The Sociology of Online Social Networks

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Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' Topic

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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The NOLA YURP Initiative is a non-profit organization in New Orleans dedicated to connecting, retaining, and attracting young professionals from diverse backgrounds for a sustainable New Orleans. We were featured on Weekend Edition several weeks ago. We are also one of those groups that has used free social networking to expand our membership base. In just three months, we have added 1250 members to our organization and have been able to find people jobs through the social networking site that CollectiveX has built for us. You can see our site here- www.nolayurp.com.

Sent by Nathan Rothstein | 12:31 PM | 10-4-2007

I am a teacher and administrator in a PK-12 school of more than 1300 students in Houston, Tx.
I see how much time & energy our students and my own teenage children spend on social networking sites, IM'ing, text messaging each other, etc.
We elementary, jr. high, and high school teachers would neglect capitalizing on this student interest only at our peril!
And--if we are to reach them & know them & their genuine interests--we are virtually obliged to be familiar (enough) with using them ourselves.
I am presently dipping my own toes into the waters of blogging about various matters of professional interest, and participating in a couple of groups hosted within the "Ning in Education" online virtual community.
Granted, all my social networking thus far has been in the service of my work as an educator. I realize thaty my students are using social networks more for their own personal (i.e. not academic or professional!) reasons. So I clearly haven't yet fully entered "their social networking world(s)" on their terms.
But I'm fascinated to learn wherever such professional social networks might lead me and my (literally international) social network of fellow educators.

Sent by Mike Pardee, Director of Character Education @ Kinkaid School (Houston) | 1:03 PM | 10-4-2007

Social Networks or Web 2.0 technologies have moved beyond being a general approach to socializing. In fact companies such as SynapticMash uses Web 2.0 Technologies intentionally to enhance and enable learning. Such an approach transcends some of the concerns people might have about such systems because it is focused on solving a multitude of needs a district/educators may have in providing data and contextualizing the data and or content in a safe and secured system within the district and behind the firewall. This system allows educators to make data based decisions, while enabling their ability to collaborate with each other and to collaborate and contextualize the content and evidence of student learning using the social network tools (web 2.0 and beyond technologies). Such a system allows students to have data dashboards of their own academic data, which also allows them to own their learning and to contextualize the content they are presented and that they themselves create. Learning can take place in such spaces because it encourages the development of a community of practice where students and educators are engaged around learning and teaching.

In short, social learning networks can be spaces for allowing a community of practice to occur where educators can upload evidence of student learning and have colleagues, mentors, and instructional coaches facilitate authentic professional development with a teacher in a collaborative and non-threatening environment. Educators, students, and families can be part of a community of practice where they all come together and work in a shared space and learn and facilitate learning as a community. Such a space can allow teachers and students to have the opportunity to learn, create, content, and share information in a way that reflect best practices in learning and to engage students in their own learning.

My feeling is that systems such as these need to exist to support the learning our students need to be engaged in the 21st century as global citizens, leaders and contributors of learning; however, we also need to be thoughtful of how these systems are designed and deployed so they enable learning in a safe space.
With partnerships between educators and developers of such systems, these types of spaces can be made safe and can enable engagement and learning, especially since our students are already using these spaces outside of school. Since the digital divide that now extends to being also a generation divide, it has become obvious that our students are the digital natives, while we are digital tourists. It is time we seek ways to cross the divide and teach where our students are learning already.

Sent by Ramona Pierson | 1:15 PM | 10-4-2007

I use social networks largely as a tool to socialize with others but also use them as a way to promote my business and display the work I do. I think business networks have always had a social foundation of one type or another, so these Internet-based social neworks are not necessarily revolutionary in terms of what they offer but simply how they offer it, the medium beiing used and the adaptability of the tools.

Facebook, especailly, offers an incredibly diverse set of tools that can be used for many purposes, whether business development, getting together with friends or for kids who want to keep in touch after school. In my day we used a phone. Now they use Facebook, IM and many other platforms. But I think Facebook is going to be an ultimate winner in all this because they offer an open platform and encourage users to build their own tools and networks. It also has a uniform look about the pages, so I know where to look on any page to find certain information.

Sent by Carl Weaver | 1:19 PM | 10-4-2007

Social networks give educators a unique opportunity for just-in-time, peer-to-peer professional learning. No longer do we wait for course offerings or workshops delivered by "experts". We ARE the experts and social networks allow us to teach and learn from each other. And given the ???long tail??? access social networks allow, we can dig into discrete and sometimes arcane topics and find others who are interested, too.
In Ning group Classroom 2.0 educators explore everything from pedagogy (how learning can change in the Web 2.0 era) to specific practices (enhancing spatial awareness with Google Earth). In another Ning group, Global Education, we form classroom collaborations across ten time zones and discuss global citizenship and the digital divide.
It???s wonderful to find optimistic and adventurous colleagues in social networks. The profession is better for this development in collaborative engagement, and I encourage teachers to join in.

Sent by Jane Krauss | 1:29 PM | 10-4-2007

My question is how do you foresee the world of education best utilizing these tools?

I am a public school teacher in a suburb of St. Paul, and many teachers in our building are utilizing forms of technology (blogs, wikis, etc...) but are searching for best practices when it comes to social networks and learning.

Sent by Mary | 2:04 PM | 10-4-2007

Collective intelligence is a great description. As a adult female with Type 1 diabetes, I use social networking as a way to discuss medical issues with other adults with Type 1 diabetes.

I???m sure some people would be surprised by this, but when the professional medical community and the media are obsessed with Type 2 diabetes, these communities are the only way to navigate the day-to-day difficulties of a world that has forgotten that there is more than one type of diabetes.

Sent by Stacy | 3:29 PM | 10-4-2007

I'm a vocational education and training teacher in Queensland, Australia. I joined several Ning.com education networks and realised that I could use Ning to network with our own teaching group, as well as my students. I set up separate Ning sites, and use them to enrich communication within each group.

Students find it an easy way to communicate with me about administration issues, as well as presenting their work online. I use it to tell their employers about what we're doing in the training workshop.

Unfortunately, the network is currently blocked, but I'm working to have it accessible in the classroom.

Sent by Simon Brown | 3:58 PM | 10-4-2007

Mary,

I'm hoping that schools will start using social networks to give students the chance to hone their collaboration and cognitive thinking skills, and take advantage of their distributed nature. I mentioned TakingITGlobal during the segment - they have a program called TIGed in which they're helping educators create school-appropriate activities that take advantage of social networks' collaboration and communication abilities. And many educators have started using ning.com to engage their peers on certain issues, or private social networks with students.

As Simon notes in his comment, many schools block access to social networks. This is a fact of life in many parts of the world, including the U.S. It's understandable why schools want to filter out inappropriate content, but the reality is that it also blocks good content while letting bad stuff slip through the cracks. We need to do more to emphasize media literacy and online responsibility by students rather than assuming filters will be a safety panacea. It would also be useful if more educators had authority to override filters, since they have the professional skills to know what's educationally appropriate and what isn't.

Sent by andy carvin | 4:25 PM | 10-4-2007

In my day we used a phone.

That's funny stuff, Carl. After today's broadcast I got a friend request from someone on Facebook who said she's been using Facebook since high school for socializing but wanted to know how "other generations" used it. I wrote back and said, "Back in my day, sonny, we used to walk seven miles in the snow just to get Internet access - dialup access, the slow kind! - and we never complained, no sir-ree...." Her reply: Hey, at least I didn't say "older generations"! :-)

Sent by andy carvin | 5:06 PM | 10-4-2007