What is Social Networking?
The general or broad definition of social networking can be given as the act of bringing certain individuals together to form particular groups in the form of small local units. Social networking can take place in public places such as offices, schools and universities, social events, parks, on public transport and so on; but has now become ever more popular in cyberspace, with its connectivity rate growing geometrically on a daily basis. This can be attributed to the fact that the cyberspace parades a huge number of people who are willing and keen to carry out social networking activities (socialising, sharing information, et al) in contrast to places of learning, local communities, public places or workplaces.
For the purpose of this assignment, we will be limiting our discussion to the electronic/online aspect of social networking. In this context, social networking involves the use of websites, which are referred to as social networking sites (SNS). These sites operate just like traditional physical social networking and as such involve the building of 'online communities'.
SNS such as Facebook have caused something of a paradigm shift in the way human beings communicate, and have become arguably a way of life (Or culture as the case may be) for some people. One of the main benefits of electronic communications are its application in situations where physical face-to-face communication is simply not possible (Or in some cases desirable), another is it's ability to bring people together from geographically far-flung regions - eliminating physical distance as an obstacle towards human interaction. The global reach of social networking has given rise to a highly enriching and culturally diverse platform for interaction (1).
The traditional type of SNS are those that are not bound by a particular ideology or interest. This means membership is open to all. Once signed up, members can then form groups or communities within the site (1). It should be noted that group forming is not mandatory, people can be on these sites simply to make new friends or to ‘reconnect’ with old colleagues, acquaintances etc. On the other hand, there are also specialised SNS which are based on a particular philosophy, ideology, or interest (1). There are several examples of such SNS, some of which include Xt3 (Catholic youths), Soundpedia (Music), LibraryThing (Books), Ryze (business), CafeMom (Mothers), eHarmony (Dating) and AdultFriendFinder (Adult porn) (2).
Electronic communication: An alternative to face-to-face interaction? Are people more or less connected in the 21st century?
thumb|right|300px|Seth Godin touches on the Race of Numbers issue)Social networking is providing the possibility for people to become more connected in the 21st century. This can be seen by the multiple and diverse areas of social life that SNS cater to, from straightforward socialising to dating, and political participation. Due to the technologies in place in these modern times as regards communication and social networking, people have more ways than ever to connect with other people. Their online counterparts are just a mouse-click or button-touch away, and that is it. This is done at the slightest given opportunity as long as the tools (internet access and handheld devices) are available and the desire exists. This certainly makes it possible for people to get connected frequently without any hindrance (as opposed to physical social networking where people may be hindered due to distance, sickness, et al), thereby strengthening their connectivity. The connections that social networking enable can provide the basis for the emergence of online communities whose members are bound together on the basis of ideas, philosophies, race, social status, age group, profession, sports, and so on. Although this bond amongst online community members is somewhat abstract,it is common knowledge that people who share common interests are emotionally attached, passionate and loyal to the cause that they believe in irrespective of the fact that they cannot physically see each other. In terms of facilitating connections between such people the contributions of the internet are quite enormous.
However, the question of whether social networking provides a depth of communication that can replace face-to-face interaction needs to be explored further. Some may argue that Social networking today has become a race of numbers - the quantity of relationships seems to be valued over the quality of relationships. In other words, users of SNS tend to measure popularity, and attribute their identity to the number of ‘contacts’ they have in their ‘friends list’ which takes precedence over actual relationships (2) (3)
In a discussion article about the impact of social networking, titled, ‘Is SM making us LESS Social?’, an interesting question was raised about whether social networking is actually replacing face-to-face interaction. There were two contrasting views to this question. One view was that Social networking is indeed taking the place of the more intimate ‘person to person’ interaction. We are so consumed with technology and as a result are becoming less and less familiar with real ‘human’ interaction. The second view was that ‘real life’ communication is not being replaced and instead social networking is just a means to facilitate interaction between individuals that otherwise simply would not have taken place. It also acts as a means of making face-face interaction a better experience by allowing two individuals to get know each other before they meet in person and therefore making conversation between them easier (3) . Cranston and Davies, take this point further, “For many users, SNS communication is woven into their day-to-day lives, with conversations continuing seamlessly between face to face meetings, on mobile phones and SNS.” (4)
From a personal view, social networking has definitely offered different ways to connect. But this connection has a tendency of being impersonal. For example, through a user profile we can obtain all sorts of information about that particular individual, (through regular status updates, photos etc) without the need to interact and exchange a single word. In a way we are becoming ‘silent’ observers of each other. Social Networking, to an extent, is giving rise to a ‘I-know-what-you-did-last-night’ sort of generation.
Social networking gives us the ability to ‘talk’ to the world without actually having to ‘face’ the world, which in a way makes us more expressive of feelings and thoughts that we would not have otherwise revealed. In a sense, and rather paradoxically, we are feeding our unending desire for more space and privacy while, at the same time, letting others know things about us that we would probably never reveal in ‘face to face’ interaction.
