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.

Why can’t we be friends?

David Beer, in his response, revisits the story posed by danah boyd and Nicole Ellison in their article about the definition, history, and study of social network sites. From the start, boyd and Ellison define the difference between a social network site and a social network-ing site. Choosing to employ and look into the social network sites alone, boyd and Ellison disregard the networking sites saying, “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 (CMS).” Beer has real contention with this distinction stating, “Whereas the term ‘social networking sites’ describes something particular, a set of applications where, to a certain extent, networking is the main preoccupation.” Beer wants to create a less distinction between these sites and redefine what SNSs are in a diversely mediated world. boyd and Ellison went on to assert, “‘Friends’ on SNSs are not the same as ‘friends’ in the everyday sense; instead, Friends provide context by offering users an imagined audience to guide behavioral norms.” Beer takes great issue with their distinction and separation of an online and offline life. He says, “The problem is that increasingly, in the context of SNS moving into the cultural mainstream, the ‘everyday’ sense of a friend can often be the SNS Friend.”

The virtual world very much coincides with the physical world. Not a day a goes by when someone does not ask you, “Did you see that on Facebook?” It has entered into our daily conversations and we do not even separate from our physical world interactions. The idea of a Friendship has been redefined by SNSs but not totally changed, just enhanced. We have been able to maintain friendships from our past on SNS that we would be unable to do in the past. Forget looking in the phone book for an old classmates number, we now can use a multitude of outlets to reconnect with an old friend (or sometimes enemy) to just check in and say hello or even to rekindle a relationship gone by. Baffled by the idea of creating such an extensive Friends list, my parents tend to ask me, “Do you really have that many friends?”. Would I invite them all to a party? Probably not. But would I have invited them at different points in my life? Probably. They were all my friends, classmates, acquaintances at some moment. By adding them to my SNS, it allows me the opportunity to maintain friendships with those I choose to and merely keep track on our “friends”. The need to know what is going on is others’ lives is sometimes considered nosy but if the technology allows, we build networks on various platforms to quench our curiosity.

Conversely, these SNSs have the power to take established physical world, lower-case, friendships and completely destroy them. Whether we find incriminating information or catch our Friend in a lie, the information we share on SNSs can really affect our physical relationships. When we hit send, we are blind to the fact that whatever we just put out into the online world can reemerge in our offline world with completely radical consequences. We all have that friend that broke up over Facebook. Facebook’s “unFriend” button has a great power that enables us users to end Friendships and friendships without the awkard harm of letting someone down in person. However the power of Facebook and other SNSs allows people, who would maybe just pass each other by on the street, the opportunity to connect, start a Friendship, develop it into a friendship, and, with the luckiest cases, start a relationship.

Beer looks to redefine the idea of social network(ing) sites in an appropriate and progressive manor. boyd and Ellison do not see the full extent to which SNSs have given users power and the variety of functions users operate SNSs for. Social media continues to change in its technology, its platforms, and its usage. The approach to the study of these social media should be one that examines the online world’s affect and connection to the offline world, and how these two worlds, in combination, shape our society. With every social media platform I engage with, I now begin to question my motivation for engaging with the site. Am I just extending my physical, offline, relationships into a digital sphere? Or am I looking to escape and create a new online network? Either way, SNSs provide different users with different outcomes. Our reality is shaped by our own perceptions, and how we use the social media will shape our criticism of them.

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.