Social media is a relatively new and constantly changing phenomenon. As such, it is difficult to examine and interpret it in a truly scholarly way. Ellison and Boyd, however, took an honest shot, and for that, I must give them props. Their primary goal is to establish a definition for what, exactly, social media means. The result is a three-part definition that identifies social media as a “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” (211). Next, they go about differentiating the online “Friends” (note the capital “F”) with offline friends.
Unsurprisingly, their attempt at defining and interpreting social media is not without enormous faults. In trying to understand the phenomenon in an academic context, they end up understating and misconstruing a lot of information. Their narrow definition of social media, for example, demonstrates their preoccupation with semantics over practice and ideology. Boyd and Ellison dedicate a significant amount of time to their justification in opting out of the term “networking.” They defend this for a few reasons, emphasizing that “what makes social network sites unique is not that they allow individuals to meet strangers, but rather that they enable users to articulate and make visible their social networks” (211). This is a bold statement. The article is clearly outdated, but I am curious as to how Boyd and Ellison would react to the capability to hide one’s friend list (or rather, “Friend-list”) on Facebook. And based on how I recognize and understand behavior around blogging and microblogging, I think that Boyd and Ellison are too quick to belittle the uniqueness and profoundness of connecting with strangers online. Social networking sites are indeed unique because they allow individuals to meet strangers. True, not all of them serve this purpose. But some of the ones that do, such as Twitter (and many, many others), create a global community. It is unique to be able to meet someone in a moderately personal, albeit online, setting across the world. Prior to social networks, there were online chat rooms. Despite the simple notion of being able to meet a stranger online in a chat room, it does not possess the same meaning or significance. On a social network, one is more likely to be established and have a persona—even if that persona is not exemplary of how one is in their offline, everyday life. It gives the phenomenon far more depth in that respect.
Per the “Friends” and “friends” differentiation, I am surprised. I was struck a few years ago when a professor pointed out that the interactions that occur online are, indeed, “real.” Many of us are quick to romanticize the “realness” of face-to-face interaction, when technically, interaction through other mediums are every bit as “real” as that of face-to-face. I think that perhaps because online communication is still so new and so consistently evolving, it is difficult for many of us to comprehend. This is in large part due to the fact that social networks involve a set of communicative rules that inform and are influenced by the norms and reality of online communication. Boyd and Ellison deem online relationships “Friends” with a capital “F” because “the connection does not necessarily mean friendship in the everyday vernacular sense, and the reasons people connect are varied” (213). This is an absolutely ridiculous claim. If that is the case, then we must go back to the tradition of pen pals and capitalize the “p” in “pals.” The internet is not the first incident of strange or unconventional communication with strangers. Writing and telephone were likely broached with the same insecurity and confusion with which Boyd and Ellison approach social media. I don’t think it is entirely their fault; I do believe that because they were examining the phenomenon in such an early phase of its existence, their results simply don’t apply now in the way that they might have several years ago. In fact, I cannot say with any security that a study conducted today would even have any significance or validity in social media within the next 5 years. The rapidity and consistency with which it changes, then, I think is a more important subject to understand before we try to set some confining rules over what social media entails. Then, I believe that we will begin to understand what social media truly is when we understand how and why people are using it.