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.