Social networking sites (SNS) have gained much momentum since the dot-com boom at the start of the new millennium. Approximately 62 percent of people who are connected online use social media to communicate (Reaney, 2012). What was once an uncommon activity, SNSs include millions upon millions of users, most of which whom engage in networking for a variety of reasons.
Characteristics of Social Networking Sites
Networking websites embody many characteristics of Web 2.0, including an interactive, user-based platform built around the notion of a personalized profile page that reflects how you want to be perceived. Along with a profile, another important aspect of social networking is being able to link to the circle of friends that your acquaintances have built, creating a world that is truly connected by a few clicks of a mouse.
SNSs not only allow for users to stay connected more frequently, but they also provide a more personal user experience in a generation founded upon technology. Like other web-based services, there is a mass conglomeration of social networking websites springing up on the Internet. According to its website, Facebook boasts more than 800 million active users, while Twitter, which is growing even faster, claims more than 500 million active users. Social media accounts for the majority of time spent online.
Social networking sites have gotten much attention recently as privacy has become an increasingly important issue as younger children begin to use these sites. Further, a recent study by USC revealed that the younger generation is less likely to hesitate to give out personal information on sites like Facebook. The generation known as “millennials” has become ever more engaged with social media sites, ranging from “liking” a product on Facebook, or sharing their location, and tweeting private information. The number of 18-34 year olds who were willing to share their personal information was 56 percent compared with 42 percent for those 35 and older.
Various Uses of SNSs
Although it would be easy to categorize SNSs as a tool used to keep individuals connected, that would be an oversimplification. Different sites serve diverse roles that fit into the various niches to improve Internet accessibility. Below, we highlight three important uses of social networking sites that are shaping the way people are engaging themselves within the Internet:
Personal networking: For example, Facebook and Twitter have been categorized as “lifestyle” social networking tools, where users actively upload photos, update their interests, and comment on other user’s activities. Similarly, sites such as LinkedIn aim toward working professionals and make searching for jobs and networking with colleagues more convenient.
Corporate and Market Research: Because social networks have such a large pool of users, they have also become a new form of market outreach. Although the largest demographic among SNS users is the college population, companies and other individuals are beginning to submerse themselves in this platform to target. More than 45 percent of the current users on Facebook are 45 years or old or older, and everyone from musical artists, clothing lines, and televisions shows have accounts (Skelton, 2012).
Companies are eager to expand their reach turn to SNSs to gather demographic information and improve marketing tactics. One way that corporations reach out to users is through ad sales. Social media ad spending will reach $11 billion by 2017, according to reports (Stambor, 2013). Ads seen on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, the two sites that dominate more than 70 percent of SNS ad sales, are customized to user preferences.
For examples, if a person has stated liking a particular musical artist on their page, ads that appear in the banners will be related to that artist or other musicians similar to the group. We are heading away from a mass-marketing approach to a niche strategy that utilizes the advances technologies of the Web.
Besides boosting ad sales, SNSs are becoming a platform for business-exchange. Recently, Visa was the first company to launch an application directed towards small businesses on Facebook. The credit card company has teamed up with Google, The Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Forbes.com, and Microsoft to provide tools, such as expert and Q&As with business professionals, within this network so emerging companies can better target their consumers.
Social Networking and Law Enforcement
The use of social networking has begun playing a prominent role in combating terrorism and seen by the recent Boston Bombings event. In this case, thousands of witnesses flooded the Internet and authorities with evidence in the form of pictures and video, taken mostly from cell phones. While police were initially overwhelmed by the large amount of evidence at their disposal they also had to take into account the investigation that was taking place parallel to their own. This occurred when users of online social networking sites like Facebook and Reddit, began examining evidence that was made available by other users and started making conclusions based on it. This resulted in innocent bystanders being accused of setting off the devices.
