The point of social networks: Perhaps there isn’t one for everyone

I’m a member of nearly every site dedicated specifically to social networking and available in the English language (but apart from Facebook and LinkedIn, don’t bother looking because I use a pseudonym). I have Bebo, MySpace, Orkut, Facebook, LinkedIn…I used to have Friendster I think, but I have long since forgotten my log in, and at one point I was a member of the now-defunct SixDegrees. I am or have been a member of special interest communities too — I’m in three book-based communities, I was a member of 43 Things and 43 People (I had to close my account because I kept being mistaken for someone else), I’m a member of Flickr, and Youtube.

Before you write me off as a slave to every next big thing, I’m a member of most of these things for research-related reasons — investigating how people share media and opinions, or share interests in special-interest communities. I was going to write about my thoughts on the differences between two of the major online services — namely Facebook and MySpace (thoughts that were crystallized by reading an essay by the guru of social networking research, danah boyd).

Instead of unpacking the differences between MySpace and Facebook from a non-US perspective, however, I decided to think aloud here about the point of social networks. I was inspired in this endeavour by fellow 23 things bloggers JWA, who finds it hard to go back to Facebook after blogging, Sara, who is engaging in social networking with some trepidation, and Trees, who finds the only thing worse than Facebook is the staff professional development software.

Of all those social networking things I am a member of, I only look at four of them with any regularity, and I use those four for completely different reasons:

  • LinkedIn: I believe being a member of LinkedIn, and being associated with some of the prominent names in my business could possibly be good for my career. It also forces me to keep an online CV up-to-date, which (despite never being headhunted in my life) I am told is a good thing.
  • Bebo: My step-sister and one of my favourite bands are on Bebo. The band I do keep up with in other ways (see below), but when my step-sister’s cat died earlier this month, the easiest way to get in touch with her and let her know how sorry I was was Bebo.
  • MySpace: MySpace is ugly, and has a reputation for being full of predators (though danah boyd wonders if this s a social kneejerk), and is absolutely ridden with advertising, but it is a way to keep up with the absolute latest on some bands that I like — some of these bands don’t actually have any other websites. Because Myspace is so interactive, bands often post more updates here than on their own websites (where else could I learn that on Thursday my favourite band is ‘at home’ and feeling ‘calm’). Most of the time that is the real hook MySpace has for me, but there are times when it is also nice to be able to talk back to the band — like when one of the bandmembers quit a band I love, I could leave them a message of condolence. The band probably doesn’t read it, but it made me feel better. MySpace has also been a venue for music discovery — some bands have sought mer out because of my friends list, and a very few of them have even been interesting to listen to.
  • Facebook: Facebook is the social networking site I use most regularly, and the one that I have the most friends on — and they are all people I know in real life (which is a big drawcard for Facebook). It is also one of the only sites where I use my real name, largely because of the hugely flexible privacy settings. Now, Facebook has a lot going for it; the applications are especially interesting — one of the ways I spend most time on Facebook is playing Scrabble with Scrabulous — feel free to track me down and challenge me to a game). What keeps me on Facebook though is being able to get in touch with friends and familywithot remembering phone numbers or email addresses, and without even really having anything to say — I can “poke” them to let them know I am thinking of them, I can post a news item some of them might find interesting, or I can change my status (which will appear in their “home” page).

So, what is the point of all these social network things? Well, in the US, social networking sites are used by teens much the same way mobile phones are here in Australia (at least according to the teens at a recent social networking symposium) — for private inter-teen communication below the parental radar. There’s all the old stuff that is trotted out about all Web 2.0 things, you know, that “they’re interactive, they allow users to create, share and discuss content”. They’re actually the only web 2.0 styled site where (by their very nature) everyone must be a producer — at a bare minimum everyone must produce a profile. Certainly they are making scads of money for their owners and creators by selling the platforms and selling eyeballs to advertisers.

So, in answer to Trees’ question “what’s the big deal about Facebook?“, well, frankly, there isn’t one — unless you find one (and like all social networking sites, it will die a death if it can’t find a way to keep you coming back after you find one). For JWA, a social network is not as interesting as her blog, maybe because she gets more discussion on her blog, or maybe because she enjoys the process of writing. For Susan, social networking has become a way to connect with her children and is therefore a good thing. Teens (and maybe adults, too) use social networking to try on identities to see if they fit. I use social networking sites to connect, and to pass the time. While the basic driving “point” of social networking centres around connection for most people, social networking is postmodern (much to my surprise and no small amount of embarrassment at liking it) . There is no point without context, and the context is what wants, preconceptions, and social norms individuals and their groups bring from experience. So if you’re worrying about not knowing the point, you can stop worrying now, because there isn’t one (at least for you). On the flip side, if you social networking so much that you want to set a social network up, you better make sure your user experience is really good, because the experience is the whole point for the early adopters (who will drive the later success or failure of your social network as “cool” or not).


4 Responses to “The point of social networks: Perhaps there isn’t one for everyone”

  1. 1 jwa Friday, October 19, 2007 at 2:29 pm

    I agree with your comments about My Space…it’s quite ugly & even most of the templates available don’t appeal! What I am finding interesting though is a friend’s 16 year old daughter is posting quite a bit of stuff to my site & it’s fascinating to see what engages her….lots of surveys, a few jokes & she has a blog within MySpace
    where she posts some interesting creative writing, both prose & poetry. a friend of her mothers, who is a poet & has a MySpace presence crits her work & encourages her. One of a million ways no doubt MySpace is used. Feel it generally has a real under 25 feel about it though. As a teenager I wrote regular letters to my best friend, who lived in the country with jokes, scribbles, raves & quirky John Lennon/Goons humour ( it was the 60’s!!)andshe responded regularly. If we’d had MySpace back then, we probably would have been in 7th Heaven!

  1. 1 Does anyone really want to talk to a librarian? « Libodyssey Trackback on Wednesday, March 5, 2008 at 9:04 am
  2. 2 CVs, career opportunities, and connections: LinkedIn « Dana’s user experience blog Trackback on Monday, July 7, 2008 at 5:51 pm
  3. 3 The new Facebook: Not yet unfriended by users, but close « Dana’s user experience blog Trackback on Tuesday, March 31, 2009 at 5:29 pm

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