What do we mean by social networking?

I am not asking for a comprehensive definition. I have yet to come across any definition that does anything more than offer an understanding of social networking in the broadest possible terms. On August 6 of this year for example, the Wikipedia defined social networking as a service that “focuses on the building and verifying of online social networks for communities of people who share interests and activities, or who are interested in exploring the interests and activities of others.” I don’t disagree with any of that, but it doesn’t by itself offer me a greater understanding of what a social networking service is. The Wikipedia staff doesn’t find it adequate either, and have flagged the article as being in need of expansion and of additional material to support the ideas in the article.

I ask this question more to define some boundaries on what Amanda and I (your blog moderators) are proposing for discussion. Common understandings of social networking services hold that services like FaceBook and MySpace fall into the rubric of social networking, and I believe this is what the SIG-III officers had in mind when we came up with the idea of having this discussion.

I have since expanded the scope of this discussion to include the blogosphere as well. Like the networking services listed above, the blogosphere meets the criteria of the Wikipedia’s broad definition of social networking. (And yes, so do image sharing services such as Flickr, video sharing services such as YouTube, and virtual worlds such as Second Life. I have chosen to focus on blogs and FaceBook/MySpace-style services for discussion on the SIG-III blog, but I would be remiss if I failed to note other applications and services that have networking aspects as well). With this in mind, we welcome your ideas on our discussions of internationally focused blogs and networking services, but please do not feel limited by this focus. Please comment on any post you like, and if you would like to contribute an entirely new thought or post, please send it to me at sigiiiblog [at] gmail.com.

Beyond that, here are some more comprehensive definitions of social networking – all open to discussion, debate, and critique. In March of this yeah, Danah Boyd offered the following description of a workshop she put together with Nicole Ellison and Scott Golder at the 3rd Annual Communities and Technologies Conference. In their description they loosely considered social software to “include social network sites (e.g., Cyworld, MySpace, orkut, and Facebook), contemporary online dating services (e.g., Friendster, Spring Street Personals, Match.com), blogging services (e.g., LiveJournal, Xanga, Blogger), tagging tools (e.g. del.icio.us, Digg) and media sharing sites (e.g., YouTube, Flickr).” Then in June, Danah offered a definition of social networking specifically:

To count as a social network site, the site MUST have 1) a public or friends-only profile system; 2) a publicly articulated list of "Friends" who are also on the system (not blogrolls). Friends must be visible on an individual's profile and it must be possible to traverse the network graph through that list of Friends. If the site does not let you "comment" on Friends' profiles, please indicate that. This is not necessary although it is a common component. I'm not interested in dating sites, community sites, or blogging tools that do not have public profile + friends that are displayed on profiles.

Socialmedia.biz further describes some of the primary characteristics of social networking services:

1. Communication in the form of conversation, not monologue. This implies that social media must facilitate two-way discussion, discourse, and debate with little or no moderation or censorship. ...

2. Participants in social media are people, not organizations. Third-person voice is discouraged and the source of ideas and participation is clearly identified and associated with the individuals that contributed them. Anonymity is also discouraged but permissible in some very limited situations.

3. Honesty and transparency are core values. Spin and attempting to control, manipulate, or even spam the conversation are thoroughly discouraged. ...

4. It's all about pull, not push. ... In social media, people are in control of their conversations, not the pushers.

5. Distribution instead of centralization. ... Social media is highly distributed and made up of tens of millions of voices making it far more textured, rich, and heterogeneous than old media could ever be (or want to be). Encouraging conversations on the vast edges of our networks, rather than in the middle, is what this point is all about.

And concerning the blogosphere specifically, Paul, a blogger at a South African blog called Chilibean, echos the first and second of Socialmedia.biz’s points. He writes that “a blog is a conversation. Blogs are structured to facilitate interaction between the blogger and the blog's readers and use simple tools like RSS feeds, comments and trackbacks to keep those conversations going. Blogging lends itself to informality because of the emphasis on the expression of an authentic voice as an essential element of a blog.”

So if you have any thoughts on the nature of social networking as I have presented it here, please leave a comment. Otherwise, I’ll be posting more about the international face of social networking later this evening or tomorrow.

Posted by Aaron Bowen

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