The Social Networking Guide for Newbies

Don't be left behind. Everybody's doing it: politicians, kids, moms, rock stars, even granny.

A mother reads a message from her son in Iraq, a student gets a job with Teach for America, a German rock band receives feedback on a new single, and your niece dumps her boyfriend. What do all of these events have in common? They all took place on a social network.

Social networking communities are Websites that provide an opportunity for you to contribute your opinions, interests, and skills to the largest creative work ever built by mankind: the Internet. Once solely the province of Web geeks and fast-typing youngsters, it is now a world where everyone — from your postman to your office manager — plays a role in the creation of new content available for the world to see.

Social networks can be your diary, your address book, a daily newspaper, and more. They combine all the connectivity of e-mail, snail mail, instant messages, phone calls, and even conversations at the local coffeehouse. They allow all the freedom of expression, opinion, and voice through online journals, chatting with friends, or even debating the thorniest political issues. Social networking is an infinite bulletin board and an ever-expanding sea of friends.

Online social networking communities have become more than teenage phenomena; they are now part of how all segments of society communicate, get information, and live. Channeling new technologies, these communities have made possible new ways of meeting people, checking in on loved ones, and spreading ideas … all from the comfort of your home or work computer.

This Newbie guide will help you navigate the first steps into full Web citizenship.

Part I: Getting Started

Step 1 - Finding the online social networks best suited for you.

Latest reports show there are more than 400 major social networks and thousands of smaller communities that offer some sort of business or personal networking.

Your first step should be determining which aspects of social networking interest you. Do you want to find your long-lost college roommate or do genealogical research? Are you the lone White Sox fan in Arizona? Do you want to be able to talk folk music and track down rare recordings? Are you in a band waiting for its big break? Do you want to see what other people in similar businesses in other parts of the country are doing? There is a social network that will fill your needs. For some, the large, general networks will be best; tracking down old friends is easier if there is no specific topic limiting the audience. For others, niche sites will serve better.

You can start by conducting a search on your favorite search engine. Simply type in your interest and add the phrase 'social network' in the search. Additionally, try conducting a search for directories of social networking sites. Once you identify a site that interests you, do a little exploring before you sign up and register. Many sites have an "about" section, rules of conduct, and privacy standards. This information will tell you a lot about the purpose, security, and integrity of the site.

Step 2 - Registration.
Once you select the site you wish to join, you need to register to establish an account. For networks such as MySpace or Facebook, you'll find that basic registration is free, painless, and instant.

The first thing all networks ask you to do is pick a username and password, and provide the network with your e-mail address. Choosing a good username is important, and your first real creative input to the network. It will affect how other users see you. If you plan to network for business, a plain, yet descriptive, username is best — like the name of your company or part of your name. For interacting with friends, create something more fun. If there's something you love, let the world know.

Obviously, you'll want to choose a password with the same care you would for anything else. Remember, you are presenting some of your life details. You don't want anyone taking advantage of that.

After the initial set-up, you may be asked to choose a level of membership. As described above, the basic membership should be free. Paid memberships have more features, but are not necessary to get started.

Step 3 - Creating your User Profile.
All social networks will guide you to create a user profile. Often, this is the first thing other users will see about you and it's your first step toward contributing to your new community. Consider this a snapshot of yourself that other people on the network will be able to see. Through this tool, you can explain to everyone else why you are using the network, who you are, and what you are interested in. Some have second spaces to post more advanced items.

As with any new endeavor, use common sense and don't provide any private information.

Step 4 - Start networking.

Now that you've found your network(s), signed up, and created your profile, it's time to network yourself within the community. Start by connecting with people you know. You can either search them out using one of the site's friend finding SEARCH features, or invite them to join the network. Also try searching for friends by interest. Even within the large network sites, there are smaller communities and clubs. Think of these large social networks like a vaster version of your high school cafeteria: you can move around at will and talk with anyone, but you'll probably be most comfortable with your friends and people who share your interests.

These groups — whether informal (most network sites use terms like "friend" or "pal list") or more packaged (communities with specific topics, moderators, and rules for joining) — function essentially as internal e-mail programs where you invite someone to your group by sending the user a message. This is usually delivered both to their network mailbox and their private, off-network e-mail.

