If you haven’t heard of social networking sites, we have only one question: What type of rock have you been living under for the last couple of years? They’ve currently become the biggest of Internet businesses, with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. snapping up MySpace and Google dipping into its seemingly bottomless coffers to purchase YouTube.
Honestly, you can barely turn around without hearing about social networking. In fact, to an entire generation or two, it’s become one of the main forms of personal communication. Having your own individualized online profile is easily eclipsing instant messaging (although you can do that too on some of the sites) in popularity. But to those of a certain age, it seems a mystery. So what exactly is it, and why is it so popular?
A Brief Overview
As of 2006, there were 25 social networking sites that each claim more than four million members, ranging from household names like the once-hip Friendster (remember them?) to Classmates.com (40 million members), Bebo (31 million), and others that are far less familiar, like CyWorld (started for young Koreans) and Gaia Online (the choice of five million for anime and games). In other words, social networking encompasses a lot of topics and genres.
In many ways, it’s been so eagerly embraced by the young crowd because it’s a prime example of Web 2.0 principles at work. The websites provide the template and people themselves provide the content that fills the blanks in-between, as they put themselves on display, contact and interact with each other. The Web is simply the forum in which these exchanges and dialogues take place – although online social interactions can extend to the real world quite easily. For example, in England recently, a MySpace posting about a party drew revellers from more than 200 miles away, with partygoers causing an estimated $40,000 worth of damage to the house.
Social networking is a blanket term, really. It can relate as easily to a site that reconnects you to old schoolmates as it does to video-sharing hubs (and yes, there are many more places where you can do that beyond YouTube), photo sites like Flickr or Photobucket, or a buzz-worthy virtual gathering area like MySpace.
Ultimately, some sites have bigger reputations than others, and with 168+ million members, MySpace is the great granddaddy of them all. You can upload pictures, videos, blog posts, music… and write endlessly about yourself in the sections “About Me,” “Details,” “Interests,” and “Who I’d Like To Meet.”
You achieve connections by makings “friends,” linking to the MySpace sites of others. Essentially, you become part of their social network – and the network of everyone they’re connected to. (And, in turn, they become part of both your network and extended network… a sort of ultimate game of six degrees of separation.) You can also download an instant messaging client (a standalone Windows feature) to communicate with other friends who are on at the same time as you. You can additionally leave comments for friends, as they do for you, and there’s often competition as to who can add more friends. A bulletin board can provide updates to all the friends in your social circle.
Quite cleverly, MySpace is a useful promotional tool for musicians, filmmakers, and all manner of creative types. For instance, bands can upload their music, advertise gigs and publish their blog. For awhile, at least, creating a large number of friends – a fan base – was a good way to start some buzz about a band, and a couple were even signed based on the strength of their MySpace following, including the Artic Monkeys. (Although they insist their page was actually created by fans rather than the band themselves…)
Considering that MySpace only began in 2003, it’s rapidly become part of the global lexicon. (YouTube was founded two years later, making its international success even more remarkable.) But the service has not been without contention – it has blocked some outside video and was cited for poorly-written code. And, according to some, it has a number of security problems; for instance, the MySpace page of 2008 presidential candidate John McCain was hacked.
Teens as young as 14 can set up MySpace pages, although until the age of 16, the pages remain private, and people over 18 can only contact those of ages 14 through 16 if they know the person’s full name and e-mail address.
Bebo, Yahoo! 360°, Xanga
It’s relatively unknown in the U.S., but Bebo has a large number of subscribers, mostly in the U.K. and Ireland. Since its 2005 inception, it’s grown massively. For all intents and purposes, it offers essentially the same facilities as MySpace, but without any instant messaging (IM) option.
Yahoo! 360° brings together several features of Yahoo! in one special effort devoted to social networking. It integrates with the service’s popular Messenger IM client and allows users to share music from the Launchcast feature in Yahoo! or share photos from Yahoo! Photos and Flickr. In many ways it offers more options than MySpace, but is nowhere near as popular.
While Xanga is a social networking site, it differs from the others by being blog-based. It’s one of the oldest of the social networking sites (it began life in a slightly different incarnation in 1998, and came closer to its current format in 2001). There’s a strong emphasis on photo blogging, and members can join together in forums. Unlike many other sites, Xanga has search features for members to find each other by location or interests.
What began as a Harvard University social networking site has expanded rapidly. If you’re not familiar with Facebook, it might be because you’re not a college student, since it’s incredibly popular with that age group (although a lot of high-school students also have profiles), not only in the U.S., but also in Europe. It differs from MySpace because those who register can join different sub-networks, whether based on where they live or level of education, making it far easier to find a true peer group. According to statistics, it’s also the top site for photos, even bigger than Flickr or Photobucket.
Faceparty is mostly used by U.K. residents, and its popularity these days (it’s been around under the current name since 2000) is more for its chat rooms and instant messaging capabilities rather than its profile pages. It does allow users to post “adult” pictures of themselves; however, they can only be viewed by subscribers who’ve paid $80 to join an adult verification service. Add-on tools to the basic service, known as “Cool Tools,” are also available for a fee of around $50 USD a year (only those who pay for Cool Tools can start their own chat rooms, for instance). For all intents and purposes, Faceparty has devolved into a chat site, with the profiles being secondary.
Digg is a little different from most social networking sites. It revolves mostly around news stories submitted by members. Although the emphasis has long been on science and technology, it’s expanded into many other areas, mixing blogging and syndication. Stories reach the front page on the site based on pure popularity, as these articles have to be voted into these top slots by actual readers impressed with their content.
