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Making connections through social networking in cyberspace (part one)

By Cheryl A. Hemmerle

SUMMARY: If you remember the Faberge Organics shampoo commercial featuring “I told two friends, and they told two friends,” you are not a digital native.

“I’m not a what?” you may ask. A “digital native” is someone born in the Internet age, which officially began when the World Wide Web went public in 1989. Those born before that year—who have migrated online—are “digital immigrants.”

In the aforementioned ad, the television screen suddenly divided into a hundred mini-screens of Heather Locklear’s talking heads in stereo. In the “good old days,” we took advantage of word of mouth. However, “word of mouse” is becoming more pervasive in today’s 21st century digital age. Through social networking in cyberspace, inviting two friends means connecting with their friends, and the cycle repeats itself. In this first of two articles on using social networking to make connections in cyberspace, we will provide background information and help you to set up your online profile.

Jesus and John Wesley networked.
Some will argue that Jesus was the first to use social networking effectively. He definitely understood the power of word of mouth, and he valued the viral—or infectious—nature of friends and family sharing the good news and bringing others to a life-transforming faith in God. If you remember Luke 10, Jesus even sent people out in pairs to spread the gospel. They told two friends, and so on … and so on. You get the picture.

John Wesley also used the power of social networks to build the Methodist movement in America through organizing small bands of followers into class meetings and using circuit riders to spread God’s word. Today, we can carry on these traditions in our own culture and context through opportunities in cyberspace with social networking sites.

What is social networking?
Begun as a part of the Web 2.01 revolution, social networking sites took the Internet by storm just a few years ago when MySpace and Facebook perfected the concept of early pioneers like Classmates and SixDegrees. Those early sites were developed to help students reconnect with classmates and friends who had lost touch with each other over the years. The primary purpose of social networking sites is to build online communities and make connections between people who share common interests. With more than 200 million people in the United States using social networking sites, it is easy to understand “the Internet has become the campfire around which people gather to tell their stories, meet people and form relationships."2

More than a blog
The main difference between social networking sites and blogs is the organic connections that spread like wildfire when you add a friend or become a friend or a member of a social networker’s profile or group. While you can subscribe to others’ blogs, that doesn’t get you much more than a one-to-one relationship. However, like a blog, you can post messages, upload photos and videos, and share links on your social networking profile as well as make comments on others’ profiles and groups. In this way, you can quickly multiply your reach and easily follow your networks with a many-to-many web of connections.

A word of caution
Be aware that people use social networking sites for different reasons and purposes. Some individuals and groups will present opinions and content you find offensive or inappropriate. You can protect yourself by refusing invitations from people you don’t know and “ignore” or “block” them as well as report your concerns to the networking service. Be sure to read the terms of use and privacy statements to learn your rights and responsibilities when joining a social networking site.

Getting started
Before you start using a social networking site, get to know what it is like and what goes on there. You can visit one of the sites listed below and search for friends, groups or causes without having to sign up. Once you’re ready, here’s what to do next:

  1. Sign up for a free account (e-mail address required).
  2. Create your profile and upload a photo or avatar (a representation of yourself or your alter ego). You can complete the basics and add more details later.
  3. Decide how public or private you want your profile to be.
  4. Start finding friends and inviting them to connect with you.
  5. Upload photographs or videos and share links to Web sites or blogs.
  6. Post notes or comments to others’ profiles.
  7. Join groups or causes to expand your personal network and connect with others who share your interests.

For a quick introduction to social networking online, watch this YouTube video, “Social Networking in Plain English.” In part two, we will focus on how to use social networking sites to further your church’s ministry and mission in cyberspace.

---Cheryl A. Hemmerle is technical training specialist for United Methodist Communications. She develops online and face-to-face training and provides resources for using Web and Internet technology for effective ministry. She uses Facebook and LinkedIn as her social networking sites.

1Web 2.0 refers to the transition from information-driven Web sites created by experts to user-generated online experiences that anyone can create through Web-based applications that require little more than basic e-mail and word-processing skills.
2Campbell, Heidi. Exploring Religious Community Online. Peter Lang Publishing, 2005.