Talking about how we talk about SNSs (on an SNS)

In David Beer‘s essay, “Social Network(ing) sites…revisiting the story so far: A response to danah boyd & Nicole Ellison,” he critiques boyd and Ellison’s analysis of social network/networking sites. He states that their definition of a social network site (SNS) is too broad and does not serve the function that he believes the definition should serve; it dose not help to separate SNSs into distinct categories that tell how they all users to connect. In their article, “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship,” boyd and Ellison say that a social network site allows users 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 a system” (211).

Beer and I have similar ideas about how social media should be studied. It should not focus largely on individuals; in order to more specifically classify functions of particular social media platforms, we must analyze a wider spectrum of users. By directly examining a large group of social media users’ profiles, we can form ideas about what their posts on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr (or any of the other of the countless social network sites floating around the Internet) tell about society as a whole.

But beyond analyzing how social media is affecting society in the present, it is perhaps more important for scholars to ask, “How is social media going to continue to influence the interactions we have in the physical world?” As Beer says, social media is definitely changing friendship “as young people grow up and are informed by the connections they make on SNS” (520). But young people are not just being informed. A generation of young people who know their friends online AND in the physical world is beginning to form; we are now exposed to multiple representations of our friends in both settings. For example, we see different sides of our friends in real life when we are in school with them and they act more proper and professional than when we are relaxing with them on a weekend. And now, our friends’ online profiles allow us to see their ideal versions of how they want to represent each side of their personality. On Twitter, they may strive to be as witty as possible and share their opinions openly while on Facebook they act in a more neutral way. This is because their audience on each social media platform is different. While Twitter encourages users to follow anyone that they may find interesting or entertaining, Facebook emphasizes adding “real life” friends and acquaintances to a users list of friends. While a Facebook audience can be more broad, including family members, ex-boyfriends, and school teachers, Twitter appeals to following people based on their thoughts, not their connection to a user. Of course, Facebook and Twitter are only two examples of social media networks on which users can show a certain side of themselves.

In his article “Has Facebook changed friendship,” Ezra Klein states, “One of the worries you hear with Facebook – and online relationships in general – is that strong, close relationships are being replaced with weak, superficial relationships.” I disagree with this worry and I think Beer would, too. People use Facebook and social networking sites to strengthen relationships; users can often use these sites, such as Facebook, to scroll back through previous wall posts to each other and pictures they’re both tagged in and relive fond memories. He quotes Zadie Smith who says that, on Facebook, “whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out” since the purpose of Facebook is to gain popularity. I’m not quite sure yet if I agree with Smith’s ideas about the main purpose of Facebook but I believe that it is the user’s audience that becomes flat because the audience, or list of friends, typically includes such a wide range of relationships in the person’s life. So on Facebook, the user’s surface presentation of himself (which includes his basic info, profile picture, etc.) may seem flat so that it can appeal to everyone on his friends list. But, his wall posts to his friends and interactions with specific people are personal and add to the user’s friendships.

Beer seems most bothered that boyd and Ellison do not include a critique of capitalism in their discussion of social network sites. As a user of social media, I must admit that (until recently) I almost never think about capitalism’s relationship to social media. But I am quickly beginning to realize that it is a massive factor in determining the success of a social network and must be addressed. Somewhere in between frantically switching between the Facebook and Twitter tabs on my browser, I came across an editorial which says that Facebook “is not a village; it’s a business. We [the users] are not residents, but employees bound to labor ignorantly for the network’s bottom line.” In the end, we are providing free labor in order to send data about ourselves to sites like Facebook and Google so they can target us with ads more specific to ourselves.

It’s strange to think that I’m spending so much time analyzing social network sites for which I’m also, in some way, providing free labor.