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.