What do the Tour de France and a Victoria sponge have in common with your social networking web site?

This weekend sees the Tour de France start in London. It will be the biggest sporting event in the capital before the 2012 Olympics with nearly 200 competitors and tens of thousands of spectators expected. But the Tour takes place amid continued rumblings about drug doping of some participants in professional cycling.

Meanwhile, over in the village of Wimblington in Cambridgeshire, people are agog with the news that grandmother Jenny Brown won 2nd Prize in a cake making contest – even though she was the only competitor..! To cap that, one of the organisers of the competition had won 3rd Prize in previous scone making contest and she too was the only entrant.

Strange as it may seem, the Wimblington controversy has a connection to the drugs in cycling issue – and they both have an important meaning for social networking on the Internet. In both these cases, the controversy arises from the differences between “in group” and “out group” psychology.

In cycling, the “in group” of professional cyclists who take drugs realises that to do well you simply have to accept doping. Within this “in group” of people who find drug taking necessary there will be pressure to conform – if you are a professional cyclist and your don’t take drugs you are “nothing” will be the thought process. To those of us in the “out group” who believe that drug taking in sport is dangerous and cheating we can’t understand this viewpoint.

Similarly, to people in the “out group” for Wimblington – those of us who are not cake judges – we can’t understand how someone can get 2nd Prise and they are the only entrant. But as the organiser Julie Dent said, the judges “had an expectation”. In other words, the “in group” of judges perceive things differently to the rest of us.

When you are in the “in group” you help formulate that group’s rules and accepted standards. When you are in the “out group” you may not like those rules, you may find them distasteful or you may even protest against them. But the “in group” can’t understand what all the fuss is about.

On social networking sites it is the same. For instance the “rules” for taking part in MySpace or any other social networking site will be set by the community – the “in group”. People who don’t use MySpace will find it difficult to comprehend the rules because they are in the “out group”.

Social groupings always “police” themselves. What is acceptable within that social group may not be acceptable outside it. Within the judges of a cake making contest it is acceptable not to give a 1st Prize to the only entrant, but to those of us outside the world of cake judging this doesn’t seem fair. Similarly within professional cycling those who take drugs find it right and proper, whereas spectators disagree.

Online people will join and leave social networking groups as they discover the “rules” are appropriate to them. If you run a social networking site it means no matter how much you try to set the rules, it will be the users who decide what the “in group” thinking should be for your site.

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