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Social Networking means exactly the same thing online as it does offline. It is a social structure made up of relationships and links, whether strong or weak, to people we have something in common with. Apply this to the web and you have a series of websites where people gather to interact with other like-minded individuals. Just like offline social networking people are given a forum where they have the opportunity to meet others in a familiar environment, to chat, participate in events, combine temporarily to form sub-networks, create private networks or interact in public networks.
The recent growth of Social Networking online has been seen in the proliferation of sites such as MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, Bebo, Flickr, Friends Reunited being among the more well known ones.
Some of these have a deliberate spin towards a target audience: for example, LinkedIn has a focus on professional networks with listings on where you have worked, allowing for references/recommendations to be made on your page, and even introduction requests in the same way that business networks tend to grow. As people move from one company to another, this site offers the chance to maintain your networks through your login instead of through your business card collection or paper address books.
MySpace with its focus on the ego, or the alter ego has attracted a younger demographic (13-27 years). On this site users can customise the appearance of their page to better represent who they are (or who they would like to be). As an adjunct to this demographic, MySpace has opened up the social network to allow musicians/performing artists to upload some of their music and many independent bands have taken advantage of this functionality to promote themselves.
Facebook takes elements of both LinkedIn and MySpace and enhances it for their own application. The networking element is enhanced with not only limiting your contact to people you know and are introduced to but to allow you to search and make contact with people you don’t know. The egocentric element is enhanced with news feeds of your personal activity and that of your friends. The personal status field is a very simple idea that allows for self-expression without a lot of effort.
Other social networking sites that have become hugely popular are sites that have an object centric model rather than an ego centric model. This includes sites such as YouTube where the object is the video uploads and Flickr where the object is photo uploads. They are not personality or individual dependent but allow for personal expression (video content, photo content) and personalisation such as tagging of photos.
WHO USES SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES?
The social demographics of Generation Y and Generation X are seen to be the predominant users of social networking sites and the blurring across these two demographics – within the digital media world has come to be known as Generation C.
Generation C has been called the Click Generation, the Content Generation, the Connected Generation and a whole host of other possibilities. It breaks down the concept of an age based generation because it is about values and ways of living that are gadget centric (mobile phones, handheld computers) and about staying connected in many different ways (SMS, instant messaging, email, websites).
WHAT CONSTITUTES A SOCIAL NETWORKING SITE?
The key to a social networking site succeeding and remaining relevant to its users is to build loyalty to the site. While many people join the site because of existing offline networks, they will stay because of the networks they build within the site. These communities give participants the opportunity to express themselves amongst ‘similar’ people – whether it is sharing information about their interests (e.g. car enthusiasts, home gardeners) or connecting along common backgrounds (e.g. school, college, corporate alumni networks). Social Networking websites provide participants with tools to facilitate this interaction – e.g. blog posts, polls, reviews.
A personal profile or page gives the user the primary place for personal expression. Personal expression can come in anything from the selection of a username to uploading an avatar or profile picture, to personalising the layout, colour and appearance of widgets on their profile page.
User Generated Content
Social Networking sites rely on the user participation for their success – imagine YouTube without any videos being uploaded by users. In a study of user generated content, a team at McKinsey & Company concluded that around 3%-6% of users generate the content for the other 97% that consume it:
McKinsey study on user generated content confirms the longtail
How companies can make the most of user-generated content
Tagging, User Created Applications
While tagging and user created applications are not specific to Social Networking websites, they are features that are quite the standard for social networking websites.
Another element of having content created by the user is the ability to make that content meaningful by allowing for tagging. Photos can be tagged with mapped areas to identify who is in the photo. Tagging is also done as a way for bookmarking. Sites like Digg and del.icio.us take user input into what articles, blog posts, web pages are relevant to particular topics. By gathering this input, they create a view of what the web community believes are useful articles on (e.g.) ‘skateboarding’.
In a previous resource on the Fatpublisher website, we mentioned that one of the main beneficiaries of more user-centric webspace is the web developer and those more broadly involved in web design. Facebook , YouTube and other social sites, specifically provide developers with full information about how to create applications for use with those particular sites.
HOW DOES IT AFFECT MY ONLINE PRESENCE?
Social Networking websites are a valuable store of demographic information and some of these websites are now taking steps to exploit this fact by on selling opportunities to reach specific markets to advertisers. MySpace and Facebook have most recently announced their plans for targeted advertising packages. Facebook has also identified the opportunity to create brand advocates by announcing plans to allow users to publicise their purchases to their networks. It is a chance to facilitate word of mouth communication.
Opportunities to engage your customer
Social Networking websites provide an environment for discussion and debate. From the perception of safety and anonymity behind their computer screens, people tend to be more vocal and free with their opinions. While this may seem to be a positive opportunity to connect with your target audience, businesses should also be aware of the public nature of this feedback. Brands seeking feedback should also seek to manage that feedback as it is also a source of publicity. At best a brand can be rewarded with strong positive word of mouth advocacy while at worst a brand can be destroyed and the efforts of the rest of the marketing mix can be wasted.
Intelligent use of Blogging, and online discussion can generate positive publicity and provide constructive feedback for ongoing improvements to products and brands.
Social Networking websites are also shaping online behaviour by creating standards around how people interact on the web. Businesses now have the opportunity to incorporate elements of social networking into their own websites, intranets, campaign sites, online competitions etc.
Opportunities for Documenting Knowledge Capital (Wikis)
A collaborative tool, which provides businesses with an intelligent tool for knowledge management, is known as a Wiki. A wiki is essentially an open database where contributors can add what they know about a topic, edit information added by others.
The concept relies on a system of trust in contributors acting in the interest of the system. Critics of the system point out its vulnerabilities to malicious or mischievous entries. This weakness can be overcome by implementing systems of user authentication and accountability through citations.]]>