The first time I saw a Web browser—more than a decade ago—I didn’t understand what the big deal was. If I needed to communicate with someone over the internet, I could use email. If I wanted to download a file, I could use FTP. And if I wanted to find information, I could use Gopher. (If you have to ask what Gopher is, by the way, you don’t need to know.) I didn’t see much point to the whole idea of linking from one document to another—but then, at that time, there were very few pages on the Web. A few months later when the numbers began to multiply significantly, I quickly understood that the value of the network grew along with the number of pages and links between them. So I decided to make my own personal home page, featuring links to my favorite sites as well as all sorts of information about myself. And I do mean all sorts. Back then, I assumed that the only people who would ever see my home page were my friends and colleagues, or people they’d told about the page. So besides a massive list of nearly every book, movie, and CD I’d ever enjoyed, I included some fairly personal autobiographical data—and even my street address, phone number, and travel schedule.
Sure enough, that URL did get spread around from friend to friend. Someone would write to me saying that so-and-so had sent them a link and they’d enjoyed reading my page. So we’d strike up a conversation. Many of those conversations led to genuine, lasting friendships. My naïve younger self assumed this was exactly the way the internet was supposed to work. Now that I’m older and wiser, I understand that the internet is a favorite stalking ground of hackers, spammers, identity thieves, and other evildoers. I simply can’t trust the entire world to treat my personal information with care and respect. But I miss the good old days when I was able to be more open about myself, and consequently formed more and closer relationships with other people using the internet.
I Heard It from a Friend Who Heard It from a Friend…
Apparently quite a few other people have had the same idea, which accounts for the increasing popularity of social networking systems—online networks of people linked together in much the same way documents are linked together on the Web. In a typical scenario, I register on a Web page and send invitations to my friends to become part of my network or community. My friends, in turn, invite their friends and so on. Only after joining the network (on the invitation of a trusted third party) can someone see my personal details—email address, location, hobbies, interests, and the like. Since everyone in the network is a “friend of a friend” (though perhaps several times removed), we all have a greater level of comfort about contacting each other and sharing information. Some of these networks are geared primarily toward dating, some are strictly for business contacts or employment searches, and still others are more general-purpose—for making friends, finding people to join you in recreational activities, or discussing common interests.
Certain social networking systems are exclusive and invitation-only: you can’t join unless you know someone who’s already a member—but once you do join, you can contact (and be contacted by) anyone in the network. Other services allow anyone to join, but restrict newcomers’ activities until they’ve been approved or “sponsored” by an existing member. Still others maintain multiple, non-overlapping networks, so that I can start my own network without an invitation, but I don’t get access to members who are part of another network unless the two groups share at least one member in common. Usually you can search for people you know who are already part of a network, and once such a person verifies that you’re a friend, you then have access to all your friend’s friends—and their networks.
Social networking systems of one sort or another have been around for a number of years, but they reached fad status only in 2003, thanks to the service known as Friendster. Within three months of its debut, Friendster had over a million members. A year later, the number had passed seven million. Meanwhile, competing sites sprang up by the truckload, each with its own spin on the networking concept. These sites proliferated so quickly that they soon became known by the acronym YASNS (“yet another social networking system”). But while membership has steadily increased, actual use is another story. For example, while researching this article I searched Friendster for people in my address book and found quite a few—but also found that most of them hadn’t logged in for many months. In fact, all of the networks I’ve investigated have a sizable percentage of “stale” members. Besides the time and effort required to use the systems, many users have found that friends of friends aren’t necessarily people they want to have relationships with. For example, I noticed today that one of my friends had a friend with whom I’ve had some unpleasant dealings in the past. My friend may trust him, but I don’t—yet he’s now part of my network. Still another difficulty is that most of these networks are completely distinct from each other. If your friends do not all use the same system, it becomes very difficult to maintain a coherent network of contacts.
Chain of Fools
Some of the networks suffer from more serious problems. For example, a user may be able to register under a false name and thereby scam access to the networks of complete strangers. Or, in an effort to build a network quickly, someone might invite new users who aren’t really friends or associates. Just last week I received an email from someone I’d never heard of, inviting me to join a business networking system that claimed its primary goal was to build a “network of trust.” Although I might have benefited from being in that network, I declined the invitation, because it would have defeated the purpose to introduce an unknown (and therefore untrusted) person into the system. In more egregious cases, people have been known to auction off invitations to exclusive networks—the highest bidder can become my “friend” and get access to thousands or millions of other people. These problems are minimized in networks that require verification of one’s identity and provide extra checks that a relationship is genuine.
Even so, nearly every social networking system assumes that all the participants are equal. This means that a casual acquaintance you’ve accepted into your network has just as much access to everyone else as your closest friend does. In the real world, you probably don’t trust all your friends equally, so this artificial leveling of relationships can lead to increasing degradation of the network’s value. And the less trust you have of the other folks on the network, the more you need to worry about your privacy.
Most of us form networks informally at school, work, church, conventions, or other places where like-minded people come together. What internet-based social networking systems add is the ability to expand your network to people you’d never encounter in real life—perhaps due to distance, or maybe just because it never occurred to a mutual friend to make an introduction. I’ve read some heartwarming success stories, and also some tragic tales that give me pause. Social networking systems can help you plot your own “six degrees of separation” from other people, but be prepared for the consequences. You may discover you’re connected to a celebrity, a criminal…or even me. —Joe Kissell