Getting Involved with Online Social Networks

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Are you interested in exploring the wide world of online social networks?  Do you have specific interests that you’d like to explore with others?  Well, have no fear – these days there are opportunities for social networking on almost every subject you can imagine.

Social Network Definition

On some social networks, you can chat about any subject. With others, you can find information about specific areas, from decorating to music to religion.  You can advertise your abilities and look for new jobs.  Social networks cover a range of options and allow you to interact with people who are just like you or who are completely different.  You could make a new connection, find a new business contact, or just make a friend.

A social networking definition is hard to narrow down since so many sites offer different options for their members.  Dictionary.com defines a social network as “a network of friends, colleagues, and other personal contacts.” But with the advent of the Internet, that definition has changed to include any online community that uses technology to exchange various types of information.

Basically, social networks allow their users to exchange information, create contacts with each other, and establish a connection over the Internet, either on computers or cell phones, which might not otherwise be possible.  Social networks can cross the country or cross the world – there is no limit to the range of members that can be tapped “or friended” as Facebook describes their process.

When it comes to the Internet, the very definition of “social networking” has changed.  You may have friends or followers on your Internet social networking site that you literally never met.  They may “follow” you because of your interest in cooking, religion, or politics.  Maybe they liked your “Tweet” (See below for definition) about the latest HBO series, or a new movie showing on Netflix.  Suddenly a total stranger may “friend” you or join your social network.  While this enables you to meet and connect with people from all over the world, it may also come with inherent dangers.  Why does a person you don’t know at all suddenly know so much about your life?

Social Networks Users

Who uses social networking sites?  Social networking statistics demonstrate that use of these sites has exploded in the past few years.  For instance, The Pew Research Internet Project  provides a comprehensive social network analysis.  They found that “Between February 2005 and August 2006, the use of social networking sites among young adult Internet users ages 18-29 jumped from 9% to 49%.” But surprisingly, even in the over-65 age group, between the years 2005-2013, 46% of this demographic use social networking.  According to the Pew report , the average age of users for social networking sites has actually increased over the years.

And of course, users are primarily female.  This makes sense – women tend to be more sociable! There is an exception to this – the social networking site LinkedIn contains more profiles of men than women.

The top social network sites have literally millions of members.  They include everything from sites that allow unlimited content to those exclusively for dating.  Some of the most popular social networking sites allow users to share unlimited amounts of information with anyone, while others are limited to specific people and allow only a certain amount of data to be sent to others.

A List of Social Networks

The top social networking sites have very specific purposes and requirements.

  • The “Facebook” social network, with over 900,000,000 members, is the largest social networking site.  Facebook allows users to “friend” other users, to post photos, videos, comments, rants, etc.  Facebook users tend to run the gamut from conservative to liberal and they come from every populated country in the world.  You have the option of not accepting a friend request.  If someone you don’t know tries to “friend” you, take a look at their postings, photos, etc., and see if you can relate to the type of posts they think are important. If not, “decline” their invitation.

The Pew Research project finds that Facebook users tend to have closer relationships and have more trust in people than users of other networking sites. They also feel that they receive more support from their Facebook friends, and are more politically engaged.

  • The second most popular site, Twitter, is completely different from Facebook.  Unlike Facebook, where you can upload an unlimited amount of information, Twitter is considered a “micro-blog,” meaning that you can only send very short messages, limited to 140 characters, and the message is known as a “tweet.” Jack Dorsey, one of the original creators of Twitter, has described the name as “’a short burst of inconsequential information,’ and ‘chirps from birds’.”  Twitter was never designed for complicated thought processes – rather, it was designed to be used for quick social networking.

Twitter users can restrict who follows their tweets by the way they phrase their tweets.  They can also link to sites they find interesting and can even follow celebrities to keep up with current events.  But remember, this is current events in 140 characters.  Certainly a limiting method of acquiring information!

When you create a Twitter account, you get a homepage that shows your tweets and those of your followers. You can also Direct Message (DM) a fellow Twitter member and this message is private.  You can restrict DMs so only your followers can message you, so this adds a level of security to your feed. You also have the option of “retweeting” something someone else posted that you like.  Twitter users can also send information using “hashtags” that identify specific various tweets on the same topic.  This allows Twitter users who are at the same event or experiencing the same situation to respond and have their tweets associated with the event.

  • LinkedIn is a site that contains business networking opportunities, company information, and even information about available jobs. LinkedIn is billed as “the world’s largest professional network, 300 million strong.”  Members of LinkedIn can endorse each other’s skills, which enables you to get attention from potential employers. Although LinkedIn can be a great resource for business networking, the fact that members upload their own information has generated some criticism. Potential employers still need to check references and verify employment.
  • Another site with very specific capabilities is Pinterest. When you sign up for this site, you are asked to choose items that might interest you from a number of options, everything from make-up to humor to ab exercises.  You can pick one option, or pick them all.  Pinterest gives you visual options, online images that you can “pin” on your own customized electronic board.  You can create a board for any topic you’re interested in.

For instance, suppose you were redecorating your living room.  You could look up home decorating options on Pinterest and “pin” those that interested you to your board, so you could refer to it later. You can work with other people on projects and have multiple people adding items to your board.  These images can either come from other Pinterest users, or you can upload your own photos or videos.

  • According to various Web sites, Google Plus+ is supposed to be Google’s response to the Facebook social networking site. Google Plus has various options such as Google Circles which allow you to share information with various groups, and Huddle, which allows you to group chat on cell phones. Their Hangouts option allows you to video chat with multiple people.

Google Plus is currently the fifth largest social network and incorporates information from other sites to track users and gather information about them. There has been some controversy about this type of information gathering.  According to the New York Times, “The reason is that once you sign up for Plus, it becomes your account for all Google products, from Gmail to YouTube to maps, so Google sees who you are and what you do across its services, even if you never once return to the social network itself.” Nevertheless, Google Plus continues to grow.

Social networking allows you endless opportunities to connect with other people.  In many cases, you can exchange information, photos, political ideas and even humorous comments.  But always keep in mind that social networks can be dangerous.  Use good common sense when you post to social networks.

First of all, information you post is permanent and may be accessible by people you hadn’t even thought of. If you’re looking for a job, it’s probably not a good idea to post pictures of you partying. When planning a vacation, you still have to be smart about what you post!

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