Since its inception, the Internet has been regarded as a tool for communication—initially for strategic military communication and then for the exchange of research data by universities. When the World Wide Web was born in 1992, it added a graphic interface, which enhanced the Internet's ease of use and added interactive capabilities. The Internet has been described as the most significant medium for communication since the telephone.
One advantage of the Web over other forms of media is that users are active participants, whether they communicate by e-mail or browse Web sites for information. One major drawback is the lack of a central index. The Web resembles a library without a card catalogue. Each day terabytes of information are added to the Web, which has created an information explosion.
The way we gather information has changed over the past decade and continues to evolve. The Web is increasingly used for communication in addition to e-mail. Interactivity has taken on a new meaning, and in some respects Web communities have come into being. Social software encompasses a range of software systems that allow users to interact and share data.
Since the inception of the Internet, the interest in online communities has been tremendous, as evidenced by the popularity of bulletin boards, discussion forums, and online communities. In increasing numbers, people are taking advantage of the ubiquity of the Web and the fact that it is available at any time of the day or night to communicate with others of similar interests.
On a simple level, e-mail can be considered social software when individuals send copies of an e-mail to several people and discussions result. Blogs are to some extent social software. Essentially social software supports a conversational interaction between two individuals or a group. The immediate "real-time" version is instant messaging or a chat room.
Social software is designed to create and manage a digital expression of personal relationships and to help people build new relationships. In business, collaborative or groupware software is project driven and a hierarchy is usually imposed on the interaction. In contrast, social software is based on supporting the desire of individuals to affiliate, to be pulled into groups, and to achieve personal goals through interaction.
At the beginning of this course we were tasked to sign up to a list of various social software websites which includes the latest social networking and micro-blogging website Twitter that enables its users to send and read other users' updates known as tweets. Tweets are text-based posts of up to 140 characters in length. Updates are displayed on the user's profile page and delivered to other users who have signed up to receive them.
Another social software website is FriendFeed which aims to be a one stop shop for all your social networking updates and news items. FriendFeed is a service which, instead of layering a meta-network on top of all your other social networks, will create a news feed incorporating them all much like the facebook news feed. It’s an idea that isn’t too difficult or bothersome for social network users to adopt.
The next social software website is Last.fm is a UK based Internet radio and music community website founded in 2002. Using a music recommender system called "Audioscrobbler", Last.fm builds a detailed profile of each user's musical taste by recording details of all the songs the user listens to, either on the streamed radio stations the user's computer or some portable music devices. This information is transferred to Last.fm's database ("scrobbled") via a plugin installed into the user's music player. The profile data is then displayed on the user's profile page. The site offers numerous social networking features and can recommend and play artists similar to the user's favourites.
Flickr, as an image-sharing site, is also an example of social software, which uses "folksonomy". Flickr is one example of this type of system, and works similarly to other folksonomy-driven social softwares, like Del.icio.us and Furl. In all of these, when users post photos (in the case of Flickr) or bookmarked websites (in the case of del.icio.us and furl), they post the content first, and then add the tags (as many as they want) which seem appropriate to them. And later viewers, creating their own search paths and sets of content, can add new tags.
Positive effects of social software tools
Evidence suggests that most international students who use social networking sites, at least partly use them to stay connected with friends and family back home and to network with other international students. The advantages are obvious. Browsing profile pages is a relatively easy, low-cost way to stay informed about changes in their lives as well as about life at home in general, provided that these friends and family update their profiles, keep up blogs or upload photos of activities. In addition, social networking sites afford direct communication through private messages or guestbook and photo comments.
Having a Flickr account allowed me to keep in contact with my family back home by providing pictures about my well being. The main concern of my parents would most definitely be if I am able to take care of myself having spent 20 years being under their care. I figured out the best and only way would be to maintain albums of photographs taken here. I created albums ranging from the school, the nightlife over here and even to the extend of showing them toilet at my apartment. Having done this, I moved on to educating my sister about the pros of having a Flickr account too. They too can keep albums of photographs on changes to the environment home. This provides everyone with a low-cost way of keeping in touch.
Let me bring across to your attention a couple of scenarios which displays the positive effects of such social software websites. Firstly, on April 10, 2008, James Buck, a graduate in journalism student at UC Berkeley, and his translator, Mohammed Maree, were arrested in Egypt for photographing an anti-government protest. On his way to the police station Buck used his mobile phone to send the message “Arrested” to his 48 "followers" on Twitter. Those following him contacted UC Berkeley, the US Embassy in Cairo, and a number of press organizations on his behalf. Buck was able to send updates about his condition to his "followers" while being detained. He was released the next day from the Mahalla jail after the college hired a lawyer for him.
Next, research reported in New Scientist in May 2008 found that blogs, maps, photo sites and instant messaging systems like Twitter did a better job of getting information out during emergencies such as the shootings at Virginia Tech than either the traditional news media or government emergency services. The study, performed by researchers at the University of Colorado, also found that those using Twitter during the fires in California in October 2007 kept their followers (who were often friends and neighbours) informed of their whereabouts and of the location of various fires minute by minute. Additionally, organizations that support relief efforts are also using Twitter. The American Red Cross uses Twitter (http://twitter.com/RedCross) to exchange minute-to-minute information about local disasters, including statistics and directions.
