Networking communities are not a new concept to us – Edinburgh has for centuries seen the growth of bodies such as learned societies and professional associations.
Unlike our predecessors however we are able to tap into technologies which give us access to almost unlimited opportunities to interact with like-minded others via online communities and social networking websites such as MySpace (the biggest), Facebook, Friends Re-United and Bebo (kids favourite).
In general, the host websites allow users to create a profile for themselves, join groups that share common interests, upload media such as photos and videos, and hold discussions in user groups or forums. As people are fairly social beings many find it motivating to create a network of new friends or business associates and to enjoy the sense of community that this interaction can bring. The sites can also be used to maintain closer links with friends who might be moving away or to try to rekindle long lost friendships.
Because social networks can connect people at low cost they can also be attractive for commercial and political organisations looking to expand their contact base. Companies often seek to use social networks for advertising in the form of banners and text ads. The networks can also act as a customer relationship management tool for companies selling products and services. It has been noted that many hopeful 2008 presidential candidates have set up MySpace profiles, presumably in an effort to reach out to younger voters as ‘cool’ politicians.
The potential for conflict between personal and commercial use can give rise to concerns regarding users personal information or the information of interest downloaded by a user being hijacked for commercial purposes – e.g. producing a profile on an individual’s behavior. Users need to be aware of the potential for data theft or the transmission of viruses. Users often try to “collect friends”, or try to be linked to as many friends as possible. Therefore, it is not uncommon for users to receive friend requests from people that they do not know. In most social networking services however, both users must confirm that they are friends before they are linked to share information.
Also it has been widely publicised that many schools have restricted access to sites because it has become such a haven for gossip and malicious comments. Some user behaviour has given rise to concerns and the threat of predators. Many problem users are identified by the communities on the basis of self-policing. Reputable service providers will always work with users to attempt to stop anti-social behaviour and, if necessary, with appropriate agencies to try to prevent incidents of predator activity.
For most individuals the rewards outweigh the acknowledged risks and by using responsible sites and by taking a few sensible steps over the personal information uploaded we can join the ever increasing numbers enjoying the whirl of the social networking scene.