People love to chatter on the internet. They used to lean over the garden fence, prop up the bar in the pub, or stand outside church on Sundays gossiping in low voices so the vicar didn't hear.
In the US there's the lovely tradition of 'visiting' with the neighbours: sitting on the porch with a beer, hearing how the kids are doing in college, spreading malicious gossip about the Mayor, putting the world to rights.
All that still happens. But people now do it online too. They 'visit' with 'friends' they've never 'met' who may live thousands of miles away.
They gossip, flirt, exchange information, brag, tell fibs and funny stories, reminisce, get red-faced with anger at political enemies, confirm their political prejudices with friends, evangelise, attempt to recruit people to causes, engage in deliberate wind-ups (trolling) and generally enjoy themselves.
With some well documented exceptions, e.g. murders or stalking episodes arising from online interaction, it's innocent and harmless. It's what humans do.
Authoritarian politicians detest it of course. Wikileaks is, basically, internet gossip writ large. But there's little they can do about it outside of China and a few other paranoid states. Even China leaks like sieve. It must drive the geriatric torturers nuts!
Social media or Web 2.0 – the framework within which the chatter occurs – is fast-moving. A few years ago there were only really forums and, before that, Usenet.
Blogs, Twitter and Facebook broke that monopoly so people now have the freedom to move between the platforms, choosing what best suits them at different times.
The decline of MySpace after Rupert Murdoch bought it – ha! – shows how fickle users are. Facebook, currently riding high, could suffer a similar fate. You can't tell people where to gossip on the internet. Long may that blessed freedom last. It's worth fighting for.
One constant tension is between community and solipsism, engagement and individualism, interaction and ego.
A blog, essentially, is a vehicle for projecting an ego into cyberspace. The writer says what he or she thinks and readers either like it or lump it.
Sure, they can post a comment but few bloggers allow sustained, well-argued, fundamental, criticism to occur on their bandwidth. That's not what the medium is for. Few people will even try – if they feel strongly about an issue they start their own blog.
Twitter and Facebook are more communitarian. People engage with each other on a broadly level playing field, from a position of equality. There are 'big beasts' on Twitter, e.g. Stephen Fry – a Twitter class system exists – but most people Tweet as equals.
Then there are forums. These are self-governing internet spaces. Often the owners/managers are well known to members. Many have systems of self-government in place with users having a say in forum rules and the choice of bureaucrats.
A good social media operation melds each element – blogs, Facebook/Twitter and forums. It allows – encourages – people to move between the three areas as they please, satisfying their gossip-needs, getting their information-fix, interracting with others, projecting their egos into cyberspace.
No one knows where social media will go next. That's exciting and is one reason it's so popular.
Some good blogs and forums:*
* The writer is associated with some of them