The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance: News Stories Everywhere Claim Technology is Evil, Kids are Helpless

In today’s world of ubiquitous social media, it seems like every day you hear a news story about why social networks are bad for kids in some new way. While I was researching the topic, I came across an article titled ‘Are social networking sites turning teens into substance abusers?’ which seemed like the perfect starting spot for an analysis of media overreacting about kids’ online lives. The article cites a press release from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, which states that ‘Teens who use Facebook and other social networking sites on a daily basis are three times as likely to drink alcohol, twice as likely to use marijuana, and five times more likely to smoke tobacco than teens who don’t frequent the sites.’ While such statistics may sound like the standard ‘the internet is bad for your kids’ rant, this article actually did point out that rather than keep kids from the internet, perhaps something should be done by sites like Facebook to prevent teenagers from posting such pictures online. However unrealistic this may be, it is at least a different perspective than the norm. Another interesting point of differentiation from the standard discourse was that about 90 percent of parents interviewed in the survey believed that social networking had no effect on their kids drinking or drug use.

While this article does provide some interesting insight, the major issue that I find is that it directly relates social networking with drinking and drug use, completely ignoring all other factors. This type of technological determinism is criticized in Amy Adele Hasinoff’s article ‘Sexting as media production: Re-thinking dominant ideas about teen girls and sexuality online.’ In the article, Hasinoff points out a CBS news story which, in regard to teens and sexting, stated, ‘When people see these sexy pictures, they are more apt to have sexual relations which will lead to teen pregnancy .’ Again, such a point of view directly blames the technology for teenagers’ decisions and removes all agency from the teens themselves.  Just as Hasinoff provides the alternative view of sexting as a means of expression, perhaps the authors of the article that I came across should consider that in posting pictures on Facebook, these teenagers are simply expressing themselves, but that an issue worth tackling might be how and why the teens are drinking in the first place.

Another issue with how the information is presented in this article is that it mentions a broad generalization in saying that using a social networking site on a daily basis makes teens three times more likely to drink alcohol. Similar to the way in which the article is ignoring any outside context, such numbers should be looked at under a closer light, much like Kimberly Mitchell and her team do in their article  ‘Prevalence and Characteristics of Youth Sexting: A National Study.’ Just as Mitchell and her team find that past studies overrepresent the amount of sexting going on due to vague definitions and flawed research methods, perhaps a more in-depth study would be more informative than such quick correlational statements.

Articles like these clearly try to provoke some sense of panic in parents of teens, much like the video we watched in class about the ‘new ways kids are hiding sexting from their parents.’ News reports like these seem to say that the only way teens can be safe is either by not being on social networking sites at all, or by having heavy parental privacy invasion supervision. Rather than present these terrifying statistics in raw form, maybe these news stories should focus on talking with your kids and teaching them to make responsible decisions both online and offline, rather than simply saying that the internet is an evil place where your kids will be completely out of your (and their own) control.

Facebooking Your Way Through Teenage Years

I was sixteen when I first signed up for Facebook. My parents didn’t really know what it was, and they trusted me enough to allow me to use the site freely. As the site tended to skew older at the time, there was relatively little media coverage on the dangers of Facebook for its younger users. Now, there is rarely an occasion when extended family members or family friends don’t bring up Facebook, and their concerns with their preteen children (or nieces and nephews) using the site. Often I serve as a point of reference, explaining what the site actually functions as and cluing them into what behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate in that sphere so they can better understand their kids’ involvement in it. The media discourse surrounding youth practices online has become increasingly prevalent and critical as their practices have shifted in more recent years.

In her article “For Teenage Girls, Facebook Means Always Being Camera-Ready,” New York Times blogger Randye Hoder addresses some of these concerns. Hoder mentions the desire to shape one’s online profile to demonstrate the most attractive (not necessarily positive) image of oneself in these tricky teenage years. She further explains the prevalence of these technologies in teenage social life (one can take a photo and upload it with little to no warning or time to reapply lip gloss), and how it affects young girls who “feel like [they] have to look good all the time” and even go as far as to block the video recorder on their computers (with post-its of all things) when they feel they don’t look as good as they would like. 

Hoder touches on an important aspect of teenage life when demonstrating how important physical image is to girls of this age, in particular. The whole notion of being socially present and popular for youth ties into Boyd’s claims in her article “Why Youth Heart Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life,” where she argues that the online sphere is one where teens have a more comfortable space in which to communicate and “hang out.” Since these online spheres and social networks are individually constructed, teens can form their own spaces where they feel more welcome than physical ones that are better suited for people of different age groups. But the inherent nature of these online spheres is ultimately what causes so much pressure surrounding the online presence and how it affects the interactions these youth have in the physical world.

