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Social Networks are Transforming the Internet

article by: Don Edwards

Spring 2006 will be remembered as a fascinating period in the evolution of the Internet. The mainstream media began to catch up with what can be arguably considered a cultural phenomenon, and reduced it to clichés before the average person was even aware what all the fuss was about. That's ironic, because the fuss is about the average person and his or her participation in what's been labelled as "social media," "social networking," "user-generated content," or, wait for it, "Web 2.0." All of these refer to the exponential growth of a new generation of websites and web-based tools that allow people to connect with each other, share content and express themselves more easily online.

Young people are leading the way with new Web services such as the social network MySpace, a two-and-a-half-year-old company that already has over 80 million members. More than three out of five Web users between the ages of 13 and 17 have visited social networking sites like MySpace, with the majority of those who visit also joining such sites, according to a new study of teens' online media habits. MySpace members use the site to meet new people and share their profiles, photos, music and movie preferences.

Another current web phenomenon is YouTube, a viral video website in operation for just six months. YouTube provides a virtual library of amateur video clips that can be uploaded by anybody with a digital camcorder and some time to burn. Users upload 50,000 videos a day at last count, and visitors watch 50 million clips per day. One recent video favourite involves two young men combining a certain brand of mint candies with 101 bottles of diet pop to create an explosive geyser, which they call "a spectacular mint-powered version of the Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas."

Other more sedate social sites include Amazon, where you can purchase a vast selection of new books and music CDs, or choose to connect with individual sellers who are prepared to send you used versions of the same book and CD titles at bargain prices. Amazon also devotes a significant amount of space to user book and music reviews, confirming the growing influence of online peer groups as opposed to traditional critics and paid advertising.

Photographers are flocking to photo-sharing websites such as Flickr. The assumption of the Flickr service is that you want your photos to be public. People comment on each other's photos, even those of strangers, using the digital images as a communal bond. This approach taps directly into the same cultural instinct that is driving most other social media -- the urge to create and share content online.

And then there are blogs, podcasts, instant messaging, Internet forums, wikis, social bookmarking, social libraries, collaborative real-time editing, multiplayer online games, RSS, mashups, and many more. The primary thing these websites and technologies have in common is that they are not online places to visit so much as services allowing you to get something done, usually with other people. They require active participation and social interaction. These personal connections -- forged through words, pictures, video, and audio -- are the essence of the new Web 2.0, bringing together hundreds of millions of people interactively around the world.

"Social networking isn't a product or, God forbid, a company, but a feature that lives in service of some other mission," says Bradley Horowitz, head of technology development for Yahoo. "The spirit of social computing is the concept of leaving value in your wake."

Want to experience Web 2.0 for yourself? If you have kids, pay more attention to what they're doing on the Web. Ask questions and have them show you how. Search for and read some popular blogs about a subject that interests you. Then set up your own blog. Most of them are free. Open a Flickr account and upload some of your best photos. Comment on other photos you like. Download and listen to a podcast.They provide better listening than most radio programming these days.

Above all, remember that the only way to understand this stuff is to try it and use it. And it's easy.

Don Edwards is a Kingston-based marketing and communications consultant, writer and producer. Don Edwards & Associates Inc. helps both public and private sector organizations to adopt and effectively use blogging, podcasting and other social media tools to engage in authentic conversations with customers, employees and other important stakeholder groups.
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