SNSs in the Real World

In his 2008 article “Social Network(ing) Sites… Revisiting the Story So Far: A Response to Danah Boyd and Nicole Ellison,” Dr. David Beer “revisits” Boyd and Ellison’s work just long enough to criticize their framing of and sociological argument surrounding Social Networking Sites. The first point Beer claims is problematic is Boyd & Ellison’s distinction between social networks and social networking sites. Boyd & Ellison list certain criteria that classify a website as a social network site; it must allow individuals to create a profile, to create and display their online connections, and to be able to view both their networks and those of others on the site (Boyd & Ellison 211). However, they designate a fine line between a social network and a social networking site, defining the latter as communication that emphasizes “relationship initiation,” or meeting strangers rather than navigating and enhancing one’s existing social sphere (Boyd & Ellison 211). Beer claims that the way Boyd & Ellison define social network sites is too broad and that social networking sites are driven and bound by a more specific and inherent purpose–that of networking.

Where my opinions align most with Beer’s criticisms of Boyd & Ellison is in their distinction between users’ offline ‘friends’ and the separate sphere of their online ‘Friends,’ which allows for limited crossover between the two (Beer 520). But with the ever-increasing development of online presences, it becomes almost impossible to define a universal standard regarding the status of friends met or maintained in the online realm. Boyd & Ellison’s definition  may actually hold true for some. By framing one’s own meaning of an online ‘Friendship’ as one that exists purely in that online environment, users may find this friend base an escape from the responsibilities that come hand-in-hand with having traditional ‘friends.’ The structure of the medium allows for excuses and flakiness that simply wouldn’t make sense in the context of a physical friendship: my wifi was down, I didn’t see your message, I forgot my password; whether we’ve uttered these phrases before or been on the (often frustrating) receiving end of the message, they often pervade social relationships online. But does the convenience of forging these online relationships (or letting them fall apart) mean that those people with whom you communicate online aren’t a part of your “real” world and your “real” circle of friends? Or is it simply another outlet and a way for you to cultivate relationships that aren’t bound by physical constraints?
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Beer argues against Boyd and Ellison, claiming that the notion of having friends online has become domesticated into our cultural realm of what constitutes a relationship, and arguing instead that SNSs complicate the whole concept of friendship (Beer 520). I think his argument displays a far better grasp of the cultural context in which SNSs exist today, in a world in which we endlessly read into comments posted on our YouTube videos, or the 140 character messages that are tweeted at us, or even the act of someone “liking”–or worse, not “liking”–our Facebook status. As much as I hate to admit that I compulsively engage in those activities, I think it helps demonstrate the complexity of the media and how they can be just as important (and over-analyzed) as real-life interations–like the exact time it took them to reply to my text message and how many words that reply was, or even one so simple as whether or not they said “hi” when we made awkward eye contact walking down 7th St. I really think these are just compulsions that come naturally to us, as technologically connected, social media mavens in our twenties.

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In addition, my experience with SNSs is directly influenced by my individuality–I live in New York City, I am pursuing a career in media, and I love talking about myself and sharing my experiences… and adorable videos of my pets. No other individual can or will approach SNSs from exactly the same way. Just as Beer argues that all communication is mediated (through personal filters, interests, and prejudices), so is the very text he writes. My biggest critique of both texts is their inability to represent the various lenses through which different people examine and participate in social media. The flaws in their specificity are apparent when new social media platforms (or uses for these platforms) arise, and the arguments made by these articles have little relevance to them. Since Beer wrote his article in 2008, SNSs have been further domesticated into our society and our relationships. Not only do we use SNSs on a personal level, but they have expanded to businesses as well. Whether it’s a small neighborhood cupcake shop or a multimillion dollar corporation, it is becoming increasingly expected for businesses to integrate Facebook pages and/or Twitters into their business models in order to encourage conversation among their patrons. How do expansions like this fit into the structures crafted by Boyd & Ellison and Dr. Beer?

I think the most important thing to consider when approaching the subject of social media from a scholarly point of view is to recognize that changes in society, in technology, and in the interactions between the two are really the forces that will dictate the framework of SNSs. We can write about them as much as we want, but the interactions we engage in and the relationships we have both online and offline are what will continue to shape the inherent nature of our social interactions, both online and offline.

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