a new reality

In its original incarnation the World Wide Web was much like television: primarily a one-way mechanism for broadcasting content. A site owner posted content to a static web page in the hope that others would visit. Social websites were discussion forums centering around a single topic or theme. To participate in the conversation individuals were required to join the site, acquiring a unique user-name and password. For example, I am a runner. I like to run marathons. When I joined a community of marathon runners I was known as runnerjeff243. Sites such as these were similar to the segregated communities in which we participate in everyday life. They were virtual versions of clubs and social groups serving as places we could go and share only a single facet of our total identity. Yes we did talk about other things as we got to know each other but, what we knew about each was primarily filtered through a single lens–we were runners. That is how we knew each other. Our identity was as Goffman described it, “context specific” (1959). Web sites were destinations; places we could go and highlight a single aspect of our self. Then around 2003 things changed. The web shifted from being destination-centric medium to individual-centric one.

Several factors combined to cause this shift in perspective. First, the Web replaced the computer as the platform where software applications resided. No longer was a computer, in the traditional sense, needed to access the Web. All that was required was a device capable of getting you there. This meant we were no longer required to be in a specific place, such as the office or home bedroom, to participate. We could be anywhere in the world where there was WiFi or cell phone coverage and access the Web on our smart phones, tablets, any device that possessed the capability to access the Web.

The advent of new coding languages, such as Asynchronous Java Script and XML (AJAX) among others, made it possible for data to be uploaded and downloaded faster because a full page reload was no longer required. New coding languages (PHP, Ruby, ColdFusion, Perl, Python, JSP, and ASP) meant data could be formatted in a manner (XML, RSS, JSON) that allowed applications and websites to freely share information with each other. Developers began exposing their code making it possible for others to offer enhancements to the existing application or develop complimentary applications of their own. Which is what happened.

Software developers took advantage of these new coding languages to create applications that were conceptually open in nature, referred to as social networking technologies. Gunawardena et al. (2008) define social networking technology as “tools that facilitate collective intelligence through social negotiation when participants are engaged in a common goal or a shared practice” (p.5).

Social networking technology led to the creation of social networking websites, defined as “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” (boyd & Ellison, 2008, pg 211). Social networking sites are places where individuals could not only consume information but also create it, and exercise some control over how that information was displayed and accessed. The sites were blank slates where the site owner provided the framework and relied on individuals to supply the content. By design these spaces were not topic centric but instead revolved around the individual fundamentally changing how we represented ourselves, shared information, and formed communities.

In contrast to the first generation Web (1991-2003) which was primarily a content consumption vehicle, the social web is characterized by its open and participatory nature where people share their perspectives, opinions, thoughts and experiences. “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.” (boyd & Ellison, 2008, pg 219) Instead of separate communities of practice, such as my marathon community, we now had places such as Friendster (2002), LinkedIn and MySpace (2003), Flickr (2004), YouTube (2005), Facebook and Twitter (2006). The age of social networking had begun.

Gunawardena et al. (2008) define the act of social networking as “the practice of expanding knowledge by making connections with individuals of similar interests.” (p. 4) With the advent of social networking, the web moved from being an alternative to reality to becoming an extension of reality. Social applications, defined as systems that enable users to interact and share information, transcend conventional notions of time and place. This has enabled people to self-organize around common interests regardless of geographical constraints into what  Wellman B., Boase J., Chen W. (2010) describe as networked individualism where “boundaries are more permeable, interactions are with diverse others, linkages switch between multiple networks, and hierarchies are flatter and more recursive” (p. 160). The social web not only blurs online-offline boundaries but also blurs the lines between communities as well. The luxury of a segregated audience has evaporated. No longer can we be comfortable knowing that what we say and how we act will only be seen and heard by those we intend to see and hear it. But If we are no longer bound in large part by geographical location how do we define ourselves? What do we draw upon to form our sense of identity in relationship to the world in general, and our community in particular? How do we navigate, gather and share information when our unintended audience is always greater than our intended one?

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