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Historically, it used to be enough to have an online presence on the Internet for the one-way broadcasting and dissemination of information.Today, social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are driving new forms of social interaction, dialogue, exchange and collaboration.

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There will be a move from current personalized advertising (based on cookies and websites you have browsed recently) to personalized web content, with search results ranked according to your online profile, preferred language, profession or interests, as well as the preferences of your online social networks — the web you see may be shaped by the web your friends like. Far from being a leveller of content and opening people’s eyes to the broader online world, Internet users’ world-view may in fact be restricted and constrained by “filter bubbles” whereby they link with similar communities of like-minded individuals sharing a similar outlook.

Conversely, your activities and preferences could in turn influence your friends’ surfing behaviour.

Social networking services are not just bringing Internet users into fast-flowing online conversations — social media are helping people to follow breaking news, keep up with friends or colleagues, contribute to online debates or learn from others.

They are transforming online user behaviour in terms of users’ initial entry point, search, browsing and purchasing behaviour.

Facebook passed the historic milestone of 500 million users on 21 July 2010 — if Facebook were a country, it would be the third most populous nation in the world after China and India. My Space concentrates on music and entertainment, while Linked In targets career-minded professionals.

Figure 1 shows how many users are drawn to some popular social networks in early 2010. Orkut, a service owned by Google, is used mainly in India and Brazil, while in China, Qzone is reportedly one of the largest social networking sites with over 380 million registered accounts now.

According to ITU’s report Measuring the Information Society 2010, mobile broadband subscriptions reached an estimated 640 million at the end of 2009, driven by growing demand for smartphones, new applications and social networking services, and are set to exceed 1 billion this year.

The market research firm e Marketer projects that just over 600 million people will use their phones to tap into social networks by 2013, compared with 140 million in 2009.

According to Forrester, a technology and market research company, social networks could become more powerful in building brands and relationships than corporate websites and customer relationship management systems.

In what Forrester calls “the era of social context”, sites will start to recognize personal identities and social relationships to deliver customized online experiences.

Some experts suggest that social media will become the Internet’s new search function — predicting that people will spend less time navigating the Internet independently and instead search for information or make decisions based on “word-of-mouth” recommendations from their friends, the so-called “friend-casting”.