Social networks change friendship’s face value

    Profile

    With the steady advancement of communications technologies, social networking has taken on a new digital character. The Facebook, Friendster, Xanga and LiveJournal are just a few examples of Web-based applications available to the socially active, who can use these sites to create, maintain or reject virtual and real-life friendships.

    At the source of this new form of social networking are instant messaging programs like AOL Instant Messenger, MSN Messenger and ICQ, as well as Dead AIM and Trillian, spin-offs of the original messengers with added features like window transparency and a comprehensive buddy list combining contacts from all three programs. The advent of instant messaging launched a wave of improved applications that have revolutionized the ways we gather and distribute information, mediate communication and — key to college students — form and maintain friendships.

    Friendster is another free online service that has revamped methods of social engagement. Much like online journals, Friendster is a social network that allows users to keep up with old and new friends. As opposed to sites like Xanga, Friendster’s focus is on the individual profile, rather than journal entries. Profiles can include an extensive list of interests, favorite music, movies and books, and reveal personal information such as hometown, birthday, occupation and relationship status. Users can provide a brief description of themselves, and compile an inventory of similar profiles, essentially listing friends with similar interests. Once added to the list, friends can post testimonials about the user’s character or teasing comments for the reader’s pleasure.

    The Facebook

    The latest of these online social networks is the Facebook, a network available to students of select colleges and universities around the country. This limitation affords students a less cumbersome framework for navigating profiles and establishing social networks. Designed by Harvard students to unite college undergrads at their respective schools and emancipate them from the anonymity of which so many complain, the Facebook allows students to create profiles with entry topics similar to Friendster and to connect with other students within their campus as well as across the nation. Users can look for friends to add to their list by searching within their university or other schools — through classes, interests and favorites — and can confirm or reject users who request to be added to their list.

    “A great deal of the research and writing about ‘social software’ focuses on software applications [like Friendster] that mediate in human social relations,” said Brett Stalbaum, Interdisciplinary Computing and the Arts Major faculty adviser and professor at UCSD, who teaches courses involving digital technology in artmaking. “But what software isn’t social? Is the software that mediates your credit history more or less social, in its overall impact, than an online dating service?”

    Stalbaum, like many intellectuals, has an optimistic attitude toward these Web-based applications. He explained that humans and computers make up a symbiosis; such software enables people to increase their friendship-making and friendship-sustaining capabilities, and dramatically increases their individual popularity. This undoubtedly excites many students even as it dissuades others, especially those of a more misanthropic bent.

    Online networking programs, particularly the Facebook, provide students with a new dynamic in social relations, allowing users to gather new friends through shared relations or shared interests such as favorite movies or music. The Facebook also allows users to post on profile walls, visualize their social network online, and message and “poke” friends. Although the Facebook has a platform similar to a popularity contest, students seem to express few qualms over being contestants. Initial apprehensions toward the program have been obliterated by its widespread use.

    Some students consider the Facebook an accessible means of meeting other students and creating friendships or even romantic relationships that would be difficult to begin under different circumstances. Some have even discovered the advantages of its messaging service, disseminating party invitations online through a sure network of friends who can pass on the information accordingly.

    The relative effortlessness of establishing and maintaining friendships through the use of these applications is enjoyed by many, but at the same time generates serious dislike in others. Some students lament that social software diminishes the value of friendship by making it too easy and too artificial. Others argue that these digital interactions, with their tendency to monopolize the user’s time and minimize real-time, face-to-face interaction, are socially backward.

    The social value of these programs is entirely contingent upon each student’s personal ethos of friendship and technology. For those who oppose digital friendships Ralph Waldo Emerson provides strong support: “I hate the prostitution of the name of friendship to signify modish and worldly alliances.”

    Users of online applications from LiveJournal to Friendster walk a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the chance of rediscovering a lost high school friend or resuming an old flame presents a positive argument for the continued use of such programs. On the other hand, users may find themselves withdrawing from real-life friendships into those based exclusively on online interaction and online engagement.

    Groups

    Social network Web sites:

    The Facebook — www.thefacebook.com

    Friendster — www.friendster.com

    ConnectU — www.connectu.com

    Myspace — www.myspace.com

    Blogs:

    Xanga — www.xanga.com

    LiveJournal — www.livejournal.com

    BlogSpot — www.blogspot.com

    TypePad — www.typepad.com

    Instant Messaging:

    AOL Instant Messenger — www.aim.com

    MSN Messenger — messenger.msn.com

    Yahoo Messenger — messenger.yahoo.com

    ICQ — www.icq.com

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