A few years ago the word “blog” was just an ugly neologism and no one in politics had coined the phrase “netroots.” Part of what buzzing technorati call “web 2.0” both of these are tied to the concepts of social networking. Some of the larger social networking sites include MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and dozens of others. This business model creates networks of people to tap into “trust networks” for “viral marketing,” “permission marketing,” “affinity marketing,” and similar dynamics: creating social spaces that can be used to sell products. That may or may not be why people take part, though. Much as Starbucks’ concept of a “third space” that is neither work nor home, social networking sites aim to become a new sort of public commons (or gated community).
What are Social Networking Sites?
By “social networking site” I mean web sites which are designed to attract a large number of people and encourage them to interact with one another in ways that are not clearly controlled by the site host. Usually this is an attempt to create a “sticky” web site (where people stay) which can be used to sell targeted advertising. If you tell them you are female, for example, you are more likely to see ads for cosmetics and wrinkle cream, while if you express an interest in cars you are more likely to see automobile ads. Like various service businesses (such as bars and cafes) the sites encourage you to loiter and invite your friends, since the more people are at the site (and the longer they stay) the more opportunities there are for “ad impressions” or analysis of your interaction patterns. Many sites also sell things directly such as “virtual gifts” or photo-processing services.
Characteristics of Social Networking Sites
What makes any web site a “social networking site” as opposed to a web site with social elements is a matter of some debate but the most popular ones contain various features, such as:
- The ability to create some sort of online persona
- Access to more features by registering or inviting friends
- Personalization of experience such as a custom user “avatar”
- Option to list interests and compare interests with other users
- Option to join various groups or conversations
- Option to create lists of “friends” and (by extension) networks
Today there are many web sites which contain social networking features, such as reviews on “store” websites such as iTunes, Amazon or Netflix (which use the software to suggest other products), so for now I’ll limit my discussion to some of the larger and better-known web sites.
Two of the earliest social networking sites were Friendster and Classmates.com, which encouraged folks to register with school affiliations in hopes of finding better jobs, old friends or pursuing abandoned romantic possibilities. Many of the early social networking sites tried to encourage professional networking, were oriented toward dating such as Match.com or the more explicit AdultFriendFinder.com, and are focused on people finding each other, but presumably meeting in real life.
MeetUp.com and SixDegrees.Com
Other sites which sought to link people together in the physical world have included MeetUp.com (which has been widely used by political and hobby groups) or SixDegrees.Com, which tried to harness the power of social networks to help support charities.
Probably the most famous (or infamous) social networking site, MySpace became an early favorite with teenagers and from there with pedophiles, rock bands and independent performance artists such as small film-makers or stand-up comedians. Having almost no content policies or supervision, the appearance of MySpace pages can be easily changed, but technical failures are common and it has become something of a cliche. Much as AOL was considered a bit declasse in the late 1990’s, so MySpace is today: a low-barrier entry point for folks new to social networking, common but undistinguished.
Built around the concept of a pictorial school directory, FaceBook had higher barriers to entry early on, and required users to demonstrate affiliation with a college by providing a valid college email address before they could join. High school networks on FaceBook, for example, are restricted to high school students, making for calmer, more homogenous spaces more often used for productive social networking around real-world activities. The layout of FaceBook is also more tasteful, with better technical performance and a cleaner (but less customizable) interface.
Tribe.Net was a Bay-Area startup that gained great popularity because of its association with the Burning Man arts festival in Nevada. Since Burning Man has a ticket price of $200 or more, with a strong emphasis on sexually-adventurous, artsy types, Tribe has a lot of artsy types. With better taste and technology than MySpace, Tribe.Net was more popular among more sophisticated users, but was just as lax about copyright violations. With “private tribes” that allow people to share pornography and plan private parties, Tribe is sort of MySpace with fewer young drunks and better haircuts.
Another kind of social networking site which de-emphasizes IRL connections (“in real life”) are virtual worlds. Sort of a cross between The Sims and real-life role-playing games, these tend to be much more elaborate, allowing one to create a full-body avatar which can look like anything from a slimmer cartoon version of you with better skin to a fantastic creature with multiple limbs, fantastic costumes, odd skin colors, horns and so on. World of Warcraft is one such virtual world, with Second Life being another. Players in these virtual worlds can actually create objects and sell them for real-world money on eBay, while Second Life actively encourages people to buy “real estate” in the cyber world and set up shop where people exchange “Linden dollars,” real-world recording artists hold live concerts and various corporations or cities set up a presence to build tourism and brand awareness.
LiveJournal and Blog Sites
Originally founded in Portland, LiveJournal is a blog site but with a strong community focus. Indeed, LiveJournal had such a community focus that it was purchased by the blogging company SixApart (owners of Movable Type blog software and TypePad hosted blogging service). LiveJournal is arguably a blog site first and foremost, but its culture strongly resembles a social networking service. In addition to “community” blogs there is a lot of cross-commenting between and amongst LiveJournal users. Other blog sites (particularly political sites such as DailyKos.com or the Free Republic “message boards”) and services encourage various degrees of social networking as well, but none as much as LiveJournal.
Other Social Networking Sites
There are networking sites dedicated to churches, the sharing and posting of photographs, comparison of personal libraries or reading lists, aspirations, favorite web pages, music, video and other hobbies. Commercial attempts to enter this market have included Microsoft’s Live Spaces and Yahoo 360. Some sites such as Twitter take this idea of ubiquitous networking even further, encouraging users to post “micro-blog” entries and messages to the web site from their cell phones. Pretty much whatever your tastes or interests, there is probably a social networking site (or two) to suit your tastes.
With the seasons turning and so much to do IRL (“in real life”) a lot of people ask me why anyone would want to spend so much time on a social networking site, and there are lots of good reasons. One is to develop and maintain relationships with people one has met but which are far away. A new parent with a small child can post small updates, soldiers far from home can keep track of and “poke” their friends. People in transition such as students or divorcees can explore new social venues and anyone can use such services to maintain friendly contact and invite people to say hello. Such networks can be useful in looking for new jobs, planning to travel or finding a good mechanic, with folks dropping in and participating as they wish or are able.
Certainly social network sites can be abused, encouraging isolation and withdrawal for folks lost in depression, but they can also be a great source of psychological contact and comfort, a nice way to keep abreast of cultural events and a way to explore or exchange recipes. Much like our daily world, social networking sites can be pretty much what you want to make them.
For hints and ideas about how to get started and use social networking for yourself or your business, please consider phoning MacRory.com at (360) 695-6929