in which I challenge danah boyd and Nicole Ellison to a semantic wrestling match

boyd, danah and Nicole Ellison. “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13.1 (2007): Article 11. n. pag. 28 January 2012. 


True confession: I didn’t even reread this piece before I wrote this response. THAT’S how well I know it. And it’s a good thing, too, because man did this ever take me a long time to write. 

Since 2009, I have probably read this article nine or ten times, and I find it to be a terrific and important history of how social networking as we know it today came to be. But it is the definition, seemingly the simplest and certainly the shortest part of the article, that I have been stumbling over for three years. I can’t get entirely on board with their take on what social network sites are because, like off-the-rack clothing, it is too baggy in some places and too restrictive in others. But neither am I willing to get entirely off board–even that looseness and tightness is useful. And so, before taking up any of boyd’s other work, I’d like to attempt to articulate my reservations.

There are essentially two parts to the definition the boyd and Ellison provide. The first defines the apparatus that makes a site qualify as an SNS:

Web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile 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 the system.

That is, for something to be an SNS, users have to be able to make their own profiles and friend lists and search through those made by others. Pretty basic, no? Under this large and capacious umbrella, not only sites like Facebook and Twitter but also those like photo-sharing site flickr, Flash gaming site Kongregate, and (of course) Jezebel count as social network sites.

And in some ways, this is terrific—the openness of the definition provides us with the ability to constellate seemingly disparate sites based on a key affordance that shapes the ways in which users can interact with the site and with each other. Identifying a social networking functionality tells us something about a site, whether or not that site is primarily intended for social networking.

My issue is this: while B&E’s definition is broad enough to draw a connection, it is too broad to draw many conclusions. This problem manifests itself in what I consider the second part of the definition when boyd and Ellison explain their choice to use the term social network rather than the participial social networking: on the whole, they say, these sites are not for making new connections but for mapping those that already exist. Yet this is not the case on many sites where the social networking function is secondary.

When I first began wrestling with this issue, I found it useful to distinguish between social network sites and what I termed sites of social networking—this, I hoped, would allow us to embrace B&E’s definition as an articulation of the apparatus of social networking while leaving room for nuance in its function on the sites themselves. On these sites of social networking, offline connections are generally the exception rather than the rule, and connections may be made for a number of reasons having nothing to do with mapping. Perhaps being “friends” with a commenter allows you to be notified when they post a comment, for instance, or maybe you want to make connections with other avid gamers and their friends to assist you in forming a guild. 

On Jezebel, the act of “hearting” someone (akin to “following” on Twitter) can be done anonymously and at any time. Often, however, hearting is announced as a rhetorical stamp of approval following a comment that resonates particularly well: “hearted!”; “I wish I hadn’t already hearted you, so I could heart you again for that comment!”; I don’t know why I haven’t hearted you before now, but here we go!” In these cases, I would argue, adding a friend is not reflective but actually generative—the connection between two people didn’t exist (or was fundamentally different) until it was articulated.

Upon further reflection, however, I don’t think that the line between “social network sites” and “sites of social networking” is the right one to draw in this particular case. Suppose, for instance, that my best friend joins Jezebel. I will add her to my friends list, but it won’t have the same weight as being added by a stranger. Or imagine meeting a stranger at a party, or at a conference, or on a long airplane flight. While technically adding him or her as a friend on Facebook is simply articulating the connection you have made, I would argue that in this case, too, the act is generative, changing the relationship from what it was before the little “+ friend” button was clicked.  It tells them: 

  • I trust you with my personal information
  • I would like to have you associated with me on my profile
  • I think you are interesting enough to want to have your updates appearing in my newsfeed
  • We are more than “people who met that one time”

If you have run into someone at social gatherings six times and on the seventh you add her as a friend on Facebook? That changes something.

So I would argue that the real distinction to make between scenarios in which B&E’s characterization does and does not apply is not a matter of the kind of site people are on but of the kind of tie between them. With strong ties, being friends may be only a matter of creating traces of an existing connection, but with weak ties, that act is creative and/or transformational.

Boyd’s research in particular focuses on how identity functions (and is a function of) social network sites—a concern that I’d argue is almost entirely missing when social networking is a secondary function. Increasingly, in fact, adding or removing people on your friends list is less about shaping an outward-directed identity and more about curating an inward-directed flow of information, a la Twitter or the Facebook newsfeed.


Also: stalking!

(Definitely a topic for another day, but even the act of “liking” a band or movie on Facebook is now less about personal taste and more about access—to sales, exclusive content, etc. When I see that my friends “like”, I don’t think that it is such an important part of their being that they choose to represent themselves with that association. Rather, I assume there was some sort of giveaway, and they had to like Amazon’s facebook page in order to enter. )

Obviously, it is five years after this definition was written, and a lot has changed in the meantime. And I certainly don’t mean to suggest that it isn’t a useful of looking at social network sites—obviously, I just wrote 1,000 words grappling with the extent to which it is or isn’t valid. Even boyd herself in her other scholarship talks about people friending people they don’t know and collecting people “like baseball cards.” I just think it’s important to tease out some ways in which the definition can be refined to have more utility in the ever-changing cyber landscape.  

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One Response to in which I challenge danah boyd and Nicole Ellison to a semantic wrestling match

  1. nicole ellison says:

    Hi! I enjoyed reading this. danah and I do have a chapter coming out soon where we revisit our 2007 definition in light of current social and technical developments.

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