Monthly Archives: December 2007

Social Networking on the Web

Are you building a so-called Social Networking site? Then you need to know what makes them tick, what user needs they address, and how you can play with these things to design your own site. But first lets start from the beginning. What is a social network?

According to the collective wisdom of Wikipedia –

A social network is a social structure made of nodes (which are generally individuals or organizations) that are tied by one or more specific types of relations.

But what does that mean in practice, what is a social network when found on the web?

What is referred to as Social Networking online is often conflated and confused with the concept of ‘sharing’. So many think sharing pictures, video or music (so-called user generated content) are examples of Social Networking.

But in truth social networking sites tend to have three other key elements or functions besides ‘sharing‘:

  • Identity formation functions;
  • Networking functions; and
  • Social functions.

Often the distinction between Networking, Social, Identity and Sharing functionality is not clear and there is some overlap between them. I will now explore these concepts in further detail with reference to real life examples and on the net.

Networking – Here networking is meant in the business sense of the word. In the real world this would be like when two executives meet and exchange business cards at an industry seminar. What is taking place is formal, relatively impersonal and goal orientated relationship creation.

Social – If something has a Social function it means there is a strong human and informal dimension to the interaction. Personalities are on display and personal relationships created. Social could thus include people doing things for fun: Like playing tennis for instance. But it does not necessarily mean it is not serious. A practical example: It’s where Bill Clinton and Tony Blair sits in a bar at the yearly Davos conference and talks about the conflict in Palestine over a pint of lager.

Identity means building meaning and displaying what and who you are. If I have a Mohawk hair cut, skinny jeans, a black leather jacket and Doc martin boots, it’s fair to assume that I’m a punk, and that I’d be likely to have certain views with respect to work, society, politics and music.

Sharing’ is of course in reality a misnomer. To many observers, users seemingly do things on the internet for free as if they want nothing in return. This is not accurate. In fact this gift giving is actually self publishing – for egotistical and status reasons. They do it because they want recognition. For the purposes of this post we will keep on calling it by its popular name: ‘sharing’.

But this is still abstract. By looking at familiar sites like Second Life, LinkedIn, MySpace and Facebook, all described as being social networking in nature and how they place different emphasis on these elements, it can help us to better understand their practical implications.

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