by Gerald Boerner
In this fourth installment in our overview of the development of the Internet we will examine the emergence, in this first decade of the 21st century, of social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, and others. These networks have revolutionized the way people communicate and stay in touch, almost to a fault. Most of these technologies have made the phone call or the email message somewhat old fashioned. The ability to use many of these systems from your cell phones, via SMS service, have further impacted this technology. GLB
“[The youth] can steer you in the right direction.”
— Freddie Laker, director of digital strategy for Sapient
“New marketing is about the relationships, not the medium.”
— Ben Grossman, founder and chief strategist for BiGMarK
“By creating compelling content, you can become a celebrity.”
— Paul Gillin
“Think like a publisher, not a marketer.”
— David Meerman Scott
“Social graph-iti: There’s less to Facebook and other social networks than meets the eye…”
— Paul Saffo, quoted in The Economist, October 18, 2007
“Social media offers new opportunities to activate…brand enthusiasm.”
— Stacy DeBroff, founder and CEO of Mom Central
“Hook into someone’s flow [via corporate postings of photos, videos, and other content on web streams before a new product is released].”
— Bill Cava, chief technology officer for Ektron
“The Internet is the biggest psychological and social human experience…We make encouraging viral activity.”
— Cynthia Gordon
The Internet Today: Social Networking
A social network service focuses on building and reflecting of social networks or social relations among people, e.g., who share interests and/or activities. A social network service essentially consists of a representation of each user (often a profile), his/her social links, and a variety of additional services. Most social network services are web based and provides means for users to interact over the internet, such as e-mail and instant messaging. Although online community services are sometimes considered as a social network service in a broader sense, social network service usually means an individual-centered service whereas online community services are group-centered.
The main types of social networking services are those which contain category divisions (such as former school-year or classmates), means to connect with friends (usually with self-description pages) and a recommendation system linked to trust. Popular methods now combine many of these, with Facebook and Twitter widely used worldwide. [Other parts of the world have used other systems that have taken a “back seat to Facebook and Twitter. GLB] Some of these historical and regional networks include:
In North America… MySpace and LinkedIn;
In Canada… Nexopia;
In Germany… Bebo, Hi5, StudiVZ;
In Hungary… iWiW;
In Spain… Tuenti;
In parts of Europe… Decayenne, Tagged, XING; Badoo and Skyrock;
In South America and Central America… Orkut and Hi5;
In Asia and the Pacific Islands… Friendster, Mixi, Multiply, Orkut, Wretch, Xiaonei and Cyworld; and
In India… Orkut and Facebook.
There have been some attempts to standardize these services to avoid the need to duplicate entries of friends and interests, but this has led to some concerns about privacy.
Although some of the largest social networks were founded on the notion of digitizing real world connections, many other networks as seen in the List of social networking websites focus on categories from books and music to non-profit business to motherhood as ways to provide both services and community to individuals with shared interests.
The notion that individual computers linked electronically could form the basis of computer-mediated social interaction and networking was suggested early on. There were many early efforts to support social networks via computer-mediated communication, including Usenet, ARPANET, LISTSERV, bulletin board services (BBS) and EIES: Murray Turoff’s server-based Electronic Information Exchange Service (Turoff and Hiltz, 1978, 1993). The Information Routing Group developed a schema about how the proto-Internet might support this.
Early social networking websites started in the form of generalized online communities such as The WELL (1985), Theglobe.com (1994), Geocities (1994) and Tripod.com (1995). These early communities focused on bringing people together to interact with each other through chat rooms, and share personal information and ideas around any topics via personal homepage publishing tools which was a precursor to the blogging phenomenon.
Some communities took a different approach by simply having people link to each other via email addresses. These sites included Classmates.com (1995), focusing on ties with former school mates, and SixDegrees.com (1997), focusing on indirect ties. User profiles could be created, messages sent to users held on a “friends list” and other members could be sought out who had similar interests to yours in their profiles (Boyd & Ellison 2007, p. 3). Whilst these features had existed in some form before SixDegrees.com came about, this would be the first time these functions were available in one package.
