What a year! 2009 turned out to be the Year of The Social Networks. Your mom joined Facebook. The news media wouldn’t stop talking about Twitter for months. And now everyone is a “Social Media Expert.” Actors and musicians connected with fans, as did sports stars. (I’m sure Tiger enjoyed more than a few ‘random’ TweetUps). People used social media to cover war, the loss of Michael Jackson, and the story of a small Oregon boy risking his life in an airborne balloon craft. The latter turned out to be a hoax, but the impact of these new forces of immediate social communication became very real. You could send out an alert if you were in trouble or you could post up some mind-numbing minutiae if you were feeling bored. You could connect with and ‘follow’ people of interest which you had never had access to before. It was an exciting time and this emerging trend served as a handy distraction from whatever else was going on in the world.
It wasn’t all just welcoming handshakes and joyous LOL’ing, either. A study was released that attempted to show social stratification amongst the social networking set. I believe the conclusion was that lower socioeconomic individuals gravitated towards MySpace, while those slightly up the scale were trending towards Facebook. This led to further musing on the idea of “segregated” online networks and the potential for online inequality. Authors and journalists decried the dissolution of language to a bunch of abbreviations, emoticons, and short burst induced incompleteness. (These same people don’t seem to like text messaging for the same reasons). Computer connected employee productivity has taken a nosedive to such proportions as to almost cause a global financial meltdown. Privacy experts are practically having a conniption over this whole exposing oneself idea. Clearly, all is not rosy in the social networking arena.
So, why then are these newfangled social networks taking root and growing so fast? What is the value add? What do we get out of it? And why are these ephemeral and immediate networks so powerful?
First of all, online social networking is not new. Supernerds have been convening on the Internet since the early 1970’s. There were early bulletin board (BBS) systems, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), and (of course) electronic mail (now commonly and coyly referred to as ‘email’). [The first Web-enabled chat I recall was ICQ circa 1998. I found the "group-shout" interaction intriguing, but rather annoying. Clearly, I wasn't ready for short burst communications just yet. But I digress...]
Anyway, these perfect new online social networks are full of pizazz! Full of allure! And full of potential vectors for malware and privacy invasions. But mostly full of pizazz and allure — The pizazz to show off your own unique self and super-fantabulousness to the universe and the allure that you can connect with ‘anyone at any time’ and likely for any reason. Lots of people use it to follow their preferred news sources or to catalog information regarding their industry or career. Yet the killer feature seems to be localization. You can find people near you who do what you do. Or you can follow your local politicians (check to see if they’re on there). You can ask questions like “Where can I find a great Italian restaurant around here?” or “What bands are playing in Raleigh tonight?” One of my favorite services for this type of localized search is Aardvark. You should go there and sign up. (Or let me know if you still need to have an invite.)
My favorite use of social networking technology is to remake connections with friends from the past. It has been quite interesting to see all my high school friends emerging online almost two decades later. Not only that, but many people I didn’t have the opportunity to know better in the past have connected and enhanced our relationship via online social networking. Beyond that, I have often gone to my vast legions of social network peeps and sought job leads, medical advice, shopping consultancy, and all sorts of things.
There is also the notion of communicating for communicating’s sake. I like to crack jokes and mash-up the day’s events into (quasi-)witty status updates. I rarely tell Twitter “What’s happening?” and instead just throw out “What’s on my mind?” I think there is a lot of value in the new social network scene, despite the non-extraneous time they seem to consume. If you can enjoy your time on these networks and not get carried away, then I guess you’ve won the battle.
What say you? Will the Web 2.0 social networks shepherd about the end of language? Will Twitter be responsible for the decimation of our final strands of time/information management? Will pictures of you holding a beer can in high school ruin your entire life? Why do you do (or don’t do) the online social networking thing? And how the hell did anyone solve any problems or research anything before The Google? Shout it below.