Boyd and Ellison define Social Networks as “web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system. “
They make the point that social networks can be used for networking purposes, ie meeting new people, but in fact many do not use them for that purpose. They go on to further discuss the different aspects of social networks; how people present themselves, which people use which social network, privacy settings for different social networks, and how sites are structured.
Dr. David Beer responds to their article, arguing that their definition of social networking sites is too broad. He goes on to argue many of their points, one of which being that offline friends can also be online “Friends”. He suggests that rather than differentiate the two types of friends, instead maybe study the role of increasing technology in friendships.
In general, I found Boyd and Ellison’s article informative from a historical perspective. It was fascinating to learn the origins about the many social networks, and interesting to read about those I hadn’t even heard of (Cyworld, Orkut, for example). The problem with the Boyd and Ellison piece, which Beer touches upon, is that it presents itself as the end all article about social networking and does not present itself as what it actually is: a look at social networks at a specific time in history.
Five years later, Boyd and Ellison’s article is almost comical at moments due to how outdated it reads. When they suggest people’s friends online are different from their friends offline, I could not help but smile at how times have changed. Now, on Facebook and Twitter, you generally are only friends with people you know, save for the random celebrities you follow. In fact, getting a friend request from someone you do not know may beg one to ask out loud, “who the hell is this and why are they friending me?”. It is an odd state of paranoia that some social network users live in, worrying that the random person that just requested them is either a)only interested in sex b)fake or c) some sort of scam or virus.
I would argue that the days Boyd and Ellison talk about, where people request to be friends with other random people based solely on their interests, are coming to an end. With privacy settings nowadays on Facebook and Twitter, you can completely block anyone but your closest, “off-line as well” friends from seeing anything about you. Social “Networking” is almost a misnomer now, except in the cases of sites like Match.com or LinkedIn. Social Networks feel like Social Circles now; you spend the most time on the Facebook pages or the Twitters of the people you spend the most time with offline. Social Networks, now, are simply an extension of the social process.
Beer makes an interesting point when he wonders if, “we might need to engage with sociological studies of friendship…to understand how friendship changes as it interfaces with such technologies.” It is something that I whole-heartedly agree with him on. The idea of friendship is changing and it is because of technology. Years ago, friends from home would go off to college, and keep in touch via the telephone and letter writing, Now, friends do not even have to spend a day without physically seeing each other thanks to technology like Skype or Facebook Video Chat. Texting, and cell phones in general, keep friends in touch more so than ever.
A sociological study of social media should occur on a grand scale to maybe confirm what many of us already know, or bring to light new things that no one ever thought of. Perhaps scholars can, with permission from the participants of course, keep track of how the participants use social media (on their mobile device, computer etc), how often they use it, who they connect with and how often. For example, for a college student, measure time spent on the pages of friends they see offline versus time spent on pages of friends from home who attend different colleges. Or perhaps for the out-of-college participant, study how much time they spend communicating with friends from college who they may not see offline for years at a time due to geographical distance versus how much time they spend on the pages of “newer” offline friends and compare all of this data to other “friend factors” such as family members, older, longtime friends, and co-workers. It would not only help us understand how people use social media, but perhaps for what reason; do they want to connect with older friends more than current? Or is it a mixture of both.
Regardless of results, the fact that this debate is even taking place should in itself show that friendships as we know them are changing. No longer will that one friend from years ago fade from memory and phonebooks. They’re always a page click away to catch up with.