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Social Networking at the Tipping Point

A clustering of events in early October 2010 signifies that social networking has developed to the point where it is being more closely scrutinized. The days of looking at social networking as the most promising edge of the Internet appear to have come to a culmination. This does not mean that social networking as exemplified chiefly by Facebook and Twitter are about to fade as major presences of the Internet, used by millions and millions around the world. But this culmination does presage a more thoughtful involvement in social networking colored by awareness of its limitations as well as its misuse.

The most prominent event was the release of the movie “The Social Network” about Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg. The release was accompanied by many reviews in leading media, among these David Denby’s review titled “Influencing People” in the “New Yorker.” The movie “The Social Network” is mainly a character study of Zuckerberg; the accuracy of which is debated. One notable review taking the side that the movie gets the portrayal of Zuckerberg wrong is “The Social Disconnect” at Huffington Post. Jose Antonio Vargas proffers that the portrayal is wrong because the Hollywood people making the movie have little understanding of the Internet as a new media; and this little understanding is combined with antipathy for the unfavorable portrayal of Zuckerberg.

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In the same New Yorker issue as Denby’s movie review is an article “Small Change” by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell gained high and lasting attention as a timely, relevant, and incisive social critic with the publication of his book titled “The Tipping Point – How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.”

Though in his essay, Gladwell does not argue that social networking is at a tipping point, he gives an overview of social networking emphasizing its limitations which suggests that it has when his essay is seen as a part of the clustering of events. The misuse of social networking, particularly its webcam option, apparent in the widespread reporting on the tragic suicide of the Rutgers College student musician Tyler Clementi after his homosexual encounter in his dorm room was broadcast on the Internet by two other students filming it with a webcam without his knowledge has thrust the question of the misuse of social networking into public awareness and debate.

Gladwell assesses that social networking makes for “weak ties” between and among individuals. In most cases, one will never meet others one is “friends” with or is following on Facebook and Twitter. In contrast to the “weak ties” of social networking, Gladwell contrasts the demonstrably strong ties between and among participants in the civil rights activism of the 1960s. These ties were evidenced especially in sit-ins such as the one at a Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-in at a lunch counter by four African-American students in 1960.

As word of this sit-in spread, it was soon followed by others across the South. As Gladwell notes, at the time, there was no Facebook or Twitter nor anything like these. Word was spread by word of mouth, telephone, and media news articles. And between and among the ones organizing and joining sit-ins there were strong bonds which later became tested by brutalities of white resistance including fire bombings and murders.

Though the particular turn social networking will take from the scrutiny it is getting cannot be predicted, there is no doubt substantive changes in users’ relationships with it and what they are expecting from it are occurring.

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