What Is Social Networking?

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For thousands of years, people have gathered together in groups of various sizes to share knowledge and discuss topics of interest to most of the members of each group.

Many of us are interested in many different things, so we naturally congregate with multiple groups of people who are interested in the same things that we are. Some of these groups overlap and some are very different. We may have friends that share several of our interests and may know others who only share one of them.

In fact, we may be close friends with someone who likes one of the activities we do, but we may be very different in other aspects of our lives, such as where we live, our ages, our political views, economic status, health conditions, and all the other things that make us the individuals we are.

By focusing on the few things we have in common, however, we can enjoy discussing topics related to those interests. It is enjoyable to share what we know, learn from others, and sometimes just to agree that we enjoy the interests we share.

What is social networking
when it doesn't involve computers?

Social networking before the Internet was very different from what most of us mean when we use that term today. These days, we're probably talking about social networking websites such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Ryze, and dozens of other popular sites. We may also include sites such as StumbleUpon, Digg, Delicious, Tagfoot, Squidoo, Hubpages, MyBlogLog, and other similar websites. Some of us may even include tools such as Twitter, although it lacks many of the features that most social networking sites offer.

I'm not an historian, so I'm not going to write a lengthy, scholarly article about this, but I'm going to remind you of several things that you already know about social networking.

Offline social networking, which includes all forms of social interactions that don't involve using a computer, was the only way we could share our interests with others before the Internet allowed us to meet in a virtual space from anywhere we are located.

You already have extensive experience in offline social networking. You are doing that whenever you meet others at work, school, in your community, and in the clubs and organizations you attend. You may not use the term, but these activities are social and involve networking with others who share your specific interests.

Offline social networking can be either synchronous or asynchronous, meaning that we either have to be together at the same time or that interactions can take place at different times.

Examples of synchronous networking would include club meetings, community potluck dinners, attending Independence Day fireworks shows, church activities, sporting events, dating, and the many thousands of other things we do out in the real world that require us to be together in the same location at the same time. If you show up to the fireworks display or go to meet your date a few days after it was scheduled, you're out of luck.

So, synchronous social networking in the real 3-D world we live in requires us to meet in one location at the same time as others who share our interests.

Offline asynchronous networking would include things like being pen pals or publishing newsletters. We can do these things no matter where we live or when we choose to participate. We don't have to synchronize our watches to make sure we get the full benefit of sharing our interests with others.

I can write a letter to a friend today, no matter what he or she is doing. My participation in the activity does not require them to share it right now. When the letter arrives, my friend can choose to reply whenever it is convenient. So, our conversation takes place over a period of time and we can choose when it is best for each of us to participate.

The same is true for writing and publishing a book, magazine, video, pamphlet, newsletter, or anything else that shares information with anyone who chooses to obtain and read it. Even though thousands or millions of others may read or view the item we publish, they can do it whenever it suits each of them.

What is online social networking?

Online social networking requires the use of computers and computer networks. These communities can range from small to very large and can be local or worldwide. Wikipedia has a list of social networking websites that may help you understand them better and/or find one that you would like to join.

For example, a small company may have a social network available for only employees and the subjects discussed may also be restricted to business topics. Other similar businesses may include social activities such as sporting events, employee gatherings, and other topics of interest, although the main focus of the community would be to help employees work together better for the benefit of the company.

Examples of very large social networks would include Facebook, MySpace, and others that have members from across multiple continents and many different countries. In these cases, members may have very different lifestyles and interests, but because of the large number of participants, almost anyone can find a group of others who share their particular interests.

Special interest groups, as they used to be called, are generally referred to these days simply as groups. There are many, many different groups on the major social networking sites, and even smaller communities may have multiple groups to help their members share specific interests.

Another way that we can interact with others who share similar interests is to become friends with each other in the community. In this case, the word "friend" does not necessarily mean the same thing that it does in our real, day-to-day lives.

An online friend may be someone with whom we share only a few interests, but who is a person we want to interact with easily. By becoming a friend, it generally means that the online community where we are members gives us the ability to "keep up" with each other's activities, to send private messages, chat in real time, and even be informed by email when they do something that we've told the system to tell us about.

Online friends can include close relatives with whom we share a lot, real people we know well, or someone who is basically a stranger but who shares our particular interest in a specific topic. Some really are friends, and some are friends only in the sense that we want to communicate with them more easily than we can with all the other members of the online community.

