Definition

social network

What is a social network?

A social network is a website or app that lets people connect with each other on a common platform. Users can share information, express opinions, explore mutual interests, search for jobs, promote their businesses, form relationships and otherwise interact with each other. Those who participate in a social network often share a wide range of information and content, including photos, videos, sound clips, documents, news, marketing materials or links to other resources.

People participate in social networks for personal and professional reasons. Those who engage on a personal level use various forms of media to interact with each other, often sharing personal details about their lives; passing on information from other sources; or commenting on different types of events, whether nearby or in the world at large. For example, some people might use social media to stay in touch with friends and family members, share important milestones in their lives or connect with others who share similar interests.

Those who participate for professional reasons generally use social networks for marketing purposes or to advance their business goals. For some organizations, social networking is a strategic part of their marketing strategy. They might use social networks to announce new products, increase awareness about their businesses or attract new customers. They might also use social networks for other purposes, such as interacting with partners or announcing job openings.

Some companies have dedicated staff for maintaining their social networking profiles and updating content. Ideally, employees who are tasked with managing accounts on social networks are provided with a social media policy so there is no ambiguity about what management considers acceptable use.

These 10 social networks share millions to billions of users.

What does social network mean?

There is no one definition for what constitutes a social network, although different types of social networks often share similar characteristics. For example, people or organizations participating in a social network commonly create profiles that include information about themselves. Sometimes the profiles are quite detailed or personal and include photos or other content.

Social networks commonly provide mechanisms for posting content such as photos, videos, blogs or links to other sites. Other users can comment on or rate the content as well as recommend it to other users.

Another typical characteristic of a social network is the ability of users to form connections, such as being able to "friend" another person or "follow" that individual. Many social networks also let members form groups based on shared interests or other commonalities. In some cases, users can engage in private chats or group chats.

Social networks take many forms and target many audiences, some of them more specific than others. It could be argued that all social networks share a common purpose: to provide advertisers with a vehicle for selling their products and services. That said, the meaning of social network is not necessarily tied to supporting ad revenue. The following social networks represent popular platforms:

  • Classmates. A site for people who went to school together and want to reconnect or possibly plan class reunions.
  • Facebook. A venue for people to connect and share information with friends, family or other individuals.
  • Instagram. A platform for sharing photos, videos and messages with other individuals or groups.
  • LinkedIn. A professional networking platform for individuals and organizations to connect with other professionals, identify opportunities and expand their business interests.
  • Pinterest. An online community for people to share and explore images about a wide range of topics.
  • Reddit. A site for posting news, ideas and content and for responding to what others have posted to the site.
  • Snapchat. An instant messaging app for easily sharing photos and videos that disappear after they've been viewed.
  • TikTok. A video-sharing platform for posting short videos about a wide variety of topics.
  • Tumblr. A site for posting microblogs, sharing multimedia content and connecting with other users around specific interests.
  • WeChat. A calling and messaging app used widely in China to chat with other users, send pictures and videos, and place video and voice calls.
  • WhatsApp. A private messaging and calling service that supports both voice and video calls to individuals and groups.
  • X (formerly Twitter). A site for posting microblogs and sharing multimedia content, news and information, links to additional resources, and other types of information.
  • YouTube. A platform for sharing videos about a wide range of topics, with the videos varying in quality and length, from short clips to full motion pictures.

What are the pros and cons of social networking?

Social networks have become a dominating force on the internet, offering benefits to individuals and organizations alike. Individual users might turn to social networks to stay in contact with friends and family or to connect with other users who have similar interests or goals. In some cases, users might learn about important events because the information was posted by one of their connected friends or family members.

Organizations of all types can potentially benefit from social networks. For example, they might use social networks to target specific audiences so they can provide them with information about their businesses, increase brand awareness, generate traffic to their websites, or promote their products and services. Social networks also offer an effective way to communicate with current customers as well as cultivate new ones.

Despite the benefits that social networks might provide, they also come with multiple challenges. For example, users might become victims of cyberbullying, cyberstalking or other predatory behavior. Such behavior can result in irreparable damage. In more extreme cases, victims have resorted to suicide.

Even in the absence of predatory behavior, social media addiction is a serious concern. Some users spend many hours each day engaging with their favorite social networks. In some cases, they experience a sense of anxiety if they don't get online often enough.

Privacy is another serious concern with social networks. Data posted online, no matter how personal, is deemed free for the taking by advertisers and cybercriminals. Sometimes a site's privacy settings are not always clear, and users inadvertently reveal personal data. In addition, service providers that host these sites often collect significant data about their users, some of which they might sell to other companies. Even if they don't sell the information, service providers might become victims of cyberattacks, resulting in personal data being compromised.

Another challenge with social networks is the growing body of misinformation they propagate. In some cases, this information is based on nothing more than hearsay, rumors or outright lies. Individual users, news organizations, political parties, governments and other groups have all been known to spread inaccurate information using social networks, sometimes conducting sophisticated and extensive misinformation campaigns.

At the same time, however, there is a growing debate about whether service providers should oversee and filter content, effectively censoring certain information, as they try to navigate free speech laws, public opinion and their own agendas.

Learn about the latest social media trends, and explore the difference between social media and social networking. Explore 10 ways to spot disinformation on social media.

This was last updated in October 2023

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