Founded in late 2004, by the middle of 2005, Digg included a buddy list. Although very successful these days, it’s not been immune from criticism. Some users have claimed that user moderation has meant that their comments have been blocked; conversely, others have said that the user control over content has led to a lot of sensationalism and, at times, sheer misinformation. In other words, it’s Web 2.0 in action.
Digg came briefly into the limelight in early May 2007 when it posted the encryption code for digital rights management for HD DVD disc. After taking legal advice, Digg’s management removed the posting. However, after a revolt by many users, the management altered their decision, and promised not to delete any further postings including the code.
For a brief time in 2003 and 2004, Friendster looked set to rule the social networking waves. Indeed, to many it was the first of the social networking sites, but it lost traction when it turned down a $30 USD million bid from Google, after which it was rapidly overtaken by MySpace. Since its eclipse, though, it’s remained strong in some areas, especially the Philippines and parts of Asia, where it’s far more popular than any other social networking service.
Certainly it was one of the trailblazers in the field, and it helped introduce the concept of social networking to a generation of teens and twenty-somethings. To have an online profile fast became the cool thing to do, and it’s remained a popular pastime with Internet users – the only difference now is which service you choose to host yours. But there was once a novelty to the idea Frienster introduced: The opportunity to broadcast your existence on the Web without the hassle of setting up a homepage. And the number of friends you had quickly became a desirable indicator of popularity and a way of making and keeping in contact with friends around the globe, a concept competitors like MySpace have since swiped and utilized to good effect.
Perhaps the strangest (and certainly the most unique) among networking sites is Twitter. It’s an odd mix of instant messaging and texting, all revolving around a single, simple theme: “What Are You Doing?” The messages a member posts are distributed among their registered friends, and also among people known as followers, who ask to receive a particular person’s posts, which are posted on the Twitter homepage and can be sent by IM or from cell phones.
It’s a forum for small, random thoughts, even more than the so-called “micro-blogging” sites. You might wonder what its appeal is (apart from the fact that it’s hip), and that’s a good question. Should you care what a stranger is thinking? But in this age where permanent connectivity has become a desirable trait, Twitter takes it to a degree not seen before. Whether this is a blip or a true evolution of social networking remains to be seen, however.
Is there anyone in the Western world who hasn’t heard of YouTube by now? It’s cited regularly on national news and has become a bona fide part of the public consciousness. What makes that feat so remarkable is that it was only founded in 2005. A year later, Time magazine had already named it “Invention of the Year,” and its acquisition by Google for a staggering $1.65 billion has helped make it a household word.
The concept is quite simple: Members can upload video clips and watch those uploaded by others (actually, you don’t even need to register with the site to watch videos). Clips can be rated, and on-screen statistics show how many times they’ve been viewed. In many ways, even more than MySpace, it captures the essence of social networking with its very democratic spirit and focus.
Its popularity has been confirmed by politicians (like Hillary Clinton) who post their campaign videos there. However, the site hasn’t been without problems, as people have also posted copyrighted material, causing a flurry of lawsuits. Yet, such is the new power of YouTube that NBC, CBS, and a number of music companies have chosen to team with the service to make material available. (YouTube has described its ambition to have every music video ever created available on the site.) YouTube has also taken the unusual step of announcing that it will share some ad revenue with those who upload videos, bringing income to participants.
The fact that it specializes purely in video marks YouTube as something different, and it has spawned imitators. Yet, it’s so far ahead of the pack that it essentially stands alone. It might not be a social network in the sense that others are, where people share personal information and contact each other. But it’s undoubtedly a network that has drawn together a specific – and very large – community, a sure sign of Web 2.0 in action, and something of a model for future generations of social networking sites to come.
Picture Sites, Photobucket, Flickr & More
How do picture sites relate to social networking? After all, places like MySpace and Yahoo! let you upload pictures and video or have albums. Why do you need a site exclusively devoted to pictures?
Think of sites like Photobucket and Flickr as huge, online photo albums. In these days of the digital camera reigning supreme, we all have plenty of pictures we’d like to share with people. It used to be that sending snapshots via e-mail or instant messenger were the only ways to do that, but it was a method fraught with limitations. Now, you can simply send someone to a URL for a specific image, or share entire galleries.
A picture, poets claim, is worth a thousand words – meaning that an online pile of pictures can eliminate the need for entire books, which is a huge advantage since much communication has devolved into txt spk. (Those abbreviations the young use so readily, but which frustrate an older generation…) Therefore, these sites are all about the rapid exchange of information, and pictures can help members do that very well. Hence the meteoric rise in popularity of camera phones, where you can take a picture or video and share it instantly. (As in the case of the recent tragic shooting at Virginia Tech; within hours, mobile phone footage was on news broadcasts around the world…)
These sites offer more privacy than if they were simply YouTube’s shutterbug cousin – sharing is a deliberate act and not granted to all. But they offer members a simple and fun way to manage pictures (there’s been a proliferation in similar sites, and Photobucket has been tipped by some for a big-money takeover), making them an essential tool in any amateur or professional photographer’s arsenal.
The simple fact is that in all its forms, social networking on the Web is here to stay.
It will move on, of course; what we’re viewing are simply the first salvos in an upcoming battle for the world’s hearts and minds. And in five years, it will very likely be an entirely different beast.
But, as Web 2.0 morphs into 3.0 – whatever that may be – it’s inevitable, and almost certainly a good thing. Here’s looking forward to bumping into you soon online…