Written on VS023 flying from London to Washington DC and dispatched to silicon.com via my hotel wi-fi hotspot at 2.5Mbps later the same day.

In just six years, social networking has gone from an insignificant curiosity to become the primary mode of electronic communication for many. Today, Facebook and Twitter are the biggest successes, with a myriad imitators and also-rans making up the rest of the field.

Facebook now appears to account for about 15 per cent of the global population engaged in social networking. At the present rate of growth, it may well exceed 20 per cent over the next 12 months. The competition, including the aggregation of all professional sites, are failing to match this growth but the numbers are climbing steadily all the same.

Examining the numbers by region gives this profile of the most active areas:

Graph showing number of people social networking by world region

Image: Ignite Social Media/Peter Cochrane/silicon.com

But if we normalise these figures by total population count and graph as a percentage, we get an entirely different and surprising picture:

Graph showing percentage of population social networking by world region

Image: Ignite Social Media/Peter Cochrane/silicon.com

This graph not only reflects the wealth of the individual regions, but it also says a lot about social conventions and the way societies traditionally operate. North America, South America and Europe have well-founded histories of open communication, discussion and debate forged over centuries. Asia-Pacific is somewhat different – depending on where you are – and may therefore take longer to develop.

Wherever it has really taken off, one of the most interesting aspects of social networking to date has been…

…its inclusive nature. In my experience, social media has been a very positive force in binding families and groups of disparate people separated by distance and time, regardless of age, background and wealth.

The naysayers will inevitably highlight all possible negatives and relate horror stories. But what intrigues me is the widespread use, and the new, additional modes of communication engendered by such a counter-intuitive concept that originated from the desire of geeks to date girls.

While the media’s focus is on Joe Public and the risks, mine has been on professional and family-based advantages. I have always valued my family, friends and professional network – and this technology has enhanced all three to the extent that if it were removed I would find it disabling on many levels.

From a standing start, it took the mobile phone 30 years to reach the dominance of today. It looks as though social networking may well get there in much less than 10 years.

However, on the way I suspect it will join forces or be augmented and supported by other technologies, such as location-based services, health care, medical, security, sales and marketing.

In the next cycle we may therefore see business models and applications heading further up the abstraction curve to exploit the metadata created by the confluence of all the technologies.

In which case we might expect even bigger business gains in future. At that point, What? Where? When? How many? and How much? will become the key questions.