Friends with what benefits?

Danah boyd and Nicole Ellison are very thorough in their scholarly study of Social Network sites, at a time when the craze was emergent. Their work is however, not without oversights and unclear assertions. This is where David Beer comes in. In his article he responds to boyd and Ellison’s study.

Beer takes issue with boyd and Ellison’s lack of clarity and classification in their definition of and inquiry into ‘social network sites’, suggesting that it is too broad and has the potential to encompass a range of very different sites. Beer believes more distinct classifications are necessary to have a more rich and descriptive analysis.

Beer also takes issue with boyd and Ellison’s differentiation between online and offline life. Beer suggests that relationships both online and offline overlap and connect. Next, Beer does not agree with boyd and Ellison’s differentation between mediated and unmediated communication because it allows us to forget that all communication and social structures are in someway mediated. Beer argues that in today’s time of an engaged and plugged in generation it is hard to think of unmediated social structures or spaces. Essentially, Beer feels to have the best analysis it would require having more clear definitions of terms and fewer ‘umbrella’ terms, less generalization and to question the implications these SNS have on capitalism and the economy rather than what users are doing on them. For Beer thinking about the economic and political forces of these sites and how they reinforce dominant ideologies is key.

I agree with many points Beer makes in his critique of boyd and Ellison’s article. However, there are also aspects of their article that resonated with me. Boyd and Ellison’s three parts definition of a social media network seemed to me on point. They outline it as 1) construction of a public or semi public profile, 2) articulation of a network and 3) view and traverse your connections and others  connections with the nature and nomenclature varying by site. These three aspects encompass a great deal in a very succinct but perhaps too broad of a manner. I agree with the first because in my opinion, in order to be a social and interactive media, the user should have a profile, at least semi public, presenting themselves to their network. This self presentation is important because as Donath asserted, “knowing the identity of those with whom you communicate is essential for understanding and evaluating an interaction”. People adjust their communication style depending on these aspects. Next, boyd and Ellison assert that the user must have an articulation of network, or essentially their audience. I disagree with this notion in that it can be confusing, because on YouTube for example, you have no idea just who your network may encompass at any given point, but YouTube is arguably a social network site. Beer takes issue with this network aspect as well, asserting that boyd and Ellison’s use of ‘network’ and ‘networking’ is misleading. Lastly, the third criteria is easier to agree with given that they identify the fact the degrees to which connections and traversing those connections are possible may vary. I agree with the statement overall since on most sites you can view and interact with registered users.

I also agree with Beer’s suggestion that online and offline relationships, or ‘friends’ and ‘Friends’ as boyd and Ellison put it, is a redundant differentiation given that these relationships often overlap and that social media sites generally reinforce existing relationships. Furthermore, I agree with Beer’s assertion that all communication is somehow mediated and that the separation of mediated and unmediated communication is untrue. This is especially when communication is happening all day long, via email, social network sites, face to face; these have all become intermixed and mundane, with little difference registering.

Beer’s suggestion of questioning the economic and political structures of such sites through looking at the connection with capitalism and presence of dominant ideologies is an interesting one. However, I do not feel that these questions should replace boyd and Ellison’s questions of how people use media, but instead add the question of what their use can tell us about society and the underlying forces. Ideally, a study encompassing both boyd and Ellison’s ideas and methods as well as Beer’s would provide a detailed and thoughtful analysis.

What has changed since Beer’s article is the saturation of social network sites on communication. Many SNS platforms are now linked, sometimes without the user knowing or consenting. Essentially, a user can tweet, Facebook post, tumble and email something simultaneously. I feel this addition would interest Beer in terms of his interest in question the forces of capitialism: now each site can profit from that person’s click, friend’s visits, adlicks, etc (I am entirely clear on how these sites make money…). Also, the relatively new use of social media sites as political tools by both citizens and political parties has increased recently. There are applications for the upcoming US election, people across the world are using Facebook events for rallies and protests and online petitions have unprecedented reach and influence. I think each of these examples are awesome, for me social media as a tool of empowerment and knowledge is great. It fulfills a need our society already had, just organizes more efficiently now. Would Beer agree?

What would Beer think of these cross platform connections and the impact on dominant ideologies and the capitalistic economy?


Icons like these allow users to post something on multiple sites

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  1. I agree that the link between politics and social media is an interesting one. However, don’t you think that Beer’s preoccupation with capitalism is a bit narrow? I think that people tend to regard social media as the very embodiment of freedom of expression, democracy, capitalism, and globalization. This association is arguably reinforced by such elements as social media-influenced purchasing decisions, the empowerment of the people and a global community, and a plethora of groundbreaking political protests (like in Egypt) that have been orchestrated through social media. However, what about the things that we don’t necessarily see or know about? What about the censorship of social media in countries with totalitarian governments? Should social media sites like YouTube still be observed through the lens of capitalism when they are allowing China to limit a substantial amount of their content? I think that is just as important of a question to consider in social as how the sites are driven by capitalism.

    You said that you “do not feel that [those] questions should replace boyd and Ellison’s questions of how people use media, but instead add the question of what their use can tell us about society and the underlying forces.” I absolutely agree with that. I think that Beer was on the right track in considering the relationship between politics/economics and social media, but I think the question is much larger and much deeper than what he had originally considered. I would hope that if the article was rewritten today, especially in light of the global protests, that he would recognize that.

  2. When you mention the example of YouTube and note that there is room for confusion in boyd & Ellison’s contention that the identity of those whom you communicate with must be known, I would have to disagree. What can be said is that YouTube has a complicated version of a social network structure on account of the fact that it subverts the norm with regards to privacy and viewing.

    First, to be clear – there is the display of network, the most evident of the sort would be the subscriber and subscribed functions. In a sense, that provides the element of identity to what would otherwise be considered the general “unknown audience.” However, that said there are often more viewers than subscribers, which I will be glad to further explicate my point.

    What you articulate in terms of the unknown audience is what I would more so liken to a sense of hyper-voyeurism. Where the distinction between unknown audiences in Facebook can be related to the notion of “Facebook stalking,” it is not as firmly articulated or clarified with YouTube, mostly because of the nature of the site (i.e. constant watching for entertainment). SNSs, like Facebook, emphasize the aspect of privacy far more than the likes of YouTube, which again may be the reason as to why you question boyd & Ellison’s assertion of audience. It can be said that this particular SNS has been shaped by social behaviours, in which there is the performance of self that is for the known audience (i.e. the subscribers and subscribed), but that there is also a consciousness in the blatant voyeurism that occurs.


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