union, asking them to act responsibly.”
Breslin says it is customary for members to publish their addresses and phone numbers on their profile but warned school children to make up a surname. “You might give your first name and some makey-up second name but you certainly shouldn’t give out your phone numbers. People over 18 should be able to do that if they want to but should be aware of who has been granted permission to view their profile.”
Jim Scheinman, vice-president of Bebo, said he is happy to discuss the issue with Irish colleges.