Social Networking

Social Networking in Plain English (1:48)- Another fun Common Craft video explaining social networking sites and why they’re so popular.

Any article or conversation about Web 2.0 will inevitably stress the newly acknowledged primacy of the experience of the Web for the user. The vehicle for converting the user’s experience from that of a solitary, passive viewer (as in what might be called Web 1.0) to one of rich, dynamic content and broad, interactive participation is social networking. Web 2.0 has extended this concept to allow Web users to create their own social networks, sharing experiences and events, communication, news, photographs, music, video, and other content with not only their real-world family and friends but also the virtual world of ‘friends’ on-line with whom they share interests.

Defining Online Social Networks
As with a lot of 2.0 tools, pinning down a definition of a “social network” is difficult — it’s one of those “you’ll know it when you see it” tools! But how do you know what to look for? Here are a few characteristics of social networks:

  • profile pages: when you sign up for an account on a social networking site, your “profile page” becomes your home base. Most social networks allow you to add as much or as little information about yourself as you’d like. Common fields include your name, contact information, interests, and a photograph of yourself. Some social networks allow you to customize your profile page by changing the design, color, or look of the page (MySpace is an example), whereas other social networking sites use the same look & feel for all profile pages (Facebook is an example).
  • “friending”: this is probably the most important characteristic of a social network because finding friends (existing or new) on a social networking site is pretty much the point of being there in the first place! So, most social networks allow you to add another person/profile as a “friend” or a “contact” and your collection of friends becomes your own personal social network (not dissimilar to the way social networks form offline too!). The “friending” aspect of an online social network often accounts for why some social networking sites are popular with specific groups. For example, Facebook began as a social network for college and university students; it has since opened up to allow anyone to join the network, but it still remains most popular with students. Why? Because people go where their friends are!
  • groups: with real life social networks, groups tend to form around common interests, therefore most online social networks allow users to start a group or join a group based on their interests or common goals. Depending on the social networking site, you will probably find a group that represents your interests, regardless of what that interest might be!

While many 2.0 tools use some of these elements (e.g. “contacts” on Flickr, “friends” on Digg, profile pages on YouTube), most sites that are considered to be online “social networks” have all these elements in common.

Another way of looking at it then is that “social networks” exist primarily to help people keep in touch personally or professionally. These sites, such as Facebook and MySpace provide users the freedom to add pictures, slideshows, audio and video excerpts, and even custom designs. The other sites concentrate on users’ specific common interests such as video (YouTube), photography (Flickr), music (last.fm), or books (Library Thing). The features offered by these ‘specific’ sites tend to be much more geared toward the nature of their content, and are often not as malleable as their “social network’ cousins.

Popular Online Social Networks

  • Facebook – Originally restricted to university and college students, Facebook membership is now open to everyone. The second most visited website after Google, Facebook currently hosts over 300 million active users and its fastest growing demographic is those 35 years and older. Facebook bills itself as ‘a social utility that connects people with friends and others who work, study and live around them. People use Facebook to keep up with friends, upload an unlimited number of photos, share links and videos, and learn more about the people they meet.’ Facebook in fact outstrips even photo-sharing site Flickr in users of its photo section. Libraries have created pages for their libraries which announce events, new books, etc…
  • MySpace – MySpace is the hot spot for teens and young adults, and a powerful tool for music and media artists to promote their concerts and music. For a long time it was the most popular of the social networking sites, but has been surpassed by Facebook. MySpace is still the premier social networking site for entertainment and music as many amateur, unsigned, and even well-known bands maintain pages that serve as de facto fan sites, affording communication between bands and their supporters, and featuring tunes which users can listen to (and sometimes download). Because of it’s popularity among teenagers and young adults, many libraries have used Myspace to connect with their younger patrons.

Other social networking sites
There are other social networking sites including Google’s Orkut, Hi5, Bebo, and Friendster, probably the first social networking site you heard of back a few years ago.

Libraries & Online Social Networks
A number of Vermont libraries have started to explore the potential of online social networks to reach their users. Here are a few examples:

(Facebook)

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