danah boyd talks SNS norms and identity (3 times)

boyd, danah. “None of this is Real.” Structures of Participation in Digital Culture. Ed. Joe Karaganis. New York: Social Science Research Council, 2008. 132–157. Print.

boyd, danah. “Friends, Friendsters, and MySpace Top 8: Writing Community Into Being on Social Network Sites.” First Monday. 11.12 (2006): n. pag. Web. 28 January 2012.

boyd, danah. “The Significance of Social Software.” BlogTalks Reloaded: Social Software Research & Cases. Thomas N. Burg and Jan Schmidt, eds. Norderstedt, 2007. 15-30. Print.


First: “Digital networks will never merely map the social but will inevitably develop their own dynamics through which they become the social.” THIS WOULD HAVE BEEN NICE TO PUT IN YOUR DEFINITION ARTICLE, DanBo!

Anyway. These three articles cover much of the same information, so I am going to address them together. The main takeaway of all three, I would say, is that if you have a functional and populated social network site, it can be very difficult to scale it up. Doing so too quickly disrupts the norms that have been established by early adopters, and even at a steady pace, the audience eventually becomes so diverse that impression management is difficult, particularly when others’ participation affects your own identity presentation.

More specifically, in “The Significance of Social Software,” boyd argues that social software is not just a set of technologies, but a set of technological goals—a mindset, a kind of practice.  Social software is people-centered rather than commerce-centered, and intentionally or not, it is controlled largely by the users, who utilize the affordances to meet their own needs rather than those of the site developers.

Boyd highlights Friendster and MySpace as emblematic of social software developers’ movement away from pre-packaged, usability-tested and perfected software to the eternal beta test, in which the “shitty first draft” is released to the world and peppered with updates and changes following public response. At Friendster, users had to work within the system as it was laid out by the developers. With MySpace, however, consumers had become a part of the process of design—it was a matter of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what stuck. Early adopters were therefore not just the people who were there first, but the users whose agendas and desires literally shaped the architecture of the space they inhabited.

A major point that boyd makes is that norms spread through networks. As long as only a few people join a given network at a time, everything is stable—when most members of a community are oldtimers (or at least are there for the same purpose), it is easy enough to socialize newcomers into How Things Are Done. If growth is too fast, however, the carefully moderated norms are disrupted in an influx of barbarians, as when Flickr was sold to Yahoo! and the press garnered a flood of new users who disrupted the experience of the early adopters.

Boyd points out that Friendster was originally populated by a few distinct groups (Burning Man attendees, gay men, and bloggers), but because each group grew organically through member networks, for a long time they remained relatively isolated from each other, each feeling that the network “belonged” to them. As a result, conventions emerged so that the individual profiles within the groups tended to resemble each other heavily—particular kinds of profile photos, particular kinds of names, etc. Because the community was assumed to be homogenous, the choices members made were tailored to a singular audience. When networks expanded enough, however, the gay Burner bloggers faced a collision of their worlds, and choosing how to present themselves was no longer a simple matter. Once people had multiple kinds of relationships in the same social network, their identity performances became disrupted. It didn’t help that these networks tend to flatten all relationships under the label of “friend.” Indeed, boyd tells an anecdote about how a particular constellation of profile information caused someone to assume she was a porn actress—her own information combined with that of her networked friends to send the wrong impression. 

The private owners of these spaces are not always thrilled to see their intentions thwarted by the users. While MySpace has historically been pretty game for user manipulation, Friendster (and now Facebook) has a much more rigid set of written and architectural guidelines for acceptable practice. Friendster opposed the idea of “non-authentic” self-representations and fake profiles because it seemed to them to undermine the credibility of what they were trying to offer. Unfortunately for them, consumers weren’t interested in a strictly enforced arbiter of identity—they wanted to play, or at the very least, to resist the kind of identity performance Friendster had envisioned. When the site owners and the site users had different agendas, inevitable conflicts led to an atmosphere of anger and paranoia; most users eventually decamped to MySpace.


Because social network sites do not provide physical walls for context, the context that users create is through their choice of Friends. They choose people that they know and other Friends that will support their perception of what public they are addressing through their presentation of self, bulletins, comments, and blog posts. This completely inverts the norms in early public social sites where interests or activities defined a group (Usenet, mailing list, chatroom, etc.) and people chose to participate based on their interest in the topic. In these environments, search collapsed context by connecting disconnected groups. Furthermore, these groups were simply unable to scale. While it was once possible to gather all cat lovers into one Usenet group, the size of this group would be beyond unbearable today. By restructuring social clusters around networks of Friends, social network sites have allowed for a new way to build social context.

I love the point made here about how different the SNS structure of social is from the online groups that preceded it. However: is there such a difference between norms that are developed as a bunch of Burners gather on Friendster and those that develop when a bunch of Burners gather on Usenet? It seems to me that it’s the multiplicitous audience that makes SNS different—that the social networks through which things spread DON’T just include one particular kind of shared interest.

And, for today at least, that’s what I have to say about that. 🙂

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