In an age where we are constantly connected, the pressure to be “on” all the time is more present than ever. For teens, there is the added social pressure to be popular, or, at the very least, accepted. Hoder finds that for teenage girls, this social need translates to their posting photos that are highly sexual, from accentuating their cleavage to making kissing faces (some of us so affectionately call them “duck faces”) even to posing seemingly innocent in bikinis, just to appear scantily clad to garner “likes” and, as a result, popularity among their peers both offline and online.

How then are teens expected to navigate this social scene? And how do parents react when they find out that their daughters are posting sexualized images on their SNS profiles in order to feel confident in themselves? Boyd & Marwick, in “Social Steganography: Privacy in Networked Publics,” express that parents want their children protected from online entities that could harm them. However, that is often focused on the threat of strangers or predators online and can ignore the emotional impact that these sites can have on their youth users. And although Hoder’s article brings up these issues, it frames them as a now-inevitable aspect to growing up that teenage girls must face and does little to provide a solution to it. The examples she uses are stated very matter-of-factly, when they really have a deeper social impact than is addressed (until very briefly in one quote from child and teen development specialist Robyn Silverman who points out the dangers of sexualizing girls at such a young age). I would have liked the post to have expanded more on that last point, as it seems so culturally relevant today, especially with the discourse surrounding teens and sexting. Is this pursuit of popularity through an attractive profile a stepping stone to more graphic and explicit and potentially dangerous interactions online? Or is it simply a part of growing up that has developed with the technologies surrounding those growing up? Is it something that parents should be more concerned about, or is it okay so long as the pictures are never outwardly explicit? With how difficult of a transition teenage years often are for girls, I can only imagine how stressful and confusing it would be to have to manage two social presences instead of just the physical one. 

Social Media: Helping Us Connect with Friends and Reminding Us Repeatedly that We’re Ugly (Maybe)

You are an 18, 19, or 20-something year-old and you are an active social media participant. You have your own Facebook profile to check up on your friends, find out about upcoming events, and update your photos and statuses. But, admit it: a large part of the reason you have a Facebook is because everyone else has one and you don’t want them to forget your existence while they’re online. But what is the exposure to the content your friends post doing to you? How does it influence what you post and how you feel about yourself offline?

If you’re a teenage girl, your Facebook newsfeed could be sending you into a horrible, depressing spiral of negative body-image and nonstop competition among friends for the best body. In her article, Social networks have young women competing against each other for the best body, Amanda Enayati references one teen user, Amanda Coleman, who decided to leave Facebook because she was sick of being bombarded with images of her friends looking perfect and feeling the pressures to look as good. Coleman said that Facebook acted as a gateway-social-network that led some of the girls in her college sorority to become members of pro-eating-disorder sites. Apparently, images that these girls saw of their friends looking perfect on Facebook made them feel “not good enough” themselves. As a result, they turned to these pro-eating-disorder communities online “where users encourage one another in anorexic and bulimic behavior” since, in the minds of the sorority girls, “what they had the most control over was their weight.” Coleman says her sorority friends flew down “a slippery slope” from “normal” social networking sites to ones centered around encouraging eating disorders.

Additionally, Coleman seemed to think that feelings of body-hate among her teen friends were “contagious,” even among those who previously had a positive body image. This teen viewed her friends as being powerless against the forces of Facebook, unable to fight off the negative body-image-effect it seemed to have on them. But as Rebekah Willett states in her essay, “‘As soon as you can get on Bebo you just go mad’: young consumers and the discursive construction of teenagers online,”  there is a “tension” between the depiction of “young people as acted on by societal forces and seeing them as independent actors in their own right.” These teen girls believe each other girl on Facebook is more perfect than them and feel they must try to post similarly perfect pictures. Meanwhile, they perceive themselves (or, at least, Coleman does,) as being completely unable to resist the pressures to post these perfect images and fall to negative consequences as a result (perhaps turning to an eating disorder). In this way, certain teen girls seem unable to avoid feeling negative about themselves by using Facebook.

