Social networking sites facilitate social interaction and information sharing among friends, acquaintances or even strangers over the Internet. They usually allow you to post text statuses, links, images or videos that are either accessible by anyone with access to the site or only to private groups of friends. They often incorporate the ability to send private messages, and many now also include instant messaging and video chat features. Major social media sites include Facebook, Google+, MySpace, Tumblr, LinkedIn, and Twitter, among others. Facebook has more than 1 billion users, making it the largest social networking site, but there are lots of others with millions or hundreds of millions of users [sources: Adler, Berkman]. For some people, social networking has taken the place of e-mail, texting, the phone and even face-to-face interaction.
As of early 2013, more than half of the people who use the Internet also regularly use social media [source: Berkman]. The numbers in the U.S. are higher, at around 74 percent as of January 2014 [source: Pew Research Internet Project]. Social sites are becoming the main avenues of communication for some of us, or at least the ones on which we spend the most time. A 2013 Experian study found that people in the U.S were spending 16 minutes of every hour on social networking sites, on average, through both personal computers and mobile devices [source: Gaudin]. And a study in the U.K. in 2010 found that a quarter of people spent more time socializing via social networks than in person, and that 11 percent of adults would eschew in-person social events in favor of social media, e-mail, texting and the like [sources: Fowlkes, Telegraph]. Those numbers are likely to continue to grow.
A major downside to so much online socializing is that, at least according to some studies, roughly 7 percent of communication is verbal and the other 93 percent is nonverbal [source: Tardanico]. In other words, we're losing things like tone of voice and body language, at least when we communicate using only text. This leaves us with lots of potential for miscommunication and even willful misrepresentation, which is bad for building solid relationships with people.
Social networking is reportedly also altering journalism. We're getting more and more of our news via links posted on social networks and some stories are even breaking online first. Everyday citizens sometimes capture news on their cell phone cameras as it's happening or post eyewitness accounts of an event, and these get picked up by more traditional media after the fact. News organizations have had to join Twitter and Facebook and other sites, and they're now competing against bloggers and other amateur journalists for users' attention online.
Social networking sites are allowing us to reconnect with long lost friends, raise money and awareness for charities, get involved in politics (or, maybe more often, get into political arguments), share experiences and widen our real-world network of friends and acquaintances. We just might want to put in some in-person face time with some of them, too.