As 2009 draws to a close, it's clear that the year was a watershed for social networks and the firms that own them.
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In 2009, social networks no longer featured posts with reams and reams of drivel -- like telling people what kind of sandwich you had for lunch or about the great parking space you grabbed near the gym. Instead, they were used far more to let the world learn about everything from political unrest to plane crashes to political events in real time.
The user base of social networks this year expanded greatly from the traditional teenage and college student set. It now includes many of their parents and even grandparents who now use the technology as a primary mode of communication. While it's been a bit embarrassing for the kids involved to have their Uncle Fred befriend them on Facebook, the broader audience has been a boon to social networking companies.
"It looks like 2009 will be known as the year that social networking went mainstream," said Dan Olds, an analyst with the Gabriel Consulting Group. "This was the year when Mom, Dad, and even Grandma found Facebook and Twitter, and used them to make the Web a part of their lives -- often for the first time."
Perhaps most significant is that companies in various industries started to see how social networks can help boost business even in a recession. While many CEOs may still be a bit disconnected from the social networking phenomenon, many companies, like Zappos.com and Dell Inc., have found ways to draw in new customers using Web 2.0 methods.
"Really, 2009 has been a watershed year for social networking," said Olds. "Business has embraced both Twitter and Facebook as a way to communicate directly with customers and to inexpensively get their points across to a large number of folks. Much of the fear that business had of social networking seems to have abated as they become more comfortable with the concept and see the advantages. We're still at a point where only a small number of businesses have social networking strategies, but that number is increasing quickly over time."
And several analysts noted that the results of online user counts bear out such opinions.