I'm struggling with how to take advantage as well as how to assess the utility of social networking sites and tools like Facebook, Twitter, Bebo, MySpace and even StumbleUpon. There are some obvious positive scenarios as evidenced by Beth Kanter's (and others') use of these networks to drive a fund-raising challenge like America's Giving Challenge. It is absolutely awesome that the Sharing Foundation, supporting poor children in Cambodia, was able to top the leadership chart of the forementioned Challenge mostly by the sweat and tears Beth had shed over the last few days.
But as this article points out, there has been an apparent drop in the usage of these networks and they are still looking for a raison d'etre while most of the users appear to be simply hanging out and sharing what they're currently doing.
I'm optimistic that the social networking sites represent an evolution in human interaction. We've gone from 99% of the population knowing only people living within a few miles to a world where we can instantly make friends around the world, talk to them and share one's lives, using commodity technology. All within the past couple of hundred years! It's way too early to judge the utility of the current Web 2.0 technologies except to say they're sexy, cool, fun and, for a small number of hard-working people, lucrative.
But I want to take this post in a slightly different direction. There are major developments occurring right now in technology, environmental and social systems that will have impacts on every person on this planet. The Web 2.0 phenomena is one part of the technology surge. There are also all of the creative uses of cell phone technology (for improving business communications, e.g.) and applied approaches to nanotechnology to solve problems.
In the social sphere, there is a surge of interest in eradicating extreme poverty. And one aspect of this is reflected on by Dave Richards on his blog as he breaks down what a social business is. I feel that there's a synergy between the technological developments and the social developments (whether they be the social networking web sites or social business models). Bringing these developments to fruition to solve extreme poverty is where I think we, as a unified group of people on this planet, need to be.