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Why Social Networking Matters... Sort of

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Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites, continue to explode and some people wonder why? Do they matter? What's all the fuss about, really?

Looking into this world is a bit like looking into a hall of mirrors, with reflections bouncing around all over the place. Sorting out the meaningful from the distorted is a constantly shifting challenge.

There are multiple layers of social networking and the more we understand those layers, the more we will be able to create something meaningful beyond who had what for lunch today.

For a simple definition of social networking, take a look at this 2007 video by Lee LeFever of CommonCraft.

The Net Gen is Key

Social Networking is the provenance of the Net Gen, the rapidly growing numbers of people who have grown up with the internet much like the boomers grew up with television. Call them Net Gen, Generation X, Millennials or anything else you prefer, and you still have the same phenomenon.

According to Don Tapscott in his book, Grown up Digital, 77 percent of the Net Generation would gladly give up television and couldn't live without the internet. The Net Gen grew up "bathed in bits."

A 2003 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 70% of 4-6 year olds had used a computer and 68% under two were using screen media for 2+ hours per day. And that was six years ago!

A 2008 study by Educause surveying 24,000 freshmen and seniors at 90 colleges and universities found that laptop ownership had increased from 66% in 2006 to 82% in 2008 while 66% owned internet capable cell phones. The typical student reported spending at least 20 hours a week on the internet and 7% were online more than 40 hours a week. 85% were using social networking sites, with Facebook outstripping MySpace 80% to 48%.

Interestingly, the Educause study also reported that "younger" students were using social networking, text messaging and IM's more than "older" students. YIKES! Micro generational differences could be developing within a school, between kids separated by just a few years.

Kids today expect educational content and experience to include the web, mobile devices and social media tools. For them, www means Whatever, Whenever, Wherever.

Think about those three W's and you begin to see why Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites are so powerful, both promising and potentially deflating.

So What Does Social Networking Really Mean?

The classic engineer's response seems most appropriate here: "It depends."

Social Networks attempt to build online communities of people who share interests and/or activities, or who want to know about the interests and activities of others in their "network." Web based social network services provide a variety of ways for users to interact, and include sites such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn as well as social media sites like Digg and StumbleUpon.

If the principal is about communication and connection, then it depends on what you mean by communication and connection. If it's just sharing data, then Twitter works great, whether you're letting people know that there's a plane on the Hudson, a shooter on the loose at school, or what movie you're going to see tonight.

If Twitter still seems like an oddity to you, then try Lee LeFever's video, "Twitter in Plain English":

If social networking means creating communities and connections, then we have even more "It depends" to examine.

If community, communication and connection mean finding people with shared interests, then sites like Facebook and LinkedIn can help people find resources or connections recommended by "friends," with the implication that these "connections" are more trustworthy.

If community, communication and connection mean something deeper, then we have a bit more complexity here.

The real promise, perhaps hope, of social networking lies in the need for people to feel or experience the connection between themselves and their friends. However, hour upon hour spent in front of screen based media coupled with schools that increasingly seem to be frowning upon actual contact between students, leads us to a new segment of people who are growing up with precious little real human contact.

The underlying need of people to connect with one another has laid a foundation for social networking sites to explode into prominence. The challenge, however, is that the number of "friends" in my "network" is not necessarily a good indicator of the quality of connection, intimacy, or communication I might experience.

Next week, we'll dive into the Facebook Promise and what it means to have a network of friends. In the meantime, I'd love to hear from you about how you are using social networking sites to deepen your connections and increase your communication.

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You can find out more about Russell Bishop at http://www.lessonsinthekeyoflife.com. Contact Russell at: russell@lessonsinthekeyoflife.com.
The author of Lessons in the Key of Life, Russell is an Educational Psychologist, professional life coach and management consultant, based in Santa Barbara California.

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