We May Be Friends, But I Don’t Have to Like You

In their piece “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship”, Danah M. Boyd and Nicole B. Ellison provide a fairly thorough account of the rise of these types of sites and the various user demographics that engage with them, and also begin to scratch the surface of potential issues and concerns surrounding their usage with a rudimentary analysis. In his response to Boyd and Ellison, “Social Network(ing) Sites…Revisiting The Story So Far”, Dr. David Beer begins by praising their original piece for the work it does laying the foundation for further analysis, and then proceeds to pick apart aspects of their work that he finds problematic.

The first aspect of Boyd and Ellison’s piece that Beer takes issue with is their use of the terms “social network site” and social networking site”. For Boyd and Ellison, a social networking site is one whose primary purpose is networking; they “emphasize relationship initiation, often between strangers. On the other hand, social network sites “enable users to articulate and make visible their social networks”; “while networking is possible on these sites, it is not the primary practice on many of them, nor is it what differentiates them from other forms of computer-mediated communication.”

Beer’s first criticism, which I agree with, is that the term “social network site” can then be used to refer to almost anything. Recalling our discussion in class, it took over 45 minutes to list dozens of social networks, and that list was nowhere near complete. Additionally, debate sprang up over whether this site or that site qualifies under the “social network site” criteria. Beer levels the charge that Boyd and Ellison put forth this vague terminology for the purpose of conveniently capturing too many vastly different applications under one umbrella. As he says, “it is intended to do too much of the analytical work”. In today’s social climate, where everyday I receive invitations in my inbox to join xyz new sites and pleas to follow all my friends, it seems elementary to try and gather so many examples under one heading. In my opinion, my interest in a blogging platform (WordPress for example) has little to nothing to do with my participation on Twitter, despite them both being considered social network sites. Or, for a more humorous example, Barack Obama’s activity on his Twitter feed is not indicative of his maintaining a page on Make Out Club, as he is not, to my knowledge, an “indierocker” or “hardcore kid”, as their tagline implies. Simplistic classifications inhibit in-depth analysis of trends, especially in a constantly evolving setting like the Web.

Another of Beer’s criticisms of Boyd and Ellison is their division of online and offline life, and by extension, the existence of “friends” on social network sites that differ from “real life” friends. I am not aware of the ages of any of these authors, but speaking for anyone I’m acquainted with in my generation, if someone isn’t your friend on Facebook, but they have a Facebook account, they’re not your real-life friend, period. They probably aren’t even your acquaintance. In my experience, a brief meeting or friend-of-a-friend intro is certainly enough to warrant Facebook friend status. The terms of a “friendship” have completely changed following the advent of the “friend” feature of social networks. The broadened connotation of the term means that lines of who constitutes one’s friends are blurred beyond recognition. There are hordes of people that have access to my Facebook page that I wouldn’t dream of talking to in real life. And yet, by Facebook’s (and by extension the Facebook user community’s) standards, that person qualifies as my friend.

Perhaps the largest issue I have with Boyd and Ellison’s piece, and one that Dr. Beer also outlines, is their assertion that there exists somewhere/sometimes segments of life that go “unmediated”. To me, in today’s world an unmediated scenario is mythical. Social media and the internet are so sewn into our daily lives that to pretend there are times when it literally has no effect whatsoever seems almost irresponsible or ignorant on the part of communications researchers. I recently read a piece on Thought Catalog by Brianne Garcia called “How Facebook Has Changed the Way Young Girls View Themselves”. In it, she explains her belief that Facebook and the omnipresent likelihood of photographic online exposure of a particular event have overhauled the mindset of young girls. Garcia notes, “ I never cared or even considered what I looked like from the side until Facebook taught me to.” This technological determinist viewpoint is one that I’m inclined to agree with.

SNS: Looking At The Bigger Picture

In their article, danah boyd and Nicole Ellison inform the reader of all things social network.  They define “social network sites,” give plenty of examples throughout history, and shed light on studies surrounding these sites.  David Beer responded to boyd and Ellison’s article critiquing the questions that arose in their writing and suggesting alternative areas of SNSs that should be paid more analytical attention.

To begin with, Beer does not think an emphasis should be put on boyd and Ellison’s distinction between “social network sites” and “social networking sites.” Boyd and Ellison say that “social network sites” should be the terminology used, since people “are primarily communicating with people who are already a part of their extended social networks” and therefore are not “networking” with strangers (boyd and Ellison 211). Beer says although this differentiation is true, it should not be focused on, and instead categorization of sites within a broad term, such as “Web 2.0” should be utilized (Beer 519).  I tend to agree with Beer.  Boyd and Ellison’s argument seemed a bit insignificant, and even when I read Beer’s classifications, such as “wiki’s, folksonomies, mashups, and social networking sites,” the organization of what was to be studied already seemed clearer than the confusing “networking” matter (Beer 519).

Another topic that Beer critiques is boyd and Ellison’s separation of online and offline living, and the difference between Friends and friends. Boyd states, “Friends on SNSs are not the same as “friends” in the everyday sense” (boyd and Ellison 220).  Beer disagrees with this assumption.  He believes, “we cannot think of friendship on SNS as entirely different and disconnected from our actual friends and notions of friendship, particularly as young people grow up and are informed by the connections they make on SNS” (Beer 520). I completely agree with Beer, especially in today’s world where children are growing up with technology in their lives as opposed to being introduced to it in the middle of their teen/young adult years.  The usage of social media has become second nature in today’s culture, and I think today’s relationships online are just as “real” as relationships offline.  I would even go as far as saying online relationships could be more “real” than offline ones, because of the easy accessibility, mobility, and permanence of social media platforms. Of course this can be refuted with SNS “flaws” such as lack of authenticity and elimination of face-to-face social cues, but overall online and offline relationships are both substantial in their own ways, and often enhance one another, eliminating the divide between Friends and friends.  To make matters more complicated, I definitely think there are different categories of friends in the online world, as presented by this diagram by Mike Arauz.

