In this section we discuss social networking sites that serve a wide variety of personal and professional needs, most notably the establishment and maintenance of online relationships. In my analysis of dozens of social networking services, I find two basic attitudes concerning the establishment of online relationships: 1) the service is intended as an online supplement to real-life relationships; 2) the service encourages you to make friends with people you’ve never met in real life. It doesn’t take a degree in sociology to guess which of these two approaches is going to be the most problematic in terms of negative online behaviors.
The flag bearer in the “meet new people” paradigm of social networks was MySpace. Not surprisingly, MySpace became a sort of safe haven for certain unsavory elements. In 2009, MySpace identified and removed approximately 90,000 registered sex offenders from its site.2
In contrast, Facebook was intended as a place where real friends could interact and stay connected online. As Andrew Romans reported,
One of the Facebookers told me that the reason they beat MySpace so handily is that each Facebook user was verified as being who they claimed to be. On MySpace, I would receive invites from some hot girl in a bikini asking to be my friend, but I could tell that it was probably some big, fat, hairy man or some Indian dude in a call center, gaming the system for some spam junk-mail client. With Facebook, you could tell that your friends were indeed your friends. Facebookers I know credit that as one of their success ingredients.3
While it would be instructive to review a list of popular sites in order to gauge their relative safety, the reality is that the social networking market is in constant ebb and flow, with approximately 200 major social networking sites to choose from at the time of this writing. Ten years in the future could find Facebook relegated to the scrapheap of technological history, replaced by something brand new. An understanding of fundamental principles is more valuable than a recitation of the specific pros and cons of today’s most popular sites.
While friendship-oriented websites like Facebook draw most of the press, some services exist primarily to serve professional needs and tend to be relatively safe places. Preeminent among professional social networks is LinkedIn with 300 million users. Think of an online service that stores your Rolodex, allows you to post your resume and professional information to all of your professional connections, and allows you to keep track of business associates as they move around from company to company. This service is incredibly valuable for professionals.
Through a network of your current professional associations and introductions made by your online colleagues, you can continually expand your network of professional contacts. LinkedIn finds its most valuable return during a job search. The introductions and recommendations made over the course of time find tangible payoff when it comes time to apply for promotion or new employment.4
I’m a huge fan of professional social networking sites like LinkedIn. Since members are involved for primarily professional reasons, pretty much everyone is on best behavior. I have never encountered a single problem of any concern on a professional networking site.
In contrast, some sites take the mantra of “meet new people” to the extreme. These may include a wide spectrum of cyberdating sites. To be fair, not all online dating services are created equal. You can generally tell the focus of a site by the tone of its front page. Some give off a “meat market” feel, or appeal to a prurient interest, featuring a rogues gallery of immodestly or provocatively posed members, while others have a more wholesome and uplifting feel. Either way, it’s almost impossible for operators of a social networking site to fully police its members. Since individuals who frequent dating sites are looking for love in some form, there’s an obvious slippery slope as members compete for online affection.
The best rule of thumb I can give about understanding the relative safety of social networking sites is to visit the site and gauge the spirit that is portrayed there. Do you see a meat market of scantily clad new “friends”? Probably not so good. You can learn a lot in a five minute visit to a site. The second thing I recommend very strongly is reading the policy page on the site as well as the pages relating to online safety. Here are some examples from some popular social networking sites:
- Facebook – “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life”
- Tagged – “The social network for meeting new people :)”
- Orkut – “orkut is an online community designed to make your social life more active and stimulating. orkut’s social network can help you maintain existing relationships with pictures and messages, and establish new ones by reaching out to people you’ve never met before.”
It’s relatively easy to see the cultural differences of these social networking sites. Would you rather “connect … with the people in your life” or “make your social life more … stimulating”? The philosophical foundation of a social networking site has a direct effect on the behavior of its members.
Be aware of the age policies of social networking sites.
- If the minimum age for membership in a site is 18, this is not a positive indicator that your children (or you for that matter) should be hanging out there.
- Be aware that the minimum age for a Facebook account is 13. That’s a good indicator that the site is attempting to be family friendly. It also means that if your children are younger than 13 they shouldn’t have a Facebook account under any condition. And you don’t even have to be the bad guy!
Regardless of specific focus, policies, and demographic make up, most personal social networking sites include the following features:
- Personal information and user profiles
- Friends, followers, and connections
- Blogs, status updates, and microblogging
- Discussion and comments
- Chat, messages, and email
- Music sharing
- Photo sharing
- Video sharing
We’ll discuss each of these in the following sections.