Essay: Social Networking

This essay was originally published in the January 2007 (premier) edition of the Global Intelligencer.

SOCIAL NETWORKING – THE TECHNOLOGY BEHIND DIGITAL SOCIAL INTERACTION


The power of social networking can be seen in everyday events and world shaking movements. Some examples are as mundane as people sending out electronic bulletins looking for new jobs, new living quarters or new mates, and using their social network to solicit responses for these requests. Some are newsworthy, such as the numerous personal interactive blogs from people affected by Hurricane Katrina, the conflicts in the Middle East, and other major events of humanity. Others are more profound, such as the recent swell of support on MySpace, culminating in an online raffle (started by a lady in Iceland), to help a science fiction magazine (based out of Kentucky, USA) stay afloat when its creditors came calling.

Daniel Goleman, author of the recently published book Social Intelligence, cites recent findings in biology and brain science as evidence that humans are biologically wired to connect. The recent massive proliferation of digital social networking is a rapidly growing example of this phenomenon.

Even though mankind has always been social, the facilities have not always been available to enable multiple interactions. Two hundred years ago, if a person had an idea, or a question, or simply wanted to discuss something with someone of similar tastes, their scope was limited mostly to the people within shouting distance. If he somehow, through a newspaper or word of mouth, knew of a far away person of this sort, he could get a letter to them over a matter of weeks, and potentially get an answer weeks later.

Fast forward to the present: MySpace, Hi5, Xanga, LinkedIn, Wikipedia and the world of digital social networking. Initially categorized as a playground for teenagers and musical groups, social networking sites have grown to encompass many facets of human interaction. I originally joined MySpace to watch out for my fifteen year old son after he expressed a desire to have an account, with an assumption that I would only participate occasionally to monitor his online activities. But, after building a personal MySpace profile and an additional profile for my recently published novel, my social network grew to include old high school friends, fellow technologists (some whom I had never met), other martial artists (most of whom I will never meet) and others with similar interests in science fiction, business and other areas I had listed on my profile page. And, yes, I found some bands I would not have otherwise found that matched my musical interest.

Many social networking sites are already ranked among the most visited web sites in the world. According to Wikipedia, there are now fourteen social networking sites boasting more than ten million users. The largest are the general interest sites, such as MySpace (> 110 million users) and Hi5 (50 million), but there are sites for particular countries (Cyworld, South Korea, 15 million; Mixi, Japan, 5 million), ethnic groups (BlackPlanet.com for African-Americans and MiGente.com for Latinos), business (LinkedIn, 6.5 million) and special interest (Match.com, dating, 12 million; Care2, activists, 6 million; WAYN, travel, 5.5 million; CarDomain, car enthusiasts, 1.6 million).

Building on the proliferation of technologies such as the telegraph, telephone, the PC and the Internet, social networking provides the infrastructure and workflow to enable interaction between any two people with access to an Internet connection, minimizing the barriers of location, time, and, to some extent, culture. Instead of exchanging ideas or looking for answers in a slow, one-way communications medium, people can now rapidly blast an idea across a list of connections, which can be automatically or manually be advertised to their connections, and so on, extending the idea’s reach even further. Feedback, answers, praise or even ridicule and criticism can then be returned to the sender.

LinkedIn, which is a business-oriented social networking site, offers an excellent visual representation of this connectedness phenomenon. In my LinkedIn account, my 1st level connections (people with whom I have mutually agreed to have a direct linkage to either through my request or theirs) number 91. My 2nd level (my connection’s connections) number over 4,800. My LinkedIn Network (my 3rd level) exceeds 443,000. Through this network I can pass and receive requests for introductions, job opportunities and referrals.

