Pearson discusses performance and identity formation on social networking sites.
There appears to be a fair amount of confusion around what is meant when people refer to the term “social network/ing site”. For many the first response is to equate the term with sites such as Facebook and Myspace. Dana boyd makes this observation and points out that such a narrow-cast definition precludes other platforms of interaction such as blogs, wikis, and social bookmarking sites. Can flickr and Youtube, for example, be classified as social networking sites?
I would contend there’s a distinction between social networking per se, which can and does happen in real life, and social networking sites, social software, and collaborative software.
To give examples, social networking often takes place at a pub. You arrange to meet a friend, they bring along one of their friends, who you meet and with whom you form a life-long friendship. For me, a network can best be likened as a spiders web where threads connect and form paths to all other parts of the web. Meeting friends friend in this way creates a new connection and a new thread leading to other similar opportunities.
Boyd suggests that social networking emphasises the initiation of relationships and proposed an early definition of a social networking site that included mention of the ability of participants to interact with strangers. Certainly the meeting of strangers happens in a networking environment, but I would argue that social networking is very much driven by, or augmented by established relationships that encourage and enable the development of further relationship connections. Social networking, both on and off-line, is lubricated by a conducive environment.
Narrowing the definition down to “social network sites” Boyd points out that the term networking is problematic in that it indicates a much more active role of the initiation of new relationships between strangers than actually occurs on social network sites. Whilst new connections occur, she believes, the primary reason for people to be on a social network site is to maintain a relationship with people they already know. On most SNS’s, Boyd observes, a participants profile is usually supplemented by a display of a person’s contact or friends network; and it is amongst this group that most of the network activity occurs.
However, this argument also has it’s problems. Certainly on “social network sites” by which I refer here to as the likes of MySpace and Facebook, there is a level of passiveness to the activity of networking. There appears, from my experience to be little in the way of any active efforts to become acquainted with perfect strangers. However, to use these sites as the standard bearers, whilst understandable, would preclude others where activity has a very different nature.
As examples, sites such as RSVP, Adultfriendfinder, Xtube, and a host of other adult networking sites – where the active pursuit of new connections is the expectation rather than the exception – would be precluded from boyd’s narrow-cast definition of a “social network site”. Such a preclusion makes sense if what we are attempting to research are those sites where the networking is much more passive and benign. I would question the value of research, though, that failed to take into account these more assertive networking fora.
Going further with this problematic term of “network” or “networking” is the difficulties faced when we begin to consider the nature of a blog. Some blogs, such as Penelope Trunk’s Brazen Careerist, and Darren Rowse’s Problogger, are heavily trafficked by a loyal readership who regularly contribute and debate via comments. The activity in which these people are engaged appear to be both in the nature of “networking”, as in people attempting to create new connections with other readers through interesting comments, and “network”, as in a network of bloggers.
Further still, there exist other platforms of collaboration and interaction, which create connections where none previously existed (with a nod and smile to dana boyd). Is it relevant for the sake of research purposes to exclude wikis and photo and video sharing sites from the field of focus? My instinct tells me no.
I’m still a long way from developing a definition, however I feel a sense that any definition that points to socially oriented human interaction on the Internet should necessarily be broad and inclusive. Only at the pointy end of the research might it be relevant to narrow the field down so as to achieve needed clarity and direction.
Drawing on work from Altman, Tufekci believes that the manner in which teenagers approach online interactions can best be understood as a process of optimisation. By this it is meant that individuals in fact want to be seen and use information about themselves as a way to be noticed but also being mindful of the pitfalls of extending too much information. He notes that doing so in an online environment poses significant increased threats thanks to the collapsing of many temporal boundaries that exist in the real world.
He makes the point that an online environment captures data by default. This is done via cookies, ISP’s, databases, RSS feeds, etc, etc. and makes for a prime environment for surveillance. On the other hand, the real world requires a conscious decision PRIOR to a conversation to record the conversation eg a wire tap, or some other form of surveillance. Unlike a real world conversation that, unless recorded, disappears immediately as it occurs, a digital conversation is recorded and can be retrieved months and years later. This is a significant difference in that the default positions are at polar ends of the surveillance spectrum.
Tufekci claims the Internet can be divided into the instrumental Internet and the expressive Internet. By this he means that the former is where we go online to achieve an outcome and uses the purchase of airline tickets as an example. The latter, he contends, refers to the creation of self trough identity expression and impression management through the release of personal information.
He suggests that Altman’s model of privacy, where boundaries are actively negotiated, is a more accurate reflection of what occurs in an online environment then early conceptions of privacy as “the right to be let alone”. He suggests that people don’t necessarily seek more seclusion, but rather, at times, seek more self-disclosure as a way of self-creation.
For me, this rings true. As an active participant on FB, I’m aware that the most interesting profiles and relationships are with those participants who “open up” or show some form of vulnerability or express an outrageous opinion. Others who treat FB as a personal brochure have little interaction and therefore an unexciting presence. Interesting people are usually interesting both on and offline.
He draws on the findings of Pallin and Dourish who suggest that an online environment creates special problems for privacy. We have no idea of who is watching and where and therefore have no control over our spatial boundaries and, because conversations are recorded, virtually forever, we have no control over our temporal boundaries. Our audience can exist far into the the future. Finally there is the problem of the management of context. What is posted on MySpace may well not be appropriate in a job interview, however, because of the nature of the digital environment, these two contexts can (and often do) intersect with often unintended consequences.
Tufecki’s research indicated that a staggering 94.9% of Facebook users used their real names on their profiles. There was some tendency of Facebook users to make their profiles visible only to friends, but the research found there was no correlation between an open profile and the use of a real name. They found there was a general link between concerns about online privacy and making telephone numbers available. Males were more likely to display their phone numbers.
The study showed that participants modified their profiles, particularly the display of telephone numbers in line with their own privacy concerns, but they were generally unconcerned about a future employer reading their profile. Participants showed little concern about the consequences of a potential future partner seeing their profile. On the contrary they saw it as a potential benefit for a potential partner to see their profile.
He concludes by suggesting that disclosure is sought by youth as a way to create the self and as a way to limit access to the self through proactive self-disclosure. Although most concern, he claims is for present issues, youth could be more concerned about future problems that could result from the persistence of data.
Can You See Me Now? Audience and Disclosure
Regulation in Online Social Network Sites (subscription required)
University of Maryland, Baltimore County
2008; 28; 20
Bulletin of Science Technology Society