The purpose of this paper is to educate you with the proper definition of a social network site, a brief overview of its history and how they have evolved to being used in almost every facet of life today.
Social Network: Definition
Social network site is a web-based service that allows individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system (Boyd, & Ellison, 2007).
While the term ”social network site” is used to describe this concept, the term ”social networking sites” is also commonly used, and both can be used back and forth. I refrained from using the term ”networking” for two reasons: emphasis and scope. ”Networking” signifies intent of a new relationship, more often than not between strangers. Although people do network on these sites, it is not the main attraction, nor is it what makes them stand out from other forms of computer-mediated communication. The term “community” refers to networks that are ethnically homogenous.
The uniqueness of social network sites does not come in the fact that they allow individuals to meet new people, but rather that they allow users to identify and publicize their social networks. This usually results in connections between individuals that would not otherwise be made, but that is often not the goal, and these meetings are frequently between ”latent ties” (Haythornthwaite, 2005) who share some offline connection. On most of the popular social networking sites, members do not actually ”network” or look to meet new people; instead, they are primarily communicating with people who are already a part of their extended social network. To emphasize this articulated social network as a critical organizing feature of these sites, we label them ”social network sites.”
As mentioned earlier, while social network sites may have a number of unique features to them, their background still consists of people’s profiles that display a list of their friends who are also members of the site. Profiles are a one page summary of an individual. When an individual newly joins a social network site, they are typically asked to answer basic questions that help to create one’s profile. They typically ask for your name, age, sex, interests and location. There is also a section that allows one to upload a photograph and some networks even allow users to upload music and themes to enhance the look of their profile page.
Once a user has joined a social network, the next step is typically to identify other friends on the system or network and request access to their profiles and/or networks via a “friend request”. The term ”Friends” can be misleading, because the connection does not necessarily mean friendship in the everyday vernacular sense, and the reasons people connect are varied (Boyd, 2006). At this stage, users can scroll through their friend list and view each friend’s profile and their friend list. Some networks may permit access to profile pages in the same network even though a unique connection has not been established while others may not. Some even allow users to restrict access to their page. For example, if you are not directly connected to another user, you cannot view or have limited view to their profile page.
Another feature of most social network sites is messaging. There is usually a mechanism in place for friends to communicate with one another on the network. For example, if you like a friend’s profile photograph, there should be a way to tell them there and then. The most common lingua for such is “comment”. Friend’s comment on each other’s pages and pictures and some even have email-like services on the networks but not all started out like this.
History of Social Networks
According to the criteria used to define social network sites, SixDegrees.com was the very first social networking site. It allowed its users to create profiles, add their friends on the site and, beginning in 1998, view their friend’s profiles. Profiles existed on most major dating sites and many community sites. Some sites allowed users to list friends although no one else could view them. Others allowed members to join networks such as high schools or colleges and see others in their networks but they could not create profiles for years. SixDegrees was the first social networking site that allowed it users to do all these.
Although SixDegrees garnered much public acclaim, its attempt to be a sustainable business failed and as such, the service shut down in 2000. With hindsight, the developers believed that the site offered more than was required. Meanwhile at this time most people who began using the internet more often had no networks of friends who were constantly online. It brought about complaints of boredom online. There was basically nothing to do after adding friends because people were not interested in networking with strangers.
If you take a look at Figure 1, you can see a table that lists almost all the communities and social networks that have been established over a ten year period from 1997 to 2006. Some of these networks and communities did not actually have all the features that qualify them as a social networking site. Some names appear more than once as the years went by, the latter occurrence signifies their re-launch as a full social networking site.
From 1997 to 2001, AsianAvenue, BlackPlanet, and MiGente began supporting various combinations of profiles and publicly listed friends. They allowed their users to create personal, professional, and dating profile and they could identify friends on their personal profiles without seeking approval for those connections. In 1999 when LiveJournal came around, it facilitated single connections on user pages. On LiveJournal, users mark others as their friends in order to read their journals. Cyworld, the Korean virtual world site kicked off in 1999 and by 2001 it re-launched as a full social networking site with features such as friend lists, guestbooks and diary pages as did the Swedish web community LunarStorm.
