In 2008, when social network(ing) sites had become one of the most popular ways for people to communicate, scholars danah m. boyd and Nicole B. Ellison, using an academic approach, not only defined social network sites (SNS), but also raised questions regarding SNS that sparked numerous discussions within the academic community. One of the most interesting arguments made was by Dr. David Beer, who challenges numerous points made by boyd and Ellison regarding their definition of SNS and offers his two cents on where he believes future research on SNS should be headed.
One argument Beer makes is regarding boyd and Ellison’s preference over the use of network rather than networking. According to boyd and Ellison, the word networking implies that users are actively initiating relationships with other users and even though this may occur on some SNS, it is not widely practiced enough so they choose to exclude it from their definition believing this decision will broaden the scope of their study. Beer strongly disagrees with the decision and argues that SNS should not be differentiated by whether its prime focus is for creating networks or not; in doing this, boyd and Ellison have made the term SNS too broad. Beer calls for a new classification of these SNS, and rather than blending their differences under a broad term, we should celebrate their differences with more distinct classifications.
In this regard, I have to side with Beer in that classifying all these social sites as SNS do not do them justice. A huge selling point for more unique SNS such as Catster, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and Facebook is that they all bring sometime different to the table. Why else would one person sign up for multiple accounts? And because they are all different, users also behave differently on each site, which is something I think sociologists may miss if they continue to study SNS in the direction that boyd and Ellison point them in. The easiest example of this would be how one acts on LinkedIn. Because LinkedIn is designed especially for people to meet and establish online relationships with professionals, the behavior, including one’s profile, one’s pictures and one’s status updates most likely differ extremely from what they upload on more casual sites such as Facebook.
Another point Beer brings up is boyd and Ellison’s explanation of the difference between friends and Friends. boyd and Ellision define friends as the people one has a relationship with in the offline world and Friends as the people one has a relationship with in the online world. However they do admit that sometimes friends and Friends overlap, but they believe that the friendships formed with Friends are not the same as friendships in the “everyday vernacular sense.” Beer argues that this particular differentiation impacts the general direction of SNS research. It draws a very clear line between our offline lives and our online lives, which is becoming more and more intertwined as more and more users use SNS. Beer also brings up another point in that he believes the very definition of “friend” is changing, in which I couldn’t agree more.
The meaning behind the word “friend” is definitely changing—but not in the way Beer thought it would. Beer believed as we increasingly engaged with SNS, more and more people would be willing to describe what boyd and Ellison call “Friends” as their “friends,” because the meaning behind friend would grow less intimate however I think the opposite effect is actually occurring. For the past few years as we’ve watched our number of friends grow, we’ve grown more detached to our online friends simply because there are too many of them to keep track of. I remember running into a guy from high school last summer who I am still “friends” with on Facebook, but when my mother asked why I didn’t say hello, I told her it was because we weren’t friends, we were just Facebook friends. And as for my “real” friends, it’s come to the point where we’ve realized that SNS don’t compensate for spending time with each in the same room. I’d say we have hit a saturation point where we (or at least I) are unable to part with SNS, but we are aware of how much time we spend on it (too much time) and that we are willing to force ourselves to step back from it by creating games such as cell phone stacking.