Services like MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter (and a bunch before them, such as SixDegrees) act as a conduit between groups of people separated by distance or simply alienated by the demands of modern life.
If you're a member of one of these sites you probably have numerous friends you keep in touch with on an almost daily basis, whereas without these sites you'd have lost contact years ago.
You no doubt also "know" many people you would otherwise never have met but whom you found because of shared interests discovered via these sites. It's great, isn't it? Like one big global hug.
Well, sort of.
The beauty of a service like Facebook is that you can keep tabs on the people you know very quickly and easily just by checking their status updates.
No need to call up and have a conversation, or write a letter where you've got to have more than a few dozen words to convey or it seems a waste of time.
Certainly no need to go to all the bother of meeting up face to face and drinking coffee or some other hot beverage.
The problem with a service like Facebook is that you can keep tabs on people you barely know as easily as you can keep tabs on people you care about, so they become virtually indistinguishable.
Facebook obviates the need for any real communication such as speaking, writing or meeting up in person, so all of those other troublesome interactions seem so very last century.
And it works in reverse too. You have the advantage of being able to tell a lot of people all at once whatever happens to be on your mind.
You have the disadvantage of having to tell a whole lot of people all at once whatever's on your mind.
I don't know about you, but I move in a number of different social circles, and there are things I like to share with some people that I would prefer not to share with others.
Because Facebook is "one in, all in" I'm more guarded about what I might say about my state of mind than I would be if I were only sharing with actual friends and not vague acquaintances.
But since I'm on Facebook I don't need to spend so much time and effort communicating with actual friends, therefore all anyone gets to read is the guarded, generic updates I want to share with the world.
It's OK though because that's all they share with me too.
It's hard to get a notion of how many people are actually using social networking sites.
Even if Twitter, Facebook et al were willing to disclose actual figures (and they're not) it's unlikely they know with any certainty.
But it's pretty clear the numbers have reached many millions and growing. That's an enormous "community" of people with little in common, communicating in soundbites designed to give away as little as possible, treating professional and personal contacts as equally intimate.
Some day, if the social networking revolution continues, no-one will know anyone at all.
Matthew JC. Powell wants to start a social-networking service called "Hermitage" where everyone just shuts up unless they have something to say. Ignore him on email@example.com