What Is Social Networking?

You've heard the term, but what does it really mean?

Woman using phone at cafe with social networking symbols appearing

Kornburut Woradee / Getty Images

Social networking has become an everyday, mainstream way to use the internet. Social networking refers to the use of social media websites and apps, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, to connect with family, friends, and people who share your interests.

Social networking is commonplace throughout the world, especially with young people, but not everyone understands exactly what it means. Here's a simple breakdown of social networking's uses, components, and common terms.

To show just how prevalent social networking is, according to Emarketer,  90.4% of Millennials, 77.5% of Generation X, and 48.2% of Baby Boomers are active users of social networking sites.

Social Networks Explained

If you're participating in social networking, it means you're using social media sites, also known as social networks, to connect to others. Some of the most popular social media sites are Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn, and Pinterest.

While various social media sites attract certain types of users, Facebook is a good example of a general social network. When you join Facebook, you may know some other people who use the site and add them as friends. As you use the platform more, you may add friends who share your interests or discover people you know and add them, as well. Other people may find you on Facebook and seek to connect with you.

The more you interact with a social media site like Facebook, the more your network of friends and interests will grow. It's similar to networking in real life, for example at a business conference. The more you interact with other people and discover common friends and interests, the wider your circle becomes.

According to Omnicore, of all the people who actively use the internet, 83% of women and 75% of men use Facebook.

Common Social Networking Terms and Elements

Social networking sites and apps each have unique features and points of view, but most have common elements. Whether you're starting out with Facebook Twitter, or a new site, you'll encounter these terms.

Your Public Profile

Your profile contains basic information about you, including a photo, short bio, the town where you live, and sometimes more personal information, such as your birthday, where you went to college, and what your interests are. You can usually make your profile as personal or vague as you're comfortable with.

Social networks dedicated to a specific theme, such as music or movies, might need you to supply more information about the topic. For example, dating websites are social networks that focus on making love matches, so you need to be clear about who you are and what you're looking for so you can find a compatible person.

Friends and Followers

Friends and followers are the heart and soul of social networking, adding the social component. Friends and followers are the people you allow to access your profile. They are able to see any photos and posts you make and interact with you via comments and "likes" (more on this later). You can also see and interact with their posts.

Some people enjoy getting as many friends and followers as possible, while others prefer a smaller, more intimate group of friends and followers to interact with. Some people even set their profile to "public," meaning anyone who wants to can follow them or become friends with them. This is often used as a marketing tool.

Not every social media site uses the terms "friends" or "followers." LinkedIn, for example, refers to "connections." Whatever term they use, all social networks have a way to designate trusted members that have access to your profile.

Home Feed

Most social networking sites have some kind of home page you see when you log on. This usually displays a feed showing updates from friends. Scrolling through your home feed gets you caught up quickly on the activities, thoughts, and news friends want to share.

Likes, Comments, and Shares

Getting and giving feedback is a huge component of social networking. To indicate that a friend or follower has read and appreciated a post, most sites have some kind of "like" button, perhaps a heart or a thumbs up. Facebook has an array of icons you can use to express your reactions to a post, such as sadness, surprise, or love. You're expressing yourself without having to say anything specific.

Most social media sites support comments on posts. Since social networking thrives on interaction, comments are an important element. Whether you comment that someone's baby is cute or make a pointed political observation, comments create conversations and boost the synergy of social networking.

When multiple people comment on a single post, it's called a thread. Threads can be short or contain hundreds or thousands of comments.

Groups

Some social networking sites have a "group" element that helps users find people with similar interests or engage in discussions on certain topics. A group can be anything from "Johnson High Class of '98" and "People Who Like Books" to "Doors Fans." 

Social networking groups are both a way to connect with like-minded people as well as a way to identify your interests. 

Hashtags

hashtag is a word or keyword phrase that's preceded by the # symbol, which is called a hash or the pound sign. Users put a hashtag by a name or phrase to help others who may be interested in it to find it when they search for a keyword or particular hashtag. For example, if you post a picture of your baby's cute face and add #babysmiles, people can find it, along with other posts with the same hashtag, if they search for that phrase. Hashtags help to draw attention to your posts and encourage interaction.

Some users get carried away and use a hashtag every couple of words. Usually, one or two hashtags have more impact than a high number of them.

Tagging

Tagging is another common element of social networking sites, particularly Facebook and Instagram. If you post a photo of several people, you can identify another person in the photo by tagging them, usually by clicking on the picture and adding their name. Tagging is a way of creating more interaction for your posts.

Should You Start Social Networking?

Social networking can be enjoyable and entertaining. It's a great way to stay in touch with friends and family and can be an effective promotional tool for businesses, artists, or anyone in need of some exposure.

Social networking lets us reach out to other people with similar interests, such as books, television, video games, or movies. It can be a great tool for companionship and interaction.

Which Social Network Do I Join?

Social networking is for both young and old people, with social media sites that cater to everything from general interests to specific hobbies. There are niche social networks that focus on a specific theme or style of posting.

The top social network sites appeal to a wide variety of users. Try a site that appeals to you and see if it's a good fit. You can always leave and try something else.

Social media posting trends can change frequently, but current popular trends include selfies, Throwback Thursday posts, and parody accounts.