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Social Networking

Merriam Webster dictionary defines social networking as “the creation and maintenance of personal and business relationships, especially online”. The 21st century has witnessed revolutionary changes in modes of social interaction, with the proliferation and popularity of social networking sites. Whereas, social networking in a traditional setting, encountered the barriers associated with distance and time, online social networking has facilitated a paradigm shift in social interaction and relationship-building, by challenging these spatial and temporal barriers. Here was a web-based mode of smooth, uninterrupted interaction between individuals that was accessible 24/7, from different physical locations, through different technologies - strengthening inter-personal relationships and fostering academic and professional growth, via enhanced connectivity with an expanding network of individuals, in related disciplines. Social networking creates a platform for individuals with shared interests, common backgrounds and activities to interact, promoting a sense of connectedness, community and belonging. Face book's “group” or “fan” pages and Twitter “hash tags” are some examples of how online social networking connects people, over shared interests. By promoting skills and awareness among users, the risk-factors associated with social networking could be mitigated, enabling individuals to harness its full potential and reap the benefits of social networking.

History of social networking

Social networking sites typically allow an individual to create a public or semi-public profile, enunciate a list of other users based on common interests, backgrounds and orientation; view one's list of connections and those made by others, within the defined system. The nature and terminology for “connections”, may be unique for different sites. Social networking happens via these internet sites where individuals meet and interact with each other, expressing themselves through a multimedia mix of words, pictures, audio and video content. Social networking, therefore, allows individuals to create content and exchange ideas instantaneously, facilitating spontaneous and effective communication between individuals. The history of social networking can be traced back to 1978, with the establishment of Bulletin Board System. While still in its rudimentary state, the Bulletin board Usenet was used to distribute the very first copies of web browsers. It enabled the users to upload news articles or posts, alluded to as “news”. The inauguration of instant messaging happened in 1988 with Internet Relay Chat. People could keep in touch via instant messaging and share links and files with each other. The dawn of the era of social networking took place in 1994, with the launch of the Geocities website. Its purpose was to allow users to create their own websites, demarcated into “cities” based on the contents of the website. The globe.com was launched in 1995, enabling its users to interact with people who shared similar interests and empowering them to publish their content. The emergence of AOL instant messenger and sixdegrees.com on the social networking scenario popularized instant messaging and people were allowed to virtually “friend” one another, for the very first time. The early 21st century witnessed the emergence and popularity of a host of social networking sites, such as, Friendster, Myspace, LinkedIn, the social networking giant-Facebook, twitter, pinterest, to name a few.

Characteristics of social networking

Social networking provides for various forms of communication. These include updating one's profile and “status messages”, commenting on the posts and photos of one's “friends”, posting messages in one's friend's profile or “wall” messages, as in Facebook and interacting through instant messaging services, available on various social networking sites. Whereas, internet ventures in the past involved mastering sophisticated technical knowledge about programming, the web 2.0 technology involved in social networking is way simpler and user-friendly, adding to the mass appeal of this mode of communication. This easy-to -use technology, with its user-generated content feature has boosted self-expression, user interactions and online communication. The versatile features of social networking sites also include photo, video plus music sharing options, gaming, voice plus video conferencing facilities, thereby expanding the scope and functionalities of social networking, revolutionizing the world of communication. Communication in social networking is based on relationships. Social networking has transformed online communication from its mechanical task-based approach to spontaneous interaction, helping people to bond and stay connected. The instantaneous feel-good factor provided by online social networking, replicates real life face-to face interactions, in many ways. It is instrumental in strengthening existing relationships and building new ones. Social networking is community driven. Its participatory nature promotes the sense of connectedness and belonging. The ability to express oneself and connect with individuals over common interests or beliefs fosters this sense of community. Social networking is emotion-based. This is in sharp contrast with information-based websites of yesteryears .This unique characteristic of social networking provides individuals with the emotional bonus of sharing their life stories, getting attention from their connections and the emotional security from staying connected with their friends 24/7 - the unadulterated joy of receiving messages, comments and feedbacks from close friends and friend invitations from long lost peers, merely by logging on to the desired website.

