Reaching Out

A wise person once said that human beings are social animals. This axiom surely rings true for those who have integrated information technology into their lives and are forever online. Now, with the advent of cyber networking, the term socialisation is taking on a whole new meaning.

Internet marketers say that social networking is one of the fastest growing online trends. The number of social networking sites seems to be growing daily. Nielson/NetRatings issued a study in May this year showing that the “top 10 social networking sites saw traffic grow 47 per cent over the last year, with MySpace seeing the biggest growth (367 per cent increase) and MSN Spaces (286 per cent) being second on the list. Hosted blogging systems were included in the study,” reads the report.

So how does it work? Social networking sites allow users to create free online profiles where they can display biographical information, photos, hobbies, interests, swap information, throw trolls and flames, and much more. After completing an online profile, users can connect or network with other users’ profiles. As they connect with more and more people, their network keeps expanding. By adding just a few friends to their network, users can end up being connected to thousands of other people across different cultures and societies. These networks can then be used for fun, for bringing together specific groups and arranging activities, and also for serious business networking.

The social networking trend through technology started back in 1998 when acquired PlanetAll. That was a pioneer site, providing the foundation of sharing contact information, basic biographies, and expanding networks through friends’ networks. This was followed by a mushrooming growth of social sites. Now social networking websites claim to have attracted millions of registered users across the globe. That is one reason marketers are looking at these sites with interest.

Like many others, I have been paying attention to social networking on three different sites — Orkut, Facebook and Gather — in the past couple of weeks. I have answered more requests to be “friends” than I ever did in the past and I have been looking at other people’s friends to see if I know anyone. I have also asked a few to join my network of friends. Who does not need more friends? In addition to this activity, I have been reading about other people’s experiences.

Orkut is still an invite-only website popular among Pakistani students and young people, in general. Facebook has been opened to common users only recently and is not yet well-known in this part of the world. Previously, Facebook was for students of educational institutions that were registered with the service. Gather is more erudite and a newer launch.

Orkut does a few things in different ways by trying to deal with different human emotions. It is faster than other similar social networking sites. Unlike most services focusing on promoting a single type of social connection, Orkut allows three aspects of users’ lives: personal, social, and professional. Killers like karma ratings, communities or flagging through “hot” and “crush” lists make it different (call it cool). Everything else is almost the same: the user interface with photo thumbnails and many other features are similar to that of Friendster and its predecessors.

Initially, only 1,200 invitation were sent out mostly to Google staffers. The rest followed through invitation by initial members. Orkut, like all social networking services, has been designed to promote a set of predetermined behavioural traits instead of enabling users to do what seems most interesting and useful to them.

Facebook is another extremely popular site among students in a more connected world. Now open to everyone, Facebook was founded in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg of Harvard University. It kept expanding to schools, colleges and universities over time. None of the Pakistani universities were on the network though.

On September 11, 2006, Facebook announced that it would officially open to all internet users, a move that was hardly met with approval by current users. Soon after, Facebook opened registration to anyone with a valid email address. It “is a social utility that connects you to the people around you,” reads the home page of the service. Maria Celina Gallo — one of my online friends and a design student — told me that the service now lets anyone sign up outside the listed networks. Thus, I joined.

Another comparatively recent entry in the ever-growing list of social networks is Gather. This site has combined features of weblogs and social sites. What’s more Gather members are paid for their participation with “Gather Points” or cash for most frequent contributors. Though at the moment the “Gather team is working out system to make payments to members in most countries including Pakistan,” explained a Gather staffer when I asked about payments.

“Gather is a place for you to connect with people who share your passions. It is a place where you can contribute thought, art, commentary, or inspiration,” writes Thomas Gerace, founder and CEO.

What are the reasons to flock on social networking sites, besides massaging one’s ego and reaching out to kindred spirits? Peter Kollock looked into the motivations for participating in online communities and interactive sites. In his research paper titled “The economies of online cooperation: gifts and public goods in cyberspace”, he outlined three motivations: “Anticipated reciprocity — the expectation that one will receive useful help and information in return. Indeed, there is evidence that active participants in online communities get more responses. Increased reputation — in general, individuals want recognition for their contributions. Sense of efficacy — individuals may contribute valuable information because the act results in a sense of efficacy… a sense that they have had some effect on this environment.”

Here in Pakistan, we are just beginning to get ready to jump on social networking bandwagon. User interest in social networking websites is growing with an increase in members — a great starter in a conversation that will go on for quite some time.

(This article appeared in on Oct 14, 2006 – Link good for one week only)

Leave a Reply