In Willett’s essay, she discusses the social networking site Bebo, a social networking and blogging site popular in the mid-2000s. She states that young users enjoyed Bebo partly because it was easy to personalize. She says, “Young people appear keen to project an image of themselves through particular ‘lifestyle choices’ and have a desire to keep their image up to date as a reflection of their current self.” Much of what Willett describes about Bebo can be applied to Facebook. Enayati might call the constantly updated photos and information that make up a teen’s profile part of “the encyclopedia of beauty and status and comparisons” that Facebook has become.

Fascinatingly, though, this “encyclopedia” is not very diverse at all. It is made up largely of people taking part in the same activities and, according to Enayati’s article, of teen girls who all believe they have to look the same exact way as each other. As teen social media users, we are often eager to upload pictures of ourselves taking part in experiences with friends to show off our active social lives, but we all end up looking the same as each other and posting about the same kinds of events. Social media definitely exerts a pressure on its user to “have the best body” that might have not existed as strongly before. Previously, teen girls may have been able to avoid seeing the best looking girl in their community and, thus, avoid feeling badly about their own bodies. This is more difficult to do when these girls are showing up over and over again on your Facebook newsfeed. As Willett asserts, “adolesence is marked by an interest in peers…as a references point for personal preferences.” We cannot help but partly base our own decisions about our appearance according to our peers’ appearances. However, this is not as extreme as Enayati suggests. While some teen girls are pressured into dangerous behaviors, like eating-disorders, in an attempt to control their appearance, this is definitely not the norm.

The article includes advice to parents from Dina Borzekowski, who “believes parents need to be more aware of the messages reaching their children and adolescents” She says, “How many parents can really say they’ve seen the YouTube videos their teen has seen in the last two to three days? Parents need to be able to tell their kids to put their smartphones away.” But simply monitoring what kids and teens interact with on social media sites will not solve anything and keeping them from going on these sites after they’ve already used them will not take away the pressures they feel. As danah boyd concludes in her essay, “Why Youth ❤ Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life,” parents are meant to be “guides” and “not policeman” to their children on social media sites. Girls who fall into eating disorders or other dangerous behaviors after seeing their friends’ seemingly flawless photos on Facebook probably do not enter into these behaviors solely because of social media. Parents should guide their children to have healthy body-images long before they become active on social media.

Culture vs. Cult: The Role of Social Media in Our Lives

In an article from October on the Huffington PostKatherine Bindley explores what role social networking and jealousy play in “your” life. Her main argument is that while Facebook is a very powerful tool to help people connect and stay connected to one another, it has equally as much capacity to effectively ruin relationships. Specifically, she points out a few main things that people tend to do (or not do), which lead to their partner to feel either jealous or uncomfortable. Some of these examples included things like over/undersharing about the relationship on the network, having tagged pictures of exes, and seeing ‘worrisome’ things on partners’ pages and assuming the worst.

With all of this, though, it becomes clear that the underlying issue is a lack of communication rather than anything Facebook itself is doing. In fact, Bindley quotes a couples therapist from San Diego, Jennine Estes as saying, “Facebook isn’t usually the problem. It’s the behaviors that are the problem.” This statement is particularly important, because it immediately takes out considerations of Facebook being the ‘active ruiner’ of relationships. Such a blame on Facebook would be a very blatant statement of what Judith Donath (and others) would describe as technological determinism. In fact, Estes goes even further, saying:

“To be clear, Facebook itself isn’t to blame for the demise of domestic bliss. Instead, it’s an avenue by which threats can develop if you fail to communicate about them, and one that can exacerbate problems that already exist.”

Again, this is a very clear way to disprove arguments of technological determinism and instead emphasise what more looks like a social shaping view of technology, where people’s usage of new technology are taken into account. Because Bindley presents this concept early on and comes back to it throughout the article, the general ‘story’ of what she writes does not blame Facebook for strains in relationships, but rather points out how people can abuse its capabilities in ways that lead to a strain of trust.

The jealousy that a boyfriend or girlfriend might feel as a result of something done on Facebook is not very different from the ‘psychological warfare’ that dana boyd describes from the MySpace ‘Top 8’ feature.  Again, however, neither boyd nor Bindley suggest that the social networks are to blame (although in the case of MySpace, it’s hard to imagine a practical use for ‘ranking’ your friends), but rather that people are quite prone to be sensitive in these publicly social spaces. Overall, then, I think she presents the possibilities of Facebook in a reasonable, objective manner.

