The need to feel a connection amongst peers, in reality, has existed since the dawn of time when playgrounds were littered with candy wrappers and the contents of lunch boxes were traded to avoid eating 'that' sandwich. With the increased use of social networking sites, many users have begun to replace their physical social interactions with online social networking. Social networking sites are now used for dating, playing games with friends, adopting (and feeding) virtual animals and the frequent and increasingly irritating request to become a ninja, pirate, werewolf and even a vampire.
Not only can you lead an alternative online life by engaging in such activities as pretending to be a drug dealer but you can also upload elements of your real life to your various profiles to keep your fellow internet socialites updated.
These interactions have become more abundant since the rise of Web 2.0, which led to their creation. They have progressed to become more user friendly and provide more (not always necessary) functionality, thus the internet has now become a portal for people to socialise from the comfort of their own homes.
Although technology has increased the convenience of staying connected with people, is online social networking worth it? And does is it really fulfil the need of feeling a connection amongst peers?
Over the past weeks I signed up to several sites and investigated how to use them in a social context. The applications are Last.fm, Twitter, Flickr and del.icio.us.
Last.fm is an application that allows users to collate an online catalogue of their personal music interests; enabling them to compare their collection with their friends, meet new people with similar tastes and also discover new music.
Twitter, however, has nothing to do with music. The whole premise of Twitter is to briefly summarise what you are doing within one hundred and forty characters or less. It also supports 'following' fellow users so you can see their updates and also a direct messaging feature. The direct messaging feature is also limited to one-hundred and forty characters making it quick and simple for those who don't like unnecessary features.
Flickr is a photo and video sharing application in which users can upload approximately one-hundred megabytes worth of images and two videos per month, the option to upgrade is available but comes with a price tag. This might not be necessary for most users but photographers who use high megapixel resolution cameras may opt for the available upgrade which goes for $24.95 US per year.
And finally the black sheep of the family – deli.icio.us. This is a bookmark sharing application. When saving bookmarks users also have the option to set them as either private or public so they can be shared or accessed elsewhere by the user. Bookmarks may range from a link good article or perhaps to a hilarious video on Youtube that could force you into a 'knee-slapping-almost-crying' laughing fit. What makes this application different from the others is that it doesn't support any messaging between users.
The constant measure of how many friends someone has has affected the way in which people need to interact and connect with others. When people are not in close proximity of their friends and family they tend to rely on technology to keep in touch, seeking for some sort of human communication. “a key issue has been to determine how to allow people to carry on communicating as if they were in the same place, even though they are geographically separated – sometimes many thousands of miles apart.” 
All the networking sites I joined support the feature of having some sort of network in which you would add friends, however, they do not adopt all the same 'social' aspects of a social interacting site; this only allows users feeling connected to their peers to an extent. With the feeling of a connection to friends being limited some users find it tiring keeping all their profiles updated and can't be bothered with social networking.
Admittedly, I have often felt the need to be in front of a computer in order to feel some sort of connection with some of my friends since they don't even live in the same state. But being the impatient user that I am I always feel the need for a reply to be sent or received without delay or the need to be pressing the refresh button every five seconds (sad, I know). This is when I realised social networking doesn't necessarily make you feel connected with your peers rather it serves as an occasional 'catching-up' medium. This was particularly clear to me when using the social software I signed up for several weeks ago.
Twitter worked well for me. I found since it was lacking an instant messaging feature I wasn't left disappointed - I didn't feel the need to be sitting and awaiting a response or bashing the f5 button. It also proved to be suitable for people who don't have the time and aren't interested in all the unnecessary features like those of Facebook or even Myspace. One aspect of Twitter I wasn't fond of was the direct messaging setup, and by setup I mean the drop down box to select a fellow Twitter user you wish to send a message to.
Although I'm not following many people on my 'noob' account I thought this may be problematic for users who are following a large number of people or if users have similar names. The obvious problem would be that your message could go to the wrong person. Even though I enjoyed using twitter I don't believe it would increase the feeling of being connected since the its main purpose is to update your friends on what you are doing whether its through your status, a direct message or a reply. I did try to set up the feature that is supposed to send updates to my mobile phone but unfortunately this feature is not yet supported in Australia.
