AS COLLEGE LIFE gets back into full swing, online social networking might have replaced e-mail as the primary reason college students want to get online between classes. A few years ago, the closest thing to web-based social networking was online dating or discussion threads at boards.ie but during the past two years, social networking has added more than a few bells and whistles. When you log on and connect with friends today, you share links to videos, music playlists, gig guides and bookmarks. Social networking has become one of the most effective ways for people of all ages to keep in touch with friends, find long-lost acquaintances, locate a flat, and ultimately to find a proper job.
In Ireland, three social networking sites attract most of the non-tech college community. Students normally bring their Bebo identities with them to college, follow the music on MySpace and connect to clusters of friends on Facebook. By the end of the academic year, it appears Facebook’s growth pattern will make it the largest social networking site on the web.
According to web tracking data from Hitwise, Facebook’s market share is growing at more than 100% every academic semester. But with the start of this academic year, Facebook is going to take its members to another level.
In early September, Facebook announced the company will begin offering public search listings so anyone can access the names and pictures of certain Facebook members. This means that if someone on Facebook has ticked a box permitting public access, a Facebook profile will push out to Google, Yahoo and MSN. Members who want to keep their listings private will have to adjust their settings inside Facebook.
Observers point out that Facebook needs to extend its reach onto the worldwide web and allowing information out of Facebook generates more links into Facebook. Several sites specialising in job placements already have built applications that work inside Facebook and with more mini-CVs open for harvesting, those placement agencies will have richer data to mine. On top of that initiative, Facebook’s advertising platform would benefit greatly since public profiles means getting more targeted advertisements.
This is a double-edged sword, however. Part of the allure of Facebook is that members can meet up in a sequestered online place, poke each other, and have a laugh. If prospective employers, college lecturers and—God forbid—your mother could watch the action, the site’s appeal could drop like a rock.
Several photo albums posted online in Facebook from third level colleges in the southeast show piss-ups in full swing. Students who are “tagged” in the photos with their real names could find their drunken smiles folded into an electronic brief compiled for a prospective employer. This is an academic exercised used in the creative multimedia programme at Tipperary Institute and the results have resulted in some people demanding a camera-off policy at college social events.
And why not control your own image when you’re not a celebrity? Why shouldn’t people decide what they want to include in the electronic lifestream of another? With the knowledge that a cameraphone photo is just one click away from an online photo gallery, time should be called on the use of shared photos.
Tanja Ryan, a multimedia student at Tipperary Institute, has her own Facebook profile and it attracts people she does not know. “People send me e-mail and want to be my friend on Facebook and I don’t even know who they are,” she says. “It’s not like there’s anything I don’t want to share but I’m just thinking that I wouldn’t tell complete strangers some of the things I’ve put up on Facebook for my mates. I don’t put things online to get chatted up.”
Some other social networks use identity validation to keep curious visitors behind an online curtain that requires an introduction or validation. LinkedIn, a business contact site, excels with its tight controls based upon previous jobs, academic degrees and vouched colleagues.
The LinkedIn community involves a subscription plan where payment of $19.95 per month provides a host of extra features such as direct contacts, enhanced profiles and deeper search results. From experience, the LinkedIn business community knows those paid features improve the potential of the service by enabling faster connections between potential collaborators.
But for now, Ireland’s next generation of knowledge workers are learning how to collaborate by developing their social networking skills with the current tools of the trade.