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.