Online social networks are changing the way people communicate, work and play, and mostly for the better, says Martin Giles
The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, currently in progress, is famous for making connections among the global great and good. But when the delegates go home again, getting even a few of them together in a room becomes difficult. To allow the leaders to keep talking, the forum’s organisers last year launched a pilot version of a secure online service where members can post mini-biographies and other information, and create links with other users to form collaborative working groups. Dubbed the World Electronic Community, or WELCOM, the forum’s exclusive online network has only about 5,000 members.
But if any service deserves such a grand title it is surely Facebook, which celebrates its sixth birthday next month and is now the second most popular site on the internet after Google. The globe’s largest online social network boasts over 350m users—which, were it a nation, would make Facebook the world’s third most populous after China and India. That is not the only striking statistic associated with the business. Its users now post over 55m updates a day on the site and share more than 3.5 billion pieces of content with one another every week. As it has grown like Topsy, the site has also expanded way beyond its American roots: today some 70% of its audience is outside the United States.
Although Facebook is the world’s biggest social network, there are a number of other globetrotting sites, such as MySpace, which concentrates on music and entertainment; LinkedIn, which targets career-minded professionals; and Twitter, a networking service that lets members send out short, 140-character messages called “tweets”. All of these appear in a ranking of the world’s most popular networks by total monthly web visits (see chart 1), which also includes Orkut, a Google-owned service that is heavily used in India and Brazil, and QQ, which is big in China. On top of these there are other big national community sites such as Skyrock in France, VKontakte in Russia, and Cyworld in South Korea, as well as numerous smaller social networks that appeal to specific interests such as Muxlim, aimed at the world’s Muslims, and ResearchGATE, which connects scientists and researchers.
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