What happens when millions of people engage in social networks? Online communities are not a new phenomenon, but the creation of large online meeting spaces marks a new era and new dimensions. In this post, I will look into the different cultures of social networks. In a later post I will be looking at their potential.In last week's post I provided an overview on the growth of social network memberships worldwide.
What is happening in these social networks and what are the implications? A great analogy comes from Anand Giridharadas, who wrote an article by the title "Behind Facebook’s Success: It Takes a Village". Anand argues that being in a social network is like living in a village, where you can share your thoughts, emotions, news, and more – something like entertaining neighbourhood relationships, with the difference that geographic location, physical distances and time do not matter anymore and interactions can occur on a global scale, 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Once you establish your network with a multitude of members, "you are compelled, as in the village, to know their business. It’s strangely nice."
Online social networks are not a new phenomenon. Back in the 80's Usenet newsgroups were already popular in University and research environments thanks to the computer networks already established (such as JANET in the UK. These thematic newsgroups were used to form online groups with the objective of exchanging information often through dial-up connections. These type of interactions led to the coining of the term of “virtual communities”. A lot has changed since then. Nowadays, whoever can access to an Internet connection, can join online communities. The choice of platforms outnumbers the absorption capacity of even the most active Internet surfer, and social networking sites offer an increasing number of applications, fast-growing membership and burgeoning communities of interests.
A social network can be any sort of community using a variety of means to interact like email, forums, or platforms such as Twitter or free and open software applications such as Drupal and Buddypress.
In the development context one can find thematic networks like the following:
- Business Fight Poverty
- Bottom of the Pyramid
- Social entrepreneurs
- Knowledge Management for Development (KM4DEV)
- United Nations Global Alliance on ICT for Development
- DGroups – development through Dialogue
Today, social networks represent also increasingly important safety- and support nets for migrant communities and diasporas worldwide as they represent a new way to reconnect people and exchange information. Interesting examples are those of the Dominican Diaspora or Bolivianos Globales.
The most vibrant platforms are frequently those offering low barriers to engagement and an array of networking and exchange facilities.
Engagement on social networks offer a range of opportunities, including – but not limited to - the following:
- entering a user profile and professional CV,
- setting up a personal home page,
- publishing information,
- searching for and connecting with people having something in common,
- setting up groups and subgroups according to criteria of free choice, and
- initiating any form of collaborative initiative or collective action.
In a mailing list, a discussion is centred on a topic within a well-defined group, however social networks offer many facilities for extending one's network, discovering like-minded people, publishing different media and interacting at various levels. All this triggers a potentially higher level of engagement, ranging from contributing comments to starting and managing a group. For example, on Facebook – where one can use an increasing number of applications - “Two-thirds of Facebook members log on at least once every twenty-four hours, and the typical user spends twenty minutes a day on the site. (Cassidy)”. The major concept behind social networks are friends, either real-life or only online friends. These relationships can be strengthened, although do not necessarily increase actual friendships. "People who are members of online social networks are not so much “networking” as they are “broadcasting their lives to an outer tier of acquaintances."
In developing countries social networks have become increasingly popular and are used mainly for entertainment. But these forms of social networking can lead to further collaboration going beyond leisure. According to a study, surfing the internet, playing games and hanging out on social networks are important for teen development. Nevertheless there is an ongoing debate about the educational value of such online networks. As shown by a diagram published by the New York Times. It is not only the younger generation, which creates new spaces online. In the case of Facebook with its 200 million members the trend is towards an increasingly adult membership.
Without doubt there is a price tag attached to joining and engaging in some of these networks. As a researcher puts it, it all starts when social networks undermine privacy and make commercial use a personal data. The case of Facebook's terms of service illustrates how the company intended to openly use such data. The magazine Wired called it the "Great Wall of Facebook: The Social Network's Plan to Dominate the Internet". There are however many social network sites to choose from, some of which are non-for-profit and focus only on exchange. Examples are Dgroups, Development Gateway and the Eldis community.
Giridharadas concludes: "… we make the same bargain as villagers: that, in surrendering privacy, we gain community. This is not about deep bonding. For that, stick to e-mail, the phone and — remember it? — human interaction. Social networks offer only ambient love. They maintain not your 10 key relationships, but your hundred semi-key mini-relationships."
People engaging in social networks from developing countries face many constraints including – to name a few – limited, unreliable and costly internet access. Most of the exchange and publishing occurs online and little can be done offline. In addition language is an added constraint. Although many social networks offer support in a number of languages, there are few bridges to translate content - a good example being Global Voices.
Author: Christian Kreutz
written by Lisa25aL, January 14, 2010