The use of social network websites such as MySpace, Bebo and Facebook, and tools such as wikis (collaboratively authored web pages) and blogs (web logs or event diaries), has grown enormously in the past ten years. The number of people estimated to use social network sites worldwide is now in the hundreds of millions, with Facebook alone estimated to have almost 98 million users. As such, these sites are now becoming a natural way for people to communicate and are forming an ordinary part of the online landscape.
Firstly, it is important to understand what we mean by social network sites. Boyd and Ellison (2007) define these as follows:
We define social network sites as web-based services that allow individuals to
- construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system,
- articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and
- view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system
So the defining characteristics of social network sites are that they enable individuals to upload information and share that information with many others of their choosing, whilst also being able to take part in sharing other people’s information. Tools such as wikis and blogs are some of the technologies which enable that uploading and sharing to take place. These technologies are also referred to as Web 2.0, a term coined to identify the trend in world wide web technology towards creativity and information sharing.
Missing from the list above is the increasing number of virtual worlds that also support social networking, such as Second Life, Active Worlds and Kaneva. These arose from Massive Multiplayer Online Games such as World of Warcraft, but have now become social sites where users create their own avatars, interact with others and can build elements of their virtual world that can replicate real life, be pure fantasy, or occupy a space in between.
There is increasing interest and research activity in the educational significance of social network sites and tools, and how they can support the constructivist learning approach. For example, Solomon and Schrum (2007, p38) argue that the constructivist approach to learning encourages:
…students to think about what they already know, search for new information and collaborate with others to solve realistic problems and derive new understanding. Using web tools helps the process along. Students are able to do more research, find information they would never encounter without web access and collaborate to create a product that shows how both a priori and new information are combined to become knowledge.
The pages in this section of the website describe the various categories of social networking technology in more detail, give examples of sites you can visit and try out, and help you and your students to set up accounts on social networking sites. We also give examples of their uses in education, and we encourage you to share your ideas and experiences on our blog.
Boyd DB & Ellison NB (2007) Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship. Journal of Computer-mediated Communication. 13, 1, article 11. Available at http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol13/issue1/boyd.ellison.html . Accessed 9th January 2009.
Solomon G & Schrum L (2007) Web 2.0: new tools, new schools. International Society for Technology in Education. Eugene, Oregon.