The Internet has already changed the way we relate to other members of society. For those of you who have Friendster/ MySpace/ Facebook, you already have at least 10-100, maybe more, “friends”, that you never met face to face and wouldn’t have been your “friends” if the internet was non-existent. Face-to-face interaction used to be the dominant form of communication and was the medium for what I call “connection” too, which is what I consider the definitive stage of friendship where an acquaintance becomes a friend. Other alternative forms of communication, pre-internet, included snail mail or “penpals” in the past where communication was through text and maybe the occasional photograph for closer penpals.
Obviously, all that has changed with the Internet. When a single click of the mouse brings you into contact with another person’s individual universe of photos in social networking sites like MySpace/ FB, textual expressions of their thoughts on blogs, and other media like videos, you feel like you knew this person for ages. That makes “connection” all that easier when you can identity a commonality in personality or interest with this person. The ease of self-representation through internet media is the killer social-application feature here. I found that useful for me when I added a few fellow bloggers i never met on Facebook. Its amazing how people think you are worthy as a “friend” after having read your thoughts indirectly off the Internet without never knowing you. I know, I am not exactly an Internet noob but this kind of social networking still fascinates me sometimes. =)
But has the ease of media access changed social networking and made it more convenient to make friends today? In other words, do you really consider your internet social network “friends” as your real friends? That is still a fuzzy concept today. The issue of trust comes into play here. I think that as long as you can use tools or media available over the internet to build trust over time, internet social networking can really build friendships, much like pen-palling in the past. There’s something powerful about shared experiences that forges bonding and I believe such shared experiences can be forged over the internet today, either real-time or time-shifted.
Real-time shared experiences include the gaming communities of Second Life, World of Warcraft (WoW), Sims. Particularly in Second Life, some of these interactions have the potential to be very real and personal. I say “potential”, because some media outlets will pick up on wordplays and perceive all interactions to be real and personal, which is not true. Ogre-slaying in WoW and the affiliated DOTA, has become the new social activity over instant messaging, at least for my brothers and some friends I know. They can easily connect to the internet at the same time from different geographies and engage in a common activity much like hanging out at the mall or going to the movies. There’s nothing like camaraderie among friends when you band together to fight against a common enemy. And such games can be an easy extension of “connecting”, beyond communicating over IM or social network, with your internet friends whom you have never met.
Time-shifted shared experiences can also be created over the web. A simple example is an active forum discussion where forum contribution and opinion exchanging are the activities. Or perhaps two persons reading a blog article at different times and then converging to the same reactions over the comment board. I can feel strongly about global warming opinions on a blog and then find another responder who wanted to do something about conservation that I want to reach out to. If this person has an email or blog, this shared experience can be the catalyst to effective social networking.
The possibilities are seemingly endless. But dark clouds beckon in the distance. When you have no barriers to entry on the internet medium, bad eggs can come easily too. Privacy and security concerns plague the major social networks today as paedophiles, sex offenders and conmen learn about the benefits of social networking too. This has an effect on limiting the originally open, innocent and carefree nature of online social networking. THe network effects sought by social networks eventually plague them too as network scaling brings in undesirable elements. Keeping these elements out require some “walling” measures which puts the brakes and dampens network growth but are essential if online social networking is to continue to enable us to open that line of communications and connect with new friends.
I believe while the internet has certainly opened up many new social networking opportunities with the development of new social software like social networks, blogs, photo-sharing, link-sharing apps, they only help in initiating communication and not necessarily connection. But the internet has certainly disrupted social networking by drastically shortening the time cycle of the communication process. This is accomplished by the ease and immediacy of information representation between people. Getting people to be aligned along interest groups and online activities that facilitate shared experiences will be the interesting areas to look into for effective networking and also community-building. For a good article on community-building, read my friend Noah Kagan’s article here on VentureBeat.
To end off, perhaps you could ask yourself this question: how has your online social networking experience helped you make new friends and which specific aspects (ie. application features) of it was useful in making that connection?