It may be hard for the younger generation or newer Internet users to realize how far these social networks have come. I can remember when the only way to “chat” with friends was either be using IRC on the Internet (a text-based chat system) or by using a bulletin board system (store and forward). Then came America On-Line (AOL) with their network of dial-up sites and the ability to talk to friends in real time. What we have now, using our high-speed Internet connections, our more advanced computers or computing devices (cell phones, PDAs, etc.), and these social networking sites have made a major breakthrough in peer-to-peer communications. Much of this is based upon the Web 2.0 technologies that have only been available for the past five years. GLB
Despite these new developments (that would later catch on and become immensely popular), the website simply wasn’t profitable and eventually shut down (Boyd & Ellison 2007, p. 3). It was even described by the website’s owner as "simply ahead of its time." One such model of social networking that came about in 1999 was trust-based, such as that developed by Epinions.com. Innovations included not only showing who is "friends" with whom, but giving users more control over content and connectivity.
Between 2002 and 2004, three social networking sites emerged as the most popular form of these sites in the world, causing such sites to become part of mainstream users globally. First there was Friendster in 2002 (which Google tried to acquire in 2003), then MySpace and LinkedIn a year later, and finally, Bebo. By 2005, MySpace, emergent as the biggest of them all, was reportedly getting more page views than Google. 2004 saw the emergence of Facebook, a competitor, also rapidly growing in size. In 2005, Facebook opened up to the non US college community, and together with allowing externally-developed add-on applications, and some applications enabled the graphing of a user’s own social network – thus linking social networks and social networking, became the largest and fastest growing site in the world, not limited by particular geographical followings.
Social networking began to flourish as a component of business internet strategy at around March 2005 when Yahoo launched Yahoo! 360°. In July 2005 News Corporation bought MySpace, followed by ITV (UK) buying Friends Reunited in December 2005. Various social networking sites have sprung up catering to different languages and countries. It is estimated that combined there are now over 200 social networking sites using these existing and emerging social networking models, without counting the niche social networks (also referred to as vertical social networks) made possible by services such as Ning. Twitter, launched in 2006, has as recently as 2009 eclipsed many other social network services and–although lacking in some of what were considered the essential aspects of a SNS–has allowed add-on services to connect and supply these services via its public API.
An increasing number of academic commentators are becoming interested in studying Facebook and other social networking tools. Social science researchers have begun to investigate what the impact of this might be on society. Typical articles have investigated issues such as Identity (Boyd 2006), Privacy, E-learning (Mazer, Murphy & Simonds 2007), Social capital (Ellison, Steinfield & Lampe 2007) and Teenage use.
A special issue of the Journal for Computer-Mediated Communications was dedicated to studies of social network sites. Included in this issue is an introduction to social network sites (Boyd & Ellison 2007, p. 3).
A 2008 book published by Forrester Research, Inc. titled Groundswell builds on a 2006 Forrester Report about social computing and used the term "groundswell" to refer to "a spontaneous movement of people using online tools to connect, take charge of their own experience, and get what they need–information, support, ideas, products, and bargaining power–from each other."
Adam Acar, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Sciences has studied how online social networking members are "one-and-a-half times the number expected in real life." In his article "Antecedents and Consequences of Online Social Networking Behavior" he depicts how the average user of facebook has about 217 members (Hill and Dunbar, 2003). He also states that "Perceived lower risk of accepting new members, easiness of requesting a membership, social desirability and failing to exclude members who actually are no longer contacted, might have cause online social networking to be larger than real networks."