In the film Life 2.0, however, the users of Second Life are presented in such a way that they come across as if they were members of a cult: that they got into ‘this thing,’ couldn’t stop, and may or may not have made it out. In fact, the way it was put together made me think of the movie Jonestown, (trailer below)  where the people who joined the ‘People’s Temple’ cult were vulnerable for some number of reasons, found a comfortable, welcoming environment in the cult, eventually found out that it was ‘bad,’ and either made it out or didn’t (although obviously there was no mass suicide shown in Life 2.0). Although the stories presented in Life 2.0 had varying areas of success, I felt like the filmmakers generally presented Second Life as something that could be very dangerous, and that it was best to get out of it rather than lose all touch with reality.

Because of the way Second Life seemed to be shown as ‘dangerous’ in the film, I would argue that it takes more of a technologically deterministic view, where people have little or no control of what they are doing once they sign up for the game. To avoid this, the filmmaker could have shown a few people who use Second Life casually and who still maintain normal relationships with other people. This would have given proof that there is nothing inherently wrong with Second Life, but that it may bring out underlying social issues in some people who play it. In fact, I would imagine (or hope) that the stories shown in the film were extreme cases chosen to exhibit an entertaining yet disturbing look into the lives of Second Life addicts, posing them as an ‘other’ character for people to laugh at and maybe feel better about their own interpersonal relationships.

Given these two differing perspectives on social media, I think it is important to study these areas through an unbiased lens and present all sides of the story. Rather than present the audience with predetermined judgements, it would be better to show people how a social network works in its most basic form and how people have changed and adapted this, but most importantly, that all these uses are different for everyone.

Once you stalk the fun don’t stop

Human beings are starting to become really creepy.  Voyeuristic tendencies have always run rampant in our DNA, but the advent of social media networking sites prove just how nosy we’ve become.  The proof of our voyeuristic tendencies lies within the hours we spend on twitter and Facebook, following users who don’t follow us back, browsing profiles of mere acquaintances pondering for hours whether or not it would be prudent to send them a request…ever had an awkward moment where somebody tells you something about themselves and you have to act like you are really surprised but of course you’re not surprised because you’ve been checking their profile every day for the last week and know everything there is to know about them? I’m not talking about voyeurism in the traditional sense that we derive sexual pleasure from creeping on people’s SNS profiles/walls all the time, but we definitely derive some weird/awkward/potentially harmful pleasure out of gawking at pictures of people we hardly know, used to know, or want to know for hours on end.  We laugh off our weird obsession with following people and say “I’m such a Facebook stalker hahahaha” or “So is it bad I was like totally stalking the profile of the guy I met last Friday at the game to see if he had a girlfriend?” — the justifications endless. I’m not out to ask the question, “which came first, the internet or the stalker?” I’m here to talk about how we’ve always been, well, creepy, when it comes to our interpersonal relationships and that  media is now making it a lot easier.

Social media has definitely changed the landscape of our relationships; it has eradicated the geographical barriers of privacy.  Whereas once stalking was reserved for the (presumably) criminally insane, it is now utilized (in varying degrees) by millions of SNS users.  Once again, I’m not referring to stalking in illegal terms necessarily, it can also be used in reference to somebody looking through all of their best friend’s photo albums online (all 147 of them).  What really got me interested in this subject is not only knowing avid “Facebook stalkers” (who I also like to call girls), but was the discovery of Tweetstalk. Tweetstalk is a social media tool that allows people to stalk people’s profiles on twitter without having to follow them.  I found this very interesting that 1) this app exists anyways because relationships on Twitter do NOT have to be mutual and 2) that the name of the app itself is referring to the tendency users of technology have to silently stalk people.

In “Why Facebook Breeds Voyeurism” a user named Rachel deleted her Facebook account because she recognized the tendency she had to wasting time stalking people online. Stephen Chukumba then theorized that Facebook allows users to take part in “mass social voyeurism“.  Chukumba’s definition implies that Facebook makes people voyeurs because they can “anonymously sit and watch people broadcast their lives to the world.”  Chukumba also touches upon what I think the cause of Facebook stalking is, people wanting to rejoice in other people’s misery, or decay at somebody else’s success.  Relatively, Facebook stalking is harmless; you find out that your ex-boyfriend has a new girlfriend and (it sucks) but she has flawless skin and a great body, so you look at all of her pictures wondering if you had had her skin he would have stayed with you (pathetic, but not altogether not normal).