Theories that began on these sites were sent spinning out into the Web and some news sources began to pick them up and use them, as the falsely accused rushed to defend themselves online. These amateur investigations began to hurt the official one, forcing authorities to stay one step ahead of the Internet vigilantes. The events of the Boston Bombings highlight both the benefit and the drawback of an interconnected world, with untold amounts of recording devices being used on a daily basis (Montgomery, 2013). The use of social media will continue to be instrumental in law enforcement in the coming years, however, it also showcases its limits and how police should deal with similar events in the future.
Activism at home and abroad
Social networking sites also facilitate the mobilization of grass-root movements, especially among the younger generation. One such example is the Darfur cause. The Genocide Intervention Network (GI-Net), a non-profit aiming to promote awareness, advocacy and fundraising for civilians, started out as an on-campus organization that now includes over 300 colleges and 200 high schools in less than two years. GI-Net utilizes platforms such as MySpace, LiveJournal and Facebook to spread information about the organization. In many cases, students themselves were “self-organizing” within these sites, rallying friends on the site to learn more about the cause.
On a more serious level, social networking activity in the Middle East is stirring great controversy within political infrastructure. Nir Boms, Vice President of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East, states “the internet has provided Arab activist groups with a new medium of expression: it quickly has become the preferred domain for many opposition groups that have little or no access to traditional forms of media” (Boms, 2008).
For example, SNSs played a significant role in the spread of the Arab Spring and revolts of early 2011. In Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt, civil unrest was spread through social media sites and protestors were given a place to organize. Due to restrictions placed on conventional media, the Internet provided a perfect platform for dissenters to voice their opinions and spread their ideals (Abbas, 2011).
In the 2009 Iranian Presidential Election, the SNS Twitter, played an vital role in the organization and information dissemination efforts of the Mousavi supporters. The reformist camps used Twitter to circumvent strict governmental political oversight and rally support.
The effect of social networks in the Middle East since the Arab Spring can still be widely felt even after two years. The governments of some of these countries now use Twitter and Facebook to communicate with citizens. Most famously this could be seen when President Morsi of Egypt issued his policy announcements via Facebook. In other countries such as Iran, political candidate Hooshang Amirahmadi has taken to Reddit, answering questions from all over the world. Unfortunately, the use of social networks has also proven to be a detriment to the Arab Spring, leading to a high level of political polarization as debates take place online rather than in moderated forums. This type of infighting has led to the loss of interest in the West for many of the movements (Goldman, 2013).
In contrast to general SNSs like Facebook, niche-specific sites have been growing in popularity because people are searching for a more private, community-based network that larger sites can no longer provide. It is an “inevitable reaction” to “leave for a smaller, more personal experience,” says senior analyst Deborah Williamson of eMarketer (Holahan, 2007). Of these sites, online support groups are highly sought after.
For example, Patients Like Me is a recently emerging SNS that acts as an online therapy group in which people can search for others with similar experiences or share their own stories to help others cope. Individuals who suffer from HIV/AIDS, depression, and Parkinson’s disease now have a common space to seek advice and learn about new treatment without distance barriers. SoberCircle is another example of an online support group, specifically for those overcoming addictions.
Global Reach of Networking
Looking at the figure below, we see that social networking sites have a global reach. For instance, V Kontakte is most popular in Eastern Europe and Russia, while Facebook is heavily concentrated in North America, Europe and Africa. The growth of Facebook throughout the world has begun to foster the global connections that these sites sought out to develop.
Because social network sites span across nations and cultures, many networks are beginning to adapt to these changes. One example is XIHA, a Finland-based start up, which bridges language barriers by offering the first multilingual SNS. According to Jani Penttinen, the Co-Founder and CTO at XIHA, the website was created out of the necessity to provide an online community that wasn’t based around one language. “Users can simultaneously select as many languages as they know or want to learn. Our technology platform recognizes and filters the languages, so that the user generated content is displayed based on the language preferences” (Multilingual Social Network XIHA Life Creates Cross-Cultural Connections, 2008). As time continues on, the website hopes to provide over 100 languages for users to choose from. XIHA is changing the way people perceive communication across borders.