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Thursday, January 28, 2010

What is Social Networking?

"Social Networking" has become one of THE big buzzwords in the last couple of years. Ever since Facebook, Bebo and Twitter became mass phenomena. Suddenly the business world is taking huge notice of what used to be a fairly geeky way to spend one's time. Internet habits one would most definitely not have admitted to in a job interview or business negotiation a few years ago, suddenly have turned into marketable knowledge.

So what exactly IS Social Networking then? I made my first forays into it back early in 2002. At the time, it wasn't called Social Networking, and the launch of Facebook was still a couple of years away. Even Myspace, the earliest of the Social Networking giants, would only launch in another year. But the social phenomenon that would drive these sites and make them the massive overnight successes they have been, was already in full flow.

The first "social networking" site I ever used - extensively, over a period of a couple of years - was the Lord of the Rings movie fan forum on IMDb - International Movie Database - was, of course, not really set up for that purpose. As the name implies, the site collects, cross-references and makes accessible information about movies - anything from basic information like release date, run time, cast and crew, and plot overviews, to quotes, trivia and bloopers. It is probably one of the earliest "Web 2.0" sites, in that it allows registered users to enter information, post reviews, rate movies - and to discuss their favourite movie with other users.

To this end, each movie or TV series is provided with its own message board, or forum - nothing as fancy as Facebook's technology, but it does serve the purpose of getting in touch with other people who share a passion for the same movies. For the most part, discussions are fairly sluggish, with a few threads to each board at most, and very infrequent postings. Once in a while, when a movie is eagerly anticipated, or a smash overnight hit, or has an established geek following (Star Wars and Star Trek each have their own dedicated forums) - the interest is reflected by a flurry of activity on the respective forum.

What happened with the Lord of the Rings discussion group, was unprecedented in scale though. Part of it was that the books already had such a large and devoted fan following, and in the time leading up to the release of the first movie, these were the people who posted and shared their concern over whether the films would do the novel justice.

IMDb was only one of several sites where such discussions happened - the most famous is probably, a site that was set up by fans and for fans of Tolkien's books, specifically to find out news about the filming, and to share their concerns, not only with each other, but as it turned out eventually, with the film makers themselves. Which makes Lord of the Rings the first multimillion blockbuster movie that had direct input from its fan base.

Once the first film was released, naturally the discussion groups got even bigger and more active, as all those people who had been impressed by the movie joined in. But there were another two movies to go, to be released over the next two years, so there was a real incentive to continue the discussions and conversations over a sustained period of time.

It was not just the sheer scale of participation, and the length of time it was sustained for, that was unusual. The established fan base of Tolkien's novels was different from the people who had so far embraced the internet. Many of us were of a generation that could still remember well the days before Google, even before personal computers, and I was probably not the only one who discovered communication via the internet that way. The age range on the forum I frequented ranged from 13 (the minimum age to sign up on IMDb) to people in their 50's. While the majority of participants were based in the US, there were a number of regular posters from European countries, Australia, and of course New Zealand. People came from a huge variety of backgrounds, but many had a university education and worked in fairly high profile jobs.

It is probably not very surprising that there ended up being a lot of conversations on those message boards that didn't have a whole lot to do with the Lord of the Rings movies at all. There is only so much you can discuss about one movie, and many conversations that started out by discussing one or other aspect of it, quickly branched out in all sorts of different directions. The personalities involved made sure that a lot of these conversations were actually really interesting, and could go on for substantial lengths of time. Therefore people would return to the forum again and again and again, and spend goodly amounts of time typing up posts, or using the private messaging system to contact each other.

Eventually, a group of regular posters emerged which remained fairly stable over a substantial period of time. People began to discuss their daily lives. Friendships formed. Opportunities to work together emerged. Hostilities erupted. Loyalties were declared. Real-live meetings were organized. The group followed the same social dynamics you'd expect in any group of people, even though most of its members had never met each other face to face.

I left the group eventually, but last time I looked, several of the people I made virtual friends with then, were still busy posting. IMDB has now alloted them their very own forum, separate from the general discussion boards attached to the three individual movies.

Incidentally, it was through one of the people I met on those boards, that I got in touch with Victoria University Wellington, organized a tour to New Zealand, was offered a job, and stayed here.

Asni: Multimedia Art & Design ::

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