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Integrated Web Design: Social Networking — The Relationship between Humans and Computers is Coming of Age

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The interaction between community, computers, and society is now being referred to as "social networking," and it's making a lot of heads turn. But what is social networking, really, and what does it mean to web technologists? In this compelling article by Molly Holzschlag, you'll learn what social networking is, which languages are emerging to support it, and what it might mean for the next generation of web design and development.
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Back in the Bulletin Board Service (BBS) days, the online community had substance, grit, and a tangible human face. Widely used BBSs such as GEnie, CompuServe, Prodigy, Delphi, and The Well allowed regular people to get online from their home computers in real time for the first time en masse. That led to face-to-face meetings; in some cases, hundreds of members would gather. Local BBSs had "GTs" (get-togethers). People got together to chug coffee, talk technology, and connect socially.

The Web has struggled to implement a truly effective community that commercial online services seemed to accomplish with ease. Much of this challenge has been due to the difficulty in creating fast, effective, cross-browser applications for chat and discussion services.

A very modest level of success has been achieved over the years to improve the Web-based community, but the essential grit of earlier interactive formats has only recently begun to emerge on the Web. This is largely due to fresh visions and new technologies, as well as a re-emergence of older technologies such as Internet Relay Chat (IRC). This year, Howard Rheingold, long considered one of the gurus of the online community, came out of relative seclusion to keynote at SXSW, clearly demonstrating a resurgence in the use of computer technology for human connection.

The interaction between community, computers, and society is now being referred to as social networking, and it's making a lot of heads turn.

What is Social Networking?

Most people seek connection. In fact, most people require some kind of need to bond with others. Some of us have a significant need to create community or—at the very least—some kind of shared experience. This has occurred throughout the history of the online world, whether in the form of Usenet newsgroups, email lists, chat, instant messaging (IM), and Peer-to-Peer technologies. In recent years, some new offerings have been added to the mix, and they are reviving interest in community in fresh ways.

Dave Shea, creator of the CSS Zen Garden and avid weblogger via his site, Mezzoblue, says that "the potential to hook up disparate groups of distributed people with the same interests is amazing." Shea feels that "There's nothing like an online community to bring together people who can't create a local community out of lack of shared interest."

The continuing integration of sociology and technology is bringing about new insights and new platforms for advances for both. The technologies of interest in contemporary social networking include

  • Weblogs. Weblogging has become a vastly popular social event. For the technologist, the tools being developed and perfected for weblogs—such as automated aggregation, blogrolls, and comment system—are making it profoundly easy to aggregate and connect related content as well as people. Surprise, surprise to all you folks who thought weblogs would be a passing fad! New markup languages are emerging to manage aggregation and to better express relationships within document content.

  • Social networking Web sites. Along with Orkut and Friendster, a large number of social networking web sites have emerged. These sites aren't to be confused with general community sites; instead they specifically map individuals to other individuals.

  • Geographical mapping. Easy-to-implement geographical mapping can be made of the precise location of you and the weblog or sites you represent.

Social networking is providing important and very useful technologies. There are other questions important to consider as well, as is always the case when technology and humanity interact.

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