This chapter proposes a new theoretical construct for evaluating Websites that facilitate online social networks. The suggested model considers previous academic work related to social networks and online communities. This study’s main purpose is to define a new kind of social institution, called a “connector Website”, and provide a means for objectively analyzing Web-based organizations that empower users to form online social networks. Several statistical approaches are used to gauge Website-level growth, trend lines, and volatility. This project sets out to determine whether or not particular connector Websites can be mechanisms for social change, and to quantify the nature of the observed social change. The author hopes this chapter introduces new applications for Web log analysis by evaluating connector Websites and their organizations.
Today many millions of Americans are utilizing “connector Websites” to serve as a proxy for Gladwell’s Connector. The connector Website is a proposed theoretical construct and is defined in this report. This type of Website is a new kind of social institution, and its public availability coincided with the emergence of the Internet in the mid-1990s. A connector Website has the capacity and function to provide contacts and facilitate social exchanges between people, and effectively build communities of users. It boosts timely and relevant interactions between individuals while enlarging the scale of social exchange processes, by way of online social search and social networking.
Social exchange applications (and technologies) collectively fortify the infrastructural backbone for connector Websites. To some degree, each Website allows for “social search” and “social networking”. It is an empirical question beyond the scope of this report to parse out to what extent a Website is used specifically for one purpose or the other. In general, connectors allow users to create self-identifying profiles, while also empowering them to search for others based on needs, interests, mutual “friends”, contacts, or other points of focus.
In the mid-to-late 1990s, the first connector Websites were those emphasizing social search, and more specifically, online dating (e.g. Match.com), online trading and classifieds (e.g. Craigslist), and online auctions (e.g. eBay). A second generation of connectors gained national media attention around 2002, offering more explicit social networking options for professional/career networking (e.g. LinkedIn, Ryze), and for making new friends through mutual friends or interests (e.g. Friendster, MySpace, Facebook). In 2004 industry-leading companies like Google, Yahoo!, MSN, and AOL started testing their own connector Websites to enhance their existing online communities.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Wiki: A series of Web pages that allows users to generate content, but also allows others (often unrestricted) to edit the content. A tool for online collaboration and without constraints of time.
Chat: Also known as instant messaging. Allows people to communicate online by broadcasting messages to people in real time, often as one-on-one channel, but also in a group forum sometimes called a chat room.
Review: Also known as testimonial, bulletin, and wall. A structured discussion board that allows users to submit critical text about an idea, user, product, or message. Often supplements ratings. See Amazon.com.
Discussion Board: Also known as forum, message board, and bulletin board. For the purpose of exchanging information only. A Website location where users may post text communication for one another. Not sensitive to time constraints or structures.
Webmail: Email received and sent only locally on a particular Website. The user’s other email accounts remain unaffected.
Social Network Site: Web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system. The nature and nomenclature of these connections may vary from site to site (Boyd & Ellison, 2007).
Blog: Shorthand for Weblog. A frequent and chronological publication of comments and thoughts on the Internet. It is a journal that may be instantly published to a host Web site.
Instant Messenger: An online service that alerts users when friends or colleagues are online and allows them to communicate with each other in real time on a private online chat window.
Tag: In the practice of collaborative categorization using freely chosen keywords, these are descriptors that individuals assign to objects. Tags can be used to specify properties of an object that are not obvious from the object itself. They can then be used to find objects with some desired set of properties, or to organize objects.
Social Networking: A term describing an online process. It is a Website technology that allows users to search, identify, and communicate with other people as contacts, fitting closest to their specified preferences and criteria.
User: One who uses a computer system, software application, or Website. Users may need to identify themselves for the purposes of accounting, security, logging and resource management. In order to identify oneself, a user has a user account and a user name, and in most cases also a password. Users employ the user interface for access to a system or Website, and the process of identification is often referred to as log in.
Online Community: Also known as virtual community. A group of people communicating or interacting with each other by means of information technologies, typically the Internet, rather than face to face. Online communities can be used loosely for a variety of social groups interacting via the Internet. The concept does not necessarily mean that there is a strong bond among the members. The term virtual community is attributed to the book of the same title by Howard Rheingold in 1993.
Connector Website: A Website providing a relatively simple means of interaction for users who seek to offer or obtain goods, services, or information. It is an intermediary offering peer-to-peer Web applications that collectively make up an infrastructure for social exchange, networking, and diffusion processes. Over time, user-to-user interactions gradually generate a majority portion of the Website content and the regulation of which is governed jointly between the host organization and the online community of users. Depending on the surrounding social and economic conditions, as well as site design and development, the connector Website should excel in facilitating the discovery and coordination of context-based communications and transactions.
Folksonomy: A word combining “folk” and “taxonomy,” meaning the “people’s classification management”. Refers to the collaborative but unsophisticated way in which information is being categorized on the Web. Instead of using a centralized form of classification, users are encouraged to assign freely chosen keywords (called tags) to pieces of information or data, a process known as tagging.
Stickiness: A popular term for marketing a message. Short-term stickiness describes a Website’s ability to keep a user on the Website for as long as possible. Long-term stickiness refers to a Website’s ability to motivate a user to return to that particular Website.
RSS Feed: Shorthand for Real Simple Syndication. A family of XML file formats for Web syndication used by news Websites and blogs.
Rating: Net feedback; an indicator of reputation on a particular Website.
Feedback: Website “currency” that builds or detracts reputation for users or specific content. Within a Website’s feedback system, for example, a user may give positive or negative point(s) to another user or that user’s posted content based on some interaction.