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Is Social Networking Working?

September 09, 2008
by Liz Colville
Social networking sites have “rocketed from a niche activity into a phenomenon that engages tens of millions of internet users,” according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. But how are such sites changing our social habits, and is the change for better or for worse?

Fostering Friendship; Forming New Ones

The prevalence of social networking sites has led sociologists, parents and others to ponder how the sites are shaping social relationships. According to some teenagers, they’re helping. The Pew Internet & American Life Project polled nearly a thousand teens on the topic in 2006, and results showed that the majority use the sites to keep in touch with friends they see regularly (91 percent), and friends they rarely see (82 percent).

Pew’s study suggested that the sites are primarily being used for “management” purposes, not for activities like flirting, although boys have a greater tendency than girls to use the sites to make new friends. At the time of the survey, the teenagers’ site of choice was MySpace, which dominated Facebook by 78 percent. But boys prefer MySpace and girls Facebook; perhaps Facebook’s more stringent privacy settings, sleeker design and “real-world community” basis appealed more to girls than boys.

Social Networking and Development

The Journal of Adolescent Research published a study in November 2007 that suggests social networking sites have several developmental benefits, including “cognitive skills that are consistent with those required in educational settings and perspective-taking skills that are necessary for citizenship in an increasingly multiracial society.” The wide world of the Web may help a teenager adjust and grow as a person. This could be encouraging to parents who have restricted their children’s use of the sites.

Sites like Facebook can benefit older users, as well. A recent Michigan State University study found that students at Michigan State used Facebook to strengthen their “social capital,” both reinforcing current relationships and building new ones, and that their ability to do so was correlated with their reported satisfaction with campus life. The authors wrote in their conclusion that social networking sites “could support a variety of populations, including professional researchers, neighborhood and community members, employees of companies, or others who benefit from maintained ties.”

A Fad with a Future?

The purported value of sites like MySpace and Facebook—the former sold for $580 million in 2005—was enough to provoke the launch of hundreds of social networking sites, some niche, some general. The social-networking-focused blog Mashable recently compiled a list of more than 350 of them. But how many of these sites will last?

Obviously, it’s not just whether social networking is working for users, but whether it’s working for investors. The contemporary formula for making money on the Web requires advertising, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg asserts that communicative sites like his can help advertisers find their target demographics and discover what they want. It can create a bridge for advertisers lost in a sea of sites and anonymous surfers: finally these companies know where their audience is, and maybe even what that audience wants. BusinessWeek reported on the launch of Facebook Ads in late 2007. Part of that platform included the Facebook application Beacon, which reports on users’ activity elsewhere on the Web; it caused quite a stir over privacy issues.

Australian IT argued in June that the social networking party might already be over, with statistics showing that unique visitors were down on both MySpace and Facebook for the month of May 2008. Furthermore, these sites have access to so much private information, the article argues, that they “will have to be very cautious in how they exploit it.” Otherwise, they run the risk of annoying the niche audiences that advertisers are trying to attract. But that very caution means that the advertisers may never reach their audiences at all, particularly as most users seem to be hostile to any advertising on social networking sites. So, while social networking may be drawing people together, they’re not spending money while they’re doing it.

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