This post is really about trying to explain the mental framework by which I ‘organise’ the social web into different categories of behaviour and types of technologies. This is very much my own view but builds on frameworks and analysis by others which I referenced. I have written it as a glossary – please shout if you think it should have extra words or if you disagree / want to refine any definitions.

  • I use Social Web rather web 2.0 or social networking sites as I think it best describes the collection of services and technologies which are used in order to connect people to each other and to provide social content. I think web 2.0 is too technical a term and social networking is restrictive as a site can be social without connecting people together into a network (take YouTube for example).

  • Networked publics: This is a relatively new term which is being used to describe shared online spaces like facebook which can be see as shared communal spaces which are built around individual profiles rather than around specific interests. Danah Boyd has done lots of work on this and it is worth reading “Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life”.
  • And these are as distinct from Online communities which bring people together around specific topics or interests. Sites such as Ning support online community creation as the aim is to create membership based spaces which require a greater degree of commitment / involvement from the participants than a networked public.
  • Blogs are a slightly different tool as they have more limited takeup and require far more effort than other social tools. Where they excel is in providing a simple to use yet rich online ‘home’ for social web users and you will often find that avid social web aficionados are also dedicated bloggers.
  • Video and audio sharing sites are different again as these are in fact very transactional with the main social interaction being around commenting and rating content.

A useful history of these things can be found in another Boyd article “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship. In particular I would draw attention to this quote which describes the move from online community to Social networks to networked publics:

“The rise of SNSs indicates a shift in the organization of online communities. While websites dedicated to communities of interest still exist and prosper, SNSs are primarily organized around people, not interests. Early public online communities such as Usenet and public discussion forums were structured by topics or according to topical hierarchies, but social network sites are structured as personal (or “egocentric”) networks, with the individual at the center of their own community. This more accurately mirrors unmediated social structures, where “the world is composed of networks, not groups” (Wellman, 1988, p. 37). The introduction of SNS features has introduced a new organizational framework for online communities, and with it, a vibrant new research context.”

More recently we have seen the rise of Real Time web services such as twitter or yammer which focus around the idea of the status update (Facebook was so concerned about this as to update their interface to embed the status update more centrally). These behave in a social way but have a far flatter structure than the networked publics and online community sites as you have two social choices – follow or not follow – rather than the more complex opportunities to create your online identity which are offered by other tools. The increased dominance of the iPhone and iPhone imitators are increasingly meaning that these real time social sites are being accessed rather ‘apps’ as well as through the PC which realises their earlier design goal which was linked to the 140 character limit of SMS.

In terms of how you might think of the social web as describing a ‘public sphere‘ you need to consider the difference between closed spaces which are seeking to be an online home for the users and the open networked spaces and real time services which are encouraging a free flow of information and debate between different groups rather than supporting the tendeancy to homegeneity within online communities. That being said, once action needs to be taken (for example democratic decision making) the greater social capital of the online community can be an important element in facilitating complex processes.

Ok then – that’s my view – please do say if you disagree……