So we see that anonymity has become huge in social networking.  In the case of Facebook, it seems to be a by-product of the site itself; you know users, and through interactions with those users you may find other users that you don’t necessarily know but you can stalk with ease.  Nancy Baym talks about the prevalence of anonymity with respect to honesty in her book, Personal Connections in the Digital Age.  While Baym is talking about user participation in social networking sites, as opposed to people who are purposefully stalking user profiles, what she says about anonymity is applicable to both situations: she talks about the “sense of safety” in anonymous sites (116); she found that anonymous users tend to be “socially anxious and lonely” (116); from a psychological standpoint this makes sense; it would seem that the people who spend so much time stalking other people’s profiles or walls probably spend more time on the computer than talking to them in real life.  In fact, that’s what makes the whole cyberstalking thing so creepy; it wouldn’t be that out of the ordinary to talk to somebody who goes to the same school as you, works at the same place that you do, etc, but when replacing mere introductory conversation with hours of Facebook stalking it begs to be asked what has been changed in our interpersonal relationships?  Why do we feel more secure now stalking somebody’s profile that we kind of know as opposed to saying hi, or mentioning that you have mutual friends if you ever see them in person.

I think Baym hits this point when she talks about the ambiguity of the word “friend” in reference to SNS sites.  Baym says that because “friends in SNS can be strangers, admirers, confidants, co-workers, family, and a host of other relationship types, yet all be called the same thing on the site, it triggers inevitable confusion (145).”  It is this ambiguity in the nature of who is truly a friend and who is a mere acquaintance that helped spawned the term “Facebook stalking”; if you were restricted to only being able to connect with people that were without a doubt your real life best friends, then browsing their profiles wouldn’t exactly be stalking.  Stalking is reserved for people who “account for the behaviors of “friends” they barely know” (146.)

This also came up in the movie Life 2.0 which detailed the habits of 3 chronic Second Life users.  One user decided to delete his female avatar Ayya.  When Ayya was saying goodbye to her friends in Second Life, one other avatar was commenting on how upon meeting Ayya she just knew she was a girl and immediately had a strong bond with her.  It is this situational irony that simultaneously makes us laugh and pity the poor avatar.  This avatar was completely deceived by somebody because anonymity online is so easy; it helps us create fake identities, and helps us creep on the identities of others without them knowing.  We laugh off stalking or the stupidity of others who’ve been duped by online liars, but is that okay?  Baym states that the “norms that guide which media people use and for what purposes are still unclear” (149).  We think online stalking is acceptable, but will it always be? Baym says that as societies,”we will surely reach an operational consensus on these matters (149)” but I’m still not so sure.

I Poke You Too: Facebook’s Influence on Relationships

With Valentine’s day just having passed and with a slew of messages of love permeating our social networking sites, it feels fitting to now consider the darker side of social networking sites and their effect on relationships. The Huffington Post article “Facebook Relationship Problems: How Social Networking and Jealousy Affect Your Love Life” from October 2011 examines the popular site and how much it really causes problems in relationships.

The introduction is quick to recognize that the majority of Facebook users use the site as a means of keeping in touch with people or as a concentrated source of information about those we may not communicate with all that often. However, it quickly shifts to citing examples that frame Facebook as a source of relationship-ruining-evil, most commonly spurred by what the author coins “Facebook jealousy,” or the feelings of envy we have when we are presented with information on this social site without full context or explanation from those involved (like when we browse through old photos of our significant other with their ex, or when we see that one of their exes “liked” our status). The articles cited are interesting and take a strong stance against Facebook’s harmlessness in relationships—the 18 year old guy who had an asthma attack sparked by his ex girlfriend’s online “friending” of other males on Facebook, or the frequency with which Facebook flirtations play a part in divorce cases.

The Huffington Post article then cites the most common problems that come about from Facebook, including the extent to which they each share details about their relationship, photos from past relationships, engaging in secretive behavior, or even accepting or maintaining friendships with exes online.

However, this article frames the social media platform in a more clever way than the ones it references, claiming that Facebook is not so much as the reason for relationship turmoil, but rather a vehicle that can amplify preexisting issues with trust and communication that are just further enhanced by the structure of this online system and its permanence; it simply makes existing information more easily accessible (and visual). Especially with the addition of Timeline, a characteristically jealous person can easily navigate and relive their significant other’s past. But the person to be gravely upset by seeing remnants of past relationships online is likely to be the same that would be jealous if he or she stumbled upon an old photograph of their significant other’s ex or ran into them on the street or at a restaurant. Though Facebook may make it easier to seek out this information, it is still dependent on the person viewing the information to process it in a healthy and non-destructive way. As stated in the article, “Facebook isn’t usually the problem. It’s the behaviors that are the problem.”

