Power to the people...
Social networking - that's where you stand around chatting to people and eating canapés?
Not quite. If traditional networking means mingling with like-minded people, swapping contact details and making connections that could help you further your business, online social networking offers all this - and a lot more besides.
Sure there's no actual flesh-pressing - or wine-quaffing - in cyberspace but the internet means your potential network is very large indeed. And of course the web offers possibilities for sharing a lot more than a few anecdotes - detailed information, say, or media such as photos and video. As a result social networking is booming, with websites dedicated to building online communities of likeminded souls attracting users at a very rapid rate.
Crumbs. But what exactly is social networking?
Social networking is the business of engaging and interacting with other internet users in a communal online space. Users typically build an individual profile - which might consist of photos, contact details, a blog or favourite links - and make 'friends' with other users with whom they are linked in some way. They might join up with those who share knowledge or a common interest, be they old school buddies or fellow IT professionals.
Should social networking sites be banned at work? There's really no need, according to the results of a recent silicon.com poll.
I'm thinking this stuff is popular with kids…
And you'd be right. Like many aspects of the web, the youth has long been down with it - creating profiles, uploading photos, posting links and generally spending a lot of time tinkering with their online profiles.
It's also something that hasn't escaped advertising execs who are getting excited about the opportunities for tailoring marketing on these sites and reaching demographics they are extremely keen to connect with.
In an interview with silicon.com, Michael Birch, CEO of social networking site Bebo, referred to this new breed of adverts - call it 'advertising 2.0' if you will - as "engagement marketing", adding that it is "a more integrated experience" than traditional online advertising.
But it's not just kids getting into this stuff. While it's currently still most popular with younger age ranges, you'd be wrong to think it's exclusively for the under-18s.
So more savvy advertising... is that the only business opportunity here then?
That's one aspect of it. Businesses are only just starting to realise the potential and explore the possibilities offered by social networks - and much of the talk is about how important these online hubs will be in future.
Some see social networks becoming juggernauts of media consumption and distribution, giving web users a forum for locating and sharing their own media (a natural extension of the web 2.0 user-generated content trend). This is something Cisco for one is talking up. Earlier this year, the network gear maker also acquired software company Five Across, which develops tools to allow companies to easily add social networking features to their websites.
Then of course there's social networks as networking career tools for individuals - which can take the form of something-for-every-business-professional networks, such as LinkedIn, or smaller, niche sites that serve a particular slice of industry, such as the Intellect Young Professionals' Network.
Anything more for business?
Social networks have potential to be used to drum up new business - as a way of linking suppliers with clients in a global marketplace, say. That's the idea behind a social network called Insight in the pipeline from Reuters. Another network, called the Wireless Industry Partnership, launched last year with a similar idea but specifically focused on wireless technologies. Then there's virtual world-based social networks such as Second Life, which have their own currency and offer a variety of in-world money-making and networking opportunities.
An obvious corporate use for social networks is as a tool for building a sense of community within an organisation - linking up staff across the business by giving them a shared space to communicate and collaborate. For example Cisco has 1,500 employees using Facebook which means they don't need internal tools to provide community.
I'm sensing some mobile opportunities...
You're catching on. Operators are getting excited about the potential for social networks on the go - and not just as a means of driving more traffic across their networks (and therefore boosting revenues). Users of web stalwarts such as Facebook, Flickr and MySpace have been able to post content to their profiles via their handsets for a while now but there are bigger ideas kicking around out there. GPS-enabled social networking, for one.
Tell me more...
Since social-network-alites are more than likely to be owners of mobile phones, there's immediate potential to hook up hardware and software - provided, of course, the hardware in question is GPS-enabled - lending another dimension to social networks by enabling the location of users to be pin-pointed on a map. This is known as 'social mapping' - and brings social networking full-circle, back to real-world meet-ups.
So I could check my phone to see if any of my buddies are hanging out in the local pub?
Exactly. But before you get too excited, social mapping is currently little more than a gleam in mobile operators' eyes in the UK, as GPS phones are still a rarity here. However, the tech is more developed across the pond - where services with teen-friendly names such as Loopt, Mologogo and Socialight have been enabling well-heeled US youngsters to hook up for some root beer for a few years now.
A slightly less high-tech example of mobile social networking, but one that's not hamstrung by expensive hardware restrictions, is Twitter: a site that enables users to publish SMS messages detailing their current status to the web and to mobiles of whoever has signed up to hear about it. It surely can't be long before 'twittering' enters the lexicon as a word meaning 'random, trivial text-based utterings'.
Interesting - sounds like there's a lot of stuff going on. Any concerns?
Well, on the flip side, businesses are now having to deal with employees spending time during the working day checking out what their friends are up to online - a classic case of web-facilitated time wasting. Company reputations could also be put at risk by inappropriate online behaviour by staff. To this end, some businesses bar access to social networking websites.
Another possible corporate concern is the potential for confidential information to leak out via social networks - or for rival organisations to gather intelligence on the people who work at a competitor, whether for staff poaching purposes or to eavesdrop on corporate secrets.
Jobseekers should also be worried - research has shown employers are increasingly checking out job candidates' social networking profiles. And what they find online can have a significant impact on the outcome of a job application.
Of course there are more general privacy concerns too - not everyone is comfortable with the idea of putting so much personal information on the web, even if it's possible to restrict who can view it.
Thanks for the warning but I think I'm ready to join the revolution. So where do I go to get me some social networking action?
Well-established social networking hubs that may be of interest include virtual world Second Life, business networking site LinkedIn and juggernauts of mass appeal such as Bebo, Facebook and MySpace.
Here in blighty, MySpace is currently top of the social networking pops - with 34 per cent market share, according to Hitwise stats - just pipping Bebo, with Facebook in third place.