Modified August 28, 2015

Social Networking

Social networking websites are places on the Internet where people can connect with those who share their interests. These sites began to appear in the mid-1990s, and gained traction in the early 2000s. Typically, social networking refers to sites that allow users to directly connect with people they know socially (Facebook, MySpace, Tagged) or professionally (LinkedIn, Xing). However, other social networking sites are built around common topics (Yahoo! Groups, TripAdvisor, FanNation) – or real-time geographical locations, as sites are accessed through a mobile application (FourSquare, Loopt). As the popularity of social networking has risen, a few sites have increasingly been deployed by companies for marketing and customer outreach (Facebook, Twitter).

One major impact of social media is that Internet users are increasingly demonstrating a general impulse toward participation with and contribution to websites. Some sites are leveraging this impulse to aggregate (and often to moderate or rate) a body of content (YouTube, Flickr, Wikipedia, AllRecipes, eHow). Other sites help users make purchasing decisions by providing user-generated ratings of products or businesses (Epinions, Yelp). Still others promote philanthropy by encouraging site visitors to pool donations or investments to achieve a larger goal (DonorsChoose, Kiva). These diverse  examples show how, like search engines and computer operating systems, social networking sites can function as economic “platforms” that serve different groups of many users. 


These issues arise in discussions of social networking:
  • Social networking enables new ways to connect, share information, and do business –and these forms of engagement have impacted culture and society.

  • Data posted to these sites is often publicly available and may persist years into the future. Information shared online has the potential to damage a person’s reputation later on – for example, in college applications or job interviews.

  • The companies hosting these sites ultimately control the information users post. There is an ongoing debate on whether there should be limits on how these companies use and share information about individual users.

  • As social networking sites are increasingly used by children and teens, and information posted online is immediately and easily shared, the potential for online bullying and the difficulty of ensuring child safety is a concern.

  • Some social networking sites allow users to share audio, video, and written content; this may enable theft of copyrighted content.

  • Some personal information shared on social networking sites may be publicly accessed and used in identity theft or even home break-ins.
TAP Academics researching social networking include:
danah boyd, Microsoft Research and New York University, explores the role of technology in teen’s behaviors with an emphasis on youth online safety.

“Teenagers absolutely care about privacy.” Quoted in The New York Times, 1/20/2012

Urs Gasser of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society writes about youth and social networking.

John Palfrey of Harvard Law School looks at Internet filtering, social networking, and other new media.

"What is different today is that the public spaces in which young people interact have expanded. Instead of interacting only in physical public spaces -- schoolyards, parks, malls -- much of the social life of young people takes place in a converged space that links the online and the offline." From his article “Solutions Beyond the Law,”  The New York Times, 10/1/2010
James Grimmelmann of University of Maryland writes about the law and policy of privacy on social network sites.
Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard Law School examines how different national governments affect efforts to find and filter content online, including social networking sites.

These sources are a good place to start in understanding issues involving social networking. Anirban Sengupta and Anoshua Chaudhuri examine online harassment of teens in “Are Social Networking Sites a Source of Harassment for Teens? Evidence from Survey Data.” James Grimmelmann offers an overview of the law and policy of privacy on social network sites in “Saving Facebook.” Jonathan Zittrain explores the relationships among social networking sites and users in “Facebook Rules: Privacy Invasions From Other Users.” Lorrie Faith CranorLorrie Faith Cranor and Sarah Spiekermann describe how to design privacy-friendly sites in “Engineering Privacy.” Urs Gasser and John Palfrey look at bullying, safety, copyright, and privacy issues in “Empowering Parents and Protecting Children in an Evolving Media Landscape.” In order to further inform cyber-bullying policies, danah boyd and Alice Marwick present a more nuanced understanding of how teens interact online in “The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics,”

Media Contact

For media inquiries on a range of TAP topics, or for assistance facilitating interviews between reporters and academics, contact TAP@techpolicy.com.

PDF Download