More than just a storehouse of information, the Internet has become a place for human interaction – the 21st century version of a town square or mall. In the last few years, social networking sites have exploded, allowing millions of people around the world to meet and hang out together. Billions of people have joined social networking sites. Among certain age groups, not having a presence on a site like Facebook is almost like not existing!
Over 80% of American kids ages 12 to 17 use social networking sites.
Be aware that just as some unsavory characters hang out at the mall looking to prey on unsuspecting people, the same is true in cyberspace. Later, we'll give you tips to keep safe.
How It Works
First, set up an account, which is usually free. Some sites have age restrictions and may only be available if you are 13 or older, like Facebook; others, like LinkedIn, are restricted to those over 18 years old. Before posting a profile, think about your purpose. If you want to post pictures of your daily life, Instagram or Twitter may be right for you, but if you're interested in professional networking, consider LinkedIn.
Once your account is open, you create a personal page by entering profile information and uploading content. Your page tells the world all about you and your interests. Depending on the network, your personal profile may include photos, personal interests, videos, status updates, and more. The only limit is your imagination and common sense – more on this in a moment.
Having an online profile is a terrific way to express yourself and to find people that share similar interests. Once you find a kindred soul or she or he finds you, you communicate via e-mail, instant messaging, or posting of messages directly on your page. Sometimes people agree to meet in person, but many times, relationships remain purely virtual.
Before you start, spend time viewing other people's pages to get ideas and to see what's appropriate for the community you join – a practice known as lurking.
Rating the Majors
Some of the leading social networks include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Pinterest. If you're new to social media, don't sign up for every social network at once. Start with just one or two that seem the most interesting, and go from there.
Facebook is the largest social network both in terms of total registered users, and the number of users who are active on a monthly basis. Facebook is a great place to connect with people you know in person. Relationships on Facebook require two-way approval – you request to “Friend” someone, but they have to accept that request. Facebook also offers robust – if somewhat complicated – privacy settings to allow you a large degree of control in determining who has access to your profile.
Twitter is the sort of social network that some users are active on all day long. While most Facebook users only post ever few hours or days, many Twitter users blast out 140-character Tweets several times every day. Twitter is very popular among the tech-savvy and culturally-connected demographic.
LinkedIn is the most important social network for professionals. If you are in the job market or interested in making new business connections, stop what you're doing and sign up for LinkedIn. This social network has become the most important recruitment space on the planet, and if you aren't on LinkedIn you are invisible to many actively hiring companies.
Not enough choices for you? Then check out this extensive list.
Pinterest is a digital bulletin board where users can post bits of content that are highly visual in nature. Pinterest user demographics skew female, and most Pinterest posts are in the areas of home improvement projects, health and fitness, and food.
Regardless of which sites you join, give some thought before you post any personal information. Why? Because revealing too much about yourself can expose you to online predators, identity theft or computer hackers.
For parents, it's especially important to monitor your child's page. To avoid trouble, follow these guidelines:
1. Is your profile page publicly available or can you restrict access just to the people you specify, such as family and friends? Consider limiting access if this option is available.
2. Don't post sensitive information, for example, your full name and address, Social Security number, other identifying ID numbers, bank account or credit card numbers, and phone number. If someone views your profile, could he or she locate you in the real world? If so, delete the offending data.
3. While it may seem innocent to post pictures or video from your last beer blast, how will it be viewed by a future employer? Many companies investigate job applicants with online searches. Remember, even if you eventually remove any questionable material, it may still remain somewhere in cyberspace. It could come back to haunt you later in life.
4. If someone contacts you, especially if you're not an adult, be wary. How do you know that this person is who he says he is? It's easy to lie about yourself online. Again, don't reveal private information.
5. Be particularly cautious if an online contact wants to meet you. Find out all you can about the person first. If you're a teenager or younger and you decide to meet, do it in a public place during the day. Bring along a parent or another adult, or an older brother or sister.
Social networking offers a terrific opportunity to connect with people and establish virtual relationships. But it's still no substitute for making friends in the real world.