Twitter and MySpace. Social networking is one of the hottest trends online, with everyone from teens to baby boomers signing up for them with a passion. Millions of users log on every day to communicate, share information, video, and photos, and keep in touch, all with the click of a mouse. While there are amazing benefits to using these sites for business and pleasure, there are quite a few detriments, too.
A Short History of Social Networking
Social networking seems like a relatively new online phenomenon, but ever since the World Wide Web began, there have been areas where people could meet online, socialize, and share like interests. Geocities and Tripod are only two early examples. However, social networking really took off around the turn of the 21st century, and it has been going strong ever since. One of the first modern social networking sites was created by students from New York University -- Dennis Crowley and Alex Rainert, who created Dodgeball.com. It was a mobile service designed to send messages to friends and acquaintances so they could meet at specified locations. For example, if a person was having dinner at a New York restaurant, they could send a message via their cell phone to friends on their list, inviting them to stop by and say "hello." Google acquired Dodgeball in 2005, and shut it down in 2009, replacing it with one of their own applications. Dodgeball was especially popular with young singles, and its founders realized they were on to something. A marketing expert notes, "Enter: Absolut vodka, the first major brand to take notice of Dodgeball, testing the nascent service as a way to reach affluent young hipsters when they're most likely to be enticed to indulge in the marketer's product" (Mathieson 177). Absolut began advertising on Dodgeball's Web site and to its members, a trend that continues with the most popular social networking sites today. Social networking has grown tremendously in popularity in the past decade, as well. Two other writers note, "Lenhart and Madden (2007), senior researchers for the Pew Internet and American Life Project, said that in the past five years social networking has 'rocketed from a niche activity into a phenomenon that engages tens of millions of Internet users'" (Williams, and Merten). Once, most adults stayed away from social networking sites, but today, older users are using sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and others, not only to find old friends and stay in touch, but also to market their business products and services to a much larger audience.
MySpace, one of the most popular and well-known social networking sites, came online in 2003, Facebook emerged as a college-geared site in 2004, and Twitter emerged in 2006. For a time, MySpace was the most popular site in the world, especially with younger users, but Facebook has eclipsed My Space, especially with older users (Ostrow). However, MySpace remains the most popular, at least in terms of earnings. One writer notes, "MySpace remains the most profitable social network, generating an estimated $1 billion in revenue versus $300 million for Facebook in 2008" (Ostrow). Clearly, social networking is the wave of the future on the Internet, and more advertisers and users are jumping on board every day. That leads to many benefits for users and marketers, too.
The Benefits of Social Networking
As most users can attest, there are numerous benefits to social networking on sites like MySpace and Twitter. It allows people to keep in touch, find old friends, catch up on daily activities, and make new friends. They can also find the latest breaking news, connect with other business owners and professionals, and market their products to a huge audience.
Adolescents were some of the first people to pick up on the social networking craze, and it benefits them in many ways. A study of adolescents using social networking sites indicates it benefits them in a wide variety of way. The authors note, "It is an advantage to understand that adolescents use social networking sites to quasi-publicly experiment with their identity, trying out different roles" (Williams, and Merten). Because so many students use these sites, parents, teachers, and school administrators are finding many uses for social networking both inside and outside of the classroom. Three writers state, "High school teacher Alyssa Trzeszkowski-Giese claims that her profile on Facebook has allowed her to establish deeper relationships with and understandings of her students because she can communicate with them beyond the four walls of the classroom" (Carter, Foulger, and Ewbank). This leads to a better relationship with her students, more information she can communicate to parents, and develops more trust and spontaneity in the classroom. Teachers are also using sites like MySpace to notify their students about upcoming homework and quizzes, and to boost attendance in after school clubs and activities.
Many critics believe that young people spending so much time online at social networking sites is detrimental. They think it keeps them from exercising, and teaches poor communication skills. However, recent studies indicate just the opposite. Social networking actually teaches adolescents some valuable skills. A reporter notes, "But we found that spending time online is essential for young people to pick up the social and technical skills they need to be competent citizens in the digital age" (Goff). The findings of this study also indicate that young people who might have different interests that isolated them from many of their peers, can find like-minded individuals online, so they develop social skills and do not feel left out when they use these sites.
Journalists and businesspeople are also discovering the benefits of social networking. Another writer notes, "Most reporters don't troll MySpace looking for stories, but some have built it into their backgrounding routine, especially when it comes to pieces involving younger people. Sometimes, journalists get tips on pages that might be helpful in connection with a particular story" (Spencer). Reporters have found gang-related information on social networking sites, background information on individuals, and experts predict more journalists will rely on personal pages for background information in the future.
Even churches are using social networking sites to their benefit. Many youth pastors are using Facebook and other sites to help connect with their youthful members, and bring others into the fold. Another writer notes, "Schmoyer said Facebook works as an outreach tool as well, because online friends of the students see updates on what is going on at their friends' church. If an activity sounds interesting to them, then they might visit" (Mehlhaff). There are even specific social networking sites serving churches only, where they can set up their own page and broadcast their message to those that befriend them online.
Some of the Problems with Social Networking
Of course, while the benefits of social networking are still being discovered, there are many problems with these very public sites, as well. First, identity theft and hackers posting viruses that attack user computers are just two of the dangers of social networking. The highly public MySpace case, involving a Missouri mother who created a fake profile on MySpace, and then taunted one of her daughter's classmates, ultimately led to the girl's suicide, and the mother was prosecuted for it. Incidents like these indicate how important it is for parents to monitor their children's use of social networking sites, and just a few of the problems associated with so much public information available online.
Another problem is the tendency to post extremely private information in an extremely public environment. Two authors continue, "The present study proposes that online social networking profiles posted by adolescents contain intimate, candid, and observable self-disclosure and peer interaction that can be analyzed creating an overall picture of adolescent behavior" (Williams, and Merten). While this information may be appropriate for friends, it is available to everyone, and that could include predators and pedophiles who would like to prey on these young people. As in the Missouri case, cyber bullying is another big problem with these sites, so parents should monitor their child's participation. Experts recommend that before they allow their child to set up a profile on social networking sites, they should know the child's password, and consistently monitor their content in their profile.
Obviously, the sites pose a problem for businesses as well. What happens if an employee posts exclusive or sensitive information about the business on their profile? What if they talk about stock prices, layoffs, or other insider information? All of these situations can create problems in businesses. Another writer notes, "Even the perception of what can seem an extraneous comment could have far reaching impact on stock prices or company reputation" (Author not Available). In addition, many employees have been disciplined or even fired for comments they made about their businesses, and teachers have been fired for inappropriate comments or content on the personal profiles. Three writers state, "Anu Prabhakara, a foreign language teacher at Southern Middle School in Maryland, was investigated by her school board after posting content critical of…