SNS: Looking At The Bigger Picture

In their article, danah boyd and Nicole Ellison inform the reader of all things social network.  They define “social network sites,” give plenty of examples throughout history, and shed light on studies surrounding these sites.  David Beer responded to boyd and Ellison’s article critiquing the questions that arose in their writing and suggesting alternative areas of SNSs that should be paid more analytical attention.

To begin with, Beer does not think an emphasis should be put on boyd and Ellison’s distinction between “social network sites” and “social networking sites.” Boyd and Ellison say that “social network sites” should be the terminology used, since people “are primarily communicating with people who are already a part of their extended social networks” and therefore are not “networking” with strangers (boyd and Ellison 211). Beer says although this differentiation is true, it should not be focused on, and instead categorization of sites within a broad term, such as “Web 2.0” should be utilized (Beer 519).  I tend to agree with Beer.  Boyd and Ellison’s argument seemed a bit insignificant, and even when I read Beer’s classifications, such as “wiki’s, folksonomies, mashups, and social networking sites,” the organization of what was to be studied already seemed clearer than the confusing “networking” matter (Beer 519).

Another topic that Beer critiques is boyd and Ellison’s separation of online and offline living, and the difference between Friends and friends. Boyd states, “Friends on SNSs are not the same as “friends” in the everyday sense” (boyd and Ellison 220).  Beer disagrees with this assumption.  He believes, “we cannot think of friendship on SNS as entirely different and disconnected from our actual friends and notions of friendship, particularly as young people grow up and are informed by the connections they make on SNS” (Beer 520). I completely agree with Beer, especially in today’s world where children are growing up with technology in their lives as opposed to being introduced to it in the middle of their teen/young adult years.  The usage of social media has become second nature in today’s culture, and I think today’s relationships online are just as “real” as relationships offline.  I would even go as far as saying online relationships could be more “real” than offline ones, because of the easy accessibility, mobility, and permanence of social media platforms. Of course this can be refuted with SNS “flaws” such as lack of authenticity and elimination of face-to-face social cues, but overall online and offline relationships are both substantial in their own ways, and often enhance one another, eliminating the divide between Friends and friends.  To make matters more complicated, I definitely think there are different categories of friends in the online world, as presented by this diagram by Mike Arauz.

Perhaps scholars could delve into this topic more. I would find it very interesting to see if they agree or disagree with these classifications.

Beer is also keen on taking a capitalistic approach at studying SNS.  Beer says that SNS users’ information is being, “used to predict things about us, to find us out with recommendations, or even to discriminate between us as customers” (Beer 525).  Beer is adamant that scholars are aware of this fact SNS are used as data sources and can be manipulated by users so they are “treated favourably” in a capitalistic sense (Beer 525).  Beer says all of this with a quite wary tone, yet I don’t seem to understand why.  As long as no privacy barriers are crossed isn’t this capitalist-consumer SNS relationship a good thing? Businesses are able to target niche audiences and consumers will encounter advertising that caters specifically to them.  I know that I personally like picking a commercial that is more suitable for me when I’m watching a TV show on Hulu, I will occasionally click on a band that is advertised on the side of my Facebook profile, or I’ll even check out a promoted tweet on Twitter. No matter how private one’s profile is, I think SNS users are aware that the Internet is indeed a public forum, and the information published on it can be used in a myriad of ways.

Overall, I like Beer’s broader questions about social media.  Boyd and Ellison do a good job at analyzing the platforms themselves, but what about the people that use them? What does the way people utilizing SNS say about society? Social media has become so engrained in today’s culture that we must not study it as an entity separate from daily life, but as an ingredient and indicator within it.

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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.