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.
"I just actually started logging onto Facebook within the last month as a way to find some specific people from high school that I would like to see at my 20-year reunion," Peters said.
Of particular interest was her high school sweetheart, a boy she hadn't spoken with in 15 years.
After finding him on Facebook, she sent her former boyfriend a message with a subject line that read, "Hey, do you remember me?"
Peters admitted that contacting him through the Internet was a lot easier than calling on the phone and speaking with him directly.
"I'm almost sure I would have chickened out," she said.
On the commercial side, Fraser said savvy businesses and companies are leveraging social network sites to benefit their bottom line.
"Every single major brand is all over these sites now," he said.
For those in advertising and public relations, social networking sites are a marketing dream. Free, easy to use and with a built-in audience, the barriers to entry are very low.
Mariel Shaw, marketing associate for Del Mar-based Honest Foods, has been using social network sites for more than two years. In addition to the company' Web site, it has an online presence through Twitter, MySpace, Facebook and WordPress, a blogging site.
"I think it's great because you're not as restricted as with a traditional marketing plan," Shaw said. "You can be yourself more, and I feel like people appreciate that. It creates more transparency."
As society finesses the scope of social networking sites, Fraser said the applications will multiply. He cited examples of how President Obama used this technology during his campaign to mobilize voters and of companies that are turning to such sites to manage internal communications.
"It's not just a distraction; it's a function," Fraser said. "(Social network sites) fulfill a very vital need we all have, which is to connect with other people."
Top 20 social networking sites
- Club Penguin
- AOL Community
- Gaia Online
- Classmates Online
- CarDomain Network
- Source: Nielsen OnlineGet in the know: Social networking jargon
Get in the know: Social networking jargon
-BlackBuried: Slang for being inundated and exhausted trying to be on top of all your e-mail 24/7 with your hand-held mobile device.
-Friend: Online jargon for people who link to your mini home page on a social networking site.
-Social notworking: The practice of spending time unproductively on social networking sites, especially when one should be working.
-Twittering (aka tweeting): A play on words, "twittering" refers to telling a global community of friends and strangers what you are doing at the present moment. It comes from the original meaning of uttering a succession of small sounds (like a bird) or to chatter rapidly about trivial matters.
Source: The NetLingo Dictionary (