During the 2008 Mumbai attacks, eyewitnesses sent an estimated 80 tweets every five seconds as the tragedy unfolded. Twitter users on the ground helped in compiling a list of the dead and injured. In addition, users sent out vital information such as emergency phone numbers and the location of hospitals that needed blood donations.
In January 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 experienced multiple bird strikes and had to be in the Hudson River after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport in New York City. Janis Krums, a passenger on one of the ferries that rushed to help, took a picture of the downed plane as passengers were still evacuating and tweeted it via TwitPic before traditional media arrived at the scene.
In February 2009, the Australian Country Fire Authority used Twitter to send out regular alerts and updates regarding the 2009 Victorian bushfires. During this time, the Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, also used his Twitter account to send out information on the fires, how to donate money and blood, and where to seek emergency help.
In October 2008 a draft US Army intelligence report identified the popular micro-blogging service as a potential terrorist tool. The report said, "Twitter is already used by some members to post and/or support extremist ideologies and perspectives.
Negatives effects of social software tools
According to a recent survey (Lenhart, 2007), 55% percent of American teenagers between 12 and 17 years old use social networking sites. The vast majority of these say they mostly use MySpace, some reported maintaining a profile on Facebook. Half of them visit social networking sites at least once a day. Almost all respondents (91%) indicated they use social networking sites to stay in touch with friends they see a lot, while 81% say, they also use the sites to stay in touch with friends they rarely see. Almost half (49%) of the respondents reported they use social networking sites to make new friends.
That makes up almost half of the youth who engage in such social networking sites to make new friends. This is something parents should be wary about as identity can be hidden in the cyber world and youths nowadays might fall into vicious traps set up by such ‘new friends’. Youths could be physically or monetarily threatened.
While no comparable data is available about social networking site use in other countries, or among international students like myself. Evidence suggests that international students use these tools in a similar fashion, both to communicate with their host environments and to stay in touch with friends and family back home. In addition, many international students seem to use social networking sites to connect with other international students, whom they have met during orientation seminars or similar occasions. When browsing through user comments on profile pages of international students, one can often identify all three of these different types of communication over the same medium.
It is worth investigating the individual motivations for these different kinds of communication. Because of the limited length of their stay abroad, international students have a natural interest in maintaining contact with their friends, both to process experiences made abroad, and to stay informed about changes in friends’ lives and make interaction with them smoother upon return. Much of this communication could be classified as diversion or entertainment and is not directly related to the hosting culture.
A special form of communication is networking with other international students. While these interpersonal relationships may be based on as few as one real-life encounter (such as attending a pre-departure orientation seminar together), international students often feel a sense of common ground due to their similar situations of being new to a largely unknown culture. This shared experience opens a wide field of both informal and substantial conversation topics, and the barrier of communicating about adjustment problems with other international students may be lower than with peers from either the host or the home culture.
Finally, international students – especially in the first weeks and months upon arrival –typically meet many new acquaintances and need to develop strategies to turn some of these acquaintances into more permanent relationships or friendships. Social networking sites could support this process, as this paper shows.
A major component of the use of social networking sites is to browse other people’s profile pages. These typically provide general biographical information (age, location), photos, statements about one’s views and interests as well as a detailed description of the person’s social environment through friend lists and comments. In addition, some social networking site users provide more narrative information about their lives by maintaining blogs embedded in their profiles.
This wealth of accessible information about other persons is in many ways comparable with the information-seeking parts of the initial phase of interpersonal communication. Browsing profiles of schoolmates reveals a great deal of the social fabric of an exchange student’s surroundings and gives insight into the backgrounds of their peers. In extreme cases, a visitor will know details about another person’s life without ever previously having talked to the person.
In addition to explicit information provided on profile pages, one can infer assumptions about a person’s attitudes and interests by analysing context information such as which peers the person is connected with, which school, church, or clubs the person belongs to and much more.
Some social networking sites provide search functionality based on descriptions of interests, attitudes, and biographical factors, such as age and location. Following such details, exchange students could use these facilities to find peers in their surroundings who are similar in certain regards and pursue real-life interactions with them.
The availability of this information comes with the danger of distorting the traditional ways of choosing interaction partners and giving undue weight to explicitly stated factors over more subtle personality traits not described in online profiles.
We shape our tools, and they in turn shape us. The online environment is undergoing an interesting evolution. Clearly, we are taking advantage of this new connectedness to experiment with expanding our intellectual and social networks. Blogs offer the possibility of transforming publishing and traditional media into more personal and interactive experiences in which the individual is not just a passive consumer but an active participant. Social software are making an impact on our society, with hundreds of thousands of people participating every day. Technology can cause cultural change for better or for worse, and we are at an interesting and challenging point in the online evolution.
 Lenhart, A., "Social Networking Websites and Teens: An Overview", Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2007 http://ictlogy.net/bibciter/reports/projects.php?idp=1232
 James Buck http://www.cnn.com/2008/TECH/04/25/twitter.buck/
 The American Red Cross http://twitter.com/RedCross
 Folksonomy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Folksonomy
 Kate Schell, "The dark side of social networking" http://www.corban.edu/studentlife/hilltop/4-7-08/socialnetworking.html
Ng Chin Wai
Friday, April 3, 2009