That statement is complicated by Donath and Boyd, who claim in their research “Public Displays of Connection” that the “main point of social networking sites is to help people make new connections” (77). With such reasoning, one may find sufficient reason to feel suspicious or inadequate if their lover spends more time on Facebook, or accepts new friend requests at a more frequent pace. But is that really a problem with the social media platform, or with our own insecurities?

When considering both this article and the documentary Life 2.0, we can argue both sides of that question. The structure of Life 2.0 sets up its characters as counterparts to their online personas, and shows their favor toward their life online as opposed to their real, physical life, where houses are small and messy, where relationships are subject to fights and miscommunications, where you can’t really just pick up and fly anywhere. The documentary does show background stories about the characters and presents them within the context of their real lives, but it doesn’t delve too far emotionally or psychologically into other events that may have contributed to or driven their behavior on Second Life or their behavior in their real lives and toward their families. Aside from the creator of Ayya, there was little evidence provided as to what may have driven these people to behave as they did online. In contrast, the Huffington Post article draws more parallels between life online and life offline, considering more heavily the counterinfluence those two spheres have on one another. I feel that the framing of the latter provides a more accurate and approachable context under which to examine these behaviors.

Though the article does list out “problems” caused by Facebook, it is clear to articulate that those problems are neither isolated nor omnipresent, but rather appear in conjunction with other more inherent problems that permeate behaviors in all spheres of life. It would have been interesting to have examined cultural differences with regard to Facebook’s integration in relationships as well (I was recently in London and was surprised at how the majority of my friends there did not consider themselves to be in an exclusive relationship unless it was “Facebook official”), though such an angle may have been too broad for this article to encompass.

What it all comes down to, I believe is communication and trust, both online and offline. The two work in conjunction with one another, increasingly so as we incorporate these online spheres into the foundation of our relationships. And really, if you’re not happy and in love offline, no amount of pokes or status likes are going to change that.

 

I, Facebook

This article, which recently appeared on the website of Men’s Health and has spread across Facebook like a wild fire, references a research study presented at a meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. The findings indicate that those who ranked their satisfaction with life after reading their Facebook news feed were much less content with the state of things than those who did not view their friends’ status updates. Researchers also found that happiness declined significantly when users’ friend count exceeded 354 (the “tipping point”). They concluded that because we often judge personal success in comparison to our peers, and Facebook only offers positive self-generated spin of any given person’s circumstances, it hits our self-esteem hard.

This piece positions Facebook in a similar way as that of Second Life in Life 2.0. That is to say, these platforms are deemed absolutely essential to the everyday lives of certain individuals. In the case studies of the film, those individuals either made their living from playing Second Life, were incapable of overcoming repression in the non-virtual world and so turned to Second Life, or engaged in questionable personal relationships in Second Life that may or may not have happy endings. Among the suggestions made by the author of the study in the Men’s Health article, reducing time spent on Facebook or cutting out the social network altogether are not to be found, because apparently those simply aren’t viable options anymore. One must simply try to adjust how their time on Facebook is spent. Try and eliminate the worst of the braggarts, or stick to only the best of your best friends, and hope against hope that someone’s overly positive (and most likely exaggerated) status update won’t send you into a tailspin of depression, denial, anger and self-pity.

The author does not make a definitive judgment as to whether Facebook is causing an entire generation to morph into hot messes with Woody Allen-level neuroses, or whether our already present neuroses have simply integrated themselves into our Facebook use. Nonetheless, I believe that the current state of our social lives being intertwined with social networks is here to stay. That’s not to say it would be impossible to sign off; of course, any of us could choose to press the button (or in the case of Facebook, five separate buttons, over which Facebook will BEG you to stay and remind you that you are welcome back anytime. Kool-Aid, anyone?). But for someone of my generation, a whole host of problems arise when discussion begins of “quitting” Facebook (I use quotes because it actually is quite impossible to have them delete all traces of you without possibility of return).