The technologies underneath these offerings are well-established and surprisingly similar across all of the major sites; the innovation is that they are integrated fully and presented in a simplistic manner so that a neophyte can easily use them and be online, building their own network in a matter of minutes. These basic technological building blocks include:

  • a homepage, where the user can enter usually predefined profile information about themselves, usually a username, likes and dislikes, pictures, videos, education and company information. For the most part, this information is optional. These pages are web pages (HTML) and are searchable and index able through Google, Yahoo, et al, thus furthering their online reach As they are web pages, those with the technical know-how can use codes to customize the look and feel of their pages (as my fifteen year-old son calls it, pimping your MySpace);
  •  a method of linking or connecting to other users, plus a method for inviting new users to join; this is how you expand your social network;
  •  a method for searching for other users, either through tags or other search criteria; for example, a user may search on people who are interested in Mayan history, or find people who attended the same school;
  •  publishing technology, usually a blog or journal, and a means to subscribe to other users published ideas. These pages are also web pages, and their content will be indexed through search engines as well.
  •  two-way interaction, such as chat and messaging;
  •  ranking (also known as recommendations, high-fives, etc.); this ranking can be of blogs, pictures, even rankings of the participants themselves.

Social networking also has some unintended but potentially far-reaching consequences. First, these social networking solutions are enabling the creation of massive amounts of user-generated content, the vast majority of it already tagged and searchable. This includes not only a wealth of newly created fiction, art, pictures and videos but user-generated accounts of actual events, facts, opinions, giving an alternative to the mainstream media Secondly, mini-celebrities are being self-created via intelligent marketing on social networks.

There is, of course, a downside to these networks. While the ease of publishing user generated content is the foundation of knowledge sharing in social networking, its ease of use invites abuse. Through MySpace bulletins, for example, I have been notified of a five part Legends of Atlantis documentary off an old TV station that as recently been made available on Google Video; but I also receive silly surveys, spam and the occasional solicitation. In some sites, there is also no surety of identity, i.e., there is no mechanism for checking the validity of a person’s name, age, location and other statistics. By contrast, there could be loss of some privacy; some sites already include location technologies such as Frapper, and the specter of including additional information such as GPS looms.

Some include total immersion sites (with avatars, the building of skills and/or environments, and even their own currency) such as Second Life and World of Warcraft as social networking sites. It is difficult to include these in this category as defined above, as they allow for little profile building and limited networking.

Social networking sites are also quite addicting. The user will have to determine if addiction to these sites is a positive or a negative.

Today, social networking is mostly reading and writing, using a minimum of our senses for human interaction, and it is also limited in its worldwide reach As it is an integration of existing technologies, social networking will continue to evolve as certain technological barriers are overcome:

  •  Internet penetration in the rest of the world (landlines or cellular); according to Internet World Stats (www.internetworldstats.com), Europe and North America contain 17.5% of the world’s population but a disproportionate 49.5% of the world’s Internet users. Africa, by contract, contains 14.1% of the population, but only 3.6% of the Internet users.
  • Language translation on-line; my desire to discuss Qigong and martial arts with a Chinese practitioner who understands little English will not be circumvented by my knowledge of twenty Mandarin words and three symbols. Near real-time language translation, exemplified by phrase and web site translation services such Alta Vista’s Babelfish, will need to be more accurate and bolted-onto existing social network interactions. As Internet penetration continues, this will become a larger barrier. Again citing Internet World Stats, only 10.8% of the 1.3 billion Chinese speaking people are currently on-line, as opposed to much higher usage rates in more networked countries (67.2% Japanese speakers, 61.3% German speakers);
  • Two-way audio and video (as opposed to one-way, download and view); According to comScore Media Metrix, MySpace in July 2006 has already surpassed traditional video sites such as Google, Yahoo and newcomer YouTube in number of individual video streams. More multiple media also implies a prerequisite for worldwide Broadband penetration (landlines or cellular). As this newsletter was going to press, Google acquired YouTube for $1.65 billion!
  • Integration across multiple social networks; as these networks grow, many people have multiple accounts in the different networks. Some folks post their blogs multiple times, so that they may be seen on MySpace, Amazon, Blogger, etc. Some efforts are already underway, such as the Internet Address Book, which facilitates putting all of your social network contact information into one place.
  • Mobility; some networks are already offering fledgling mobile extensions. The availability and easy access of camera phones, GPS and other phone features offer additional avenues for user generated content with the possibility of automatic publishing through your social network.

Many of our readers are probably already connected to one of the many social networks. All that is required is a computer, and Internet connection, and a desire to interact. These networks have already demonstrated the capability to educate and facilitate change.

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