By Stephanie N. Mehta
July 20, 2009

A brief history of social technology, and what it means to you

By Gina Bianchini, CEO and co-founder, Ning

At the outset of online social networking, around, say, 2002, early users had to wedge their personalities into static, cookie-cutter profile pages — it was the price we all paid for the convenience of this new and powerful social tool.  How times have changed: Instead of altering yourself to fit the social network, the social network is evolving to cater to you. Here’s a quick look at how companies and technologies have evolved to more closely mirror the human experience.

Social Networking Infancy – The Early Days

Social technology ties people together in new ways. It makes it easy to meet or reconnect with people, discover and share ideas and content, and consume news and events across the Internet. Friendship takes on an entirely new dimension online, and media consumption and sharing –photos, music, and most of all video –are changing and rates never before seen on the Internet. It is a revolution that spawns companies like MySpaceYouTubePhotobucket, and even Facebook.

But the earliest sites forced people to contort and squeeze their personalities into what’s available. The best example of this was Friendster, which forced people into a single profile page and kicked out anyone  expressing their creativity with anything other than his or her “real” identity.

Next, MySpace created a service that let people express their unadulterated creativity and socialize around music, events as well as the single profile they created to represent their life. It was a social technology that served as an extension of one’s personality with a lot more room for creative expression than anything before it. Both Friendster and MySpace provided an easy way to manage a single profile. They have been fantastic at bringing new people into social networking, in the same way AOL was a critical step in getting people online in the first place.

Now, as we edge into the teenage years of social networking, people have come to expect and need more options to express themselves as unique individuals, much like they do in the real world. It’s just human nature if you consider the different aspects of your personality that shine through, for example, when with your family, your college friends, your work friends, your sports team, or your book club. When you are in different contexts, different facets of you shine through – this is what makes each person around the globe the rich and interesting people they are.

Social Networking – The Teen Years
Six years into the phenomenon, successful social technologies are adding more features, customizable options, and most importantly, more ways to seamlessly integrate with other social technologies. This growth stage shows how different social technologies are rapidly emerging and gaining adoption when they do one thing extraordinarily well.
In the case of Facebook, they connect you to people you already know. Waves of college friends, followed by waves of high school friends, work colleagues, elementary school alumni, and your parents have joined Facebook in large part because it connects people who already know it other better than any other social technology.
In the case of Twitter, people are using it to share and discover a real-time stream of news and real-time events. People have always consumed new information and the brilliance of Twitter is that it is enabling a dynamic, rapidly changing mosaic of news and information that you can fluidly follow depending on your current perspective on the world.

Ning, a social platform with more than 1.3 million social networks, gives you the opportunity to present yourself not just in one of the context above, but also express yourself by all of your unique interests and passions. We offer a way to create and join social networks to connect with people around any topic, as well as a way to organize and manage the different aspects of your online persona to mirror who you are – and what you care about – today.

We are finally seeing social technologies moving beyond providing one application, one template, one profile into which you have to squeeze all the different aspects that make you unique. What we are learning from the teen years of social networking is that, just like any fifteen-year-old boy or girl, this is the stage where diversity, choice, and defining the many facets of oneself is paramount. In this new social technology landscape, it’s not about choosing one service, but piecing together multiple services, as you need them, to fulfill different aspects of who you are.

Social Networking – All Grown Up
Ultimately, as social technology matures, it will continue to evolve to fully reflect fundamental human behavior.
Social technologies will grow by specializing in certain areas of human need and working in concert with each other to fully reflect how people live their lives in the real world. Only, in this online world it’s richer, more vibrant, global, and a bigger, more deeply connected version of life.

So far, social technologies have meant taking the diverse person that you are and trying to contort yourself to fit into the technologies provided. They don’t always reflect who you are in the real world: an individual with close friendships, professional relationships, and specific interests and passions that make you unique.

In fact, for most people there is a less than 50% overlap between their passions and interests and their personal and professional friends. That means half of your identity isn’t shared, stimulated or nurtured by the people in your life.

Social technologies will give people the freedom to express themselves as the individuals that they are, and the ability to gather around subjects that they care about such as movies, books, sports, legislation, or even private aspects such as connecting with fellow veterans, adoptive parents, or patient support groups. People want to be multi-dimensional humans, not one-dimensional life-size photos, and they want to find others like them.

As online networking continues to evolve, you will see more social technologies working together to allow you to be the multi-faceted person you truly are and to nurture and fulfill of all your interests and desires for more information and new people with whom you can connect. Social technology will continue to adapt to our needs. There will be more freedom and more ways to fully realize online the best, most fulfilling version of you.

Bianchini is CEO and co-founder (with Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen) of Ning, a Palo Alto-based company that lets people join and create new social networks for their interests in passions.

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