Revisiting the term and categories of Social Networking Sites

Throughout the S604 Online Social Networking Sites lectures, we have been reading articles that somehow attempts to define the term social networking site (SNS). Even though social networking sites became popular around 2002 and 2003 (boyd & Ellison, 2007), the concerns and issues about people socializing on computer networks and the Internet goes back to the 1990’s. In 1996 Wellman et al. (1996) brought up issues that are still relevant to nowadays’ social networking sites but, at that time, they were referring to any computer networks.

Wellman et al. argue that when computer networks connect people along with machine, they turn themselves into social networks. The authors call them computer-supported social networks (CSSNs), which are able to sustain strong, intermediate and weak ties that supply information and promote social support in specialized and broadly based relationships. CSSNs foster virtual communities that are commonly partial and narrowly focused. The communication within these networks was basically done through electronic mails and computerized conferencing usually text-based and asynchronous.

According to the authors, CSSNs “accomplish a wide variety of cooperative work, connecting workers within and between organizations who are often physically dispersed”. Like any other social ambience, CSSNs have developed their own social norms and structures. The essence of the framework can limit as well as facilitate social control. CSSNs “have strong societal implications, fostering situations that combine global connectivity, the fragmentation of solidarities, the de-emphasis of local organizations (in the neighborhood and workplace), and the increased importance of home bases”.

It is interesting to highlight that, even though Wellman et al.’s definition came around in 1996, it is really close to the definition of social networking sites given by boyd and Ellison (2007). The main difference is that the “social network” in 1996 comprised of the entire computer network, due to its simplicity, and nowadays it is “only” a website. Wellman et al. do not talk specifically about impression management, but based on their article, we can infer that it was done through the language and writing styles of the person, it was also done by the person’s signature, which was considered their profile.

The author’s narrative gives us an impression that the concept of CSSNs and its development are not technological deterministic. In other words, technology (CSSNs) does not change society — it only affords possibilities for change. CSSNs are social institutions that should not be studied in isolation but as integrated into everyday lives. Thus, it gives sociologists wonderful opportunities to research the CSSNs’ area and develop social systems and not just study them after the fact. Like William Buxton once said, “the computer science is easy, the sociology is hard.”

As the years go by, social networking sites get more and more sophisticated, as well as infiltrated in our daily lives. Nowadays, it seems that almost every new website is some sort of SNSs, since they are very oriented in connecting people, getting discussions going and sharing them with the largest amount of people as possible – through Facebook, Twitter, etc. Having this SNS trend on the Internet, it makes the definition of social networking sites to seem somehow fuzzy and uncertain. boyd and Ellison (2007) were the precursors in attempting to define SNSs as we know them nowadays. Their study was conducted in 2006, when the use of SNSs (i.e. MySpace, Facebook, Orkut…) was just reaching a fast pace of adoption.

Since “an Internet year is like a dog year, changing approximately seven times faster than normal human time” (Wellman, 2001), a lot has changed regarding social networking sites. The definition proposed by boyd and Ellison can still be considered valid, but as we re-read it, it seems too broad and vague, encompassing pretty much almost every new tool nowadays, since they are SNS-oriented (mentioned before).

Kaplan and Haenlein (2010) analyze this SNS trend on the Internet and come up with a more current and organized definition of social networking sites as well as other medias that are oriented towards socializing. They first attempt to characterize three terms that are usually confused by managers and academic researchers: Social Media, Web 2.0 and User Generated Content. Their approach to such terms is:

  • User Generated Content (UGC) can be seen as the sum of all ways in which people make use of Social Media. It is usually applied to describe the various forms of media content that are publicly available and created by end-users (i.e. Wikipedia, Blogs)
  • Web 2.0 represents the ideological and technological foundation, it is the platform for the evolution of Social Media (i.e. Adobe Flash, RSS, AJAX);
  • Social Media is a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of User Generated Content (i.e. Youtube, Facebook, Twitter).

Having those terms defined, Kaplan and Haenlein go into “Social Media” and detail the six different types of Social Media:

  • Collaborative projects: it enables “the joint and simultaneous creation of content by many end-users and are, in this sense, probably the most democratic manifestation of UGC.” The main idea underlying collaborative projects is that the joint effort of many actors leads to a better outcome than any actor could achieve individually. (i.e. Wikipedia)
  • Blogs: “represent the earliest form of Social Media, are special types of websites that usually display date-stamped entries in reverse chronological order (OECD, 2007)”.
  • Content Communities:  “sharing of media content between users. Content communities exist for a wide range of different media types, including text (e.g., BookCrossing, via which 750,000+ people from over 130 countries share books), photos (e.g., Flickr), videos (e.g., YouTube), and PowerPoint presentations (e.g., Slideshare)”.
  • Social networking sites: applications that enable users to connect by creating personal information profiles, inviting friends and colleagues to have access to those profiles, and sending e-mails and instant messages between each other. These personal profiles can include any type of information, including photos, video, audio files, and blogs. (i.e. Facebook)
  • Virtual game worlds: “platforms that replicate a three dimensional environment in which users can appear in the form of personalized avatars and interact with each other as they would in real life”. (i.e. World of Warcraft)
  • Virtual social worlds:  “allows inhabitants to choose their behavior more freely and essentially live a virtual life similar to their real life. The users appear in the form of avatars and interact in a three-dimensional virtual environment; however, in this realm, there are no rules restricting the range of possible interactions, except for basic physical laws such as gravity”. (i.e. Second Life)

Although Kaplan and Haenlein definitions and categories seem very accurate and recent, from 2010, there seems, already, to be a new category on the rise: Mobile Social Media. This category does not only encompass the social apps (social applications for mobile devices), but also the fact that users would be able to fallow their friends across the world (i.e. Google Latitude). This new Mobile Social Network is a lot alike the CSSNs proposed by Wellman et al, but more sophisticated. It seems that Mobile is taking control of the Social Media locomotive, so let’s hop on, and see where it will take us.

Main Articles:

  • Kaplan, A.M. & Haenlein, M. (2010). Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of social media;
  • Utz, S. (2000). Social information processing in MUDs: The development of friendships in virtual worlds;
  • Wellman, B., Salaff, J., Dimitrova, D., Garton, L., Gulia, M., & Haythornthwaite, C. (1996). Computer networks as social networks: Collaborative work, telework, and virtual community;

Cited Articles:

  • boyd, d. m., & Ellison, N. B. (2007). Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), article 11.
  • Wellman, B. (2001). Computer networks as social networks. Science, 293, 2031–2034.

About davidnemer

Assistant Professor in the School of Information Science at University of Kentucky.

Posted on June 10, 2011, in Social Networking Sites and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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