Critique of a Critique

In “Social network(ing) sites…revisiting the story so far: A response to Danah Boyd and Nicole Ellison” Dr. David Beer criticizes the original definition of Social Network Sites that Danah Boyd and Nicole Ellison outline for being relatively narrow in nature and not allowing for the propagation of bigger ideas and discussion about the topic. His first problem is with Boyd and Ellison’s distinction between “Social Network Site” and “Social Networking Site”.  According to Boyd and Ellison the problem with the latter is that the term “networking” implies that it is the sole activity that these sites are based on, but because it is one function doesn’t mean that it is the sole function.  Here Beer disagrees.  He insists that the term “Social Network Site” is too broad; “it stands in for too many things, it is intended to do too much of the analytical work” (519) and he suggests “there is a pressing need to classify (social networking sites) in order to work toward a more descriptive analysis” (518).  This more descriptive analysis would be useful to Beer who also finds that Boyd and Ellison are asking the wrong questions about social networking sites.  Beer doesn’t think we should be spending time gathering data on individual users and social networking sites, but should be concerning ourselves with looking at the ideology surrounding them, in particular viewing them through a capitalist context instead of a social context. Beer says that thinking about SNS through a capitalist perspective can only add to the many dimensions of SNS, and that the “who and what” of SNS should also include thoughts about “capitalist interests, third parties using the data, the organizing power of algorithms, the welfare issues of privacy made public, of the motives and agendas of those that construct these technologies in the common rhetoric of the day” (526). He’s worried about the growing presence of capitalism in the world of SNS and that we are taking it for granted risking the “naturalization” of capitalism in social media.

Sounds scary right?

I would be more inclined to trust his critique if I myself were worried about some global corporate take over of social media in which we all become prisoners to our computers and are controlled and robbed by monopolistic mega-corporations.  But that’s not even what Beer is insisting is the risk of not looking at at SNS through the lens of capitalism.  I feel like he’s not even sure what he wants to use this research to find out; he seems more fond of asking the big, intellectual questions than offering up his own research or possible answers.  A call to arms is fine, but what is it a call for? He “speculates” that SNS are being used as “commodities or collections of commodities as data sources to inform organizations about their populations”.  With all due respect Dr. Beer, we probably are, and judging by the 500 million of us Facebook users, we probably don’t care either. (It’s not like it’s a secret to us that all of the information we share on the WORLD WIDE WEB can be viewed by the world).  Beer is also worried about what Joseph Turow suggested, “it might even be that people using SNS and related profile based sites could well adapt to this and design their sites so that they are treated favorably in knowing the capitalism’s attempts to attract, favor and supplement particular types of people” (525) What’s that? People might try to use SNS sites and capitalism to their advantage for monetary gain? SHOCKING.

I’m being a little facetious, that’s how I feel about Beer’s response to Boyd and Ellison; I don’t think his “critique” is that applicable.  It seems that both authors are concerned by different aspects and lenses with which to view social media. Yes, Boyd and Ellison prefer to use a sociological approach, while Beer would rather use a Historical Materialist type of approach. It’s apples and oranges. Beer’s article stands on its own, but (at least the points I chose to focus on) was obliquely related to what Boyd and Ellison were preoccupied with discussing. There article was more of a platform with which he could jump off.

I also tend to disagree with Beer when it comes to his critique of the “Friends” vs. “friends”.  I know that my opinion on the subject comes from my own point of view as a user of SNS, and I’m confidant that most other users probably have their own feelings on the subject based on their histories and experiences.  In my own life, I refer to acquaintances as “Facebook friends”…it’s not to say that I don’t have friends on Facebook who aren’t also my friends in real life,(and not to say that my acquaintances couldn’t someday be more than that) but I have 776 friends on Facebook and I would say maybe 70 of them are people I would say I am “close” to or see on a regular basis.  So when somebody asks me if I’m friends with somebody I hardly know, I will reply “we’re Facebook friends”; a classification that proves my point of hardly knowing the person.  In fact the whole point of “networking” seems to be linking people who might not necessary have met each other in real life; to me this necessitates a distinction between the online and real-life.  Depending on the site, your online-friends might be your real-life friends but they might not be, so maybe Beer and Boyd/Ellison are both wrong in creating a definitive way to look at “friends” vs “Friends” because it could also depend on the specific social networking site being used. I do however agree with Beer’s parting words on the subject “we might need to engage with sociological studies of friendship to understand how friendship changes as it interfaces with such technologies”

I think Beer has the right idea in applying framework to the critique and scholarly study of SNS, but why stop with capitalism? Maybe now it will also be useful to look at SNS through the lenses of politics, globalization, religion etc. I just feel that any research conducted on a larger scale with bigger questions and big framework should still be supplemented by individual user-data and research done on a smaller scale in the same vain that Boyd and Ellison were conducting their research.

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1 Comment

  1. First of all, I love you. Next, I agree completely with your facet that Dr. Beer is a bit too concerned with these capitalist interests and their use of us as commodities. It may be strange of me to not care (perhaps I just don’t have enough activist traits within me) but I just don’t. As you said, yes, Facebook (and other sites) use our information to generate revenue… they are a BUSINESS. Let’s be real here: in short, everyone, no matter what business they are in, is just trying to make money. That is what a business does. With the Internet came a plethora of new ways to do so, and with SNS came an entirely new chance to use something that already exists (people) and generate profit. In a business sense, what Facebook and other sites have done is pretty genius. They’re making money appear in their hands by using us and we’re not getting paid a dime – but we love it and many of us visit at the very least one of these sites a day. The things we post on the Internet and the ways we choose to use it in general are our own choices. Mark Zuckerberg isn’t sticking a gun to our heads yelling at us to tell him everything, but some of us do. We make our own decisions and people need to realize that. I have always been of the opinion that as long as you’re not doing anything wrong, it doesn’t matter who knows your information and what they are doing with it (as long as they aren’t stealing your identity…) If Facebook wants to use the fact that I’m a college student living in New York City who likes Jimmy Fallon and cute animals in order to generate ads that are relevant to me, all the power to them! In fact, I actually find it pretty nice to have personalized ads. If they have to be there (which, in order for Facebook to be free, they do,) I would much rather them potentially tell me about a product or event I might like than something that has no relevance in my life. I actually think it’s pretty cool what technology can do (I know many people feel the opposite and I suppose I am glad I’m not one of them because it would be pretty rough to live a life in fear machines.)

    To be fair to the other side, I do understand that there are other implications of them having access to our information aside from selling ads (as laid out, for example, in the NY Times article I’m sure we’ve all read by now – http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/05/opinion/sunday/facebook-is-using-you.html [sorry I am typing this on an iPad/can’t figure out how to hyperlink in a comment.]) But again, I think we must remember that we make our own decisions, including (and I’d argue at times more importantly) what we do on the Internet.

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