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Social Networking with a Twist: The Visual Social Network

When it comes to the landscape of the Internet - and communication itself, It's indisputable that social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook have had a profound impact. Like old-time Sunday afternoon strolls through the town square, users browse through profiles and groups, greeting those they know and introducing themselves to new acquaintances. Like established communities in the "real" world, communities in the virtual world come together and disband based on common interests, common friends, and common belief systems. Sometimes these online communities evolve as an extension of day-to-day activities, as is the case when students socialize online after school. Other times, communities spring up based on interests in sports, or around how people self-identify, as is often the case with gamers, veterans, and seniors.

As our methods of communication are changing, experts continue to debate the impact that sites like MySpace, Facebook, and MyFaceLive have on the fabric of our society. For example, researchers who have studied why university students use a social network have found that it increases what is termed "social capital." Like the ways in which traditional business networking helps people in their careers, students using such sites have increased access to diverse information and develop more and stronger relationships. Other experts note that, contrary to reports in the media, technology has made people more connected with one another; those relationships have simply moved out of the realm of face-to-face contact and into the online world.

Yet there remain vocal critics of the social networking phenomenon. These experts argue that, through sites like Facebook, MySpace, and MyFaceLive, "friendship" is devalued. In other words, people have an exponentially greater number of "friends," but those relationships are weak compared with, for example, the tight bond that comes from sharing real-world experiences with those who truly care about you.

There are also those who acknowledge and commend the latest development in social networking: the visual social network. This type of next-generation social networking combines the profiles and features of traditional social networking sites with live, clear video chat. In other words, users move beyond the often-anonymous world of most social networking sites and literally see their "friends" eye to eye.

A visual social network typically offers groups for gamers, seniors, veterans, sports enthusiasts, and those with other common interests, along with downloadable videos, music, toolbars, and screensavers. But the key differentiating factor is that these kinds of networks incorporate video chat so that "friends" can talk face to face.

This type of social networking site points to the future of online community building and communication. Essentially, it has all of the advantages of building social capital while strengthening the weak "friendship" ties that exist within sites like MySpace and Facebook. While social networking will continue to have an enormous impact on they way we interact, it's clear that the trend is moving toward forming strong bonds with those with whom we connect - even if they're half a world away.

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