People have been using the Internet to communicate as long as the technology has existed. When I first went online in 1995, I joined a few newsgroups related to my areas of interest. I was vaguely aware that even before the worldwide web, there were bulletin board systems that people could dial into to discuss certain topics.
When I started my business in 2002, I joined a number of Yahoo groups, which allowed members to send and receive messages either via email or by logging into the group’s website. This type of group is still widely used, and they are fine for sharing current information that isn’t likely to be needed again in the future, such as Freecycle groups. However, because they lack any kind of organizational structure, I don’t find that they work well for sharing general information. If I want to look up what members have said in the past about a specific topic, I type a word or phrase in the search box, and a list of messages containing my search term comes up, in reverse chronological order. I then have to go through the messages to see if any of them contain the information I’m looking for. If other messages have been posted on this topic that don’t include the keywords I think of, I’ll probably miss them.
An improvement over this format is the message board. Because messages are posted in threads under specific categories and subcategories, it’s much easier for a new member to see what’s already been discussed (thus avoiding needless repetition) or for established members to find and re-read something at a later date. These are still quite popular, as evidenced by the level of activity on VAnetworking. Because many are viewable by non-members and come up in search results, these discussions often provide valuable answers to technical problems we may be facing.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen the emergence of general networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook. These are very different in both purpose and format, but members can join special interest groups to discuss topics of interest. In my experience, although there are thousands of these groups, and most members seem to belong to quite a few, they are not widely used for discussion purposes.
What I’m seeing more of these days is the development of social networking sites for specific audiences, such as the Neat and Simple Living Cafe and TwitterMoms. In addition to organized message boards, these sites offer a wide array of features, including complete member profiles and member blogs, so you can get to know other members better. Using Ning or other platforms, individuals, businesses, and other organizations can easily create their own social networks, at little or no cost.
All of these media are still in use, and each seems to be best suited to specific purposes. It will be interesting to see which continue to be used in the future, and what exciting new developments may lie ahead.