It has not taken long for social networking sites to become prevalent amongst the youth. The reason for this has been brought up by Danah Boyd. Contemporary youth has consistently been presented restrictions that prohibit what they can and cannot do. There has been a rapid increase in curfew legislation along with loitering laws intended to prevent teen violence and drug use. In addition to government rules and regulations teenagers face another authority, parental figures. Parents and/or guardians tend to place rules on where they can be and when they can be there. This combination of laws and household restrictions hinders and limits the area of social interaction to school and maybe with nearby neighbors. As a result the youth turns to online networks that allow them to communicate with not only their friend circle but others with similar interests. Social networks have ultimately become the best frontier for teenagers to interact and socialize.
Several websites are beginning to tap into the power of the social networking model for social good. Such models may be highly successful for connecting otherwise fragmented industries and small organizations without the resources to reach a broader audience with interested and passionate users. Users benefit by interacting with a like minded community and finding a channel for their energy and giving. Examples include SixDegrees.org, TakingITGlobal, Care2, Idealist.org, WiserEarth, OneWorldTV, FreeRepublic, OneClimate and Network for Good. The charity badge is often used within the above context.
On large social networking services, there have been growing concerns about users giving out too much personal information and the threat of sexual predators. Users of these services need to be aware of data theft or viruses. However, large services, such as MySpace and Netlog, often work with law enforcement to try to prevent such incidents.
While most of these social networking sites have been “beefing up” their sites, security and privacy remains a continuing problem. We all need to remember that, no matter how many safeguards the sites put into place, if we don’t take advantage of them or are careless with our passwords and information. This is especially true of those who seek to have hundreds or thousands of “Friends” or “Followers”. Such a privileged status opens us up for abuse. A “Word to the Wise” should be sufficient here. GLB
In addition, there is a perceived privacy threat in relation to placing too much personal information in the hands of large corporations or governmental bodies, allowing a profile to be produced on an individual’s behavior on which decisions, detrimental to an individual, may be taken.
Furthermore, there is an issue over the control of data—information that was altered or removed by the user may in fact be retained and/or passed to 3rd parties. This danger was highlighted when the controversial social networking site Quechup harvested e-mail addresses from users’ e-mail accounts for use in a spamming operation.
"Having just spent another morning of my life reading the most boring details of other people’s mornings, I’ve realized how very little things like Twitter, FaceBook, or FriendFeed actually contribute to one’s life: it’s more like sitting in a room full of over-caffeinated narcissistic Tourette’s patients with ADHD who are all trying to be the most entertaining. And, really, what’s so social about a monologue?"
In medical and scientific research, asking subjects for information about their behaviors is normally strictly scrutinized by institutional review boards, for example, to ensure that adolescents and their parents have informed consent. It is not clear whether the same rules apply to researchers who collect data from social networking sites. These sites often contain a great deal of data that is hard to obtain via traditional means. Even though the data are public, republishing it in a research paper might be considered invasion of privacy.
Privacy on Facebook is undermined by three principal factors: users disclose too much, Facebook does not take adequate steps to protect user privacy, and third parties are actively seeking out end-user information using Facebook. Every day teens go on social networking sites and reveal their most inner thoughts for the whole world to see. Information such as street address, phone number, Instant Messaging name are disclosed to an unknown population in cyberspace. What’s more, the creation of a Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, etc. account is a fairly easy process to do and no identification is required, which can lead to identity theft or impersonation. "For the Net generation, social networking sites have become the preferred forum for social interactions, from posturing and role playing to simply sounding off. However, because such forums are relatively easy to access, posted content can be reviewed by anyone with an interest in the users’ personal information". What Anyone Can Know: The Privacy Risks of Social Networking Sites Privacy on the net is a rare thing these days and ultimately it is left to the user to be responsible and improve his or her privacy online. A Privacy Paradox
Notifications on websites
There has been a trend for social networking sites to send out only ‘positive’ notifications to users. For example sites such as Bebo, Facebook, and Myspace will not send notifications to users when they are removed from a person’s friends list. Similarly Bebo will send out a notification if a user is moved to the top of another user’s friends list but no notification is sent if they are moved down the list.
