Most users of social networking web sites are motivated mainly by personal needs and a desire for entertainment, rather than business and practical objectives.
According to Gartner, although the potential of such sites for business remains largely untapped, they will become increasingly important to the competiveness of large enterprises in the future.
"Social networking software holds enormous potential for improving the management of large companies," says Nick Ingelbrecht, research director at Gartner. "However, work in this area is still immature and in the meantime companies should be aware of what is happening in the world of consumer social networking and implement appropriate usage policies for employees' use of services such as Facebook and MySpace on company time."
The survey, which was undertaken across 18 countries and territories between October and December 2007, found that, of over 4 000 PC and mobile phone users, 38% connected to social networking sites via PC, less than 1% by mobile phone only, and 8% via both mobile phone and PC.
Over half the respondents said that they did not visit social networking sites regularly or at all. Of those who did, male respondents tended to access mobile and online social networking services more frequently than females and the most active users in terms of life stage and age were single people and teenagers.
Gartner's consumer segmentation model identifies three groups of early adopters most likely to use social networking – the "aspirers", "young funseekers" and "tech savants".
As part of Gartner's research, respondents were also asked to rate how important social networking was for them as a reason for using the internet along with 14 other major internet applications.
Despite the hype surrounding social networking, internet users generally did not place a high level of importance on social network sites, compared with other mainstream Internet applications such as e-mail and search.
However, taken together with other broader forms of networking, including instant messaging, e-mail, sharing of photos, files and chatrooms there is a significant aggregate level of interest in the social aspects of communication as opposed to applications that are simply transactional, diverting or functional.
Gartner predicts that online social networking will come to be regarded as just the latest expression of a long-standing pattern of human behaviours that involves an increasing range of communications protocols and technologies.
"Social networking is arguably as old as humanity, not something new that has been invented for so-called 'digital natives', says Julia Lin, project manager of research data and analytics at Gartner. "However, social networking has found new forms of expression on the internet which has helped to reshape the purpose and protocols of social networking in the online world and beyond. How to apply this in a corporate environment will be the next major challenge."