Benefits of social networking

Social networking is fundamentally transforming the character of our social interaction and communication. Creating a profile on a social networking site ,opens up the floodgates to an extensive network of friends, who can be contacted at any time, from any place. The network of “friends” may include offline friends and relatives, friends of friends, or total strangers. Social networking gives us the latitude to connect with people from different countries, with diverse cultures and backgrounds, enriching our lives through the exchange of unique experiences and ideas. Social networking facilitates learning and educational collaboration, across geographical contexts. By championing peer-based, self-directed learning methods, social networking empowers students to produce and evaluate knowledge, promoting deeper and more productive learning among them. By extending education outside the classroom, e-learning via social networking sites presents more engaged learning opportunities. In the presence of web access and literacy, social networking can bridge the divide between marginalized students and their teachers, bolstering their confidence in educational pursuits. Social networking strengthens inter-personal relationships, making people more resilient to cope up with stressful situations. People experiencing marginalization can take resort to social networking ,to identify supportive connections with people having similar needs and experiences. This includes people with disabilities or chronic illnesses. Social networking also fosters a sense of belonging and acceptance among sexually and gender-diverse sections, by helping them to connect with similar communities. Interacting with others over shared interests, promotes a sense of connectedness and belonging. Similarly, creating and directing the content in one's profile boosts self-expression and builds communities. Social networking provides a platform for political participation and civic engagement, through discussion, organization and mobilization in political and community agendas and campaigns. Social connection developed by social networking, boosts self-esteem, fosters a sense of community and belonging and increases people's resilience to adapt to changes. This is conducive to the general well-being of individuals.

Challenges presented by social networking

Though, social networking offers a diverse range of positive effects, people also navigate a gamut of challenges and risks. These challenges include privacy concerns, cyber bullying and the risk of predation, among others. The focus on children and young adults as the vulnerable group emanates from the concern that young people lack the awareness for appropriate management of information and appropriate levels of self- disclosure on the public online space. Apart from the fear of abuse that they may encounter on social networking sites, there is a widespread concern that the time devoted to online relationships may undermine the development of supportive friendships in real life and involvement in the traditional “communities” of family, school and so on. The privacy issue is serious in social networking, on account of difficulties regarding verifiability and anonymity. Giving away inappropriate private information in the public domain, allowing access to everyone, is the crux of the privacy issue. Most people do so in the absence of proper media literacy. The potential for damage can be attributed to accessibility, affordability, convenience and anonymity of online networking spaces, over the internet. Identity theft and sexual predation are potential risks associated with underestimating the unanticipated repercussions of making private information public. Inappropriate levels of self-disclosure may reveal sensitive information about individuals on social networking sites and make them easy prey to identity-theft, whereby the impersonator may virtually swindle the targeted individuals out of all his assets/resources. Young people lack the awareness and foresight to calculate the undesirable consequences of making private information accessible, risking inappropriate and threatening contact from sexual predators. Cyber bullying arises from access to sensitive information and its dissemination in the social network, for counterproductive purposes of bullying on the internet, resulting in great emotional trauma, for the victim.

Conclusion

Social networking has become an integral and indisputable part of our everyday lives. It has changed the way people connect and build relationships. Social networking strengthens these inter-personal relationships, by helping individuals keep in touch with “friends” not seen on a regular basis, and helps forge new and enduring relationships-bridging the spatial, temporal, cultural and geographical divide - effectuating the concept of one world. By encouraging creativity and self-expression, social networking fosters a sense of aspiration and achievement. Social networking also empowers individuals, through its positive effects on individual's sense of connectedness and community. These beneficial effects of social networking promote the overall health and wellbeing of individuals. However, it is pertinent to state that the risks and benefits presented by the phenomenon of social networking are interdependent. It is only by developing skills and strategies to manage risks that the positive aspects of social networking can be fully harnessed. The strategies required to combat the effects of these potential risks involve, fostering media literacy including technical literacy and creative content and visual literacy, in order to reconstruct media appropriately for effective communication and self-expression. Raising awareness about potential threats and increasing transparency in data handling practices, are relevant to mitigating risks, ensuring cyber safety and facilitating the positive impacts of social networking.

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