Ah yes. Good old Social Networking sites. Where you can sit at the computer all day being sociable with other people sat at their computers all day, instead of just going to the pub and socialising in the real world with those same people. At least the seats are more comfortable this way.
From FaceBook (where you can poke your friends while throwing sheep at them) to FriendsReunited (where you can catch up with the people you’ve spent years trying to forget), from Twitter (where people with nothing to say say it often) to LastFM (where your embarrassing musical tastes are on display for all to see and ridicule), from LinkedIn (where you and your colleagues can subtly try to find other jobs while hoping none of you notice) to YouTube (where the internet is slowly but surely suffocating under the weight of ever-increasing numbers of Cute Kitten videos), there are so many of them around these days (other social networking sites are available).
But what do they actually mean?
And to what sort of person does each one apply?
This useful little diagram from the ever-helpful people at Despair, Inc. should help put the main ones into some sort of context.
Many people do find these things useful these days for a whole variety of reasons – keeping in touch with friends in far flung places, keeping up to date with what the extended family are up to, cultivating contacts and like-minded individuals for hobbies or projects or other interests, developing and promoting businesses, or even just being plain nosey / interested (it’s a fine line) in what’s going on Out There. For some who may be housebound or located far away from friends and family, they an be a lifeline, sometimes even literally. They can help us to discover new interests and hobbies. Increasingly in times of major disasters or other significant events, social networks can help spread the news faster and more accurately than conventional media and even provide a way for people to band together and provide realtime help.
Of course, when using any of these social networking sites, it’s wise to remember that once you place something “out there” it’s not always easy to remove it – post something embarrassing and chances are people will see it, and quite possibly copy it for posterity so even if you remove the offending item, it’s too late. There are even entire sites dedicated to collecting exactly that sort of embarrassing stuff, like LameBook and Twitter-fail.com (although of course, given they rely upon the contents others post to the sites, they can be a bit hit and miss; still, some gems in there if you feel the urge to look carefully).
Then there’s the times when someone holds a party, announces it on FaceBook, forgets to make the announcement private, and they get over-run by hundreds of gatecrashers. Not to mention the foolish employee who learns too late the perils of linking your boss on FaceBook and then slagging them off online.
Then there’s the job applicants who find they don’t get the job because their prospective employer scanned through their online stuff and didn’t like what they read. Now this one I find rather harder to accept – employers do need to learn that people have lives outside of work (believe it or not), we are not owned by our employer 24/7, and we are allowed to get drunk, post stupid crap, rant when we are annoyed, and generally act like every other human being on the planet. I guess the way to look at it if that happens to you is this – you had a lucky escape, would you really want to work for the kind of organisation that doesn’t think it’s staff are allowed lives outside of the office?
As with all technology, they have their pros and cons. In the extreme cases used well they can be useful beyond imagination; used wrongly they can cause disaster beyond belief.
Always assume that whatever you place on one of these sites will be read by the person you least expect / want to read them, and act accordingly, and you’ll be fine; just as there are some things perhaps best not aired in the pub for fear of who may overhear, so it is with Social Networking sites.
And that brings us neatly full circle back to the analogy with the pub again.
Which is where I am heading right now…