By Noelle Jackson, Manchester, New Hampshire
With all the MySpaces and Facebooks and Twitters and so forth out there but only so many hours in the day with which to waste on them, what social networks are the best ones to join?
Social networks are everywhere. They've been around since long before your grandmother's knitting circle, and chances are they'll still be around in some form or another for our descendants -- whether they're colonizing far-off star systems or digging among the future ruins of our current civilization. The Internet itself began as a sort of social network; as its reach extended, so did its uses. From ARPAnet to bulletin boards to Usenet to the World Wide Web to the current slew of Friendster-alikes, all a social network is, really, is people communicating with people.
Within most of the services we think of as social networks nowadays -- MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, Tribe, Geeks, Bebo, whatever -- you can find groups that cater to individual interests ranging from classical music appreciation to backpacking to amorous interaction between consenting adults who also happen to like wearing theme park mascot costumes. (I'm not here to judge anyone, but if the latter kind of thing's your bag, it's cool -- I just probably don't need to hear about it!) Chances are, the basic features of such a social network will include blogs, a forum, customizable profile pages, photo and music sharing, event invitations, comments, and any number of widgets that let you do stuff like play chess with strangers and make digital mix tapes for your long-distance significant other.
All that being said, we're still left with the question: what social networks are right for you? There's probably no way to know right off the bat. Due to the fickle nature of human beings, it's hard to be sure which ones are going to best suit you until you give a few of them a fair try. Most people dabble in many social networks but eventually settle into only one or two that they keep up with on anything resembling a long-term basis. To narrow it down, though, I'd find out which social networks your friends frequent and sign up for them. Depending on variables like your friends continuing to use a certain network, making new friends within the network, and aesthetic preferences, it likely won't take long for you to get comfortable enough with one and shed the others. A few important things I'd advise, though: don't pay to join a social network (with so many free choices, it's hard to understand why anyone would), use caution when sharing any personal information with anyone through a social network (as you would, I hope, with any online interaction), and don't feel obligated to reciprocate friendship with everyone who seeks to add you as a "friend" (social networks are rife with fake personalities seeking to pollute your guest book with inane spam and add your friends to their "spampaign" circle).
Because of its purposely stripped-down approach that encourages simplicity and succinctness over bloat, Twitter is more of a social commons than a full-blown social network. It's almost a social network for people who don't like to bother with social networks. It doesn't have fancy widgets or applications or photo sharing or music players or calendars; it does one thing: It allows you to create "microblogs" -- entries limited to 140 characters or less. People can follow you to see what you're "tweeting" about, and you can follow them. That's pretty much it. You can get third-party applications that help you process the information going into and coming out of your Twitter feed, but at its core, it's really just about fluffless communication.
It's sort of like a note on the refrigerator to let other housemates know what you're up to -- or to let your grandmother know that her knitting circle is meeting in the back yard today.
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