The Friendships, They Are A-Changin’

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Five years later, Boyd and Ellison’s article is almost comical at moments due to how outdated it reads.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 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.

-Simon Higgins

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  1. lauraportwoodstacer

     /  February 4, 2012

    You win the award for best/cheesiest title this week! I laughed out loud!

  2. I completely agree with what you were saying about the outdated-ness of Boyd and Ellison’s article in this day and age. In particular, I like that you brought up how being friends with random people really doesn’t happen anymore. While with Twitter it’s more acceptable to follow and be followed back by someone you don’t really know (mainly because it’s probably a celebrity or a business), I’m definitely creeped out/skeptical when I get a friend request from someone I don’t know. I never accept them either until I can do a little research and confirm it’s not a virus or a fake. Friends in real life and friends on the Internet, and especially Facebook, have come to be one in the same. More and more do we see our relationships online and offline transcending physical space and carrying over from one context to the next.

    Also, your point about friendship changing due to technology is very interesting. I must agree with you that technology takes friendship to a different level, like when you said friends never really have to stop talking to each other (and for that matter never have to say “goodbye”) because they can always go online and continue a conversation there. I wonder, though, what your opinions are about the strength of friendships due to technological changes. While it can keep friendships stronger because you can always see what your friend is up to even if they’re across the globe, this can sometimes be too much for a friendship. Facebook and Twitter can bring in new forms of drama and tension. Sometimes relationships need a break every now and then and that can’t happen when you can always go home and continue to see someone on the Internet. How do you feel about this? And I guess what I’m really trying to ask is, how can technology hurt relationships?

    – Katherine Gannon

    • lauraportwoodstacer

       /  February 10, 2012

      Hmmm great food for thought about friendships needing a break!! Never thought of it this way before!

      • I have recently started unsubscribing to certain “Friends” status updates on Facebook. I felt guilty (for a minute or two) but I needed a break! Great post, Katherine.

  3. Ilana Dreiman

     /  February 10, 2012

    Like you and Katherine, I found Boyd and Ellison’s article to be a bit humorous from the standpoint of how dated it appears now. Social media has come such a long way from when it first started, and has morphed into something very different. For me, it’s no longer about meeting new people, but instead keeping up with people that I can’t see often. “Friending” a stranger is no longer looked at as normal—though I never truly thought it was normal to begin with—and it’s now received with some anxiety. My first thoughts upon getting a friend request from a stranger are 1) who is this creep? and 2) how did they find me? Back in the golden age of MySpace, I had a couple friends who were 100% online-only friends but felt uneasy having even just a small number of them. As time has gone on, I’ve purged those friends from my profiles and adjusted settings to ensure my privacy. It’s funny how something that was a portal to meeting complete strangers has morphed into something available to only a select number of people.

    I also agree with your point that there needs to be a sociological study of social media. Even though the majority of people use the technology, we only know so much about it’s effects on our social structure, relationships, and average usage. I definitely think that there needs to be further research and analysis of the technology. Because it has become such a big part of our lives, I think it’s necessary that we understand why it works the way it does, how we could use it more efficiently, and how it has affected society.

    -Ilana Dreiman

  4. Could be a great thesis topic.


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