Why should we talk about (international) social networking?

There’s been an ongoing discussion about whether social networking is a passing fad or a form of connection that is here to stay – and if it is here to stay, how pervasive or inconsequential it will be, and what it will look like as social networking applications continue to develop and reinvent themselves.

The single most significant expression I’ve seen of this outstanding question comes from a discussion on the ACRLog, the blog of the Association of College and Research Libraries. In discussing David Bickford’s assertion in this thread that the 1970s notion of library service done over CB radio was a passing fad, Marc Meola asks if Web 2.0 services such as social networking are a fad or something that is here to stay. Two people responded that certain aspects of Web 2.0 are fads while other aspects will stick around. But a recently minted librarian named Michael C. Habib commented that

MySpace and Facebook are 2.0 as it gets and it would be hard to argue that they have only been picked up by tech geeks. Those services also incorporate blogging, commenting, and photo sharing. Wikipedia, E-Bay, and Craigslist are also 2.0 as it gets. These are just a couple of examples, but the idea is that 2.0 is already mainstream and well entrenched in peoples daily use of the internet. Sites like Flickr might point to a newer breed of 2.0 technologies, but 2.0 is here to stay.

Agreeing with Habib, I wrote that

As the introduction of the Internet to a mass audience in the 1990s showed, it is in a library’s interest to pay attention to disruptive technologies. I would rather be guilty of paying attention to a fad than missing out on the “next big thing” — and 2.0 continues to demonstrate day by day that it is anything but a passing fad.

Other voices have echoed this thought when discussing social networking services explicitly. Forrester Research’s Vice President and Principal Analyst Charlene Li famously described social networking as being “like air.” Jenny Levine at the Shifted Librarian wrote in March of this year that

Hopefully it is becoming clearer that we [as LIS professionals] need to pay attention to virtual worlds because they are going to be a part of our collective, professional future. It’s up to each of us individually how much of a role it will play in our personal lives, just as we make decisions about books, television, the internet, parties, movies, parties, etc. are, but between Sony’s plans, the BBC’s forthcoming online children’s world, Second Life, There, and other virtual spaces, we’re seeing further illustrations of why librarians need to understand how cultures and interactions work in these spaces for our professional lives.

I believe the same to be true about blogs and networking services like FaceBook as well. These applications are affecting and will continue to affect the world of information in new and significant ways, thereby impacting the work we do as library and information professionals. And given that Internet-based information is borderless (with the exception of certain countries where a national government seeks to censor Internet information, a topic I will discuss in a later post), the different forms of social networking services are taking root all over the world.

Writing from Bangladesh, Mahfuz Sadique produced one of the best introductions to the global blogosphere I’ve ever read. He touches on the most significant themes I have seen discussed in foreign blogs, particularly blogs in the developing world. These themes include Internet access, instruction in using a blog platform to generate content, the size of the blogosphere in a given nation compared to the total population of the country, the socioeconomic backgrounds of blog readers in the country, issues of local language and blogging in local languages and non-latin scripts, and localized content such as citizen journalism (and how this content affects traditional journalistic reporting and potentially invokes censorship on the part of a national government. Sadique paints a picture in which many challenges remain in terms of growing the Bangla blogosphere and using it to produce useful content that can inform Bangladeshis and foreigners alike about life in Bangladesh. But he also notes the blogosphere growth that has occurred in Bangladesh, and such successes as opening up the blogosphere to the Bangla language:

Only around one per cent of people in Bangladesh currently have access to the internet. As a result, before the blogging boom, the national presence on the web… had been sparse… However, since blogging has become a popular pastime, the entire Bangladeshi presence on the landscape of the internet has changed. In the beginning Bangladeshi bloggers had to write in English because of technological barriers. But with the incorporation of Unicode (which is an acronym for a standardization of symbols, Universal Code, which recognizes Bengali characters) into various blog-hosting sites, the number of Bangla blogs has risen exponentially. This was best demonstrated by a blog hosted by a Danish-Bangladeshi site, Somewhere in, when it launched an exclusively Bengali blog platform site — ‘Badh Bhangar Aawaj’. According to Hasin Hayder of Somewhere in, ‘there are around 5000 bloggers continuously writing’. The figures are staggering; since it started, a little over a year back, more than 31,000 articles and 350,000 comments have been posted. The ability to blog in Bangla seems to have liberated Bangladesh from its initial online inhibitions.

Because of thoughts like this in the blogosphere, and the fact that the blogosphere continues to foster active participation and discussion around the world, I believe it is important for us in the library profession to have an understanding of how people use these services, and what types of information they use the services to communicate. Certainly there exist considerable challenges for bloggers and social networkers in many countries, such as those Mahfuz Sadique touched upon. But given that people around the world are using social networking services to connect, network, communicate, and share information on global issues and events, library and information professionals have an interest in examining this trend towards internationalization, and considering where and how they may play a role in this international conversation. Given that social networking services will continue to become a prominent means by which people around the world exchanging information, library and information professionals have an interest in monitoring and understanding this global trend.

Posted by Aaron Bowen

What do we mean by social networking?

I am not asking for a comprehensive definition. I have yet to come across any definition that does anything more than offer an understanding of social networking in the broadest possible terms. On August 6 of this year for example, the Wikipedia defined social networking as a service that “focuses on the building and verifying of online social networks for communities of people who share interests and activities, or who are interested in exploring the interests and activities of others.” I don’t disagree with any of that, but it doesn’t by itself offer me a greater understanding of what a social networking service is. The Wikipedia staff doesn’t find it adequate either, and have flagged the article as being in need of expansion and of additional material to support the ideas in the article.

