There’s a good chance you and I don’t know each other. You’re reading this web site. I’m writing for it. We are tenuously connected. Still, it’s possible you have friends who know me. Or they may have friends who know my friends. Our friends’ friends’ friends probably know each other in some way.
Scientists called it the “small world problem”. We know it better as the “six degrees of separation”, the idea that there are about six social hops between every human on the planet.
Those tenuous connections and the desire to stay in touch is what drives Internet-based social networking. It’s the hottest trend since, well, the Internet.”
So what is a social networking site, anyway? While incarnations vary, a site using social networking technology meets three golden criteria:
- Friends: What puts the “social” in social networking is connecting with people you know. “The primary component â€¦ is that you have a list of friends and you can establish your relationship with them in some way,” said Jay Goldman, president and co-founder of Radiant Core, a Toronto-based web company, known for its expertise in social networking.
- Friends of Friends: The second key feature is that your friends can see a list of all your other friends.
- Content Creation: The glue that holds it all together is user-created content like photos, videos or simply text posts. Site participants design and update their own pages or a profile to reflect their personality, and share it with friends. “There has to be a reason why people read your profile,” said Goldman
The social network success stories include some of the biggest web properties on the Internet today. It all started in 2002, with Flickr – Photo Sharing (Learn about Flickr). At the time, it was an online game that had a photo sharing function. “The photo sharing was, by far, the most popular part,” said Goldman, “so they abandoned the game. Flickr became one the earliest social networks.”
Around the same time, Friendster launched. Web experts point to the site as the flash point for the social networking trend. However, being first didn’t ensure Friendster’s success.
It was MySpace, a site built largely around teens and their love of music that took social networking to the mass market. The site lets users build their own personal pages and post about music they love. An MP3 player can be installed on a user’s page to play tunes by their favorite bands. Four years after its launch, MySpace is ranked as the sixth most popular site in the world.
But the real rising star of social networking today is Facebook. Harvard University student Mark Zuckerberg who developed the site, modeled it after the paper facebooks, orientation guides given to incoming students at U.S. colleges.
At Facebook’s core is the ability to locate friends, colleagues and long lost acquaintances, and stay up to date with them in their daily lives. Every user’s personal profile gives their friends a sense of who they are and what they are up to. For example, if a person adds photos or posts a public message, all their friends are notified.
Will Pate, online community consultant at Will Pate, says social networking gives people access to communities of people that matter to them in a way that Web search engines never could. “Google is not the way to go if you want to find out what your friends are doing on the weekend. Facebook does. It’s hyperlocal,” he said.
Social networks can also be tools for business people. LinkedIn: Relationships Matter is a social network for business people. It connects them with colleagues, customers and suppliers. They can use the site to further their work life by asking for introductions by people they know to people they need to get to.
Facebook can also be used for business connections, but you have to be careful. There’s no separation between personal and business friends. Your less professional social interactions can be seen by everyone including your boss, your clients or your customers you have added as “friends”.
There are 34 million people registered on Facebook today. According to Alexa, a Web ranking site, Facebook belongs in the top 10 visited web sites on the planet. In Canada, Alexa ranks Facebook as #1 ahead of Google.ca, Yahoo and MSN.ca.
In Toronto, more than 800,000 Facebook users identify themselves with the Toronto community. That suggests that one in five people in the Toronto area is on Facebook. That one–in–five ratio holds true in Vancouver, too, with a Facebook community of 400,000 in a region that has a population of 2 million. Meanwhile, the Halifax Facebook community is even stronger, per capita, with a remarkable 147,000 registrations against a population of upwards of 372,000 citizens. While Facebook only caters to people who speak English, Montreal has a community of 211,000 registrants in a city of 1.85 million people, though 18.5 per cent of those speak English at home on a regular basis (according to Statistics Canada 2001 census).
Into the future, expect major brand-name sites to either acquire of develop social networking networks or integrate social networking functions in their existing web sites. Interacting with other users in some meaningful way will become a given on most major sites.
Pate believes that the personal profile you build and the content you develop about yourself will also become portable, so that you don’t have to replicate it on every social networking site you visit.
Meanwhile, all eyes are on Facebook.
The company took a giant leap recently when it evolved from a web site to a software development platform, much the same way Microsoft Windows is a platform for third-party programs.
Software programmers can now create Facebook applications that users can install on their accounts.
For example, the Top Friends application lets you name your favorite friends. The Fun Wall application allows you to post multimedia to a friend’s wall. Meanwhile, the Vampires, Werewolves and Zombies programs let you “bite” each other.
Most of the first-generation programs add modest functionality, but it keeps Facebook fresh and interesting to its users.
Application developers are now waiting for the company to develop e-commerce functionality on their platform. When that happens, Facebook will be almost unstoppable, because faithful visitors combined with money becomes an economy, a social economy. That formula will almost guarantee its success.
“At the moment,” says Goldman, “the future is whatever Facebook says it is.”