The application del.icio.us doesn't have any social aspects and certainly doesn't increase the feeling of being connected with friends. The one feature that could be classified as remotely social is the feature to add people into your network. Although there's a 'networking' feature it lacks any interaction between users. Users can view the bookmarks of people in their network but can't send instant/personal messages, recommendations or alerts. Riveting stuff..
Another lacking social aspect I noticed when using del.icio.us was that there was no real way of customising your profile, making them all look generic. In the settings page there is an option to add your name and a link to your homepage, perhaps a blog (see image below). But don't be fooled, these options don't make it any more social than a dead mushroom.
I didn't have any problems with the features but I found some issues with its layout. It was too plain and many of the icons looked similar making them hard to distinguish. Contrasting colours would have been good so that users can discern between certain menus. This suggests del.icio.us has a poor level usability or that I am unconditionally incapable of liking the site or even perhaps that I am a several levels lower than a 'noob'. (Most probably the latter).
Flickr is quite useful if you have the patience to sit, choose, upload, tag, name and organise your favourite images to share with the world. It has features which support commenting on photos, private messaging and also Groups giving it a more social aspect. The private messaging, FlickrMail, works like a standard emailing feature where messages are sent directly to another user - not posted publicly. The Groups feature allows users to create groups in which members can contribute their images to a pool. For example, this feature could be used by people who attended the same party; everyone can upload photos so they can all see how embarrassing they can be through someone else's eyes - or lens rather. I didn't encounter any issues with the tools in Flickr but some very minor things were unclear. For example the term 'Set', which is basically a set of images organised into an album, was unclear to me at first (I'm slow, cut me some slack). Most people would think of organising their images into and album or even a scrapbook; I thought the word 'Album' would have been most suitable. Flickr doesn't really increase the feeling of being connected to peers since its mainly a forum used for critiquing people's work or personal photos.
When siging up to Last.fm I was a bit sceptical about using it. I thought it wasn't really something that people would really care about - the songs you are listening to at that very moment and the ones you loved so much that you would drop what you were doing just to do pretend you knew how to dance since no one can see you. But after having my usual whine about something I didn't know much about I began to enjoy using it. I particularly enjoyed finding new music in similar genres to those I've listened to by looking at the recommended music.
The social side of Last.fm isn't anything outside the norm with its 'shout out' messaging between users and also personal message system similar to the one on Flickr. These types of communication features don't increase the feeling of being connected but are a good way to converse on occasion. This could be the case since Last.fm is mainly based on the music you listen to rather than a competition to see how many friends you can add. The ubiquitous downloadable plugin that opens when you open your default media player has extra social features integrated.
As seen above on the left hand side of the panel 'My Profile' there is an expandable list called 'Neighbours' (just be thankful it's not streaming video of the Australian soap opera). This list is made up of other users who have similar in tastes of music to yours. You are able to view their profiles and their scrobbled music and even add them as a friend, making you that little bit more 'social'.
I my personal experience, the social networking sites discussed previously do not increase the feeling of being connected to peers in short distance and those geographically separated. Bringing me to my point that “Even in an immersive virtual-reality environment, users are disconnected observers of a world they do not inhabit directly”. Other contributors to feeling disconnected are the integrated communication features that are not advanced to what is already in the industry. I believe that social networking is worth it but only to an extent; keeping so many profiles updated can be quite irritating since some have very similar features. The ideal resolution would be an application which would have most features in one place - imagine what the world would be like if we could only share bookmarks? Thus my conclusion is that I will continue to whine and use the applications (except for deli.icio.us) until the super application is available for me to sign up.
 Sharp, H., Preece, J. & Rogers, Y. (2002) Interaction Design: Beyond human-computer interaction, John Wiley & Sons, p11
 Dourish, P. (2001) Where The Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction, The MIT Press, Ch4 - p102