Before social networking was the norm people used to create social networks using a process known as socialization. Socialization is the process of inheriting norms, customs, and ideologies. Social networking is a way to use computer networks to achieve the objectives of socialization. The thing about social networking, is that it has always existed as introverts such as nerds and other social outcasts would use the technology to communicate because of their fear of face to face communication. Even now, I can speak with people that I normally would never speak to through social networks because social networking creates an environment where people want to speak with those they would not otherwise speak to in real life. There is an excitement and an enthusiasm and novelty to speaking with someone through a computer that otherwise would not exist, and this is part of the reason why social networking is as popular as it is today.
Earlier attempts at creating social networks often revolved around a single purpose. People met up with a purpose in mind or to achieve particular goals. Social networks were often the byproduct and the result of what happened when individuals went to a single site for purposes such as dating, pen pal type, long distance relationships, ecommerce, answering questions and giving answers, or sharing information. You had sites like Craigslist, where people could give feedback on employers that were looking for jobs, and there were message boards, where people could discuss topics in the news.
It was not until MySpace became popular and the term Social Networking was used that people realized that you could use computer for the implicit purpose of meeting other people. Although people had been communicating online for years, it was always thought that one needed to have a purpose in mind. For example men and women would only talk online through a dating site, and a lot of the energy that was put into them speaking with each other dealt heavily with the idea of making themselves into a fantasy for that other person. There was a direct connection between dating in real life, and dating online.
With today's social networks people are actually using the Internet for the mere purpose of meeting other people, self-actualization, narcissism, insecurities and other consequences of friendship are now seen online. The biggest example of this is Facebook, where people tell others each and every little thing they did online. Another strong component with Facebook is the ability to interact with other people through various games that are played on that website. This is a huge transition from MySpace, which struggled to get beyond the dating and interpersonal aspects of the social network until music was popularized through that site. Twitter was popularized through the ability to quickly share news and fun hyperlinks to articles or other information but now people have used its own functionality against it as trending topics are often simple phrases or words that people attempt to find creative uses for. Twitter is now a place where you can be popular by using a word or phrase in a sentence, as opposed to a place where people follow you because of your creativity in sharing information.
Socialization is enhanced by social networking, but it social networking has also become a crutch for those who do not know how to express themselves otherwise. Too often social networking has created a situation where people have lost creativity and the inspiration to express themselves in real life as they are too preoccupied with doing so online. You can have a million followers on Twitter and the 5,000 friends that Facebook allows and hundreds of thousands of people on MySpace but still fail at making genuine, lasting connections with people in real life. People that grew up in the social networking age may be at a severe disadvantage as real life connections tend to have a strong social networking component to them. People you know in real life want to take the relationship online, and if you cannot maintain the relationship online, the real life relationship suffers. This was not the case before social networking, and for that reason I would caution against those who can communicate to each other in real life effectively to put too much stock into using social networking to fill in the gaps. People are supposed to have time away from each other. At the same time, if this is someone you will never see in real life anyway I would not see where there should be any pressure to take the relationship offline if it is impractical to do so ...