Are forums social networks?
A random thought today. Do forums count as a ‘social network’? I mean, they are sites where people spend a considerable amount of time in a social community, but is that enough to make them a social network? I would say they should be considered a social network, even before you take into consideration the fact that recent forum software versions have added social aspects such as friends, profile comments, etc.
Wikipedia calls a social network:
A social network is a social structure made up of individuals (or organizations) called “nodes,” which are tied (connected) by one or more specific types of interdependency, such as friendship, kinship, common interest, financial exchange, dislike, sexual relationships, or relationships of beliefs, knowledge or prestige.
On this front, yes a forum is a social network. Especially that “common interest” one. Now there are some forums that are limited to just collections of friends, but I’m thinking more of the big boards, but it could spread farther down that that. There’s clan forums, fan forums, and then the meta forums built up from there. On all of theses there are dedicated members investing a lot of time into them. And how does on interact on a forum? By talking to other people, an inherently social activity.
As time goes on, and a member lurks less, they get drawn into the various discussions, building up a reputation (as there are always search engines for looking back into the past), and coming to know the other posters. From here, people tend to get along better with some than others, forming freewheeling alliances and ramshackle sub-networks. How is this any different from ‘regular’ social networks?
Going back to wikipedia again, it claims that a social networking service:
…essentially consists of a representation of each user (often a profile), his/her social links, and a variety of additional services.
In this regard, forums provide a profile, usually customized search options to find posts by a particular user, and plenty of space to interact with others. Forums also serve as a distribution hub for outside content too. Links are shared on forums, as well as software, news, and conjecture/opinion to name a few. The only difference that I can see is that forums provide no filtering, whereas the formal social networking sites use that filtering as a major feature, if not the only draw (see facebook, before it pushed people to share with ‘everyone’).
So if we rely solely on wikipedia, it would seem that forums do not count as a social network services, but do develop social networks. I would argue further, that the lack of said filtering frees one to interact in a far more social setting than the services provide, but at the price of risking one’s “real identity”. Most forums are not private fora for discussion. The fear of having your freely voiced thoughts traced back to you does tend to put a damper on free expression. But the existence of sites like lamebook and such undermines the trust that might serve as a distinguishing feature.
Due to the amount of time and social capital invested in forums, they should be considered as much a part of the social web experience as other, more modern forms are. You can even play games on them!