The term social networking, like social media, is subject to a few different descriptions and there is no one absolute definition. The term generally refers to the personal connections people make to each other over media that connect to the Internet (through wired or wireless means). Web 2.0 allows for the interactive nature of communication over social networks. But perhaps unique to social networking is the reality that we can communicate with others over technologies that know no geographic bounds. Social networking has the power to connect us and truly represents what it means to be in a global village.
Social networks pay a debt to the work of people like Norbert Wiener, who provided the concept of cybernetics to help conceptualize the way systems and their structures operate; the amount of control exerted over those systems; and the feedback the system receives so that it can monitor the effectiveness of the system. The root word cyber when applied to cyberspace gives us a sense of where those social networks exist in comparison to the real world. Because cyberspace is a unique concept, we can think of the way the systems that operate in cyberspace influence our concepts of space (real vs. virtual) and time (synchronous vs. asynchronous, real vs. virtual).
Wiener’s work, along with the many innovators and organizations that have conducted research into how social networks operate, has given rise to a number of theories about how humans and machines work together in a cybernetic system. With the Internet providing a distribution form that allows us to transcend time and space, and the World Wide Web making Web 2.0 possible for allowing messages to be sent back and forth, interactively and seamlessly, we have the structure available to facilitate the flow of a wide range of information. Even though we should be cognizant of the digital divide and the inequality of the people of the world to use technologies that allow us to socially network to others, we can think of social networking as the most powerful means of communicating to and with individuals and masses around the world.
Like social media, social networks influence the way people friend, follow, text (communicate), and connect to others, but they also do more. Social networks fundamentally shift the way people interact when the physical body is not present. They are continually evolving and changing, so while they are often Page 324 | Top of Articlethought of as facilitating the way we connect with others, it is also important to realize that social networks can potentially change the way people also interact in face-to-face situations because the habits and expectations we form through social media and social networks are often blurred with the type of communication we use in face-to-face communication. For example, people’s sense of what friends are can be influenced by the way they think of online friends and real-world, face-to-face encounters with friends. A sense of a person’s popularity can be influenced by the number of “likes” or “dislikes” they receive when posting something in an online format. And, most important, a person’s sense of identity or digital presence can moderate the way a person migrates from an online (virtual) space to a real-world space.
Furthermore, social networks can change the way people think about a whole host of forms of communication from personal interaction to participating in society. Intention in sending or responding to messages on social networks becomes complicated by behaviors that are not always particularly well thought out. Twitter may be a good platform for spreading jokes, memes, and pointed observations, but the short messaging service is less effective when engaging in dialogue is necessary. Even elements of participation may be unequal, or less than one might imagine, when they participate on a social network. For example, most of the people who log on to social networks are lurkers, rather than participants. A lurker is a member of an online community who observes, but doesn’t actively participate in interaction online. While it may be impossible to accurately identify how many members who read social networks are lurkers rather than active posters, a general rule of thumb is that on the Internet, only 1 percent of the members actively post online, 10 percent might interact with the posted information, but 89 percent of the traffic will be made up of lurkers ( Arthur 2006 ).
Honesty on social networks is also a subject that receives a lot of attention, from the person who hides anonymously to rant, bully, or subject someone to harm, to the person who posts an old picture on a dating site, hoping to look a little better than they might in reality. The psychological dimensions of honesty and presentation of self on a social network is complicated and best covered elsewhere in this book, but it is appropriate to note that social networks are a conduit for information, but individuals are responsible for what they post online.
Social networks often become specially focused communities that have the benefit of extending beyond traditional geographic boundaries. People on social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, or MySpace can connect with other people on the network by friending or following them—that is, by asking them to become friends or followers—and friends can see each other’s profiles that include whatever personal information the poster wants to share. Blogs, comments, photos, Page 325 | Top of Articlevideos, and music identify the host, but sometimes the messages created for one set of “friends” may not be appropriate for others, like potential employers or even older family members. People with similar interests often participate in online communities that can also be called social networks. Some networks are organized around sports, celebrity gossip, health information, or other topics.
