They used to be called neighbors, pals or acquaintances. Co-workers, buddies and personal references. Now, due to the phenomena of networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, they have become "friends," "connections" and "followers."
Social networking is a societal tsunami, sweeping across the country without regard for age, ethnicity or financial status. In March, LinkedIn and Twitter alone reached more than 28.8 million people. Ning, one of the fastest-growing social network sites, now has more than 1 million networks on its service, and traffic has increased 283 percent in the last year. And in April, actor Ashton Kutcher became the first member on Twitter to recruit more than 1 million followers.
"With online social networking, you can communicate with anybody around the world in real time," said Matthew Fraser, co-author of "Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom: How Online Social Networking Will Transform Your Life, Work and World" (Wiley, 2008). "They break the constraints of time and space."
Understanding the craze
For those not familiar with the concept, social network Web sites are online communities where members share a common interest or which serve as a venue for communication.
"There are social sites, and then there are professional sites," Fraser said. "Twitter is really very much a different experience."
On sites such as MySpace and Facebook, users create a profile page from which messages can be posted and received and photos and music shared between "friends."
LinkedIn is an example of a site geared more toward professional networking, whereby users build a network of "connections." Twitter is the quirky cousin of social network sites. This platform allows subscribers to post 140-character messages which are broadcast to the users' "followers."
"Look at the semantics," Fraser said. "The words tell you a bit about what these platforms are used for."
Teens and young adults seem to be drawn to sites that allow them to share, rank and rate their music, friends and favorite things.
"Among this demographic, there's a very strong desire to present yourself in a favorable way (and) to collect friends," Fraser said.
A recent survey reported that 35 percent of American adults have a profile on a social network site and 37 percent indicated that they visit their primary online social network daily.
People who are older use social network sites for professional and recreational purposes. For adults who juggle work and family obligations, a site such as Facebook is a convenient way to stay in touch with people, while LinkedIn maximizes the "Net" to network.
"The reason why they're so popular and so appealing," Fraser said, "is because it sort of allows us to exhibit ourselves how we want."
More than a hobby
While social networks may have started out as a fad--think teenagers and MySpace--these sites are quickly evolving into a legitimate forum for interpersonal communication with applications for individuals and companies.
When Sarah Peters, executive director of The Riford Center in La Jolla, received an invitation to her 20-year high school reunion, she turned to a social network site to track down her former school chums.