I am unsure as to whether the discourse surrounding social networks should be one of an addiction and its addicts, or simply another trend or fad that has spread far and wide. This could be attributed to addicts rarely refusing to admit they have a problem. There’s no doubt I’m ashamed of the time I spend on Facebook and other social networks per day, but I also doubt that, barring some incapacitating and horrific accident rendering my fingers unable to type, I am going to decrease time spent online anytime soon. Dan Hoopes“4 Things to Consider Before Deleting Your Facebook Profile” definitely places a point in the pro-addiction theory column. He writes: “Leaving it [Facebook] creates withdrawal not for Facebook itself, but for the aspects of social life it facilitated, and made impossible without it, betting that users will always return just because of the sheer immensity of their existence that is contained within its servers.” The words “sheer immensity of their existence” have haunted me since reading Hoopes’ piece. The amount of time, energy, blood, sweat, tears, stress, anxiety, and money we place into social networks translates into the very essence of us existing solely via these platforms. It’s not even much of a stretch to say we define ourselves (and others) by our social media existence; as I alluded to in my last blog post, it is increasingly the case that if I’m not friends with someone on Facebook (or have at least creeped on their profile), there’s a good chance I’m unaware of their existence entirely. The fact that virtual funerals are held for Second Life avatars points further to the idea that it is a living part of us that exists on these networks.

Hoopes concludes his article by saying, “It’s not that I miss being able to immediately convey any thought or feeling instantly to nearly every person in my life, it’s that I miss the chance, however remote, that they would choose to do the same to me.” Is a mass exodus from social media forthcoming? I think not. I, for one, am far too frightened of the possibilities. I Facebook, therefore I am.

friends, Friends, Facebook friends

Truth.

In 2008, when social network(ing) sites had become one of the most popular ways for people to communicate, scholars danah m. boyd and Nicole B. Ellison, using an academic approach, not only defined social network sites (SNS), but also raised questions regarding SNS that sparked numerous discussions within the academic community. One of the most interesting arguments made was by Dr. David Beer, who challenges numerous points made by boyd and Ellison regarding their definition of SNS and offers his two cents on where he believes future research on SNS should be headed.

One argument Beer makes is regarding boyd and Ellison’s preference over the use of network rather than networking. According to boyd and Ellison, the word networking implies that users are actively initiating relationships with other users and even though this may occur on some SNS, it is not widely practiced enough so they choose to exclude it from their definition believing this decision will broaden the scope of their study. Beer strongly disagrees with the decision and argues that SNS should not be differentiated by whether its prime focus is for creating networks or not; in doing this, boyd and Ellison have made the term SNS too broad. Beer calls for a new classification of these SNS, and rather than blending their differences under a broad term, we should celebrate their differences with more distinct classifications.

In this regard, I have to side with Beer in that classifying all these social sites as SNS do not do them justice. A huge selling point for more unique SNS such as Catster, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and Facebook is that they all bring sometime different to the table. Why else would one person sign up for multiple accounts? And because they are all different, users also behave differently on each site, which is something I think sociologists may miss if they continue to study SNS in the direction that boyd and Ellison point them in. The easiest example of this would be how one acts on LinkedIn. Because LinkedIn is designed especially for people to meet and establish online relationships with professionals, the behavior, including one’s profile, one’s pictures and one’s status updates most likely differ extremely from what they upload on more casual sites such as Facebook.

Is there even a reason to fight?

Another point Beer brings up is boyd and Ellison’s explanation of the difference between friends and Friends. boyd and Ellision define friends as the people one has a relationship with in the offline world and Friends as the people one has a relationship with in the online world. However they do admit that sometimes friends and Friends overlap, but they believe that the friendships formed with Friends are not the same as friendships in the “everyday vernacular sense.” Beer argues that this particular differentiation impacts the general direction of SNS research. It draws a very clear line between our offline lives and our online lives, which is becoming more and more intertwined as more and more users use SNS. Beer also brings up another point in that he believes the very definition of “friend” is changing, in which I couldn’t agree more.

The meaning behind the word “friend” is definitely changing—but not in the way Beer thought it would. Beer believed as we increasingly engaged with SNS, more and more people would be willing to describe what boyd and Ellison call “Friends” as their “friends,” because the meaning behind friend would grow less intimate however I think the opposite effect is actually occurring. For the past few years as we’ve watched our number of friends grow, we’ve grown more detached to our online friends simply because there are too many of them to keep track of. I remember running into a guy from high school last summer who I am still “friends” with on Facebook, but when my mother asked why I didn’t say hello, I told her it was because we weren’t friends, we were just Facebook friends. And as for my “real” friends, it’s come to the point where we’ve realized that SNS don’t compensate for spending time with each in the same room. I’d say we have hit a saturation point where we (or at least I) are unable to part with SNS, but we are aware of how much time we spend on it (too much time) and that we are willing to force ourselves to step back from it by creating games such as cell phone stacking.

The cruelest game ever created.