One of the benefits of social networks is that they can operate either synchronously (in real time) or asynchronously (over time). Synchronous communication takes place in a live, often back-and-forth exchange and most closely resembles the time in thought and action as face-to-face conversation, even though the individuals participating in the communication may not be able to see each other while communicating. In asynchronous communication, participants receive and respond to messages at their leisure. For example, people often leave posts on social networks and then wait for others to read and respond. The result is a “conversation” spread over a longer time.
When it comes to political uses of social networks, gender, age, and racial gaps have been noticed in the literature on who uses social networks for political purposes. More women participate on social networks than men, and younger people and minorities are also more likely than others to use social networks.
Social capital is the idea that social networks provide value to those who participate because of a number of benefits that can come from connecting to others through the networks. In a Harvard University Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement in America, the value of social capital was found to have four major themes that are unique to social networks. Social networks facilitate information flow that helps us learn about the ideas of others. This can be very important for political and civic engagement, but it has a utilitarian purpose for helping us feel connected to others, too. There are norms of reciprocity that also evolve on social networks that facilitate a sense of belonging to a community. Collective action can often come about when people feel truly connected to each other for a specific purpose, like raising awareness of a fund-raiser to benefit autistic children, and getting people to participate. Finally, as identified in the Harvard Saguaro Seminar, solidarity and a broader sense of identity can be facilitated by social networks that help change people from having an “I” mentality to a “we” mentality ( Saguaro Seminar, 2015 ).
This idea is particularly important at a time in history when, as author Robert Putnam wrote in Bowling Alone, social conditions have made us become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures ( Putnam 2000 ). Whereas once upon a time a person would be born, live, and die within a short range of their birth family, our real world challenges have come to incorporate a loss of geographic or physical connection to primary social groups, Page 326 | Top of Articlelike family. Increasingly the migration of individuals to other places and the creation of different affinity groups can lead us to feel more like nomads than as active community members who participate in civic actions for the good of everyone in the community. Families break up, reform, and create different relationships. The social stigma of divorce, once so present in American culture in the early twentieth century, is no longer the problem it once was. The equality of civil rights, whether race, ethnicity, or class oriented, have been joined by the civil rights that have allowed same-sex marriages in different states, and a growing understanding and acceptance of the trans community. But as we see the changes emerging in the social structures that form, reinforce, and change social values, we can also feel less “connected” to the past, and the values of our parents and grandparents. Social networks may be the answer to how we may ultimately reconnect to others as well as to the structures that make it possible to thrive in a more globalized world.
When we think of social networks as replacing the type of social engagement in more traditional social structures, we start to ask a number of new questions. Do we lose part of what it means to be a member of a larger society when most of our interactions are online? What should we know about the world to be able to make more informed decisions about what we do?
One of the most fundamental questions of our current, media-saturated environment is whether social networks can fill the loss of traditional social engagement. Many scholars address this topic from the perspective of social involvement in civic matters in a democracy, and ask whether social networks can replace what has been lost in America today when so few who are eligible to vote actually go to the polls. The most recent record of voting in a presidential race was in 2012 when 61.8 percent of the eligible voting population actually cast a vote. This can be contrasted to 2010, a congressional election year, when only 45.5 percent of the population voted ( Data Web 2012 ). But certainly, voting is not the only measurement of civic involvement.
Examples of using social networking for political mobilization are apparent in the Arab Spring and Occupy Movements, but the use of social networks for direct connection to politicians and to federal agencies are also examples of political activity. Most politicians have Twitter feeds and a digital presence on social media with the hope of spreading their news and information to constituents and those who might be unsure of their position on a matter. Political fund-raising has been revolutionized by the use of social networks, which have been valuable tools to reach audiences.
