Barely Scraping the Surface

Jennifer Mattern’s article, “Is Social Media Killing Personal Relationships?,” gives us a quick general overview of her opinion on how social media affects relationships. She gives both good and bad ways in which social network sites (SNS) have affected her own, personal relationships based on mere observation and usage. She suggests that closer relationships are maintained through more personal and private conduits, while more casual relationships are dealt with through social media.

I see many flaws in Mattern’s article. First of all, she uses her own personal experience, which I guess can technically be considered “participant observation,” but she leaves out the observation part and uses her “best guess” about how other people use social media. Her guess is that most people use SNS the same way as she does. Already off to a wrong start! However, I do understand that her article isn’t research-based and she is merely putting her opinion out there, but I think any opinion needs some valid evidence and not only assumptions. I will give her this though—she did a good job of surveying her readers about their thoughts and experiences, though her audience may be a little biased towards her opinions since they all are from the same or similar network.

I believe Mattern’s article could have been made stronger and a lot more though-provoking if she had reached out and fished for people who had stories about more successful and fulfilling online relationships than offline ones. A good source would be people who have gotten married after meeting on SNS or dating websites, or even just articles about online-turned-offline relationships. Any sort of general probing outside of her own experience and thoughts would have led her to make stronger arguments for either side of her topic.

Moreover, Mattern states that her deeper relationships were generally maintained through email, the phone, personal contact and snail mail, which brings up the issue of privatized vs. publicized relationships that I wish she would have explored a little more. In comparison, the film, Life 2.0, does a great job of showing a variety of accounts of the differences between online and offline relationships. Even though the film did try to show Second Life members as “weirdos” who do not really have a great grasp on reality, it does capture all of the personas that a member possesses—the person behind the computer screen, on the computer screen and away from the computer screen (interacting in the real world). Perhaps people online act differently than they would offline, hence creating deeper or shallower relationships online. Perhaps people create whole new identities online, rendering any relationship they are involved in “fake” or not genuine and unable to be transferred to the real world. Mattern takes a very technologically deterministic view of social media (Nancy Baym). She says that “social media makes it easy to get to the point and move on. And it makes it easy to provide so much “fluff” information that information overload results and you just don’t care enough to want to know more mundane things about a person’s life. So you don’t reach deeper when communicating.” In the cases we saw in Life 2.0, it seems to be the complete opposite when we’re shown how invested people become in their online relationships, even to the point where they become part of each others’ realities. Sometimes the comfort of hiding behind a screen and anonymity allows a person to open up and “reach deeper when communicating.” Mattern seems to neglect all the different types of users there are out there, and though Life 2.0 is biased and exploits the negative aspects of becoming a heavy SNS user, the film shows us three very different accounts of users and their relationship to both the online and offline worlds.

Though Mattern’s piece is meant to focus on personal relationships, she completely disregards the one thing that links two individuals together—community. In Baym’s book, Personal Connections in the Digital Age, she says that communities are based upon shared practices, space, resources, identities and support, and the interpersonal relationships within them. In conjunction, Danah Boyd writes in her article that “the architetcture of unmediated social spaces, these sites introduce an environment that is quite unlike that with which we are accustomed.” Mattern should have taken another view and seen how communities online and offline differed and maybe seen how that might have some effect on personal relationships because the two worlds are very different social playgrounds. I understand that her article had no intent on being a research piece, but if I were to rewrite an article with a more compelling argument, I would look into many different aspects of personal relationships.

Beer vs. boyd & Ellison vs. me

Beer’s response to boyd and Ellison’s article was composed of three arguments. First, he says that using “social network sites” was too broad of a term for all sites that boyd and Ellison consider to be SNS. He warns that using too broad of a term is too safe and would only make studying social media more difficult, as different platforms have different elements that make them distinct. Beer suggests that using more narrow terms would allow us to “work towards a more descriptive analysis” (Beer 518). Secondly, Beer criticizes boyd and Ellison for separating online and offline friends. He argues that they are inseparable because “young people grow up and are informed by the connections they make on SNS” (Beer 520). Lastly, Beer points out that many of boyd and Ellison’s questions may be answered by simply making social media a part of their every day lives. He continues to say that the concept of capitalism cannot be disregarded. He says that it has “sunk into the background as a sort of analytic given with no or little explanatory sociological purchase,” but capitalism has all the influence on a consumer’s actions as a consumer’s actions in social media has on capitalism (Beer 524).

Though sometimes unnecessarily lengthy, Beer’s article offers a reasonable critique of boyd and Ellison’s piece. I agree that we shouldn’t describe every social media site as an SNS, but I don’t think what we coin social media sites really matter. We all have an implicit understanding of what a social network site entails and have in common—members that form a network. From that simplistic core defining factor, we can branch off and study more specific elements that differentiate each site from one another. Frankly, I think he makes too big of a deal about the name boyd and Ellison chose. Additionally, boyd and Ellison were right to make the distinction between social network and social networking sites, because networking does imply individual instigation.

When it comes to online and offline friends, I fall somewhere in the middle of Beer’s and b&E’s arguments. It’s hard to generalize that all online relationships are like or unlike offline relationships. Online and offline relationships depend on circumstance. They can often resemble real, offline relationships, but  they often do not. For instance, I have plenty of friends on Facebook who I’ve only met once or talked to a couple of times. However, I am much more comfortable just randomly chatting with them on FB than I would be doing so in real life. Facebook is able to mediate these undeveloped real-life relationships because it enables us to feel comfortable with creating a new relationship in an old, familiar space. These relationships, however, don’t necessarily transfer to your offline life because they are sporadic and almost always intrinsically meaningless. Perhaps we need to develop genres for different types of relationships (real life close friends, real life acquaintances, strictly online friends, friends of friends, etc.) and study social media on a genre-by-genre basis to understand online and offline interactions more accurately.

I absolutely agree with Beer when he argues that we need to participate in social media to really understand it. Pure observation does no good because you won’t be able to grasp why someone would “like” or “retweet” something if you haven’t had that impulse to do so yourself. Considering capitalism in social media studies is also crucial because we are a highly consumer-driven society, and we, as “netizens,” have become marketable products. The information that we inadvertently “sell” to social media data analyzers is in turn fed back to us, which we spit back out again to those marketers, making it a cyclical process revved by our capitalistic mindsets.

Beyond Beer’s criticisms, I think that boyd and Ellison should examine the types of users that SNS draw in and what their reasoning for joining is, as that may speak to the cultural need the site is fulfilling. Facebook may drive people to its site because it keeps members connected with almost everyone they know or may have met. Twitter promotes people who like to share their entire lives with others to do so and has also become a medium in which we can get news that we couldn’t have possibly gotten in any other way before. LinkedIn allows you to actually network and stay connected with useful contacts that can help in developing your career. All of these sites help mediate your relationship with people who you know or know of in the real world. But what about the “other” types of social networks such as Second Life, which is quite literally an online world, different from ours, in which you can be whomever or whatever you want?

What kind of social purpose do those type of sites fulfill? Can those sites be considered SNS because they do form very large networks of people? Or does SNS need to resemble some sort of relation to the real world and real social circumstances? While Beer believes b&E’s argument is perhaps too broad, I believe it may be too narrow and should extend to include all types of social media, mainstream or not.