Social Networking Sites: What Added Value Lies in the Connections?

On: October 5, 2008
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About Annewil Neervens
I hold a Bachelor's degree in journalism and recently graduated with a Master's degree in New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam. I am particularly interested in online social networks, software and digital influence.

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In having different social networking sites, connections are also different. This might seem obvious, but how do these connections differ and what does that mean?

In their paper ‘Public Displays of Connection’, MIT Media Lab professor Judith Donath and academic danah boyd write:

‘Networks are the extension of our social world; they also act as its boundary. We may use the network to extend the range of people we can contact; we may use it to limit the people who can contact us. Most of the networking sites so far are designed to grow networks, not limit them. Yet costs and limits can add value. The expenditure of energy to maintain a connection is a signal of its importance and of the benefits it bestows.’

Especially the last sentence of this paragraph seems a bit paradoxical to me. Isn’t the whole point of social networking sites that contacts (friends and acquaintances, either known in real life or not) are easily managed without the awkwardness of face-to-face contact, and possibly more important: without having to spend lots of time and energy in the maintenance process? It surely has to be easier and less time consuming than making appointments and ACTUALLY spending time with them in real life?

Still, there is something to say for Donath and boyd’s conclusion. Managing an online social networking profile usually DOES take time and effort. Not only does a profile have to be updated every once and again, contacts have to be maintained by writing comments or leaving kudos (this considering an active social networking user). Then, it’s very true when they say that ‘the expenditure of energy to maintain a connection is a signal of its importance and of the benefits it bestows.’ Taking the time to maintain a connection, whether online or offline, is basically saying that this person is worth that time and effort. It is a signal of importance and it can repay its self, most likely by having your contact putting at least as much effort into maintaining the relationship with you.

Limits can add value. At least for me, as a user of several social networking sites, I feel quite accomplished when a desired (esteemed) contact adds me to his circle of connections – especially when I’m one of few. This is, however, different for the various types of social networking sites. When I get accepted as a friend of my favorite band on MySpace, I’m proud to show all my MySpace-friends (and lurkers of my profile) that I am connected to them. Of course by adding them as a contact I’m also showing them my support and encouragement. But, knowing that this band probably only has a MySpace profile for self promotion – and that they are therefore likely to add (almost) anybody, fan or not – the novelty of being their friend actually wears off.

Knowing this, I’m might not add them so much as to be their devoted fan and friend, but to show others my interest in their music. It’s becoming more about me and less about them. This might seem as a very thin line, and it is, but there’s a distinct difference between the two.

Also, MySpace has a certain sense of anonymity. It’s easy to randomly add people because their picture looks nice or they share the same taste in movies. Sometimes there isn’t even an apparent reason for the add. I regularly get friend requests sent by people from all over the world, who I don’t know and have absolutely nothing in common with (not even contacts or interests). This may be done because of various reasons; perhaps the requester desperately wants more friends added to his profile (to enhance his status; having two friends on MySpace does seem a little sad), or there are commercial reasons (maybe the requester has a shop and wants to sell me stuff) etcetera. If I do not accept them to my profile, no harm is done. Feelings are less likely to be crushed, because there’s no connection.

When comparing these MySpace connections to the connections on LinkedIn (a networking site for professionals), I personally feel that there is more to gain out of friend adds there (of course this has everything to do with my objective. A band would probably have more to gain through connections on MySpace). That is not to say that there aren’t people on LinkedIn who will add anybody and everybody – even if there are no apparent connections. Or that having a profile on LinkedIn cannot be considered as self promotion. But in general, LinkedIn users only want to add contacts to their profile that they know, or are in someway affiliated or connected to them or their field of work. And although anonymity is surely also present within the confinements of LinkedIn, it doesn’t nearly take on such a drastic form as it does at MySpace. If my contact request is denied on LinkedIn, my feelings are more likely to be crushed. Even if I do not know this person in real life, it is someone who I feel could be a significant add to my network. LinkedIn users seem to be more serious when it comes to their network – and adding contacts.

So, here we see that limits can add value and that networks can also act as a boundary, as Donath and boyd suggest. The added value can be seen as credibility gained. Besides that, I feel more valuable as a contact of a (relatively) small network – where my (online) presence is acknowledged and maybe even appreciated. It just depends on the online networks that you’re using and – moreover – with what objective you’re using them.

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