This allows users to purge undesirables from their list extremely easily and often without confrontation since a user will rarely notice if one person disappears from their friends list. It also enforces the general positive atmosphere of the website without drawing attention to unpleasant happenings such as friends falling out, rejection and failed relationships.
Access to information
Many social networking services, such as Facebook, provide the user with a choice of who can view their profile. This prevents unauthorized user(s) from accessing their information. Parents have become a big problem to teens who want to avoid their parents to access their MySpace or Facebook accounts. By choosing to make their profile private, teens are able to select who can see their page and this prevents unwanted parents from lurking. This will also mean that only people who are added as "friends" will be able to view the profile. Teens are constantly trying to create a structural barrier between their private life and their parents.
To edit information on a certain social networking service account, the social networking sites require you to login or provide an access code. This prevents unauthorized user(s) from adding, changing, or removing personal information, pictures, and/or other data.
Potential for misuse
The relative freedom afforded by social networking services has caused concern regarding the potential of its misuse by individual patrons. In October 2006, a fake Myspace profile created in the name of Josh Evans by Lori Janine Drew led to the suicide of Megan Meier. The event incited global concern regarding the use of social networking services for bullying purposes.
In July 2008, a Briton, Grant Raphael, was ordered to pay a total of GBP £22,000 (about USD $44,000) for libel and breach of privacy. Raphael had posted a fake page on Facebook purporting to be that of a former schoolfriend Matthew Firsht, with whom Raphael had fallen out in 2000. The page falsely claimed that Firsht was homosexual and that he was dishonest.
Risk for child safety
Citizens and governments have been concerned by a misuse by child and teenagers of social network services, particularly in relation to online sexual predators. A certain number of actions have been engaged by governments to better understand the problem and find some solutions. A 2008 panel concluded that technological fixes such as age verification and scans are relatively ineffective means of apprehending online predators.
A common misuse of social networking sites such as Facebook is that it is occasionally used to emotionally abuse individuals. Such actions are often referred to as trolling. It is not rare for confrontations in the real world to be translated online. Online bullying is a relatively common occurrence and it can often result in emotional trauma for the victim. Danah Boyd, an individual familiar with social networks quotes a teenager in her article, Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites. The teenager expresses frustration towards networking sites like MySpace because it causes drama and too much emotional stress. There are not many limitations as to what individuals can post when online. Inherently individuals are given the power to post offensive remarks or pictures that could potentially cause a great amount of emotional pain for another individual.
Interpersonal communication has been a growing issue as more and more people have turned to social networking as a means of communication. “Benniger (1987) describes how mass media has gradually replaced interpersonal communication as a socializing force. Further, social networking sites have become popular sites for youth culture to explore themselves, relationships, and share cultural artifacts". A Privacy Paradox Many teens and social networking users may be harming their interpersonal communication by using sites such as Facebook and Myspace.
Social network services are increasingly being used in legal and criminal investigations. Information posted on sites such as MySpace and Facebook has been used by police (forensic profiling), probation, and university officials to prosecute users of said sites. In some situations, content posted on MySpace has been used in court.
Facebook is increasingly being used by school administrations and law enforcement agencies as a source of evidence against student users. The site, the number one online destination for college students, allows users to create profile pages with personal details. These pages can be viewed by other registered users from the same school which often include resident assistants and campus police who have signed-up for the service. One UK police force has sifted pictures from Facebook and arrested some people who had been photographed in a public place holding a weapon such as a knife (having a weapon in a public place is illegal).
Katie Hafner & Matthew Lyon. (1998) Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet. Simon & Schuster
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Social Networks can be found at…
Facebook can be found at…
Twitter can be found at…
The Internet can be found at…
The World Wide Web can be found at…
Other Web Sites:
Susan Barnes, “A Privacy Paradox: Social Networking in the United States”, First Monday…
Danah Boyd & Nicole Ellison. (2007) "Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship". Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (1)…