Defining and Commenting on Social Network Sites

In response to the 2007 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication article by boyd & Ellison, titled “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship,” Dr. David Beer of the York St John University provided his response in 2008, aptly titled “Social network(ing)… revisiting the story so far: A response to danah boyd & Nicole Ellison.” In his response, Beer notes and expands on several aspects that he finds to be problematic with boyd & Ellison’s definition, such as the distinction made between “network” and “networking,” offline and online spheres, and the scope of questions asked in the field. Granted, the questions that Beer poses are valid; however, some of the assertions made can be deemed problematic in certain perspectives.

Addressing the distinction that is made by boyd & Ellison with regards to the need for distinguishing “network” from “networking,” the duo state that such a distinction is made on account of the fact that, according to them, the “network” is the concept of pre-existing relations, whereas “networking” is the concept of creating new ones. What Beer contends, though, is that the term SNS is too broad a word, in which it will create problems moving forward with regards to classifying new web applications. Beer also notes that the more specific term “social networking site” may be more appropriate as it gives way to the creation of other terms that, like it, are specific and descriptive. In effect, the blurred lines that Beer alludes to between platforms will not exist, and everything will therefore be viewed in a more black/white sense. The problem that I find with Beer’s assertions begin with the idea that “social network sites” will become too big an umbrella term. From a non-academic standpoint, I have far too often seen a confusion of terms; “social media” to most people seems to encompass these networks of which we speak and at times, so much more, and other times, so much less. The problematic word that we should be addressing, then, is not SNS, but rather, “social media.”

The term “social media” is more a buzz word of sorts to describe a wide range of communication tools that have a social element, but as we are quick to see, all media, in effect contains some instance of socializing (because of its nature). The term “SNS” seems to be thrown around more so as a specific allusion of sorts to websites that are popular and interactive, such as Facebook and YouTube, but is given no particular grounds in popular culture.

The three stipulations that boyd & Ellison propose with regards to what constitutes as a SNS is most certainly key in defining and separating platforms from one another. In some sense, we, in popular culture, have also created our own lines of separation between platforms with terms that include “microblog” “wikis,” and “online dating.” That said, Beer certainly has a point when he says that we could have more specific divisions or classifications for websites; an example that he provides is describing YouTube as a “folksonomy.” But to springboard from that assertion, it doesn’t seem as though creating terms and definitions is the route to go as we continue to find technologies evolving. Rather, we ought to go the route that boyd & Ellison have chosen, which is to assess a similar collective set of technologies and build a definition from there. I say this simply because there are applications/platforms that already exist and modify themselves as new technology comes their way; it is to say that without assessing a relative history of sorts and to create a new word, there is no support for it to be a particular field of study. An immediate example that comes to mind is that of online dating platforms; there has been a much longer than expected history of online dating, but there has not (to date) been some type of concrete definition (not even by Ellison, whose focus is actually on this particular phenomenon) in an academic journal. In effect, what we then have is a confusion of sorts as to where particular platforms, such as online dating, lie. From personal experience, I’ve had academics address OkCupid as a social network site, and the argument to present that it does not belong in the SNS category is by means of passing it through the SNS deinition and then subsequently placing it in a sphere where popular culture dictates its role.

That said, Beer is certainly correct in his assertion that the differentiation that boyd & Ellison makes about online friends and offline friends is problematic. It can be inferred from boyd & Ellison’s article that the online friends and offline friends are two separate groups, which is not the case in actuality. In fact, according to a June 2011 Pew report, social network sites are more often than not used to maintain current relationships, as opposed to creating new ones. In which case, we find this notion of the “online” and “offline” to be incredibly problematic in discussions; it would be more apt to distinguish “physical” and “online” worlds, since they communicate a differentiation between tangibility, but do not group away persons.

Overall, boyd & Ellison’s contribution has been positively received; it is works like these that provide some sort of construct and structure in dealing with new media. After all, new media isn’t spontaneous, it can be traced to older platforms and technologies that have similar threads, which in turn, can lead to better understanding of particular applications and behaviours.

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