Try envisioning your life as a house, a place to which you retreat after work or school. A social networking site can be like a window. We can throw the window open wide or crack it just a bit. If we want to, we can stick our heads out there into the open air of the online universe and shout, whisper, or speak our messages.
Sometimes many people hear us, like when we post updates to our friends on Facebook or Twitter. Sometimes we share our message in the form of images, like on Instagram or Flickr, personal photo- and video-sharing sites, or on Tumblr, a space in which to plop all of the random things admired or inspiring – pictures, songs, videos, quotes. Sometimes our message is light, while at other times it is serious and full of purpose, as on professional networking sites like LinkedIn.
This feeling of connectivity to the wider world that we get from social networking sites is what social scientists call digital ambient awareness. This type of awareness or intimacy is akin to real physical intimacy. A friend shares their cold symptoms in a status update. A high school chum posts photos of their dog. We publicize the results of a personality quiz we took. It can all feel like we're looking over each other's shoulders or having coffee together.
The sense of intimacy and connectedness are two big motivations for millions who take part in the whole "social" scene. But our reasons for transmitting parts of ourselves out into the vast social space of the online world are as varied as we are.
We can bridge gaps: Social networking sites can help us to nurture and maintain the "weaker" ties in our lives. Think work colleagues, friends of friends, long-lost high school buddies, or cousins living in other countries. By linking up to these people online we are able to glimpse their lives in ways that we wouldn't have done before. This access we grant to one another opens doors to future interaction. You might discover that a co-worker you never talk to is as into knitting as you are – or jazz, or a particular TV show. You may be more likely to strike up a conversation with this knowledge, which could be especially helpful for those who are shy.
We can strengthen bonds: Research has revealed that most people use online networks to keep up with existing offline relationships rather than initiate new relationships with people they meet online. For the most part, despite how many friends or followers we have, we still only keep in regular contact with our smaller core group of friends and family. Because of the format of many of these sites, it is simply more challenging to form new, deeper connections. Twitter, for instance, allows only 280 characters to get your messages across!
We can ask for help: Lots of people get wrapped and tethered in our nets. The bigger our net, the farther we can cast it out when we need answers, support, or advice. Among your network, you could find someone who could hook you up with a lucrative job or even a potential romantic connection. Your network might offer tips on great bargains or a new take-out joint you'd never know to try. Students post topics they're researching for essays. Journalists send out questions to help them flesh out articles and find interview sources. Having a network within keystroke's reach may also help to soothe feelings of loneliness.
We can create niches: Say you're passionate about a community issue, or an actor, an artist, historical recreations – whatever! Friends or coworkers can initiate a group weight-loss or stop-smoking challenge. An online community can be forged out of a common cause, shared interest, or a group goal.
We can nurture our creative side: Painters and photographers can scan and display their art. Amateur musicians can upload and share new songs. Many sites out there allow you to archive and share images, quotes, videos, and songs that inspire you. Others can view the creative output and offer their comments and feedback. These sites act as virtual bulletin boards, galleries, jukeboxes, and scrapbooks.
We can scan: Aren't we busy enough as it is? Why would we want to add more things to our day that we need to look at, update, and address? The thing about most of these social networks is that when we publish our digital ephemera, people are free to pay attention – or not. Unlike an email, which begs to be read and responded to, our friends, followers, or connections can choose to scan our messages and photos and decide for themselves whether they wish to reply or react. If you follow 100 people on Twitter, you're not likely to closely read each status update or follow every single link they all share. We scan, we peruse, we filter. It's expected and accepted.
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