Social Network-ING?

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.

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2 Comments

  1. I agree with you that boyd & Ellison’s definition of a SNS is too broad and doesn’t clearly draw a fine line between SNSs and Networking Sites. You bring up a good point with your Sixdegrees.com example. If all sites were filtered through boyd & Ellison’s definition, they would all be considered SNSs, but clearly there’s more to that as Beer had brought up.

    I think it’s very interesting how you broke down the different features and usages of Youtube fitting them into both a Network Site and Network(ing) Site. But I wouldn’t be so definite that Youtube was not created with the primary intention of peer connection. Though I do partially agree with you that when information on Youtube reaches its viewers it does somewhat become a Social Networking Site, I think that it may be fairer to say that each viewer receives and interprets the information differently. Say that I view a video of my friend and I leave a comment on the page, and that friend who is my offline friend replies to my comment as anyone would on other SNS such as Facebook. Then would it still be more of a Networking Site or would it be a SNS? I think that the users drive the functionalities of these different SNSs to a certain extent, and whether or not users identify these sites as SNS or Networking Sites vary with the users’ purposes and experiences. What’s your take on this?

    Identifying the causes of sites would be good way to help better clarify which groups they fall under. But, I’m a little confused about your approach of looking at the “causes”. Do you mean the cause as in the purpose of these sites being created initially or what these sites actually caused after their creation? It would be great if you can expand more on how you would go about examining these causes. Lastly, I agree that scholars shouldn’t just make generalizations about these sites. Making generalizations is very risky without sufficient evidence.

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  2. First I’d just like to start off stating that I really enjoyed reading this and the way it was written. It was very easy to relate to, especially in your discussion of Facebook vs. Youtube. That was a good way to prove that the definitions provided by boyd and Ellison were too broad, that intentions would be different on sites despite their classifications as “social network” sites or “social networking” sites. I definitely agree that the line is often crossed between the two provided definitions, and maybe even blurred by user activity. As many of our discussions in class have pointed out, regardless of how creators intend for sites to be used, what really matters is how participants decide to use them. Some sites may start out as a social network and be used for networking. For example, in starting at NYU last fall, one of my roommates decided she needed to “friend” (or Friend as boyd and Ellison might say) as many NYU freshmen as she could. As she didn’t know these people, I would think that this could be considered networking on Facebook. I believe that my roommate wasn’t alone in this, that many people use what were once social networks for social networking.
    The video was good in further exploring the differences between sites, but as technology is so rapidly changing with new features being introduced on sites and the introduction of new sites themselves, it’s almost as though no matter what classification is developed for the sites, it will always give way to a line that can be blurred. It makes me wonder if there is even a purpose in trying to classify these sites for study. Perhaps one should classify the participants based on their use habits rather than the sites based on what they are used for. Sites will never be used in the same way by everyone who uses them, so the classification really seems impossible.

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