“Beer”-goggles: confused

As I turned the pages of boyd and Ellison’s piece on “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship”, as a relative new-comer to the subject, I found myself nodding as I came to understand my own engagement with social media through a scholarly lens. I found their definitions particularly helpful in classifying the different social media in which I’ve grown particularly savvy. However, upon reading Beer’s article in response to the previous, I was admittedly perplexed. Let me explain my confusion further.

Beer’s article entitled “Social Network(ing) Sites…revisiting the story so far: A response to danah boyd and Nicole Ellison” was not, as he makes clear, an effort to “re-write the history that they develop in (their) article” (517), but a reconsideration of their proposed historical, and future, analyis of social media.

In his first section, he allocates his analytic efforts to “revisiting” boyd and Ellison’s proposed definitions and differentiations between social network sites and social networking sites, calling into question boyd and Ellison’s necessitating of the distinction between the two. For boyd and Ellison, networking is suggestive of a certain discourse that exists between strangers, further suggesting that social networking sites seek to initiate conversation and relationships between those who do not know each other, as opposed to network sites, which function to reaffirm, strengthen, or reinforce relationships already established in the physical world, be it the strongest or weakest of latent ties. By using the term social network sites (SNS), and further, rejecting the –ing and thus all that is implied by the word ending, the authors carefully construct the subject of their argument by refusing sites characterized by the formation of new ties between strangers.

Beer takes issue with how they frame their argumentation. He deems SNS too broad a category; boyd and Ellison are, according to Beer’s understanding of their definitions, specific in what kinds of discourse are not included in SNS, but fail to make clear the kinds of discussion that is. For Beer, this limits the definition of SNS to the three points they introduce at the very start of their piece, that which allows users to: 1. construct public/semi-public profiles; 2. articulate networks; 3. view others’ networks and allow others to view theirs’. In using this definition as a rubric by which to classify social media, Beer thinks this particular definition “stands in for too many things” (519). According to his critique, SNS is being used here as an ‘umbrella’ term to encompass all “user-generated content”, which itself fails to recognize the “networking” functions and capabilities that user-generated sites like Youtube, whose technological allowances enable such ties to manifest, maintain, although it would arguably fall under boyd and Ellison’s category of an SNS.

I personally think that over time, SNS developers have become increasingly aware of the attractive nature of interactive features of technology, and so, have responded to demand for these capabilities by introducing these features to their sites, thus affording their users the kinds of ties that boyd and Ellison’s definition of SNS would not permit. Therefore, I think that boyd and Ellison’s refusal of the term networking is no longer applicable, in that these ties are nowadays seemingly inevitable.

Beer also takes issue with the way boyd and Ellison differentiate between online ‘Friends’ and physical world ‘friends’. This is the point of my confusion. As Beer delineates his argument, that “we cannot think of friendship on SNS as entirely different and disconnected from our actual friends and notions of friendship” (520), I felt as though he was echoing arguments that I’d just previously read in the contested authors’ piece. In other words, I don’t think boyd and Ellison made such a black and white distinction between online and offline friendships as Beer suggests. On the contrary, on page 211, the authors state that “what makes social network sites unique is not that they allow individuals to meet strangers, but rather that they enable users to articulate and make visible their social networks.” They continue, “these meetings are frequently between “latent ties” who share some offline connection. … They are primarily communicating with people who are already a part of their extended social network.” In Beer’s piece, he understands boyd and Ellison’s “contention here (to be) that ‘ “Friends” on SNSs are not the same as “friends” in the everyday sense” (520). Ultimately, my understanding of this rationalization was not that they were entirely diverging or contrasting arguments, but indeed parallels of one another.

Perhaps I misunderstood Beer’s main argument. I thought his complication, or his suggestion of a further complication of boyd and Ellison’s inquiry to include capitalism and the economic ramifications of the sites was interesting, and indubitably provocative. However, I think that his argument surrounding boyd and Ellison’s differentiation (or lack thereof) between ‘friends’ and ‘Friends’ could have been make more clear. What do you guys think?

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2 Comments

  1. lauraportwoodstacer

     /  February 7, 2012

    I totally agree with your take – it has always seemed to me that boyd and Ellison make a point to say that online Friends and offline friends are often the same people, so it does seem odd when Beer makes that a focus of his critique. His points about friends/Friends are valid too, but don’t seem all that different to me, and seems like he’s making a lot out of their choice to make a distinction *analytically* by capitalizing the F.

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  2. emmaleecough

     /  February 7, 2012

    Well first of all, fellow firefoxXxxxxx, extremely well written blog post! I was similarly confused by both articles (partially because I don’t really think that defining every aspect of social media makes it any easier to understand), but I don’t necessarily think they had “parallel arguments.” I certainly agree with your comment about boyd and Ellison’s use of the term “networking” being out of date, as developers have found a way to bridge the gap between stranger and friend, public and private. Nowadays, even Facebook can be used to meet strangers (think of all the people you are connected to via the fan pages you’ve “liked”). However, I can’t help but agree with Beer’s contention about friends v. Friends. Although boyd and Ellison assert that there is an overlap, they still force the distinction. These capital F “Friends” seem somehow less real or familiar to me, despite the fact that I know much more about some of these “latent ties” because of my daily perusing of social media than my acclaimed real-life friends. For my life, so few people exist solely within the confines of the physical world that the distinction seems wildly unnecessary (check out my handy chart in my blog post to see just how many people I know without Facebook…an over-estimated 25). Regardless, though, even if I only had 5 Facebook friends I still don’t see a need for the clarification because it only promotes a notion that our lives are split in two, a real life and a less-real digital life. I think this is what Beer was trying to ague against, this popular notion that who we are online constitutes a whole other reality from our physical one. It is that notion, in my opinion, that promotes a feeling of unaccountability that fuels cyber bullying, phony personas, and over-sharing. What do you think??

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