Step 5 - Enjoy your new connections.
Depending on the network you joined, you will be able to do many things with your friends, including sharing news and media through your profile or in private messages, and exploring other people's profiles and commenting on them.

Part II: What Can You Do on a Social Network?

Things to do in a social network.
Most social network users follow a routine when they login to the network. Think of this as the way you go through a newspaper. There's no right or wrong way of doing it; some just prefer to read the comics first, or check the front page. Likewise, on networks, there's no order for your daily interactions. The following section of the guide details some of the options you'll have in your network.

The simplest of network tasks is viewing your own information. When you log into a network, the first thing you will see is your own home page. From here, you can check your messages and add or edit content. At any time, you can change your presentation (in the physical external layout of your profile page) or what you want to tell people about yourself (by editing the text of your profile). All social networks have internal mechanisms for these changes. Many provide templates which allow you to change the background color scheme and layout of your content. As you become a more experienced Web citizen, you may find it useful to learn HTML, the coded language behind the scenes of the Internet.

One of the more common uses on social networks is "blogging." Short for "Web-log," a blog is essentially an online publication that is open to other users of the network. Various levels of privacy can be set up if you don't want everyone to see what you're writing. Some networks offer open community blogs and others offer you private blogs. This online publication or journal can be subject-focused or often is a chronological record of your thoughts and the events of your life.

In most networks, you can supplement your journal with photographs and video. So after you've written about your amazing vacation to Paris, you can upload individual pictures to accompany the text or an entire album. Many networks also give you the option to include userpics (small photos that accompany your username on anything you do in the network). Some sites offer features to upload albums of photos for special events.

The specifics of the upload process can vary, but the network itself should have a help page that explains it step-by-step. In general, you must first bring the photo into your computer via a scanner or digital camera, save it, and then follow your network's instructions for uploading (adding) it to the site.

If you keep your journal, photos, and video open to the public, you can take part in the most important aspect of social networks: commenting. Anything you add to the network — photos, video, a rant, or a poem — can be commented on by your fellow users. Likewise, anything another user creates is open to your critique. If someone made you laugh or made you angry, you can tell them. If you want to help edit a piece of writing, you can make suggestions. If you want to see what a friend is doing later tonight, you can do it through comments. It is the most social part of your network experience.

There are two other aspects of social networking you should be aware of: the bulletin board and the chat room. Both are designed for group discussions, but they function quite differently.

Bulletin boards.
A bulletin board works like a filing cabinet for everyone to access. It is always divided into topics, and the discussion of any one item in a topic is referred to as a "thread." So, if you are on an automotive bulletin board, you can find the broad topic of a 1964 GTO, for example. This is basically a drawer in the cabinet. If you then went to a thread (an individual file folder) marked "How do I rebuild a transmission?" and had advice on that subject, you could add your 'page' of insight to the thread.

Chat rooms.
A chat room, on the other hand, is a real-time conversation by instant e-mail with multiple people able to read every message. You can usually send a private message while in a chat room, as well. You may encounter a lot of Web language used as shorthand for faster typing. Both chat rooms and bulletin boards are overseen by moderators, who will remove inappropriate or tangential discussions. If you berate someone for their stupidity, or start talking movies when everyone else is talking board games, you can expect your comments to be removed.

Part III: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What are the benefits of a social network?
Social networks allow you to connect, and share information, with people who have similar interests. Some networks also offer tools for you to sell your products, ideas, and work. Others offer platforms to voice your opinion or showcase your finest achievements.

What is an online friend?
Friends online are similar to pen pals you may have had as a child. Even though they may live thousands of mile away, you can communicate with them, comment on their activities, and share photos or stories.

How do you establish new friends?
All sites are different, but most have tools to find certain types of friends. This is usually achieved by conducting a search. Each site may have different search parameters, but you can usually search by name, username, e-mail, keyword, or geographic location.

How do you reach out to new friends?
Some sites have forums, which are static, but you can post comments or questions and others can respond. Some sites have chat rooms, where people communicate in real time, and you can engage in an online conversation. Others have invitation features, where you invite these other members to be a part of your friends' list or special group. On most sites, you can request 'friendship' with another member and they can accept or decline. Now you are building your network, just as you may have filled up a Rolodex in the past.

