Maybe social networking sites have become so popular because they allow us to define who we are, where we fit, and connect with others. This is also true (to a lesser extent?) for online communities — Slashdot, Boing Boing, Wikipedia, Global Voices — places people go to identify as members of a particular community.

Most of us are defined by someone else’s terms, and based on things over which we had no control: family, religion, race, ethnicity, caste. Some of us have more freedom. We can make our own decisions: who we marry, where we live, what we do. But along with this freedom has come increased fragmentation and isolation. As my Hassidic neighbor said to my roommate: “I feel so sorry for you.” Many of us have no sense of belonging.

When I log on to Facebook, I make choices about what goes on my page, who my “friends” are, and what groups I want to join. I can also track what others are “doing” and reach out to them in small, simple ways. Now I know that my mom’s oldest friend’s daughter (who I haven’t seen for years) is getting married — and gossip about how cute her finance is even before my mom gets the invite. I am in touch with long lost cousins. Former friends and classmates post old photos that bring back fond memories (so far I’ve been lucky). And this year I had my first Facebook birthday. Wow, did I ever feel important. (That said, I’m increasingly finding Facebook scary.)

Another example: Two weeks ago I got an out-of-character email from a colleague in Peru. He was testing out the Ning platform, which we plan to use to power the new telecentre.org website, and decided to create an network for the Argentinian half of his family. He’s usually no-nonsense, ironic, and reserved. This time he was enthusiastic, practically gushing. “In one week, 24 people have joined, 100 photos have been posted, and dozens of messages have been exchanged…. SPECTACULAR!!!! I haven’t felt this close to my cousins since the last time I was in Buenos Aires.”

Just as the Internet has dramatically reduced barriers to collaboration (see this Clay Shirkey video), social networking sites have reduced barriers to connecting. It’s just plain easy — and increasingly easy and normal to transform these virtual connections into the real-world relationships. Also I wonder if online social networks have the potential to reduce fragmentation. When I create my page I’m expressing my individuality (fake as that feeling may be) and at the same time I’m linking myself to others and defining my affiliations. But this time based on things I choose to be important — on my interests and my values.

2 Comments

  1. Zach
    June 18, 2008

    My favorite aspect of social networking websites is seeing what people I went to school with are up too. Not so much for the gossip (although that’s certainly part of it), but because I have 18 years of shared experiences with these people and am fascinated to see all the different paths they’ve taken.

    Social networking sites also provide a great opt-in way to promote yourself.

  2. Meir
    December 9, 2008

    Although facebook and other networking websites make it very easy to connect to people and to know what is going on with everyone…It also gives one a false sense of belonging as well as reduce the neeed for the human touch and connection. The irony is that you can wake up with 700 friends on facebook and feel awefuly lonley!!