The bigger the better: How online networking can help social media wannabes

Before learning otherwise, I had a few assumptions about social networking online:

  1. That videos, images and blog posts went “viral” only if the author was already influential or “internet famous”
  2. YouTube celebrities that came to public attention because of only one video were probably discovered by someone that is famous. For example, Ellen DeGeneres often features her favorite YouTube stars.
  3. Social media serves those who seek entertainment or news, but nothing in between.
  4. Breaking into the social media bubble is nearly impossible for an ordinary college student because of everything listed above.

However, chapter 5 of “Net Smart: How to Thrive Online” by Howard Rheingold explained, step by step, how online networks form and how they can be utilized.

The way someone builds an online network is similar to the way media benefits human collaboration in the first place. Rheingold writes about these processes in chapter 4 of “NetSmart”, which I summarized in a previous blog post.

However, if you don’t want to read that whole blog post, the main point is the importance of collaboration through the internet. Because the Web can connect people of different intelligence levels, cultures, environments, experiences and so on, it benefits all of humanity from our combined power. Mass collaboration is possible because of the online world while the online world thrives and provides value for humanity because of this mass collaboration.

Mass collaboration is even more feasible after looking at the theory of online networking. First, most humans can connect with another stranger by tracing back seven people in his or her social network. Essentially, this happens when someone says, “my friend’s friend had an uncle whose daughter lived in Spain…”

Two strangers can, theoretically, find a connection to one another like this with only seven links in between. This is called the “small world phenomenon”.

However, the internet has multiplied this phenomenon. It utilizes small networks while reinforcing the usefulness of large, loose networks, such as followers on Twitter or Facebook. Although these followers are not in my personal network, they are still a loose part of the larger network of people, places and ideas I have access to.

With the amount of people who have Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, just imagine how many social media users’ large networks overlap.

That’s lots of networking. Lots of knowledge. And lots of potential.

My problem is that I don’t know how to access this potential. Like I said in the beginning of this post, I used to think that Hollywood and YouTube celebrities were the ones with the largest networks, the best ideas and the funniest jokes. However, Rheingold lays out eight specific ways an ordinary person like me can get involved online:

  1. Explore
  2. Search
  3. Follow
  4. Tune
  5. Feed
  6. Engage
  7. Inquire
  8. Respond

He goes into detail about what each of these responsibilities entails but the essential rule of thumb is to simply be involved. Be active. Treat followers like you would your friends: don’t leave them hanging, respond to their messages, talk back and don’t ask stupid questions. just like friends, online users can get annoyed and drop you like a bad habit. Rheingold’s example of this pertained to the seventh process, inquire. He encourages new social media users to avoid asking questions that are easily Google-able.

Communities that engage with one another ask genuine questions and solve them together.

This was the best bit of advice I found in chapter five. It was specifically helpful because I am not good at maintaining “lose” networks with strangers online. I am much better at intimate, small networks within my college and hometown. However, if I treat the online community as a place to learn, grow and invest my time in, I am confident that I can learn the true power of networking.

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