It wasn't clear in 1995, that the social aspect of the Internet would become so important. We imagined the Internet as a vast library, not as a vast pool of potential friends or business associates. We used to talk about the digital library where all the covers were removed from the books and each page was available as a URL. (Unique Resource Locator) Some of us understood that each of us also has a URL, and that we are unique resources too.
There were online social networks before Ryze. The original one was Usenet. But the poor security of Usenet, permitted lots of misbehavior and finally unlimited spamming. Usenet was replaced by List Servs, and they allowed members to discuss whatever the members wanted to discuss, but within the purpose of the group. Each group had an owner, or occasionally a committee, who from time to time might set out the rules and perhaps even discipline a member. Membership was free, but you had to apply to join. If you neglected to follow the rules of the group, your access might be blocked.
Whatever the nominal interest of the group, the discussion was usually about the best ideas, or problems we were having. The members were learning from each other. Some members always stood out, usually for their knowledge and their willingness to help other people. Occasionally for being very narrow and pedantic and entrenched in expounding a particular point of view. While the language in these groups is usually incredibly polite, there are sometimes intense battles especially if someone feels honour is at stake.
Professional groups began to talk about themselves as being a "community of practice". Senior figures in a profession find their way to groups that are discussing the things that interest them. Even so, the progressive edge in many of these groups moves slowly. You can join a group for six months and find the discussion interesting and vital. If you leave for a year and return, you might find the same thorny issues are still being debated.
Gregory Bateson, an English biologist and philosopher, tells us that "Context is everything". Fact, or knowledge on their own mean nothing until they are put into context. Membership of a group helps to give you that context. When a community of practice is re-debating an old issue they are struggling to get the context right. We can be more effective when we live in a world that is understandable or is "joined together", as Bateson says, and the way we most easily understand what we know, and how it fits together, is by making up a story. This web page is a story like that. This web site is like a book of stories.
Online social networks, Ryze. LinkedIn, Facebook, Xing and hundreds of others do offer participants not only the ability to keep in touch with family members and old friends, but also the abuility to meet and converse with new people. The people you know and have worked with face to face probably share your culture and your ideas, and your own bias and prejudices. The people who can exite your interest and feed you new and challenging ideas are people you don't yet know, people who do not share the same cultural; niche that you come from. The main benifit for you and for civil society as a whole in connecting to people you don't yet know, is that they bring something new to the conversation and that allows your to learn and opens the opportunity for new insight and innovation. It takes time to get to know people when your only communication is on a discussion list, or in a social networking forum. The magic or one on one time with someone is critical. You can do that with chat, and increasingly Skype is a viable optiion.