Online social networks are Web sites that enable people to create a network of connections to other individuals. Through the Internet communities that make up social networks, people can contact others they would like to know for personal or professional reasons but whom they might otherwise be unlikely to meet.
Social networks (most often hosted on Web sites) allow people to communicate with others whom they may or may not know. They include dating sites, professional sites, chat rooms, community sites and bulletin boards, but not venues whose primary purposes are nonsocial, such as job search sites. What makes online social networking unique is the ability to define one's own social network and interact in new ways. Indeed, users on many of these sites aren't looking to meet new people but to communicate with others who are already part of their social networks.
While many early Internet mechanisms (such as Usenet bulletin boards) offered a form of social networking, the first site specifically for networking might have been Classmates.com. Founded in 1995, Classmates.com fosters relationships based on high school and college affiliations. Next, in 1997, came SixDegrees.com, where users can seek connections based on any existing relationships.
The biggest impetus for social networking, however, was the rapid growth of blogging. Blogs began as online diaries, but today the blogosphere is a popular worldwide medium for public and private discourse, citizen journalism and political action.
After blogs came more complex sites designed specifically to help people communicate and meet new friends or colleagues. Friendster, MySpace and Facebook have had remarkable success in the personal realm. Sites like LinkedIn and Ryze facilitate professional connections.
Today, online social networking happens through a variety of mechanisms: dedicated personal and professional networks, online multiplayer games, services focused on specific goals such as dating or matchmaking, and even graphical cyberworlds. According to a national survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 55% of all online US teens use social networking sites.
How They Work
Most social networking sites have users create an individual profile within the system that defines them or expresses their personality. Most sites let users upload photos, and some allow other multimedia content.
Users typically identify friends already in the system. The term friends means others with whom a user has or would like to have some type of relationship. Some sites require these relationships to be OK'd by the other person and some don't. Profiles may be public and accessible by anyone or restricted to designated friends.
Most social networking sites display a list of the person's friends, with links, so that viewers can visit the friends on the list - and then, in turn, visit the people on the friends' lists of friends. An individual may create multiple online identities or personae; user data is rarely verified or checked.
Most social networking sites allow users to leave messages or comments on their friends' pages or profiles. Comments are usually displayed in reverse chronological order, open to anyone who can view the profile. Visitors can also leave private messages.