Social Networking, Part 1

Hello duckie-darlings,

Well, the nights are drawing in, but it still feels like I’m walking/biking/dragging myself through a very large man’s armpit whenever I go out. Still having lots of fun with my time off before I go back to the States for a month, or in order to keep me from posting endless pinups of my new boyfriend Andy the Eel, shall we get to a real column?

I’m on enough press mailing lists (ie, one) by now to realise that not everyone has my ooh-shiny monkeylike grasp of…whatever the hell it is you want to call it, this Web 2.0 thing. I loathe buzzwords, but I suppose ‘social networking’ is the best definition for the series of websites that I regularly see bewildered posts about. Essentially, it is a medium to allow you to make some kind of connection, however superficial, with another human being. (Or a spambot. Often, both have about the same chances of being Turing-complete, lord help us all.) Because I have a background in computer-y stuff, an obsession with usability, and way too much free time, I thought I might provide a basic explanation as to what these trendy things are that we’re all supposed to have. Also, I get very, very cranky at the idea that anything computer-related it beyond someone’s comprehension. I promise, you can figure it out. Really.

I’ve basically just gone through the list of everything I could think of, but if you have questions about anything else, just leave me a note and I’ll either write down what I know of it off the top of my head, or bang it against the wall a few times and take notes.

Are you sitting comfortably? Good. Let’s begin.

Facebook

Currently stupidly popular, as well as very easy to set up and maintain. Free, of course, Facebook acts as a sort of combination Rolodex, chatroom, messageboard and blogging system. The way it works is that you sign up and are given a page, linked to either your real name, or the name you give the site. (This is part of its massive popularity; with the absence of usernames, it is very easy for you to look up the dinks you went to high school with and make fun of them for their current loser jobs. Or, I dunno, connect with old friends. Whatever you like.) You can post updates that are usually quick and hopefully witty/important/legible, or make longer blog posts. You can connect to other friends, sharing photos, messages, and so forth. Basically, it’s a massive conduit for a variety of types of communication, either targeted to one person (by leaving a note on their wall) or to everyone/a subgroup of everyone.

Incidentally, Facebook is also eminently searchable, so adjusting how much people can see if they’ve friended you, and if they haven’t, is something to keep in mind. The process for messing with these security controls is not the most straightforward in the world, but if you’re willing to work at it, and Google for help, it’s certainly doable.

MySpace

The Next Big Thing, six years ago. MySpace started as a way for bands and musicians to network and has, eventually, come around to that again. In between, it became a repository for shitty graphics, and a reminder that people who are just learning HTML should under no circumstances be allowed to inflict their designs on the populace. (Incidentally, I had a Geocities website in the late nineties. There were animated .gifs. LOTS OF THEM. I’m allowed to point fingers.) If Facebook is the awesome new mega-mall (which started out as a couple of awesome independent stores hidden away on a leafy, obscure street), MySpace is the desolate strip-mall that’s empty except for that crazy homeless woman and the awesomest underground music store in three states.

Blogging/LiveJournal

This is, I hope, pretty self-explanatory as you’re reading this either on my LiveJournal or my wordpress blog. So instead, I’ll try to break down what a blog is.

Essentially, it’s a bit of software that takes the words you type in a little box, and turns them into a (hopefully) pretty and readable webpage. The different types of software come with different bells and whistles, from the very simple (LJ lets you read all the entries of all your friends in one place) to the massively complex (you can do cool stuff with WordPress, none of which I’ve even looked at yet). They’re all going to have one thing in common, though – you type into a box, press a button, and all the formatting and fiddly stuff is done for you by the publishing software.

Twitter

This seems to be the one that gets most people. Twitter is like blogging, but you have to make your point in 140 characters or less. As you can imagine, this either goes very, very well or very, very badly. I’ve seen people write awesome stories using the specific medium of Twitter and…I’ve used it to post drunkenly from city centre, usually about rugby games.

One thing Twitter is extremely good at is getting information out very quickly, because all you need is a mobile phone that has some kind of signal. This is invaluable during natural disasters – some of the first and fastest on-the-ground reports coming out of Haiti this past January were via Twitter, and Richard Morse kept tweeting and retweeting reports of people still buried in houses, trying to get rescuers to them. It’s still invaluable for getting an idea of what life on the ground is like.

(in re: tweet and retweet – Twitter has evolved its own lexicon, based around its name. Yes, it sounds bloody stupid, but it is a valid lexicon. Tweeting is posting to Twitter, retweeting is something you can do where you basically republish something someone else has said to your own twitter account.)

While blogging lets one yammer on for aaages about whatever, Twitter forces you to be short and sweet, but it does make connections between people very fast and easy, if pretty superficial. More superficial than most internet connections, I mean, frankly. So, there’s that value.

It is also very good for finding various crushes/sport stars/etc., following them, and learning that actually they’re the most massive dorks in the known universe, bless ’em. Ahem.

This is starting to run a bit long, so shall we end for this week, and I’ll pick up again next Wednesday. I’ll be home in Philadelphia(!) then, so it should be fun as I’ll be slightly jetlagged, and probably with a drink or three in me. (I’m staying with my parents for the duration. Halp.)

‘Til next week, kittens!

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