We’re A Commodity…and We Love It

Dr. David Beer‘s response to Nicole Ellison and dannah boyd‘s article, “Social Network Sites: Definitions, History, and Scholarship” is a critique on the authors’ definition of Social Network Sites, their underlying theory, and their proposed future action (Beer 517).  Beer finds the author’s definition of SNS to be too broad, and believes that finding classifications of the vast nuances of social media better represents how and by whom the sites are being used (Beer 518).  He also doesn’t like their distinction of online and offline reality, claiming instead that our lives overlap, with neither being “more real” than the other (Beer 520).  He similarly doesn’t care for their distinction between mediated and unmediated communication because it promotes the false notion that unmediated communication exists (Beer 521).  Furthermore, he feels that the authors are proposing the wrong questions, asking why people use social media instead what their usage says about their society.  He feels like this concern over personal usage can actually steer research in an unnecessary direction, focusing instead on individual users instead of whole social groups and pervasive political structures (Beer 522).  He believes we should spend more time wondering about who made the site, how they profit from our usage, and what their original intent for their product was.  Failing to notice these aspects of social media sites lacks a critique on capitalism and runs the risk of naturalizing this “analytic given” of pervasive, yet scarily silent, capitalist intent in our domesticated media (Beer 524).

I have to say, that while I appreciated the information in both articles, I strongly agreed with Dr. Beer’s response.  I didn’t mind boyd and Ellison’s broad definition of SNS but I do think greater distinctions need to be made to reflect the many uses of SNS (Facebook might be a Social Network Site, but what delineates those users who only run a Fan page with unilateral connections of users “liking their page” from someone who only has a login to play Facebook games? And then what delineates those users from someone on LinkedIn who barely knows any of the connections in their network?).  Similarly, I agreed with his commentary on a single reality verses “real” and “online” living.  I’ve included this handy chart about my life to give boyd and Ellison some perspective on just how many people in my real life echo into my digital one:

Essentially what you’re looking at is a graph of how many people I interact with as a whole (with roughly 1060 Facebook friends and the additional 25 people I know who don’t have Facebook), and then an in-depth look at the “quality” of those Facebook friends.  Of my 1,060 Facebook friends, I counted that about 94 of those people were connections I felt to be less “real” than the rest.  People whose names I couldn’t recognize, those whom I just dislike, or those whom I felt like I’d never met or even seen in my physical life (including someone named Bobby Kennedy) made the list.  Now, to clarify, it’s not that I actually have 966 friends in real life.  Rather, what I’m trying to show is that these connections aren’t false, that I would indeed recognize these people if they were to pass me on the street, validating their “realness” as acquaintances in my life.  Even if what I share on Facebook isn’t my “complete” self it is still a very real version of me, and more often than not most of my friends from social network sites are getting a censored “incomplete” version of myself in the physical reality as well.  The distinction between the two only increases the divide, but why focus on what makes either reality different instead of noticing all the ways in which they are the same?

In terms of unmediated communication, I remember in Intro to Communication learning that our own beliefs, ideologies, nostalgias, prejudices, memory, and more mediate even the speech that exudes from our mouths.  I was taught to believe that there is no such this as unmediated communication and have to whole-heartedly agree with Dr. Beer on this one.  Also, in response to his critique on asking the right questions about social media, I can’t help but feel like boyd and Ellison’s look into why we use social media is painfully obvious. Although it would be an arduous task, the answer to who exactly uses social media and what they are using it for is certainly logged.  Our words, photos, and emotions remain logged on these sites for (seemingly) forever, giving Zuckerberg a good laugh (or cry) and offering up the answers to boyd and Ellison’s ponderings.  However, who runs these sites and with what motive is much more interesting to me.  First of all, many people are actually ignorant to the fact that Facebook and other social network sites make money off of their users by selling their information to corporations.  What’s more important to me here is that we seem to like that someone values our thoughts and interests enough to buy and sell them like a commodity.  We do not disable our social network accounts because we suspect foul play, but rather join forces and brand ourselves to better commodify our personas.   We censor our own comments, screen the comments of others, scrutinize pictures, and present the finished product of “Me” to the world.  Expressing our interests in such a clear-cut way only makes it easier for corporations to suggest things to me based on their “knowledge” of who I am.  Take a look:


Why, yes!  I go to NYU, used to be pre-law, and I DO love puppies!  Simple to garner if you’ve known me or stalked my Facebook with any regularity.  But now think of the FREE advertising we offer corporations when we post pictures like this:

So my question to you all is: WHY DO WE DO THIS?!  If we ignore the capitalist undertones in social media we will surely be taken advantage of, and I am uncomfortable with the idea of naturalizing ourselves to that!