Yes, I realize that social networking is not new. Yes, even the online social networks that are the focus of this article have been around for a few years. Consider this, though: the ability for human beings to communicate clearly with one another, anywhere in the world, without a need for any acquired knowledge outside of one’s own spoken and written language, and practically instantaneously, arose from the telephone. The earliest such clear communication from one place to another removed place, that is documented, happened on March 10th, 1876.
America Online was founded in 1983, over a century later, and was the biggest online social network of its day, back when AOL implied it was an interface for the internet and before the general public realized that was untrue. MySpace came about twenty years after that and really generated a recognition of the capabilities of the online social network, but was loosely regulated and regimented. And on September 26, 2006, facebook.com opened itself up to anyone with a valid email address.
Thus, the social networking scene of today only began a few years ago and is still new in the grand scheme of things. I’ve only been on facebook since 21 August 2007!
* the editorialization above is mine, of course
The social networking technologies I currently use are: facebook, twitter, linkedin, instant messaging, and blogging (henceforth, The Big Five). I still email, occasionally. I basically email for work and to those acquaintances of mine who have not joined one of the social networks. There are two of those people in my circle of contacts. Two.
I first started using the internet with my Apple IIe back when Compuserve competed with AOL for dial-up modem users and the hackers found BBS’s to keep them entertained and scoffed at services that had GUI’s. And nobody who used a computer was considered cool by any stretch of anyone’s imagination. Once I got into university, I discovered these things called unix and VMS and acquired something called an email address. I learned to finger people and carry that shame with me to this day. In these early days, the only way I knew to communicate with someone via computers was to find them on AOL and mail them within that service, or find someone in JHU’s printed mail directory (fingering them to make sure it was the right person — sounds awful, doesn’t it?) and then mailing them there. I probably used pine to do it, too, since I didn’t like elm. What the hell am I talking about?
Back on track, one day while trying to figure out how to use a computer to tackle a physics internship project, I discovered a program on a Sun station called NCSA Mosaic. Some user before me, I think, had set the homepage to WebCrawler. I knew pretty much nothing about what was in front of me, but there was some sort of field where I could type and some sort of button that my cursor could click and thus my life’s productivity began its downhill journey. (for younger readers, this is akin to discovering Google for the first time)
What I discovered then, and subsequently cherished for about a decade, was an unrestricted access to anything that the world wide web of tubes had to offer. If I wanted to find out information about an actor on Friends, I wasn’t limited to what AOL was willing to show me. If I wanted to communicate with someone from my youth in Korea, they didn’t have to be at my university, all I needed to do was track ’em down with InfoSpace or WhoWhere. My previously restricted access to only my joined services exploded into access to anything broadcasting the http service. And I adored that freedom. I reveled in it like a non-nerd might revel in backpacking across the globe.
Sad to say, from the beginning of my use of the internet, I ran into spam and spoofing. I fell victim to some scams at first, just like most newcomers to internet fraud. By the early 2000’s, I was getting a ratio of something like 1000:1 spam emails to legitimate emails, even using a new email address! When I first discovered MySpace, through a swing dancer friend, I suddenly found a way in which I thought I could communicate with people from all around the world… but only REAL people, not spammers and scammers. That lasted a day or two. The overwhelmingly irritating abundance of abusers on that site made me wish for a service that was similar in robustness but with better security against annoyances. And then came facebook and the other internet technologies I currently use.
The primary reason I use The Big Five in order to communicate with the world at large is that I am, by and large, shielded from garbage feedback. If I don’t want to see junk from an app on facebook or to be friends with someone there, I block it or ignore them, respectively. I choose who I follow on twitter. I choose my connections on LinkedIn. I choose who I instant message and whose IMs I accept. And there are lovely plugins that protect me from spam on this wordpress-powered blog. If a service is more annoying than it is rewarding, I’ll take my time and money elsewhere. BTW, this is also why hulu.com generally kicks youtube’s ass: more reward than junk.
These days, most of my legitimate emails are either internet purchase receipts, or notifications from a service for which I signed up. There are many reasons why I like facebook, but here’s a quick one for anybody who’s not already onboard: how would you like it if all your emails were ones you actually wanted to read? There you go.
And each of The Big Five fulfills a different desire for me:
- facebook is like a great unending party full of my friends. Sometimes they’ll wander off to another corner, other times they’ll run up to me to share a fun meme, and once in a while something crazy will happen involving a sheep or a muppet. When one friend passes out another might wake up. I always share at least one thing in common with each person there. Occasionally there are an abundance of shared interests and discovering them at the party makes us closer friends. We walk by each other and make comments like, “Hey, it was good to see you at such-and-such,” and “Oh, we should totally do this and that,” and “Happy Birthday!”
- twitter is similar but more in the vein of multiple conversations going on simultaneously, all of which revolve around, “So, what are you up to?”. The added benefits here are that you are perfectly welcome just to listen, and to listen to people whose paths you might never cross in real life. I’m enchanted by @feliciaday’s tweets and often laugh out loud at @michaelianblack’s tweets. I may reply to them once in a while in a semi-fan/semi-peer sort of way, but I don’t envision meeting them in real life. On the other hand, I also follow some friends and find this a great insight into their streams of consciousness.
- LinkedIn is my business networking in a social framework. I connect to various acquaintances and collect and give out recommendations in the hope that we’ll all mutually increase each other’s career values. If I came across a business opportunity, I’d immediately look to my LinkedIn connections first to pass it along.
- Instant Messaging / texting is email and telephone’s faster and cooler lovechild. I do realize those aren’t the same things, yet… I suspect they soon will be. This is my preferred method of direct communication when I don’t feel the need for the richer and more dynamic nature of a spoken conversation. It’s like a private conversation that stops and starts by either side’s whims, somewhat regardless of their current situations.
- Finally, Blogging is contemporary journalism. Sometimes, it’s simply a biased reporting of facts, other times (like this), it’s outright editorializing or feature writing. Today’s novice reporters need have no credentials but their own work, and not necessarily any sources but their own experiences. A gullible reader can easily be led astray from the truth, but I suspect that blogs will just train internet users to question more and sift reality from the falsehoods better than they otherwise would.
The current social networks are, obviously by inspection, inherently more limited than the internet at large. But a savvy user can choose their own connections to the existing streams of information and thus acquire a data feed that is much denser with usefulness than a yahoo search and empty of fraudulent African royalty.
What a beautiful world!