Friday, August 31, 2007

It's not just about Candy Bars!

At the beginning of this week, there was are really interesting report and discussion on confused of calcutta over the role that Facebook played in Cadbury deciding to reintroduce the Wispa candy bar, which it had withdrawn from production four years ago. The report originally appeared in the International Herald Tribune; and JP Rangaswami's blog post includes a link to this story. True to form, my own position in the ensuing discussion was to dampen the enthusiasm to a point where we could sort out signal from noise with cooler heads. However, another contributor named Nic pointed to a similar story that was emerging over operations at HSBC. His link pointed to a Guardian article about a policy that HSBC had introduced to provide interest-free overdrafts to university graduates to cover them over the period between graduation and starting the first job. It turned out that HSBC had decided to restore charging interest, and the university graduates responded with a massive protest through Facebook.

Today BBC News Education reporter Sean Coughlan has released a story that HSBC has reversed their decision:

HSBC is to abandon plans to scrap interest-free overdrafts for students leaving university this summer.

Thousands of students on Facebook had threatened to boycott the bank. The National Union of Students said this made all the difference to the protest.

The HSBC bank said it was not too big to listen to its customers.

Once again the pursuit of separating signal from noise is not an easy one, since Coughlan does not provide any data more precise than that "Thousands of students" phrase. Nevertheless, if one bothers to read the story in its entirety, one discovers that there is no mention of Facebook in any statement issues by HSBC. Rather, the only acknowledgement of the "Facebook effect" came from within the National Union of Students:

NUS vice president Wes Streeting said: "There can be no doubt that using Facebook made the world of difference to our campaign.

"By setting up a group on a site that is incredibly popular with students, it enabled us to contact our members during the summer vacation far more easily than would otherwise have been possible.

"It also meant that we could involve our former members - the graduates who were going to be most affected by this policy."

There are definitely data points in this text, but they should not be confused with Streeting's interpretation of them. Further investigation will be necessary to determine how much of a role Facebook actually played and what the nature of that role was. Nevertheless, this may be an excellent opportunity for social science to move from its usual theoretical perch into a more experimental discipline!

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