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Originally developed in 1989, the World Wide Web has fundamentally changed the way many people shop, work, recreate and receive an education. Likewise, the emergence of e-commerce has had enormous implications for the business world and governments alike, making this innovation one of the most significant in human history. Moreover, tens of millions of new Web pages are added to the World Wide Web every day, and current signs indicate this growth will continue to accelerate into the foreseeable future. One of the more important trends to emerge in recent years has been the use of the World Wide Web for social interaction in what has been termed the "Social Web." To gain a better understanding of the Social Web and its implications, this paper provides a review of the relevant literature, followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
In just over 2 decades, the World Wide Web (WWW) has experienced truly explosive growth to the extent that there are now more than two billion users around the world (Toure, 2011). Introduced in 1989 by Timothy Berners-Lee, a computer scientist, the WWW was originally developed to provide a framework in which information could be shared between geographically dispersed research teams at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, Geneva, Switzerland (World Wide Web, 2011). Since that time, the WWW has become a global platform that is used for an enormous array of personal, commercial and governmental applications (World Wide Web, 2011). Although it difficult to obtain hard facts concerning just how many users there are, some indication of the growth of these online services can be discerned from Table 1 and Figure 1 below that shows the percentage of Americans with Internet access for the period 1995 through 2007.
Percentage of Americans with Internet Access: 1995-2007
Percentage of Americans with Internet Access
Figure 1. Percentage of Americans with Internet Access: 1995-2007
Source: Based on textual data in Toure, 2011
As can clearly be seen in Table 1 above, these percentages represent a staggering growth rate. These data were entered into an Excel spreadsheet to calculate the percentage increase during this time frame and the results are shown in Table 2 and Figure 2 below.
Percentage Increase of Americans with Internet Access
Percentage Increase of Americans with Internet Access
Figure 2. Percentage Increase of Americans with Internet Access
Source: Based on textual data in Toure, 2011
According to Alpert and Hajaj, these figures are even more impressive when the global numbers are taken into account. In this regard, Alpert and Hajaj report that, "We've known it for a long time: the web is big. The first Google index in 1998 already had 26 million pages, and by 2000 the Google index reached the one billion mark" (para. 2). Moreover, the growth rate of the WWW has continued to increase exponentially. For instance, these authors add that, "Over the last eight years, we've seen a lot of big numbers about how much content is really out there. Recently, even our search engineers stopped in awe about just how big the web is these days -- when our systems that process links on the web to find new content hit a milestone: 1 trillion (as in 1,000,000,000,000) unique URLs on the Web at once!" (Alpert & Hajaj, 2009, para. 3).
As the number of online resources continues to expand, so too do the number of online users worldwide. In 2008, there were at least a billion Internet users and by 2011, that number had already reached two billion (Toure, 2011). According to Toure, the head of the UN's telecommunications agency, "The number of internet users worldwide has reached the two billion mark. At the beginning of the year 2000 there [were] only 500 million mobile subscriptions globally and 250 million internet users. By the beginning of 2011, those numbers have mushroomed to over five billion mobile [internet] users and two billion subscribers to the internet" (Toure, 2011, para. 2).
With billions of people online, it is little wonder that the so-called "Social Web" has become an increasingly popular way for people from all over the world to interact and socialize in ways that have never been possible in the past. A useful definition for the Social Web is "The second generation of the World Wide Web which focuses heavily on user-generated content, communities, networking and social interaction, also known as Web 2.0" (Genelius, 2011, para. 1). The term "Web 2.0" is credited to Tim O'Reilly, a well-known author of several books on modern technology, who used the term in early 2004 (Waters, 2008). The primary elements and interactions that characterize the Social Web are illustrated in Figure 3 below.
Figure 3. Elements of and Interactions on the Social Web (Web 2.0)
Source: Web 2.0 for Teaches (2011) at http://www.protopage.com/web2point0forteachers
In sharp contrast to the transaction-oriented commercial enterprises that have proliferated online which facilitate the buying and selling of goods and services the Social Web is focused on communities of mutual interest and social interaction (Barnes, 2007). In this regard, Barnes groups these communities into three discrete categories as described in Table 3 below.
Categories of Social Web Communities
Communities of mutual interest.
In these communities, members have a high degree of interaction, typically on topics of common interest.
Some examples include Facebook, LiveJournal, YouTube, and MySpace.
In these, users actually create entirely new environments where they explore new personalities, stores and role-playing interactions.
Some common examples of these types of online communities include Second Life and so-called Multi-User Dungeons (or MUDs) based on popular literary themes such as World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings or Neuromancer.
This type of community is based on certain types of life experiences that members share with each other, such as bouts with cancer, resulting in the formation of strong bonds within the group. Other communities may focus on religion, divorce or other poignant life events.
Cancer Forum, an online community for cancer patients as well as their close friends and family members.
Although each of these categories of online communities has experienced rapid growth in recent years, all signs indicate that communities of mutual interest are becoming the online meeting places of choice for tens of millions of users. For instance, Anklam reports that, "The possibility for connection afforded by the Web led to Friendster.com and LinkedIn.com, the earliest of the social networking sites. These are today dwarfed by the popularity of Myspace.com and Facebook.com. By July 2006, over 140 different social networking sites were available on the Web, with an estimated 200 million user profiles" (2007, p. 11).
According to Leggatt (2009), in the Social Web environment, Facebook is currently the world's most popular social networking site with around half a billion users, but it is certainly not the only one with other sites such as MySpace, Flikr, Twitter and others receiving their fair share of users as well (Evans, 2009). As the largest and most popular site within the rapidly burgeoning Social Web, though, Facebook deserves some special attention. In this regard, Breeding emphasizes that, "It's clear that social network concepts have taken strong hold throughout so many aspects of our world. Facebook has propelled far beyond their narrow niche of tech- or media-savvy enthusiasts to the mainstream of society. From its early beginnings as a service for students from a few ivy-league universities, today, Facebook finds use by more than 400 million individuals, spanning all generations" (2010, p. 28). This point is also made by Chesire who emphasizes, "Within the past few years, online social networking has become a prevalent international cultural phenomenon. The Internet-based social network Facebook, for example, hosts a number of online bio ethics discussion groups available to its active users. Faces now accompany users' comments, which are linked to personal profiles, status updates and social networks" (2009, p. 140).
The individual users on Facebook also span all of the earth's continents, a feature that can be discerned from a map that depicts the "friendships" that exist within this Social Web site as shown in Figure 4 below.
Figure 4. Graphic representation of friendship links on Facebook as of December 13, 2010
Source: Butler (2010)
The map in Figure 3 above was created by a software engineer intern at Facebook who plotted existing friendship links within Facebook to generate a graphic representation. To the author's surprise, even the outlines of the world's continents were visible in this graphic representation, with some particularly notable "information black holes" existing in places such as large expanses of Africa, Asia and North Korea in particular. According to Butler, "Not only were continents visible, certain international borders were apparent as well. What really struck me, though, was knowing that the lines didn't represent coasts or rivers or political borders, but real human relationships" (2010, para. 3).…[continue]
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