After 2003, the social networking sites hit it big time. Several began to pop up for different reasons. While the basic profile based structured remained their purpose diversified – some were for friends meeting old and new ones while others sought to cater to a more professional and business minded demography. Care2 connected activists to one another, Couchsurfing networked travelers and people with couches and MyChurch brought together churches and their members. Gradually as user-generated content began to grow, attention shifted to sites like Flickr (picture sharing), Last.FM(music listening) and YouTube(video uploads).
Now most of these upcoming social networking sites were being launched from Silicon Valley where a lot of angel investors were pumping money into them and as such any site that developed outside of that area barely got attention. This is why some sites developed in the U.S had better reception outside the country. Examples will be Orkut(Brazil’s number one) and MSN Spaces.
The advent of MySpace was aided by the ailing Friendster. Rumors that Friendster would begin to charge its users only succeeded in putting the sword to the heart on the already ailing site. MySpace garnered most of its initial popularity from rock bands out in Los Angeles who were trying to get their names out. They used it to advertise their shows and club owners used it to advertise bands and ticket sales. The demographic for MySpace gradually shifted toward young teenagers and adults who liked music and wished to connect with their favorite artists. Another thing that the site had going for it was that it allowed users to customize their pages and add their favorite songs to their pages. This and the fact that some adults began using it to meet minors to solicit sexual interaction were part of the reasons that MySpace began to fall just shortly after it got purchased for about $540 million.
Apart from these network sites, there were others whose primary focus was a particular group of people such as when Facebook began in 2004. Facebook began in early 2004
as a Harvard-only SNS (Cassidy, 2006). To be a member, you had to be a registered student of Harvard University and use your school email address to register. With time, the network expanded but the restrictions still applied. It went to other schools but still required that a school email be used to register. This gave most people the perception that it was more of a community than a social networking site.
Benefits of Social Network Sites
Today social network sites are being used in very different ways that benefit a whole lot of people. Everyone seems to find a way to use them to their benefit. Consumers and manufacturers use social network sites to give and get feedback on their products. By analyzing feedback given by consumers on social network sites, blogs and other means, manufacturers have the ability to improve their sales, know when to up-sell and down-sell, they also know how to minimize cost of acquiring new consumers and many other methods.
In some countries, the leaders use social network sites as a means of getting closer to the people. Some representatives use it to get feedback from their people and listen to their problems. Leaders can explain to their people what exactly the implications of certain policies and they can also get input or public opinion on certain issues that may require voting in the house. It is an essential tool in modern day leadership and political campaign. The results of the last presidential elections held in the United States were predicted by analyzing feedback about the respective candidates on sites like Facebook and Twitter. It also helped the candidates in addressing campaign issues that concerned the people. Senator Obama even had a MiGente profile that he used to reach out to the Latin-American population during the course of his campaign.
Educators are finding new ways to engage their students in the learning process as well as improve teaching methods through social networking sites. Students across the world interact with one another via Skype, Twitter and Facebook during classes as a method of learning about other parts of the world and how they learn over there. In January 2009, Silvia Tolisano, a teacher in Jacksonville, Florida developed a project that involved over 300 participants in schools across the globe. The goal was to prove how helpful social networking sites can be in student education. According to her, “It creates a global awareness that there is a wider world out there and that we are not alone. They find it’s just as easy to collaborate with a class in England as with the class next door.”
Social network sites not only benefit the student, the educators as well benefit from sites like Twitter and Ning. While students haven’t become enamored with Twitter yet, it has become a hot spot for educators to find professional development and resources (Michelle R. Davis, 2010). One of the most popular types of educator events on Twitter are “EdChats”-one-hour conversations that take place every Tuesday around a particular topic. The chats are the brainchild of several educators, including Thomas Whitby, a co-creator of a 3,700-member Ning site called The Educator’s PLN, for “professional learning network.”
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