Drupal Case Study
Social networking is not a new term, nor has it been widely applied to websites for more than a few years, yet it has clearly become one of the biggest buzz phrases of the Web 2.0 era. Nonetheless a great deal of confusion exists about just what makes a particular site an online social network. Of course, there's more than one answer, but most of us know this type of site when we see one, so clearly there are some common features that must be easy to recognize.
What is an Online Social Network?
According to Wikipedia (in many ways an online social network in its own right):
A social network a social structure made of nodes which are generally individuals or organizations. It indicates the ways in which they are connected through various social familiarities ranging from casual acquaintance to close familial bonds. The term was first coined in 1954 by J. A. Barnes (in: Class and Committees in a Norwegian Island Parish, "Human Relations").
The concept is fairly simple: if you and I know each other and have each introduced each other to one friend we now have a social network of four individuals (apparently with no real social lives).
This idea translates directly online. Long before the term "social network" was applied to a website and it's visitors, and even before the term "community site" was applied to a number of websites in the mid to late 90s, individuals interacted and expanded their social networks online via BBSes and the earliest online communities, such as Prodigy and CompuServe.
With this in mind, the question becomes not "what makes a social networking website?" but "what makes a social networking website today?". In fact, we going to get even more specific and look at particular elements that comprise a typical current social networking site and that might easily be used to enhance common online business models.
Are Blogs Part of a Social Network?
In themseleves, blogs are not elements of a social network, since they really only permit an individual to create an outward broadcast of ideas to an undefined group. However, the concept of commenting on blog posts creates the most basic kind of online social networking tool, in that it allows the group not only to respond to the original post but, more importantly, to each other's responses.
While it takes some effort, it is certainly possible for individuals to become socially connected to either the blog owner or other respondents. However, for the blog to become a true social networking tool, that connection must be bi-directional. It's not enough for the reader to become connected to the writer. The reader must be an active enough contributor that the connection is reciprocated.
Wikis and Social Networking
In the context of social networking, wikis are really just blogs on steroids. In addition to the ability to comment, each participant has the option to author part of the overall document. While this is a communal effort, it is not necessarily one which creates a large social network. Many authors contribute in a relatively anonymous fashion, with only their username, and perhaps an email address, being known to the group.
Profiles and Contacts
Often the first step in building a site-specific social network, creating a profile is generally the center of one's social network at a given site. The ability to create an online persona provides the visitor with the opportunity to attract (or repel) other members of the site. Closely related to this is the ability to invite other members to become contacts or friends with whome the user can communicate on the site.
Ratings and Reviews
While rating or reviewing content (blog posts, articles, products, etc.) on a site doesn't have much of an impact from a social networking perspective, the ability to review the reviewer does provide a forum for expanding one's online social network. Similar to creating comments on another visitor's profile, users utilize reviews to learn about other users' areas of expertise and personalities, thereby encouraging cross communication and a growth of contact or friend lists.
Onsite Communication Tools
Another popular MySpace spin-off concept is the site-specific mailbox, or other similar communication tools. This type of system provides members of a specific site with a means to communicate with their contacts on the site. While this tool doesn't directly expand an individual's online social network, it does provide incentive to interact with and expand the user's contact list.
Closing the Loop
One of the interesting phenomena of the online social network is that what is rapidly becoming the holy grail for community sites is to expand members' social networks to the point where they can be taken offline. Remember the original coining of the phrase "social network?" It came from a book entitled Class and Committees in a Norwegian Island Parish. I don't know that much about Norway, but I'm pretty sure a Norwegian island parish is a very small community. With the Internet being the ultimate geographically distributed communication tool, it bears reflecting on the fact that perhaps the greatest measure of a website's success is that it can reach such a critical mass of online members that can create "real" social networks in small communities around the globe.