Considering how online social networks save paper is, in some ways, self-explanatory. For example, unless you have printed this article, you are looking at it on the biggest social network there is: the Internet.
How Online Social Networks Save Paper & the Environment
In the past, articles were read through newspapers, magazines, or journals, all eventually stacked in garages and basements. While there is some advantage to the immutability of the printed word, the overwhelming number of advantages one gains from the ability to search, collate, and assimilate information digitally has supplanted many printed forms of communication.
The Decline of the Printed Word
Newspaper circulation has reached the lowest point since 1946. It is down to 18% of the population, versus 36% of the population in 1946. This means that while the same number of papers are being sold, there are half as many subscribers per capita. The reason is fairly obvious; digital media is convenient, it is far more current print could ever be, and it is deliverable to multiple portable platforms, from laptops to cell phones and even some digital watches. With the advent of social networks, the decline of the use of paper became even greater.
Social Networks and the Decline of Paper Demand
It's more than just news media that has contributed to the decline of paper demand. "The Internet is taking a big chunk of the [paper industry's] business," said Brian McClay, principal at TerraChoice Market Services Inc., in an article from DM News. He goes on to point out that advertising dollars which used to fill classified sections of newspapers and direct mailings are now being used on the web.
Internet Advertising Replaces Paper Advertising
Many of those advertisers are sending their money to places like MySpace and Facebook, developing ad campaigns as simple as text-links, and as complex as interactive viral widgets. There are entire companies dedicated to the creation of applications on Facebook, simply to spread advertising for various products. Digital media has enabled advertisers to use viral marketing, as friends distribute links to friends faster than any number of direct mail pamphlets or flyers ever could.
The Decline of "Snail Mail"
Social networks have increased connections between people, as well as the distance at which relationships can be maintained. While in the past, these long-distance relationships would be maintained through letter-writing and cards, today websites such as Blue Mountain Card Company allow people to send "e-cards," often with clever animations and sound - something that printed cards never had. Traditional print companies, such as Hallmark, have bowed to this trend by producing their own website with "premium" cards sold and sent online. Resumés, instead of being sent via the post office, are now posted online, or emailed as Word attachments. This has the added advantage of allowing an applicant to provide a full list of skills and experience. The tradition of a one or two page resumé is a thing of the past.
Business Transactions and Communications
The way businesses and professionals network and communicate has changed tremendously with the advent of new social networks, such as LinkedIn. Where people used to exchange business cards, now they exchange "V-cards" and "connections," complete with references and introductions. Also, the newsletters that used to be mailed regularly, at immense cost (and which usually filled the wastebaskets of many offices), are now published online at a fraction of the cost, and with searchable, indexable content.
By putting all of this content online, it becomes part of the content on the Internet, and this turns it into de facto advertising for the business or individual. Many people are landing job interviews and business connections through Twitter and using Skype (a voice-and-video-over-internet application) to conduct meetings. In fact, several businesses have completely embraced the "virtual presence" involved in Second Life, an online virtual world where users are represented by avatars. Corporations will hold meetings there, or even establish "virtual" buildings to draw customers in with special discounts and offers.
This doesn't mean that print is completely unused. Interoffice memos may be sent via chat, but important documents are still printed on hardcopy. While businesses and individuals are certainly saving paper, it is also valued more. Paper has acquired a sense of importance, due to its very impermeability.