But along with the use of social networks to support campaigns, the relationship of news and the public, vital to a healthy democracy, has been a concern of many. As so many legacy companies change their practices to reach niche audiences and online consumers, the role of journalism has changed, too.
One of the biggest issues in this category has to do with the loss of the professional standards of those big media companies that had formerly dominated news and information that affected what we know, and how we know it. Social media presents us with a vast range of points of view through news sources, links to more information, and even the ability to post comments (in many cases), but those benefits are somewhat ameliorated by the partisan positions of the writers. The authenticity and veracity of news undergoes less scrutiny in online news services, and, while information can be delivered quickly, it is not always delivered thoroughly.
Social networks can be updated constantly, and information can change, but whether that information is valid or not is of critical concern for the person who sees it and takes for granted that it is truthful. Similarly, the loss of major forms of newspapers once considered “official” records of events, like the New York Times or the Washington Post, have changed in status. While the print versions of these two newspaper have traditionally featured news on the front page, many online services tend to feature gossip and entertainment content. As online sources become more available, the major newspapers of record have lost some of their importance.
According to the 2015 Pew Research Group’s annual State of the News Media report, “39 of the top 50 digital news websites have more traffic to their sites and associated applications coming from mobile devices than from desktop computers” ( Mitchell 2015 ). Drawing from data reported by comScore, an analytics firm, these data reflect that people who use computers (desktop and laptop) tend to spend more time on the sites they consume, while mobile consumers spend less time on news sites.
If we consider how and why most people use social networks, we can shed light on some of these social issues and make some reasonable assumptions about how and in what way(s) social networks help a person negotiate information about their worlds that influences their sense of self within that world. While sweeping statements may provide summary points, they should not be taken as a reflection of every aspect of using social networks.
When social networks are viewed with the idea of connecting people to things they care about, we see the mediating factors of people in shaping what we know. Perhaps using social networks for news and information brings someone into a position of seeking viewpoints they share, and there may be some negative impact of that as people screen out diverse viewpoints, but we can’t assume that always happens. If we look at the sheer amount of information available on the web, we can be optimistic about the wealth of information to which many of us have access. At the same time we need to be aware that not everyone participates on social networks, and they may have a different viewpoint of the relationship of media and the environment.
While social networks do fundamentally allow us to connect to others for purposes of friending and following, the way we use social networks influences the Page 328 | Top of Articlerange of information to which we may expose ourselves. News and participation in a political environment are possible, but not necessarily inevitable. With more people using social networks for entertainment and the more amusing aspects of connecting to others, we need to wonder whether the promise of the Internet and World Wide Web are really becoming true.
But we can be sure of one thing. Social networks will change and evolve over time. At any moment we can see a snapshot of present-day reality, but realize that social media and social networks are still in their adolescence. We have a long way to go before they reach maturity.
See also: Anonymity ; Arab Spring ; Blogs ; Digital Divide ; Identity ; Occupy Movement ; Privacy
Arthur, Charles. 2006. “What Is the 1% Rule?” The Guardian. Accessed January 8, 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2006/jul/20/guardianweeklytechnologysection2 .
“Data Web: Voting and Registration.” 2012. U.S. Census Bureau. Accessed May 6, 2015: http://thedataweb.rm.census.gov/TheDataWeb_HotReport2/voting/voting.hrml .
Fallows, James. 2010. “How to Save the News.” The Atlantic Monthly, 305: 44–56.
Gainous, Jason, and Kevin M. Wagner. 2014. Tweeting to Power: The Social Media Revolution in American Politics. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 44–45.
Mitchell, Amy. 2015. “State of the News Media 2015.” Pew Research Center. Accessed May 6, 2015: http://www.journalism.org/2015/04/29/state-of-the-news-media-2015/ .
Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement in America. n.d. Harvard University Kennedy School. Accessed January 8, 2015: http://www.hks.harvard.edu/programs/saguaro/about/the-original-saguaro-seminar-meetings .
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX6485200150