Perhaps scholars could delve into this topic more. I would find it very interesting to see if they agree or disagree with these classifications.

Beer is also keen on taking a capitalistic approach at studying SNS.  Beer says that SNS users’ information is being, “used to predict things about us, to find us out with recommendations, or even to discriminate between us as customers” (Beer 525).  Beer is adamant that scholars are aware of this fact SNS are used as data sources and can be manipulated by users so they are “treated favourably” in a capitalistic sense (Beer 525).  Beer says all of this with a quite wary tone, yet I don’t seem to understand why.  As long as no privacy barriers are crossed isn’t this capitalist-consumer SNS relationship a good thing? Businesses are able to target niche audiences and consumers will encounter advertising that caters specifically to them.  I know that I personally like picking a commercial that is more suitable for me when I’m watching a TV show on Hulu, I will occasionally click on a band that is advertised on the side of my Facebook profile, or I’ll even check out a promoted tweet on Twitter. No matter how private one’s profile is, I think SNS users are aware that the Internet is indeed a public forum, and the information published on it can be used in a myriad of ways.

Overall, I like Beer’s broader questions about social media.  Boyd and Ellison do a good job at analyzing the platforms themselves, but what about the people that use them? What does the way people utilizing SNS say about society? Social media has become so engrained in today’s culture that we must not study it as an entity separate from daily life, but as an ingredient and indicator within it.

Blog 1: Future of Social Network(ing)

Dr. David Beer’s response to danah boyd’s and Nicole Ellison’s Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship is quite definitely a very interesting one. I’ll start with a very short summary introducing the piece he critiques, in my opinion, very negatively. Ellison and boyd are defining the terms social network(ing) sites, otherwise shortened to SNSs, along with stating the history of many SNSs and how the network structure works to support millions of users. Beer has many so-called “problems” with Ellison and boyd’s piece about social networking sites. He doesn’t necessarily call out the two ladies, however he thinks they are asking the wrong questions and answering questions that aren’t really relevant to SNSs anymore. Be as it may, I wonder how relevant Beer’s critiques are in the current year we are in? And do I necessarily agree with what he is saying?

Beer agrees that the article does a “great deal of work to clarify the boundaries of study and to provide an overview of the story so far.” This entire section of Beer announcing what boyd and Ellison did well seems very sarcastic and snide. Instead of just giving them credit for what they have written about, he seems to undermine their research by saying “most credit should be give for their attempts to construct a history of SNS” and “attempt to define some of the ways which we might move forward with our analysis of SNS.” The word ‘attempt’ is a bit contemptuous on his part.

Ellison and boyd define social networking sites and social network sites as two different things. Networks are explained as web-based services that allow people to make a public or semi-public profile, along with a list of users with whom they share a common ground with, and view and explore their list with other lists within the system. Networking emphasizes relationships that are and will be created because of the network and the web-based service. Networking is often between strangers (page 211). Beer suggests that their SNS definition and framing is not very useful. He believes it no longer delineates what people use the sites for. The classifications of the new online cultures are not just networking/network sites, but in nuance should have many more different categories. There is a vast range of very different applications that are just social network sites but don’t really have networking incorporated in them. Beer presumes that Ellison and boyd should move away from saying networking is the only focus of SNS, where now “making and accumulating friendship connections is not the sole focus of activity” (page 518). Currently Facebook is not just for making friends, but also for businesses and companies to place ads and promote themselves in a very public eye.

Beer is averse to the whole concept of online and offline friends because he thinks most of someone’s online friends ARE their offline friends. Most Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace users are adding and following people they know in “real life.” According to a study, most Facebook users (82%) are adding people they know in real life rather than strangers. Ellison and boyd say that most people add strangers from their network, which is not the case anymore. I agree with Beer in this case where most people I know do not add strangers because of safety and privacy issues dealing with adding someone you do not know. Beer says, “If friendship must be seen in context, then it is essential that we begin to understand the role of friendship in forging the connections of SNS and, allied with this, begin to appraise the implications for friendship thrown up by the friendships of SNS.” So are these two types of friendships the same? I agree in that it depends on the context the friendship is in, but I don’t think friendships are the same online as they are “offline,” or in real life. How I talk to my online friends is not the same way as I would to my offline friends. I tend to be quite boring online and I won’t put the effort into most conversations, but in real life I am very much the opposite, where I won’t ever let the conversation die. Most people have twice as many online friends than offline friends because it easier to maintain friendships on SNSs. It requires less effort and occasional hellos to maintain those types of friendships. Contrary to online friendships, real life friendships require much more effort, passion, intimacy, and shared activities.

Besides “friendships,” Beer is more concerned about how our social system is being perpetuated through social media. He considers that there are greater consequences to SNSs rather than just networking and meeting people; but rather there are kinds of “sociological tendencies” that are used to research reasons for a new technological culture. Since the research is not fully developed and the vast archives of information about users are not being put to much use, there is insufficient knowledge about the new form of capitalism.  My stand on all of this is mostly sided with Beer and his take on a lot of incomplete thinking that boyd and Ellison failed to state. As time progresses the changes that will be made to many SNSs will be dramatic and a new boyd and Ellison will put their take on it in a different light.