I ask this question more to define some boundaries on what Amanda and I (your blog moderators) are proposing for discussion. Common understandings of social networking services hold that services like FaceBook and MySpace fall into the rubric of social networking, and I believe this is what the SIG-III officers had in mind when we came up with the idea of having this discussion.

I have since expanded the scope of this discussion to include the blogosphere as well. Like the networking services listed above, the blogosphere meets the criteria of the Wikipedia’s broad definition of social networking. (And yes, so do image sharing services such as Flickr, video sharing services such as YouTube, and virtual worlds such as Second Life. I have chosen to focus on blogs and FaceBook/MySpace-style services for discussion on the SIG-III blog, but I would be remiss if I failed to note other applications and services that have networking aspects as well). With this in mind, we welcome your ideas on our discussions of internationally focused blogs and networking services, but please do not feel limited by this focus. Please comment on any post you like, and if you would like to contribute an entirely new thought or post, please send it to me at sigiiiblog [at] gmail.com.

Beyond that, here are some more comprehensive definitions of social networking – all open to discussion, debate, and critique. In March of this yeah, Danah Boyd offered the following description of a workshop she put together with Nicole Ellison and Scott Golderat the 3rd Annual Communities and Technologies Conference. In their description they loosely considered social software to “include social network sites (e.g., Cyworld, MySpace, orkut, and Facebook), contemporary online dating services (e.g., Friendster, Spring Street Personals, Match.com), blogging services (e.g., LiveJournal, Xanga, Blogger), tagging tools (e.g. del.icio.us, Digg) and media sharing sites (e.g., YouTube, Flickr).” Then in June, Danah offered a definition of social networking specifically:

To count as a social network site, the site MUST have 1) a public or friends-only profile system; 2) a publicly articulated list of “Friends” who are also on the system (not blogrolls). Friends must be visible on an individual’s profile and it must be possible to traverse the network graph through that list of Friends. If the site does not let you “comment” on Friends’ profiles, please indicate that. This is not necessary although it is a common component. I’m not interested in dating sites, community sites, or blogging tools that do not have public profile + friends that are displayed on profiles.

Socialmedia.biz further describes some of the primary characteristics of social networking services:

1. Communication in the form of conversation, not monologue. This implies that social media must facilitate two-way discussion, discourse, and debate with little or no moderation or censorship. …

2. Participants in social media are people, not organizations. Third-person voice is discouraged and the source of ideas and participation is clearly identified and associated with the individuals that contributed them. Anonymity is also discouraged but permissible in some very limited situations.

3. Honesty and transparency are core values. Spin and attempting to control, manipulate, or even spam the conversation are thoroughly discouraged. …

4. It’s all about pull, not push. … In social media, people are in control of their conversations, not the pushers.

5. Distribution instead of centralization. … Social media is highly distributed and made up of tens of millions of voices making it far more textured, rich, and heterogeneous than old media could ever be (or want to be). Encouraging conversations on the vast edges of our networks, rather than in the middle, is what this point is all about.

And concerning the blogosphere specifically, Paul, a blogger at a South African blog called Chilibeanechos the first and second of Socialmedia.biz’s points. He writes that “a blog is a conversation. Blogs are structured to facilitate interaction between the blogger and the blog’s readers and use simple tools like RSS feeds, comments and trackbacks to keep those conversations going. Blogging lends itself to informality because of the emphasis on the expression of an authentic voice as an essential element of a blog.”

So if you have any thoughts on the nature of social networking as I have presented it here, please leave a comment. Otherwise, I’ll be posting more about the international face of social networking later this evening or tomorrow.

Posted by Aaron Bowen

Welcome to the SIG-III blog

The Special Interest Group for International Information Issues (SIG-III, part of the American Society for Information Science and Technology) maintains this blog as a means for communicating with members, colleagues, and others interested in international information issues — in other words the global flow of information, and how people from different countries and cultural backgrounds think about and use information differently.

I (Aaron Bowen, your blog administrator) regularly post articles on different aspects of this topic — current news on information access and use in different countries, as well as related social issues such as globalization, the digital divide, and censorship. Specific examples of these articles include social networks in different countries and how people use them differently, or censorship and subversion on the Web in modern China. In addition to facilitating blog discussion on international information issues, SIG-III members have a live discussion of them every year in the Global Information Village Plaza, part of the ASIS&T Annual Meetings.

Each header on each post is a hyperlink. Clicking it will take you to a page with the original post and all discussion comments that have been added.

We welcome your views! While we reserve the right to remove posts we deem to be spam or malicious in nature, we do not place restrictions on what you may post and we welcome all ideas. Thanks for taking a look at the blog and for contributing your thoughts!

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5th Global Information Village Plaza – MySpace, OurSpace: a discussion of social media in the international sphere

Welcome to the Global Information Village Plaza, or GIVP, space on the SIG-III blog. The 2007 GIVP discussion focuses on social networking in international contexts — for example, how social networking services differ by country, and how people from diverse cultural backgrounds use social networking services differently. We’ve posted a number of topics and questions below to spark discussion:

What do we mean by social networking and why talk about it?

Global social networking — Did you know that Americans do not have the largest social networking communities in the world?

The African blogosphere – more extensive than you might think

The African blogosphere part II – Kenya. Don’t look now, but the Kenyan blogosphere is vibrant and growing.

Social media and the Internet in Brazil

Sex, Blogs, and the Great Firewall Part I – Censorship Censorship and subversion on the Web in modern China

Sex, Blogs, and the Great Firewall Part II – Sexuality and Subversion in China. Sex in the Chinese blogosphere — and what official censors think of it.

What’s in a name? Questions of privacy in a Chinese social network

From São Paulo and London with Love. Sex in the Blogosphere in Brazil and England.