Social networking for all?

Technology activist Paul Lamb says concept should embrace a much larger group than teens and twentysomethings.

3 min read
So far, social networking is mostly for the young and digitally restless.

Sites that cater to the teen and twentysomething crowd, like MySpace.com, Facebook and Xanga, consistently top the charts. Two of every three people in the United States now visit social-networking sites, and roughly 90 percent of young people are online.

In the world of cell phones, more than 63 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 27 now send text messages. The number of text messages sent per month is expected to increase from 8 billion today to 80 billion in 2008.

An amazing array of social-networking tools is being launched to take advantage of social-networking trends and to better link hipsters on the go. Services like Dodgeball and Meetro allow you to locate and communicate with your circle of existing and potential friends within a given geographical location using text and instant messaging on a cell phone or laptop.

Placesite allows you to identify strangers with similar interests while surfing on your laptop and sipping a latte in your favorite cafe. Nokia Sensor, Playtxt and Mamjam facilitate flirting and interacting with strangers using a cell phone-based profile and text messaging when hanging out in a bar or nightclub.

Similarly, Jambo offers users the ability to connect people with common interests, at a conference or in an airport, via a saved profile accessed on a variety of wireless devices.

But what about the poor, the low-tech and the old--in aggregate a much larger group than teens and twentysomethings? How does social networking assist them and society at large? Mostly, it doesn't. At least not yet.

What would a world look like where the best of social-networking tools were put to use in "average" communities and for the larger social good?

It might include:

• Neighborhood social networking. While sitting at home using my PC or driving around my neighborhood with my cell phone, I can identify and connect with people on my street who share common interests. Neighbors I may not know have a choice to make their profile available to me and others in our immediate neighborhood. If an elderly neighbor needs help moving furniture, I can find out about it on our neighborhood social network and volunteer to lend a hand.

• Educational social networking. Students, teachers and the community at large participate in school-based systems that match school assignments, activities or needs with individuals inside and outside the school who can help.

• Social services networking. Using a cheap wireless device, an abused spouse or a person recently released from prison can be linked immediately to a variety of services in their area, including temporary housing, counseling and employment support. Before they even show up at a social service agency, they could access information about the best person to talk to (based on reviews from other clients) and know what services are available in real time without having to wait or be told to go somewhere else.

• Street-smart social networking. Rather than handing over a quarter, a passerby can assist a homeless person using a one-click system that identifies local services or electronically transfers money to an account at a local grocery store or restaurant.

Beyond the obvious challenge of the business viability of such services, is the reality--among underserved groups in particular--that not everyone has a cell phone, laptop or PC, or the money to pay for them and related services. In addition, the learning curve can be steep for those less technically inclined. Most current social-networking services are designed by the young, tech-savvy and affluent for other young, tech-savvy and affluent people.

That needs to change.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that people don't actually need fancy electronic gadgetry and cutting-edge Web services to be successful social networkers. A look in the eye and a handshake offer a far better introduction, and tell you more about a person, than a text message ever will.

But used well, social-networking tools do enhance our ability to connect with others in meaningful ways. Let's just make sure that we keep the larger social good in mind, and not just commercial opportunities, when building technology-enabled social tools.

Let's make social networking socially acceptable in the best sense.