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How Social Networking Works

Technology and Social Networks

Preindustrial social networks were largely confined to geographic locations. Without an airplane, a car, a telephone or an e-mail account, people formed relationships primarily with the people who lived in their towns or villages. As transportation and communications technology improved, social networks grew larger and larger.

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Technology lets us stay in touch.

E-mail, instant messaging (IM), cell phones and the Internet are some of the most powerful technologies for cultivating and maintaining larger social networks. In an era of instant communication, it's much easier to keep in touch with a wide network of both strong and weak ties. The Internet makes it possible to leap outside of your offline social network entirely, finding and connecting with people whom you would never have met otherwise.

Studies show that e-mail -- far more than phone calls -- is the most effective way to keep in touch with a large network of acquaintances. In most social networks, the larger the network becomes, the less often people communicate with each other. That's true with phone calls and in-person visits, but not with e-mail. According to a 2006 report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, no matter how large their social network became, respondents still e-mailed an average of 20 percent of their "core" ties every week [source: Pew Internet & American Life Project].

The Internet is, by definition and function, a tremendous network. Although powered by impersonal routers, servers and computer code, it's essentially a tool for connecting people and information. The Internet knows no geographical boundaries. It enables what some researchers have termed glocalization, the free flow of information between local and global social networks. [source: apophenia]

When e-mail, IM, cell phones and the Internet work together, they empower something called networked individualism. Networked individualism is the idea that we switch back and forth between many different social networks based on the particular social capital we're seeking, whether it's advice on which car to buy, info on single women in the area, or a collaborator on a work project.

Wireless technology is key to networked individualism. Cell phones, BlackBerries and laptop computers give us greater mobility and connectivity than ever before. We can go and be wherever we want, yet we're always online.

There's no longer a need for the office- or home-based network that reaches out to the larger network. The individual floats freely through his world, joining or creating online social networks when and as he needs them. And, we do need them. In a 2004 survey, 60 million Americans said they'd used the Internet in the past two years to help make an important life decision [source: Pew Internet & American Life Project]. Examples of these decisions were:

  • Helping themselves or another person with a major illness
  • Changing jobs
  • Moving to a new location
  • Making a major financial investment
  • Choosing a school for themselves or a child

The Internet has proven to be a powerful tool for searching out and engaging in various forms of social networking. But the real leap forward came with the launch of Web sites called social-networking sites whose exclusive purpose is to build and maintain social networks.

Read on to find out exactly how social-networking sites work.