Being at the center of our ongoing “social networking system,” a barrage of opinions make their way into the lives, or shall I say “profiles,” of my fellow networkers and I on a day to day basis. What was once a critique of a quickly emerging new form of technology has now become a spectrum of what seems to be an everlasting phenomenon for our generation and several following. Knowing this, I must admit that boyd and Ellison made several interesting points; however, David Beer provides us with a different perspective of social networking that I seem to agree with more. Nonetheless, I’ll examine boyd and Ellison’s article first since Beer’s is a response after all.
Although I expected more than just the ‘cut and dry’ timeline of social networking sites, I was able to follow the emergence of social media from its initiation to present day existence. When SixDegrees.com was created in 1997, a new wave of communication opened the door for online interaction. This was far before the wave of Google struck curious users as amazing, even though Google actually began in 1996. As a matter of fact, prior to reading this article I had no idea SixDegrees.com even existed. I know I was only five at the time, but I feel like I would have at least heard about it years after. This is what led me to question boyd and Ellison’s definition of social network sites. At what extent is a social network site actually considered one? While SixDegrees.com didn’t expand to as many people as Friendster, it gave people the ability to keep in touch with each other. Thus, creating a network, which alters social interaction right? Not completely. This is where Beer’s interesting perspective expands on my ideas.
If we were to use the definition provided by boyd and Ellison, then every single site where people could interact using those three criteria would be considered a social network site. The definition is too broad because that would include both network and networking sites which are actually different as explained by Beer, “Social networking sites, in the narrower sense, can then be differentiated from other related but different web applications like Youtube, where, picking up on boyd and Ellison’s own argument, making and accumulating friendship connections is not the sole focus of activity” (518). Using this example for instance, YouTube is considered a social network because users can make accounts, share a connection with other users through comments or videos, and view these connections . However, we find that YouTube users aren’t logging on with the same intentions as Facebook users. YouTube pages aren’t created for the purpose of peer connection, but rather streaming video about a range of possible topics. Indeed peer connection is used as a marketing strategy on most sites, but when information begins to reach strangers, it becomes a social networking site. I think the trouble here is that the line between social network and social networking is continuously crossed depending on user interaction and site organization. The complexity of analyzing each site based on its characteristics indeed causes a big problem. I also agree with Beer in regards to this as he quotes, “I agree that a number of these sites aren’t about networking but are networks, but this should be grounds for distinction not for opening up a relatively stable term to include these differences” (519). Perhaps, a different approach to studying social media could contribute to the classification of these sites.
One way we can approach the study of social media is by distinguishing the “causes” of each website instead of just classifying them as social network sites. Geert Lovink discusses this concept in his video about his book Networks Without a Cause on http://networkcultures.org/wpmu/weblog/2011/06/27/networks-without-a-cause/. I think it’s an interesting take on the definition of social networks, even in his reference to participatory platforms. These platforms encourage the interaction of people with strangers in a more comfortable way that may not have existed in face-to-face interaction. Sites such as Facebook or hi5 are created with the direct cause of gaining users to participate in an online, synchronous communication system. Networks without a specific cause are known as organized networks because of their tight knit community where bonds are strengthened among existing social ties. Hence, there is a distinction among these hundreds of sites that have been classified as SNSs. I think scholars can get a better understanding of the impact of social media by examining the expansion of sites with specific causes, rather than making generalizations about SNSs which have been defined under an over-extensive umbrella definition.