Pinning Down Our Place in Social Media

David Beer is essentially redirecting traffic in his response to Danah boyd and Nicole Ellison’s article. He recognizes their constructed history of social network sites and their detailed research on the digital revolution, but takes issue with three points. First, he finds their definition of “social media networks” too broad to thoroughly analyze and categorize each site. Instead, using a term like Web 2.0 to describe the “general shift” would allot more space to divide the sites (Beer 519). Second, Beer suggests that boyd and Ellison’s terms, “friend” and “Friend,” are seemingly one in the same. To say that we have online and offline friends, is to downplay the domesticating effects the technologies have had on us. We should be asking how technology changes the concept of friendship over time (Beer 520). Lastly, Beer challenges the author’s position on SNS being unmediated communication, saying that all communication is mediated. Each of these points carries Beer to his core argument. While analyzing SNS from the user “profile” perspective is important, he says we must also understand SNS from the capitalist perspective. Studying the infrastructures and interests behind what we see on the screen (and are naturalized to) is essential to understanding how we, as a consumer-based culture, fit into the business-model. Beer does not want us to become unaware users. Four years have passed…are we aware?

I also find boyd and Ellison’s separation of “friend” (offline) and “Friend” (online) puzzling. If I talk to my best friend Ellen on Facebook, who I met in the physical world, she is still the same person. What has changed is our style of communication, which should drive the categorization instead of the person. It feels like the authors separation has devalued friendship. What happens when I talk to Ellen on Skype or through the phone? Does that mean she has once again changed from being my friend to some other name? Because we can place a veil over our identity and therefore are forced to navigate through authenticity issues, there is a human pull to separate the tangible from the intangible. But the reality is that these sites are places where meaningful and strong friendships are made. We have created new norms for ourselves. As Boyd says, we should spend time asking how the concept of friendship has changed (for good and bad) because of these mediums (520).

Picture a Venn Diagram. You have your strictly face-to-face connections. You have your strictly online connections. And in-between, you have those that overlap. Whether we call them friends, Friends, FRIENDS, etc. is rather tangential.

Reading Beer’s piece reminded me that every time I log in on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest, I take on the role of the consumer. I feed into a capitalistic business model, where advertisements flood my screen and creepily (I might add), display the products I was thinking about 2 hours ago.

One of my favorite social networking sites is Pinterest. This site challenges boyd and Ellison’s broad category of social network sites. It posses characteristics of both “network” and “networking,” showcasing that with the constant stream of new applications, one cannot fit a square peg into a round hole. Anyways, until I read Beer’s article, I was rather ignorant to the simple fact that every one of my “inspiration boards” is an advertisement for some recipe, magazine, photographer, blogger, destination, etc. But I don’t necessarily have that “Gotcha!” feeling. It’s not a trick or a trap that Beer explains, but a true awareness to the capitalistic motive – a perspective that may for some change their usage, and for others result in nothing.  In an article, the co-founder of Pinterest, Ben Silvermann, said his inspiration to start the site came from his love of collecting and his desire to help people connect based on common interests. This seems to be his agenda, but should I be led to think otherwise? Should I question how the site is used for business or how it profiles users like myself?

 The glitch I see in Beer’s argument is that users of Linked In, Facebook, Twitter, etc. are too entrenched in the use of the site and what it offers them. They are busy making connections and posting pictures. They are consumed with how their twitter draws traffic to their blog. Do they really care about third parties and capitalistic agendas? If the advertisements on the side of Facebook make shopping that much quicker, what would lead us to speculate otherwise? Either these very conveniences are a disguise that capitalism hides behind or we are simply too stuck inside to see the bigger picture.

I think scholars should approach the study of social media in two ways. First to understand how our use of social media has impacted and furthered our capitalistic endeavors. And second to understand why we are so engrossed with these sites. In an essay in the NYT, author Jonathan Franzen discusses, with much sarcasm, the “like” button on Facebook. The button serves as a “consumer choice,” merely “commercial culture’s substitute for loving.” He suggests that the products we use to access these social media are “enablers of narcissism,” driving us into a bottomless pit of expectations that we struggle to meet in the physical world. The “sexy Facebook interface” does something to us. What if scholars pinpointed it? Why are our online lives designed to mask our imperfections? Do we seek approval online because we fail to offline? Do we create outrageous pinboards on Pinterest to please others or ourselves? Is social media a catalyst for competition? We can’t forget that after all, humans are the designers…

If we look into this mirror, what do we see?

Picture via Franzen NYT article

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.