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An Introduction To Social Networks

What Is A Social Network?

Wikipedia defines a social network service as a service which "focuses on the building and verifying of online social networks for communities of people who share interests and activities, or who are interested in exploring the interests and activities of others, and which necessitates the use of software." [1].

A report published by OCLC provides the following definition of social networking sites: "Web sites primarily designed to facilitate interaction between users who share interests, attitudes and activities, such as Facebook, Mixi and MySpace." [2]

What Can Social Networks be Used For?

Social networks can provide a range of benefits to members of an organisation:

Support for learning
Social networks can enhance informal learning and support social connections within groups of learners and with those involved in the support of learning.
Support for members of an organisation
Social networks can potentially be used my all members of an organisation and not just those involved in working with students. Social networks can help the development of communities of practice.
Engaging with others
Passive use of social networks can provide valuable business intelligence and feedback on institutional services (although this may give rise to ethical concerns).
Ease of access to information and applications
The ease of use of many social networking services can provide benefits to users by simplifying access to other tools and applications. The Facebook Platform provides an example of how a social networking service can be used as an environment for other tools.
Common interface
A possible benefit of social networks may be the common interface which spans work / social boundaries. Since such services are often used in a personal capacity the interface and the way the service works may be familiar, thus minimising training and support needed to exploit the services in a professional context. This can, however, also be a barrier to those who wish to have strict boundaries between work and social activities.

Examples Of Social Networking Services

Examples of popular social networking services include:

Facebook is a social networking Web site that allows people to communicate with their friends and exchange information. In May 2007 Facebook launched the Facebook Platform which provides a framework for developers to create applications that interact with core Facebook features [3].
MySpace [4] is a social networking Web site offering an interactive, user-submitted network of friends, personal profiles, blogs and groups, commonly used for sharing photos, music and videos.
An online platform for creating social websites and social networks aimed at users who want to create networks around specific interests or have limited technical skills [5].
Twitter [6] is an example of a micro-blogging service [7]. Twitter can be used in a variety of ways including sharing brief information with users and providing support for one's peers.

Note that this brief list of popular social networking services omits popular social sharing services such as Flickr and YouTube.

Opportunities And Challenges

The popularity and ease of use of social networking services have excited institutions with their potential in a variety of areas. However effective use of social networking services poses a number of challenges for institutions including long-term sustainability of the services; user concerns over use of social tools in a work or study context; a variety of technical issues and legal issues such as copyright, privacy, accessibility; etc.

Institutions would be advised to consider carefully the implications before promoting significant use of such services.


  1. Social network service, Wikipedia,
  2. Sharing, Privacy and Trust In Our Networked World, OCLC,
  3. Facebook, Wikipedia,
  4. MySpace, Wikipedia,
  5. Ning, Wikipedia,
  6. An Introduction To Twitter, UKOLN Cultural heritage briefing document no. 36,
  7. An Introduction To Micro-Blogging, UKOLN Cultural heritage briefing document no. 35,
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