Danah Boyd and Nicole Ellison are some of the first and most influential theorists about Social Media Technology. They argue that Social network sites (or SNS) are websites that allow users to construct profiles and to create and display a personal network based on those profiles. While this definition of SNS, as well as their history of SNS and their compilation of theoretical research in the same article are valued very highly in the academic discourse surrounding social networks, they where not without criticism. One such criticism comes from David Beer, who in his work critiqued much of theory Boyd and Ellison produced in their piece. He took issue with two broad categories of their analysis: the scope of their questioning and some of the distinctions they drew such as online vs. offline and unmediated vs. mediated communication. While the debate between Beer and Boyd & Ellison is an interesting one, I think that both theories are asking the wrong set of questions, and that right set of questions need to focus on the impact of individual users of social media in a large scale. Although I may disagree with some of the theory in their piece, I find Boyd and Ellison’s three part definition of social media to be more than sufficient in describing the way many of us use ‘web 2.0’ , but I would argue along with Dr. Beer that they make too much of a distinction between online and offline friendships. In our modern world everything is plugged in and unplugged at the same time. Including political and social justice discourse, which I believe is the lens through which social media theories should be engaging discussion about users relationships to social network sites.
It is not just our friendships that are on social media platforms, and I think both Boyd and Ellison and Dr. Beer ignore this fact. Everything from ordering concert tickets to grocery shopping is transforming into social media platfo. But the most interesting use of social networks to me is in the idea of using social media networking sites to rally people around a central ideology. I believe that by studying this aspect of social media use, you can find out a lot more about how users interact with each other and how they interact with the internet, which is what SNS theories seem to be most interested in. While Dr. Beer takes issue with the fact that Boyd and Ellison, and most discourse on social media, only study how individual users use SNS, and while I would also take issue with that I would simultaneously reject Dr. Beer’s idea that we need to focus on the larger picture of the sites themselves. Beer focuses on the capital aspects of these sites, saying that we need to realize they are business above all else. And while the fact that Facebook is releasing their IPO has been all over the news recently would seem to agree with him, I would say that a much more important story using SNS has been building this week.
Earlier this week the Susan G. Komen foundation announced that they would not longer be giving Planned Parenthood their annual grant of $680,000 because the organization is under Federal Investigation. As soon as news broke of this spending cut, people used social media to discuss their outrage at the cut in spending. A meme broke out on Facebook where users posted a picture that looked like this:
And both Facebook and Twitter are still blowing up about the debacle. This screen shot from the Susan G. Komen official Facebook page shows that users where both standing with and against the organization’s idea to defund Planned Parenthood:
Today the Komen foundation announced that they would reinstate funding to Planned Parenthood and also claimed they rewrote their grant policy to make it clear that the investigation must be of a criminal nature. Here is their official Facebook status on the matter:
Now, as the drama seemingly winds down, many places on the Internet are talking about how social media won the day for Planned Parenthood. Articles at Jezebel, Mashable and The Huffington Post all mention the major role the social media backlash played in Susan G. Komen’s decision to reverse their decision.
In my opinion it is these kinds of stories that social media theoriests should be talking about. More than how Facebook makes money, or why it’s users log on a certain number of times a day I believe this is the picture worth focusing on. While Beer argues that the important aspects of social media are the way the sites play on a global capitalist scale, I would argue that it’s the way people work together on that global platform. By focusing on how SNS allow people to mobilize, Social network theory could bring together it’s desire to study user habits and to create a larger scope in it’s analysis. As the online and offline worlds that Boyd and Ellison talk about become more and more blurred, I think it is important to understand the way in which these social media technologies are changing the way we engage in public discourse. Because long after Facebook and Twitter fall to the way side, what we accomplished on them will have ever lasting effects.