Here's a newsflash. Social Networking has been around since the dawn of humanity. It's one of the things that makes us human. There is an entire field devoted to the study of social connections, culture and society. It's called Sociology. I'm always caught off-guard when I hear someone refer to Social Networking as if it's a phenomenon that was invented by members of GenY. And it is not only GenY members who refer to it this way.
To me, Social Networking simply means that people are connecting with each other. It happens all the time, and you don't need the internet to do it. It is especially popular with younger people. They learn about relationships by making friends in school, and spend a lot of their time socializing, or "hanging out." They may then move away from home, they have no friends, and they need to meet people. This is not new.
What is new is that the internet has provided a new channel for socializing to occur, for whatever the reason may be. Initially the technology limited the use to a one way conversation. You could look up information. We could access it via a physical (wired) network. New technology (dare I say Web 2.0 tools?) has allowed a two-way conversation. Voila. A social network can now exist in an arena where originally there was only a physical network. Groups of teens used to "hang out" at the mall, and before that it was the local soda fountain. Now they can "hang out" on MySpace, Facebook, or other Social Networking websites. Due to the "hanging out" nature of the connections, younger generations have popularized the use of this new channel.
Why am I bothering to rant about this issue? I was discussing a new website the other day with a coworker. It was an information heavy site that allowed people to connect with experts for information. When the words "allow people to connect" came up, it was thought that the site was Social Networking site, which in turn meant it must be about fun like MySpace. They then questioned the credibility of the content. An important distinction was made at that point. There is a big difference between using Web-based Social Networking tools to create a website which allows access to expert content, and using those same tools to create a website whose sole purpose was about Social Networking on the web.
This is why I'm amused when I read about Social Networking with a purpose (other than hanging out online) being the next evolution on the web. "Oh, you mean that people might want to connect with others for some reason other than hanging out?" Brilliant!! I'm sure it's never been done before.