The mainstream media have been reporting lately that Facebook, the popular social networking application that lets you swap digital “secreta” with your long-lost friends, is being banned by more and more businesses in South Africa.

The banks are some of the first — Standard Bank, Absa and a few others have added the site to their banned list, as has Discovery Health.

Clearly this poses a conundrum for Web 2.0 pundits because Facebook is truly a great example of the power of network effects on a social level. With more that 190 000 users of Facebook on the South Africa network, there is also a mass audience here, and generally and audience that fits into the higher-income brackets.

In media terms, Facebook is the equivalent of a large upmarket magazine and so is ripe for businesses to get involved either by creating groups for their companies or products, or by advertising on the platform.

Recently Facebook launched a set of technologies that allow developers and businesses to create their own applications — small websites that run inside Facebook as if it were part of the host site, and capable of utilising all the social connectivity tools that Facebook offers.

The question, however, is what to do with company employees. Many businesses already ban chat applications such as MSN Messenger, Skype and video sites like YouTube. The reason for this is twofold: on the one hand, access to these sites costs the company money and causes network congestion and, on the other, having staff who are permanently multitasking and switching between work and private applications has negative effects on productivity.

In many cases Facebook has risen to the top of the most-visited sites and bandwidth-usage lists on corporate networks. Until we get proper low-cost broadband, this will remain an issue.

The issue of worker productivity versus overall happiness and the need to create a work environment that does not feel like you’re entering a police state when you enter the doors is a difficult one. There is, of course, a legitimate argument that some employees in every company can find a justifiable business use for Facebook, whether it be the HR department who post job ads or the marketing or public-relations departments working the crowd.

And then there are many employees in a company who don’t have any business use for Facebook and effectively lose their concentration in the same way a cellphone user does when driving a car.

One can argue that employees should be measured in terms of their output rather than the actual number of hours they spend on the job, but this is an idealistic position for several reasons. Very often there is a direct correlation between time spent on a project and the quality of its outcome. One can also ask why, if something can be done in two hours, aren’t four of them being done a day instead of just one?

In many countries where you can be fired for perceived underperformance, employees face a real decision about whether to spend their time being productive or goofing off where they can, and there are real consequences. The crux of the matter, I suspect, is that the labour law in South Africa has made performance appraisals so onerous that many employers don’t do them properly and so employees are no longer incentivised by the value of excellence or competition among themselves.

I don’t know of any company who gives employees free access to make as many personal telephone calls as they like, whenever they want to. So why is this different for the internet?

There are real costs involved in letting employees continue to abuse their access to the internet — wasted wages, bandwidth, loss of potential revenue, costs of disciplinary action and the time it takes for managers to monitor employee outputs more closely.

Until such a time as the success stories start emerging about how accounting clerks suddenly make millions for their companies by using Facebook, I’m on the side of the businesses that want to protect their bottom line.

This is my column in Intelligence Magazine this month but I just had to share it here, republished with its permission


Vincent Maher

Vincent Maher

Vincent Maher was the Mail & Guardian Online's digital strategist. He has worked in the web industry for 12 years, was the head of the New Media Lab at the Rhodes University School of Journalism and...

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