Social Networking: How Communities Were Built

Ramya Pandyan
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social networking communities

Be My Friend!

Most Indians associate the advent of social networking with Orkut. Yet, there have been others, even preceding Orkut. Some of us remember Hi5 as the first service that existed for the sole purpose of connecting with one’s friends online. Ryze has its place in the minds of the early adopters of the internet and is still spoken of in fond tones by those who made many of their early contacts on it. Egroups, which later became Yahoo! + did its fair share in connecting people. But Orkut was the only one that actually became the phenomenon, partly because of its timing, by when critical mass had been reached. Also, Google’s strategy of by-invitations-only made Orkut an aspirational community. Suddenly, everyone who was online, wanted to be within the network. Orkut enjoyed a decent stint for a few years and successfully managed to quash the competing social networking sites. Thus, it was responsible for bringing the possibility of people connecting to total strangers, just as well as old school friends, to the mass market in connected India.

The primary function of a social network is to connect people. However, it is not enough to link people and assume that they will prolong the interaction, or indeed keep their interactions within the network. Furthering those connections & retaining the conversations within the network, is crucial for the network to survive. People need activities in order to transition from connection to community. Most of Orkut’s attempts to do this, seem flawed and even silly now. But they set the reference for connections to be built and maintained. Many of the social networking activities we enjoy today, seem like direct derivatives of those early features.

Orkut’s Scrapbook allowed people to put up public messages to each other, thus giving every individual profile, its own bulletin board.

You could also privately rate your friends on sex appeal (with hearts), trustworthiness (smileys) and coolness (ice cubes). These ratings were used to compute a score for each user, which could be displayed on the profile. You could also become a fan, an open feature, which was displayed as a row of stars on profiles. Orkut users began competing for hearts, smileys, ice cubes and stars, all of which could be gained by engaging with the people in their network and soliciting high ratings. These were among an Orkut user’s first activities on the network.

The concept of the slam book, so popular among students, found its way into the network, in the form of Orkut Testimonials. After a simple rating system, users were encouraged to create and display more detailed impressions of each other; in effect, to talk about each other. Testimonials were personal notes, which also served as nostalgia triggers, another conversation starter.

And finally, organized communities were fostered by the advent of Groups. A minor controversy even erupted over the shutting down of a hate group that was deemed to have terrorist overtones. By this time, people had started questioning what constituted democracy in an unfiltered, uncensored environment like an open social network.

Social Networking

Facebook appeared on the Indian social media scene around 2007. Most people were pulled into this network by their friends in the USA, who preferred Zuckerberg’s network to the Google initiative. The value of a social network is the people on it. Users gravitate to where their friends are. By that time, a lot of seasoned Orkut users were tiring of spam and trollish visitors. Facebook’s privacy settings brought in a new paradigm into social networking. Suddenly it was possible to have a wide social circle but choose just how close you wanted it to be!

Facebook offered most of the features that Orkut users were used to. Scraps were substituted by Wall posts. You could only post on the Walls of people in your network. But you could ‘poke’ anybody, a feature that must have initiated a lot of stranger-to-stranger interactions. But Facebook also offered a lot of other innovative features that allowed its users to grow from basic interactions into full-bodied engagement.

There was a Live Stream which gave its users a blow-by-blow account of what their friends were doing online. The Live Stream brought in a new dimension into online interactions and allowed its users to observe, comment on and join their friends’ activities, real time.

Facebook’s Events feature brought people’s schedules right into their network. Conversations could now lead to something concrete, tracked, edited and added to. Interactions streamlined into tangible meetings, with reminders, updates, event-specific queries and finally, event-specific content. You could now find friends, engage with them, organize a meeting, discuss its logistics and finally share photographs and comments about the meeting. Besides keeping users from having to switch out of the network for meeting needs, Events also served as a connector from one specific interaction to the next. It allowed one to keep track of guest lists, queries, reportage and feedback which could help in planning the next event.

Facebook also allowed third-party developers to create applications that network users could choose and use as per their preference. Apps are what shot Facebook right out of its peer league and up to the top of the networking food chain. Says Harshil Karia, Online Strategist at Foxymoron,

“The vast ecosystem of apps made easy, due to Facebook’s constantly evolving API has also made the platform interesting to use, daily. Basically it’s made the developer and marketing community really invest to take the platform to another level by creating a great solution - which is its biggest strength.”

Since then, Facebook has seen many changes in user interface, in its features and consequently its uses. It manages to stay ahead by changing the mix before users have a chance to settle down and get bored. What’s more, most of us have now integrated into the Facebook world so deeply, in terms of uploaded content and Facebook integration everywhere online, that it seems too laborious to move to another network. For the moment, Facebook seems well ingrained in the Indian social media and looks poised to stay.

Google Plus, a recent introduction attracted some attention from tech-geeks and early adopters. But Facebook quickly introduced the ‘choose who this is visible to’ feature, which was Google Plus’ only core strength. Moreover, users are finding that Google Plus doesn’t offer any better features than Facebook. And finally, Google’s stringent policies (regarding names, for instance) have a lot of users running back to the comfort of their old network.

The Workplace Wonder

Social networking began as an activity for one’s leisure, to be conducted with one’s friends and family. But our social lives encompass a variety of interactions, not all in the domain of personal relationships. The online world mirrors the offline and so a network like LinkedIn has its rightful place in the social networking space. LinkedIn began as a straitjacketed service that connected people to their colleagues and workplace acquaintances. The service seemed to stagnate towards the middle of the decade, when the personal social networks were ruling the roost.

Gautam Ghosh, Platform Evangelist at BraveNewTalent, says,

“Advertisers want a site to be sticky, for users to spend more time on the site.”

LinkedIn needed to give its users more to do on its network. Status updates and communities were the obvious additions. There was a concerted push to bring credibility. Thus a lot of companies now look at LinkedIn profiles in their recruitment and even screening activities.

LinkedIn absorbed some of the best features of its compatriots, such as Recommendations, which were similar to Orkut’s Testimonials. Possibly also realizing that it stood in a different place from the personal networks, LinkedIn chose to integrate with rather than compete with them. You can now pull your content from other networks like tweets, blog posts or Slideshare presentations into your LinkedIn profile. LinkedIn bridges the gap between a job search site and a social network, allowing work-related connections but also developing the professional portfolio by content sharing and value-rich networking.

In the vast virtual real estate of the internet, social networks signify the laying down of developed infrastructure for online citizens. They are our community centers as well as our transport mechanisms. They allow us to engage with other netizens but also streamline available content, be it news, popular conversations, developments or just sites of interest. In the next article, we’ll take a look at this other aspect of social networking, viz. – the creation, display and sharing of content.

Images via Jscreationzs and MasterIsolatedImages on FreeDigitalPhotos

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