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The Sociology of Online Social Networks

by Andy Carvin
Oct 4, 2007

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Today on the show I'll be coming on air to talk about the Internet phenomenon known as online social networks. For those of you who aren't familiar with the term, social networks are websites that serve as online communities - places where people can create a personal profile, interact with others and share original content, like photos or video clips. MySpace and Facebook are probably the best known examples, but there are literally thousands of others. And that's because it's easier than ever for people to create their own social networks, bringing together niche communities with like-minded interests.

For a lot of people, social networks are just a place for socializing - catching up with friends, flirting and the like. But that's just scratching the surface.

For example, I used to run a social network called the Digital Divide Network (DDN), an online community of educators, policymakers and community activists using social networking as a way of sharing best practices for improving media literacy and bridging the digital divide. The programmers that developed the DDN site run their own social network as well - TakingITGlobal, where more than 100,000 young people from around the world working together to address global issues like HIV/AIDS and poverty alleviation.

When we put together DDN as a social networking site, it literally took an entire year to build the thing. Now, though, you or I could create our very own social network in a matter of minutes. That's because of a growing number of online companies like Ning have made it possible for someone to fill out a form, select what features they want to include in their social network, then press a button. Instant social network - just add people! For example, earlier this year I created a social network for educators and parents interested in discussing cyber bullying. But the topic could have easily been something else. All it takes is an idea and a critical mass of people who care about it.

Meanwhile, some of the big gorillas in the social networking space also make it easy for people to create sub-communities within their network, so you can capitalize on the sheer number of people already spending time there. If you're a Facebook user, for example, you may have stumbled across I Heart NPR, a group of people united by the fact that they're public radio fans. It started with just one person extending an invitation to other Internet users to come together around that topic, and now it's a community with more than 5,000 members. And when Facebook started removing user videos of women nursing their children, more than 25,000 people mobilized to petition against it, using Facebook itself to organize their campaign. So it doesn't matter if you care about tuxedo cats or immigration reform or local political corruption or growing orchids. Chances are, there's a social network focused on that topic. And if there isn't, nothing's stopping you from being the one to create it.

How about you? Have you found social networks to be a useful way to interact with people around things you care about? Are they more of a casual socializing tool for you? Or are you avoiding them altogether for one reason or another?

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