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.

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SNSs in the Real World

In his 2008 article “Social Network(ing) Sites… Revisiting the Story So Far: A Response to Danah Boyd and Nicole Ellison,” Dr. David Beer “revisits” Boyd and Ellison’s work just long enough to criticize their framing of and sociological argument surrounding Social Networking Sites. The first point Beer claims is problematic is Boyd & Ellison’s distinction between social networks and social networking sites. Boyd & Ellison list certain criteria that classify a website as a social network site; it must allow individuals to create a profile, to create and display their online connections, and to be able to view both their networks and those of others on the site (Boyd & Ellison 211). However, they designate a fine line between a social network and a social networking site, defining the latter as communication that emphasizes “relationship initiation,” or meeting strangers rather than navigating and enhancing one’s existing social sphere (Boyd & Ellison 211). Beer claims that the way Boyd & Ellison define social network sites is too broad and that social networking sites are driven and bound by a more specific and inherent purpose–that of networking.

Where my opinions align most with Beer’s criticisms of Boyd & Ellison is in their distinction between users’ offline ‘friends’ and the separate sphere of their online ‘Friends,’ which allows for limited crossover between the two (Beer 520). But with the ever-increasing development of online presences, it becomes almost impossible to define a universal standard regarding the status of friends met or maintained in the online realm. Boyd & Ellison’s definition  may actually hold true for some. By framing one’s own meaning of an online ‘Friendship’ as one that exists purely in that online environment, users may find this friend base an escape from the responsibilities that come hand-in-hand with having traditional ‘friends.’ The structure of the medium allows for excuses and flakiness that simply wouldn’t make sense in the context of a physical friendship: my wifi was down, I didn’t see your message, I forgot my password; whether we’ve uttered these phrases before or been on the (often frustrating) receiving end of the message, they often pervade social relationships online. But does the convenience of forging these online relationships (or letting them fall apart) mean that those people with whom you communicate online aren’t a part of your “real” world and your “real” circle of friends? Or is it simply another outlet and a way for you to cultivate relationships that aren’t bound by physical constraints?
photo via http://tinyurl.com/86v8zlg

Beer argues against Boyd and Ellison, claiming that the notion of having friends online has become domesticated into our cultural realm of what constitutes a relationship, and arguing instead that SNSs complicate the whole concept of friendship (Beer 520). I think his argument displays a far better grasp of the cultural context in which SNSs exist today, in a world in which we endlessly read into comments posted on our YouTube videos, or the 140 character messages that are tweeted at us, or even the act of someone “liking”–or worse, not “liking”–our Facebook status. As much as I hate to admit that I compulsively engage in those activities, I think it helps demonstrate the complexity of the media and how they can be just as important (and over-analyzed) as real-life interations–like the exact time it took them to reply to my text message and how many words that reply was, or even one so simple as whether or not they said “hi” when we made awkward eye contact walking down 7th St. I really think these are just compulsions that come naturally to us, as technologically connected, social media mavens in our twenties.

photo via fuckiminmy20s.tumblr.com

In addition, my experience with SNSs is directly influenced by my individuality–I live in New York City, I am pursuing a career in media, and I love talking about myself and sharing my experiences… and adorable videos of my pets. No other individual can or will approach SNSs from exactly the same way. Just as Beer argues that all communication is mediated (through personal filters, interests, and prejudices), so is the very text he writes. My biggest critique of both texts is their inability to represent the various lenses through which different people examine and participate in social media. The flaws in their specificity are apparent when new social media platforms (or uses for these platforms) arise, and the arguments made by these articles have little relevance to them. Since Beer wrote his article in 2008, SNSs have been further domesticated into our society and our relationships. Not only do we use SNSs on a personal level, but they have expanded to businesses as well. Whether it’s a small neighborhood cupcake shop or a multimillion dollar corporation, it is becoming increasingly expected for businesses to integrate Facebook pages and/or Twitters into their business models in order to encourage conversation among their patrons. How do expansions like this fit into the structures crafted by Boyd & Ellison and Dr. Beer?

I think the most important thing to consider when approaching the subject of social media from a scholarly point of view is to recognize that changes in society, in technology, and in the interactions between the two are really the forces that will dictate the framework of SNSs. We can write about them as much as we want, but the interactions we engage in and the relationships we have both online and offline are what will continue to shape the inherent nature of our social interactions, both online and offline.

SNS: Marketing on a Personal level?

In his article, “Social network(ing) sites…revisiting the story so far,” Dr. David Beer claims that while boyd and Ellison’s article brings up the issue of social media and attempts to clarify the difference between “social network sites” and “social networking sites” (or SNSs), they fail to ask the right questions concerning social media. Beer believes that due to the ever-shifting online culture, social media is becoming too broad, making a “differentiated typology of [these] various user-generated web applications more problematic” (Beer 519). His second issue with the boyd and Ellison article is the distinction between online friends and offline friends. Beer argues that friendships online are no different from our offline friends and that we shouldn’t think of the two as “disconnected” (Beer 520). Beer also disagrees with the issue of unmediated and mediated communication. He believes that all communication is mediated in some way. Finally Beer feels that instead of focusing on individual users should focus on the economic structure of these SNSs. By failing to critique these sites, Beer fears that our society will become unwittingly domesticated with the various types of social media.

Although both articles bring up very important points about social media, I agreed with a lot of Beer’s responses. While the broad distinction between social network sites and social networking sites was helpful, I believe that it is almost impossible to categorize one site as a social network site and not a social networking site. Take for example Facebook, while it can be labeled as a social network site due to the privacy settings, the bidirectional ties and the ability to control visibility and access to your profile, it can also be considered a social networking site. Take this photo:

This is the Gramercy Green Residence Hall group. Although I’m not “Friends” with a majority of this facebook group, I can still contact them because we have a common network. Through this page, the Gramercy residents can ask to borrow certain objects (such as a printer, a textbook, and cooking utensils), sell their old textbooks, search for lost items or simply find someone to talk to. In this way, users can still meet new people online and expand their own networks.

I also agreed with his argument about the distinctions between “friends” and “Friends”. Most of my “Friends” are friends that I have made in the physical world and I only accept friend requests or request to be friends with people whom I’ve met in the physical world. While it’s true that some of my “Friends” are people I’ve met only once, I can say that I would probably recognize a majority of them.

Finally, Beer brings up the economic structure of the SNSs and how they use the information they obtain from users to provide personalized ads.

I admit, I’m a huge fan of games whether they’re on my iPhone or my facebook and because I play a lot of different games, Facebook will then suggest possible games that I might be interested in. Usually Facebook suggests these games because they are either similar to the games that I’m playing now or because my friends are playing the same game. For example, when I was playing Restaurant City, I kept getting suggestions and ads to start playing Café city and other restaurant related games. It’s the same with Youtube, but with videos. SNS keeps track of your recent activity then caters to your “likes” or “dislikes” and through your preferences, they find ads that they think you’ll click.

I feel like SNSs are becoming, in a sense, a marketing scheme. It seems perfect. You create a profile so the site already knows what you like and what you dislike. As you continue to use the site, the site gets more information about you. Through the SNS, different companies and advertisers can target what you like and provide ads that you will be interested in. For example, while watching TV shows online during the commercial breaks they ask you (in the upper right hand corner) if the ad is relevant to you in any way. If the ad isn’t then they replace it with something else.

 

After I clicked no:

While social media does provide us with excellent ways to stay connected, I feel like they are also another platform for media to bombard us with ads, which raises the question: Are the SNS made to help us maintain connections and create networks or are they made to provide to expand the reach of the consumeristic culture and cater marketing to our personal tastes?