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