This then gives rise to an interesting question - is the Social Networking phenomenon bringing about changes in social behaviour amongst people, in particular, amongst the youth? Some would say yes. There is a rising feeling that today’s youth have become so caught up in virtual communication that they find it difficult to interact and form relationships in the physical environment (5). In a recent interview the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church of England, Vincent Nichols expressed his concerns about how SNS such as Facebook and MySpace do not provide an adequate platform for “rounded communication”. He was of the opinion that excessive use of electronic communication “dehumanizes” us and hampers the development of interpersonal communication which is an essential part of community building and living together (6).
The Ethical and Economic Issues of Social Networking
SNS have often been condemned as hotspots for anti-social acts such as cyber-bullying and online predation. This has mainly been attributed to the ease at which detailed profiles of users are available on these sites. People with ill-intent can find potentially vulnerable targets (generally children) by singling out these profiles and then luring them via email and chat (7). After many complaints, including a lawsuit against the highly popular MySpace site, attempts have been made to overcome this problem, such as tracking down and removing registered sex offenders and imposing minimum or even maximum age limits on several such sites, however such efforts have largely been in vain owing to the weak implementation potential of such measures (7).
Part of the problem caused by online social networking is because of the anonymity it can provide. People can sign up as someone else, or merely a ficticious identitiy (Or identies). As many SNS do not charge to create an account, the user ultimately does not have to worry if their account gets banned, they can simply make another one.
Added to the online "Disinhibition Effect" (Decscribed quite succinctly bu John Suler, Ph.D. on his website here), this can encourage some quite anti-social behaviour, even if it is against the Terms and Conditions you agreed to upon joining the site. How many people even read those anyway?
On a positive note it is believed that social networking has led to building of communities which are not prejudiced by factors of race, color, ethnic background but are rather bound together by a common idea/interest (8). This innate quality of social networking to bring together people from all over the world adds thrust to the idea that we are heading towards a fairer, more equal society as a result of social networking.
thumb|300px|left|This video warns companies to maintain a high ethical standard when making use of social networking A lot of businesses both large and small are rushing to cash in on the large online community who make use of SNSs to promote and advertise their goods and services, often for free - which in turn translates to monetary gains and increased popularity for such businesses. This can be a double edged sword, however - with social networking, it's "mob rule", and if you do something to anger the mob, it can be very hard to put right. Things done and said can often not be undone - posts can be deleted etc, but in the end someone somewhere probably saw it and screenshotted it, or it got into a search engine cache.
Monetization of social networking has not all been plain sailing, even for the poster boy of social networking - Facebook. According to a website called www.mashable.com, ‘Facebook is worth billions of dollars’(14), and it recently turned down an investment term sheet that placed their value at $8 billion - a few days later, that jumped to $10 billion . however it has yet to turn a profit(17). That hasn't seem to have caused them much concern however, as they recently turned down a turned down an investment term sheet that placed their value at $8 billion(18). Whether Facebook in particular and SNS in general make any money for their owners is subject to question, but between them they employ large amounts of people, and use untold amounts of rack space, so surely the economy is benefitting one way or another.
According to a senior university lecturer – Wainer Lusoli of the University of Chester, UK when asked in an interview about the economic role that SNSs play, he said that, ‘one in five employers in UK forbids access to these tools. One the other hand, there are big corporations that encourage their employees to use them. For instance, IBM has inbuilt SNS for their employees. Research demonstrates that employees do use them and they can increase productivity, depending on the type of job you have’ (15). And to further buttress the first statement he made, it has been reported severally in the media both electronic and print, of employees who have been summarily dismissed or queried for spending their working hours on SNSs. Owing to the fact that a considerable number of productive hours are being wasted, and as a result, the establishments lose money - another concern for employers is what employees may be saying about them in a public place.
The ever increasing use of SNS and other internet-based communication technologies are leading to a fundamental shift of power in the communications industry. Traditional telecommunication companies no longer enjoy the luxury of monopoly status and are having to drastically alter their business models to keep up with this cheaper and more effective form of communication (9).
SNS have a distinct advantage over traditional telecommunication services: With numerous communication tools at their disposal, social networks are becoming integrated communication hubs. The integration of MySpace and Skype, for example, illustrates how social networks and communication applications can converge to benefit users. With more than 118 million active MySpace users and over 370 million Skype registered users around the world, this partnership connects two of the most popular communication platforms on the Internet to create the world's largest online voice network (10). The above study highlights the ever growing need for traditional telecommunications services to adapt to the rapidly changing scenario. Failure to do so will prove to be a fatal blow to their already declining market share and retarded growth performance (10).
In summary, going by what we discussed above, it can be deduced that people are more connected in the 21st century than ever before. Having said this, we must not ignore the fact that there is a deeper form of connection which can only take place through face to face interaction. As someone put it rather aptly, in response to a question about whether electronic communication has made us more or less connected, “…so many nuances are lost when you don't speak in person, and those nuances and the ability to respond to them is at the core of close, caring relationships.” (11).
However, the fact remains, Social networking is here to stay and its presence is growing at a phenomenal pace. There was a staggering report in one of London’s free newspapers titled ‘Facebook addicts spend three days a year updating their statuses'. The report went on to mention, that in September 2009; a total of 11.1 billion minutes was spent on across 75 social media sites, by Brits (16).
We must not stray from reality though - Social Networking is intended as a tool to merely facilitate interaction and should remain that way as long as we are 'social' human beings in the true sense of the phrase.