[Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part series. Look for Part 2 next issue.]
If you've already dismissed the online social networking boom as a phenomenon for the "party" crowd, you might want to consider taking another look. This is a trend with solid implications for just about all of us--anyone who does research, markets products, wants to work more effectively, is seeking like-minded individuals, wants exposure to diverse ideas, is looking to build a professional network, or is job hunting.
What Are Social Networks?
So what exactly are online social networks? They're relatively new kinds of virtual communities that are structured to delineate and build on the relationship that members have with each other.
Each of these networks differ from one another in several ways:
* Purpose: Some clearly focus on advancing business or professional connections; others foster social or family relationships.
* Focus: Each online network has a distinct identity based on what its members share (e.g., bookmarks, music, photos, or contact information).
* Tools: Social networks integrate tools that may make them more useful to their communities, such as referral protocols and ways to search and index information.
The Social Software Weblog, which provides a meta-list (http://socialsoftware.weblogsinc.com/sns-meta-list) of links to 380 social networking sites, has developed a taxonomy for the following major categories: business networking, common interest, dating, face-to-face meeting facilitation, friend networking, and MoSoSo (mobile social software).
Social software has the unique distinction of being able to classify Web-based information and to aggregate people who share common interests. So its emphasis is on people, not data. Some sites feature software for mapping special relationships among their members. Others have software to find people or content using identifying categories or "tags." (These community-building tools surpass those in blogging software.)
The networks are useful beyond their primary purpose too. Online members also use them as filters for what to do, read, and listen to or whom to meet. Their networks help them clarify their own interests and learn more about themselves, which ultimately fascinates most users. But there is no magic bullet. Just as in real life, you have to "work" a network to get it to work well for you.
What about protecting your privacy? Privacy protection is actually built into some services. For example, membership in Google's orkut is by invitation only. Likewise, LinkedIn, a business-oriented network, requires an introduction from a mutual friend before a member may contact someone outside his or her personal network.
Privacy, however, is still an issue. Data gathered by such systems could be combined with that gathered by marketing, financial, or search sites to paint a clearer picture of a person's interests and behavior.
Spam is also a threat. Web posts are quick to point out that there's a fine line between receiving a coveted invitation to join a network or be a "friend" and getting a deluge of invites and requests for referrals.
There's even a move now to establish a "10 Commandments" or "Bill of Rights" for social networking. Some systems already post the TRUSTe approval logo on their sites, and some allow users to earn trust ratings a la eBay.
Tracing the Roots
Internet social networking is between 2 years and 3 decades old, depending on your definition of the term. The trend is believed to have started with the launch of full-featured, research-oriented, computer-mediated communications systems on the Internet, such as EIES (Electronic Information Exchange System), which was pioneered by Murray Turoff at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in the mid-1970s. …