More than just a storehouse of information, the Internet has become a place for human interaction--the 21st century version of a town square or mall. In the last few years, social networking sites have exploded, allowing millions of people around the world to meet and hang out together.
Touted as a "social utility that helps people communicate more efficiently with their friends, family, and coworkers", Facebook's ranks have swollen to over 400 million users worldwide. But what is Facebook and why is it so popular? The answers depend upon who you ask.
"But what can be expressed with just 140 characters?" you might wonder. Surprisingly, Twitter's popularity is tied directly to that meager amount of text. McDonald's, for example, tested Twitter and was surprised by the amount of feedback it received about its Monopoly game through tweeting (the process of sending a tweet, a message on Twitter).
When it comes to doing business, it's not what you know, but who you know.
Let's say that you're interested in working for Apple Computer. You could think about all the people you know and perhaps who they know, trying to figure out if any of them have "connections" at Apple. But in the age of social networking, it's far more effective to use an online service called LinkedIn.
While sites like Facebook and Twitter may come to mind when discussing social media, the video sharing site YouTube.com is an interesting case, catering to a massive community of hundreds of millions of people around the world.
Shakespeare's play As You Like It is best known for the following quote:
"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;"
We all play different roles during the course of our lives, and with each ones comes a different type of social need.
Spreading awareness of a particular cause once meant knocking on doors, writing letters, and calling people. Now people create websites, send e-mails, post messages to online forums, and use social networking tools to inform the masses.
One of the most compelling features of the Internet may well be the ability to communicate inexpensively in real time, via personal computers and mobile devices. With the Internet, you can see, hear, talk to and collaborate with people in different locations around the world, without the expense of travel.
A new technology, Internet telephony, also known as VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) virtually eliminates long distances charges, allowing you to call almost anywhere in the world for the price of a local call. If you have broadband Internet access, you can't beat the price--it's practically free.
Chat rooms can be good venues to meet people to discuss topics of mutual interest. But what if you want to chat privately with a friend, family member or business colleague? Then Instant Messaging or IM is the way to go.
Newsgroups, also referred to as forums and sometimes just groups, have been around almost since the dawn of the Internet. Today, newsgroups resemble bulletin boards, where people discuss subjects of mutual interest by posting comments.
The best way to read newsgroups is to use a stand-alone newsreader program, although you can use the newsreaders that are included with your web browser or e-mail program. Specialized programs help you manage the huge volume of messages in many newsgroups
After you've explored some online groups, you may be ready to post your own messages--either a comment to something you've read or some totally new question or thought. While the procedure differs depending on the program, the general outline is always the same.
If you're interested in starting a newsgroup, don't try it alone the first time around. Find someone who has been through the process before. Many arcane customs and rules have sprung up around creating new newsgroups.