Re-revisiting the Story So Far

In “Social networking(ing sites…revisiting the story so far:  A response to danah boyd & Nicole Ellison,” Dr David Beer offers a different approach to the ways in which we analyze social media today, nearly five years after the boyd and Ellison’s work has been published. In their article, boyd and Ellison provide an in-depth historical account of social network sites from Six Degrees in 1997 to Facebook in 2006. The authors define social network sites as online sites that allow the user to: (1) create a profile, (2) articulate a network, and (3) view your and other individual’s networks.  They clearly differentiate this term from social networking site, which is solely to be used to cultivate new relationships.  One of Beer’s biggest criticisms pertains to boyd and Ellison’s terminology and the way in which they frame their approach.  Beer’s reproach is that such classifications prove to be too broad – and ultimately problematic.

Beer also dislikes the distinction boyd and Ellison create between online and offline relationships.  Whereas boyd and Ellison differentiate online “Friends” and fleshy “friends,” Beer is adamant that the two are equivalent. He asks, “how can it be profitable to separate our offline and online relations and spaces or online and offline forms of living?” (Beer 520).  Given my experience with social network sites, I was at first torn between boyd and Ellison’s distinction of Friends/friends and Beer’s recursive interpretation of the phrase. Would I refer to all of my Friends on Facebook to be my “friends” offline?  Absolutely not.  I have dozens of Friends that I’ve met simply on one occasion. However, the mere fact that I have access to the most intimately personal information of these so-called Friends – photos, status updates, life events – makes me feel innately closer to them. I also agree with boyd and Ellison in the sense that my online relationships primarily solidify my already existing ones.  My personal Facebook timeline and Twitter feed highlight interaction with my friends that I spend the most time with.

In some respects, I do believe that there still is a divide between our online and offline friends – just because I liked someone’s status doesn’t mean that I would say hi to him or her on the street. More or less, I find myself siding with Beer in the sense that with the increasingly interchanged nature of relationships, we may have to redefine friendship altogether.  Beer is more in touch with what social network sites are used for today – a voice.  Today, many SNS like YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc. are used as platforms for sharing multimedia content. In these online communities, personal identities are often ambiguous. Idealized profile pictures and absence of social cues make us wonder:  is there such thing as true presentation of self?  Thanks to pseudonymous communication, we are able to thrive within these social network sites while maintaining a constantly cultivated identity.  The older social network sites boyd and Ellison referenced (like MySpace, Facebook, Cyworld and Bebo) were intended for bilateral communication and expanding preexisting networks.  Today’s social media lean more towards social networking sites, as clever Twitter handles and YouTube subscriptions allow us to create and maintain online relationships with people we wouldn’t necessarily communicate with offline.

Beer further disagrees with boyd and Ellison’s distinction between mediated and unmediated communication.  Given the “switched on” nature of today’s world, we are constantly filtering our own ideologies.  Consequently, even if we’re not using a social network our messages are still being sent or received by a medium in some way.  Social media is an increasingly defining and integral part of how people live, even more so than when Beer’s article was published (Beer 523).  Nevertheless, to separate our online lives from our so-called offline lives is completely out of the question.  In 2007, the year boyd and Ellison’s work was published, 48% of adults in the U.S. used the Internet every day while only 5% of adults used a social networking site daily.  When Beer’s article appeared just a year later, the percentage of U.S. adults using the Internet jumped to 54% and those using social media increased to 13%.  Nevertheless, I could see how boyd and Ellison were able to make the online/offline distinction, which is virtually unthinkable today.  And as of May 2011, an estimated 78% of American adults use the Internet daily and a whopping 65% use SNS!  Given the rapidly growing nature of SNS, it would be wrong to deny them of their role within our lives.

Ultimately, Beer believes that boyd and Ellison are asking the wrong questions altogether.  Despite that boyd and Ellison’s studies of social media target individual users, Beer wants to know more about the other players and their role within the system.  Who’s running these sites? How are they making money?  He suggests that questions pertaining to the role of SNS in capitalism are “more difficult and overlooked” (Beer 523).  By not asking these questions, I agree that we risk not questioning or challenging the way our SNS operate. Social media provides us with an opportunity to evaluate how our social system is being perpetuated online. Despite that Beer describes the collaborative and collective nature of this capitalist system, he never clearly defines the role of the individual.  Given that we can make a case that boyd and Ellison’s work is outdated, the same argument can be made for Beer’s.  Since 2008, a plethora of relevant SNS have emerged and it would be interesting to hear what boyd or Beer has to say about these sites.  Social network sites such as Yelp and Urban Spoon mean businesses are now dependent on user reviews.  While all of the authors are concerned with how third parties attain and distribute information, it appears that neither boyd, Ellison nor Beer have given their thoughts on how individuals play a role on shaping the companies around them.   As new technology emerges, it is critical to understand the relationships and implications  of all aspects of social networking sites.

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