How Should We ‘Follow’ Social Networks?

In his article “Social network(ing) sites…revisiting the story so far: A response to danah boyd and Nicole Ellison,” Dr. David Beer provides a criticism of boyd and Ellison’s article on Social Network Sites. Some of his main issues with their initial analysis of Social Network Sites include that using the term Social Network Sites as something similar and yet distinct from Social Networking Sites is problematic, as it is too broad a category for such a topic. This, he argues, leads to a limit on how closely the SNS can be studied. Another issue Beer finds is that boyd and Ellison consider the online and offline worlds as two separate arenas, whereas he feels that the two are continuously merging together more and more. Along with this, Beer finds that considering situations in the ‘offline world’ to be unmediated, whereas all interactions are mediated in some way. Finally, Beer goes on to discuss how SNS should be studied in the future. He feels that researchers need to become more involved in the SNS to have more of an understanding of who is using them and how, and believes that SNS need to be understood as a player in the world of capitalism above all else, as the data these companies collect is highly valuable.

While boyd and Ellison’s article is quite thorough, Beer makes several valid observations here. For instance, the idea of taking the online and offline world as two completely separate concepts is a fairly bold concept from boyd and Ellison, and Beer’s point that these two worlds are actually quite connected is very much true. While I think it is still important to consider differences in how people present themselves in online versus offline situations, researchers should also think about those in between times, such as when a person is at a concert with friends and uploading a picture to Facebook. Should this be considered an online or offline moment? Regardless, Beer does make a very valid point that there are essentially no interactions that are in some way mediated. The great sociologist Erving Goffman would certainly agree with this, as he points to the metaphor of the ‘self’ as something represented on stage for the public in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. With this in mind, it is quite surprising that boyd and Ellison would consider such a claim that there could be ‘unmediated interactions.’

Since this response was written in 2008, the iPhone had been released just a few months earlier, and Twitter was just starting to catch on. Along with a slew of other new products and platforms, these clearly changed the way many people interact with the offline world. Nowadays, people are constantly checking their phones to see what their friends are up to and to share their own thoughts and experiences online. In fact, the urge to Tweet or check emails has been found to be more addictive than smoking or alcohol. While this may have been the case with email back in 2008, the penetration of smartphones in the US, although still not the majority, has undoubtedly led to an increase of this. I think this blur between the online and offline world should be something that scholars should focus on while studying social networks: how people act when they are participating in both ‘worlds’ at the same time.

Another important discourse I think scholars should pay attention to when studying social media is that of the capitalist nature of SNS. As users become more and more concerned about what is being done with their data and how these sites are making money (Facebook even released a page explaining how it all works), the privacy anxiety that comes with the capitalist aspect is very interesting. Aside from the methods Beer, boyd, and Ellison mention, I think a study of why people migrate between SNS can reveal a significant amount about why people use the sites, and what they expect from them. For instance, a recent study has shown that many teens are leaving Facebook for Twitter, often for privacy issues. A more in-depth look into this could show why these shifts among networks happen, and how popular culture decides which ones are ‘cool’ (we all remember what happened to Myspace).

Obviously social media will continue to change, but studying the types of networks people use and why should provide an insight into how social people really want to be with their SNS. It will also shed light on how big of an issue privacy, authenticity, and other matters are for users.