Only a few of the activities in which we participate online are synchronous, with real-time chat being the best example. If two are more people are online at a social networking website, they may choose to open a window and use the chat feature to carry on a real-time conversation. Even though it requires them to be there at the same time, they are not required to be in the same location. They may be thousands of miles apart, in different time zones, and still converse with each other at the same time.

Most online social networking activities are asynchronous in nature. This means that we don't have to be together in space or time. We don't have to congregate at the same location and we don't have to be there at the same time as the others in order to get the full benefit of what is happening.

Examples of these activities include...

  • Discussing topics of interest in forums
  • Blogging
  • Uploading photographs and/or viewing them
  • Viewing a member's profile page and leaving comments
  • Sharing what we are doing
  • Uploading videos and/or viewing them
  • Creating, joining, and leaving groups

Each of us can do the above-mentioned things (and more) whenever it suits us, and still get the benefit of being a part of the community and sharing our particular interests with others.

Create your own communities

In the past, it has been very difficult and often expensive to create and maintain a social networking community. Few companies and fewer individuals had the skills and resources to do so. This has changed with the introduction of sites such as Ning.com, which makes it much easier for anyone to build a community around just about any interest.

For example, I own and manage a couple of communities that are hosted by Ning.com.

One, Squidoo Marketing, is a community of people who enjoy building lenses on Squidoo.com in order to earn money by marketing a variety of products and services. Some of the members don't even market anything, really. They enjoy creating lenses and providing information about topics of interest to them, and they earn some income because Squidoo.com puts advertising on those lenses. If the advertising earns any revenue, Squidoo shares it with the person who created and maintains the lens.

Another community I manage is Murphy Connections. This site was built specifically for people who live in and around Murphy, NC, a small town in the mountains of western North Carolina that I am proud to call my adopted hometown. Residents of the area and people who are interested in visiting, or moving to, Murphy can meet each other, converse with friends, make new friends, post photos and videos, and share their knowledge of life in our charming little town.

Some communities built using the services that Ning.com provides have thousands of members. Others have only a handful.

If you build a site at Ning.com, please pay close attention to the terms and services. There are several plans available

Another good alternative for building a community is to use a service like Facebook, where you can create a group or a page to host interactions on topics that are related to your particular reasons for creating the community. Facebook is free, but you have less control over what you can do.

I created and manage a Facebook page for Act On Your Dream! and have plans to be more active there in the coming months.

Social networking benefits

There are many ways in which we benefit by participating in these online communities.

We can learn new things and share what we know. We can become better acquainted with our friends and neighbors. We can promote our businesses and learn why we may want to buy from other businesses that serve our interests.

We may choose to interact for purely social reasons or we may participate for the primary purpose of promoting our business. Some of us may do both.

I enjoy discussing a variety of topics with people I know from around the world, most of whom I will never meet in person. Even though we are widely separated in space, we share common interests and learn from each other.

Perhaps you want to just relax after a hard work day. Many of these communities have lots of games you can enjoy. Some of these games can be played by yourself and others require interactions with other people who enjoy that particular game.

I think the benefits of social networking are many and varied and each individual must decide whether it is something worth doing.

Dangers of social networking

As with everything else, there are some dangers that may be associated with social networking, and you are advised strongly to use common sense when interacting online.

Many of us share our real names and where we live, but that may not be a wise thing for everyone. You must consider how much of your privacy you want to maintain and how to maintain your safety in the real world.

For instance, I think it is a very bad idea to announce that you are going to be gone on a two-week vacation, if you have your real name and location on your profile page. There are people who will take advantage of that information and you certainly don't want to come back home from a great vacation to find that you've been robbed.

You also want to use common sense when you write about your life. There are people who have been denied jobs for which they were qualified professionally, but who led personal lives that the company disapproved of. Many companies will search the main social networks for information about prospective employees.

Anything you post on any of these online communities may become public knowledge, and once they search engines index the sites, that information may be impossible to remove.

Don't forget, too, that anyone can create a profile on one of these communities and they may not be at all what they pretend to be. Always exercise caution when sharing personal information with anyone you don't really know.

Do the benefits of social networking outweigh the dangers?

For me, they do. I am a regular participant on a variety of social networks and enjoy it.

I work from home and live in a very rural area. Days may go by when I don't see another real, live person. So, I enjoy the socializing that takes place in the online communities I like. It doesn't take the place of spending time with people in the real world, but it's nice when I'm working hard on a project.

Each of us must weigh the pros and cons and decide for ourselves whether or not we want to participate on the social networking sites. Then we must consider how much personal information we want to share and how we want to be perceived by other members.

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