How do I make a friend go away?
Most sites have a delete friend option. Or you can control friends by making your group private and not allow strangers in.

When people are trying to connect with you, do you get a regular email letting you know?
Larger networks notify you in your regular e-mail. Smaller ones may not.

Is content on social networking sites censored?
This depends on the social network you join. Most large sites have content guidelines and reserve the right to pull anything they find offensive or get complaints about. Many offer private content areas where there is no content supervision.

What happens if I see something that offends me?
Most have a feature where you can submit offensive items. Some sites may agree with you and pull the content; others may suggest you spend your time on another site.

What about calendars?
Calendars allow members to post timely events and share this info with their friends or pals.

How do groups work?
Groups are parties of people that share some common interests. Most social networks allow you to establish your own special interest groups or request inclusion in established groups.

Is social networking safe?
Social networking is as safe as you make it. Be careful and use the same logic you would use with any stranger. Do not share personal information such as your social security number or home address. The most common problem you will face is unsolicited contact from people you may not be interested in communicating with. These risks, however, are the same as those faced using an email account or, for that matter, walking down the street.

What is the difference between simple friend communications and group communications?
Imagine simple friend communication as people you invite to your virtual home. You control the people in the room. On the other hand, a group may be set up in which new friends who have similar interests find you and invite themselves in.

How do you send many friends a notice or piece of information?
Most social networking sites have your friend list in a directory format and you select the ones you want to receive the info. Other sites also have broadcast messaging capabilities, like the functionality found on Ning social networks.

Will I get more spam?
No, you will not get more spam. You may receive communications from the social network to alert you to updates, friend requests, or comments to your profile. However, most sites will give you the option to determine how much communication you would like to receive.

What is an RSS feed and what do I do with it?
RSS stands for "Really Simple Syndication." It is a tool used to publish frequently updated content such as blog entries, news headlines or podcasts. An RSS document, which is called a "feed," "Web feed," or "channel," contains either a summary of content from an associated Website or the full text. RSS makes it possible for people to keep up with their favorite Websites in an automated and aggregated manner that's easier than checking them manually, one site at a time.

Imagine that you subscribed to the print versions of The New York Times, Newsweek Magazine, and Vogue or Esquire. And, instead of receiving the various copies of these periodicals, you had one document with all (or your favorite parts) of the content from these publications. That is how RSS content can be delivered to you.

You can read your RSS content by using software called a "feed reader" or an "aggregator" such as www.bloglines.com or www.feedburner.com. You can subscribe to a feed by entering the feed's link into the reader or by clicking an RSS icon in a browser that initiates the subscription process. Then you can check your subscribed feeds regularly for new content, downloading from one place any updates it finds.

Is my intellectual property protected from thieves?
When you create art, music or words, as the originator, you are protected by the Copyright Act of 1976. Posting this work in an unmonitored space like the Internet can expose you to people who do not respect your rights or the law. Many networks that specialize in helping you market your work offer tools to help you protect it.

Can I have multiple online user name identities?
Yes, you can create multiple accounts. This is one of the cool things about social networking. You can have several personalities and identities. Be sure to read the legal terms before you sign up for any social network.

Some networks though, will not allow you to create an account with the same e-mail address twice, as your e-mail address has to be verified. Verification is as simple as the network sending you an e-mail with a link to verify that it's actually you creating an account from that e-mail address, and that you are actually a human and not a spambot.

Where can I read more about safety and social networking?
Social Networking Sites: Safety Tips for Tweens and Teens

What are some of the top social networking sites?

  • Clubpenguin.com is a social network for kids 4-8 years old.
  • Linkedin.com is a business network for professionals.
  • Bebo.com is the largest social networking site in the UK, Ireland, and New Zealand.
  • EldersVoice.com is a social networking site for senior citizens who are young at heart.
  • Traineo.com is a weight loss community.
  • Dogphoria.com is a dog lovers' social network.

Karen Post is CEO of Oddpodz, a social network for creative-minded people, author of Brain Tattoos, and monthly columnist for FastCompany.com.

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