Social Network Site vs. Social Networking Site?

On: October 6, 2008
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About Alessandro Valente
MA student New Media Amsterdam Werkzaam bij vakantie aanbiedingen site TravelBird.


A useful way to understand social network sites (or SNSs for short) is to look at the work of danah boyd. In the publication “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship” (2007) she and Nicole Ellison define a ‘social network site’ as:

” We define social network sites as web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system. The nature and nomenclature of these connections may vary from site to site.”

A very clear and useful definition that entails the minimum core functions a web-based application must have to be considered a SNS. But at the same time this definition falls short in defining what the core functions and uses for most popular SNS available are. Maybe because the definition shies away from mentioning that social networks sites are used for social interaction. For instance Youtube is about sharing watching and commenting on online videos, less about public profiles, articulating social connections and friends lists. Still it does have these function and is therefore rightfully defined as a social network site.

In the same article boyd and Ellison make clear that they only use the term ‘social network site’ and not ‘social networking sites’, which seemed to circulate in many popular discourses. In these discourses the emphasis is being placed on the ability of certain social network sites to meet now people and create new social ties. Boyd and Ellison are against the use of this term because:

“What makes social network sites unique is not that they allow individuals to meet strangers, but rather that they enable users to articulate and make visible their social networks. This can result in connections between individuals that would not otherwise be made, but that is often not the goal, and these meetings are frequently between “latent ties” (Haythornthwaite, 2005) who share some offline connection.”

I do agree that a definition of a ‘social network site’ is indeed not about whether a user can or cannot make new social ties or maintain old ones. I also agree that the use of both terms is problematic. But I do wonder if the reason given by boyd and Ellison does justice to how the SNSs discussed in her article are being used. It seems to treat networking capabilities and the social interactions as unimportant aspects to define the phenomenom of SNSs. Meeting new people is something that ‘could’ happen nothing more. SNS then seems to be just about making a list of your social network public. But the SNSs defined and discussed in “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship” are all public mediated spaces that people use to socialise. This means that they will always be used as a place to articulate and maintain old ties aswell as a place for making new social ties. Just as is the case with non mediated public social places. The only possible situation i can think of when a social network site wouldn’t be used to create new ties is if all the users of the SNS (or social space) already have old social ties with eachother. But in that case the whole purpose of friend lists and the articulation of your social network that define the definition would be useless. Everybody would (eventually) place all other members in their friends list, making articulating your social network as traversing and viewing eachothers social network pointless. So the use of SNSs will always rather then “could” result into the creation of new social ties for some of its users, just as it will always lead to maintaining previous social ties for some of its users. The ability to make new social ties and maintaining old ties are thus both part of any SNS and the meaning of its concept, unlike the mentioned definitions seem to want to admit. For which of the two practises a SNS will be used more dominantly depends on different factors like its design, audience and subject and can change over time. Therefore its impossible or at least confusing to use ‘social networking sites’ and ‘social network sites’ as if they were different objects, rather then because ‘networking” isn’t an integral part of the concept of SNSs itself. The goal of allot of SNSs could be defined as making new social ties, for instance as Dorris’ blog on this SNS shows. This of course doesn’t mean that users don’t use it to maintain pre-existing ties. furthermore I think that the theoretical difference between a network and networking site could be an interesting way to analyze and understand SNSs. Does a certain SNS lean more to a place where old social ties are being articulated and maintained or a place where new social ties are being established, based on its use? It would be possible mapping this on a dual axis space. The Y axis would represent time showing when the SNSs were launched and the X axis in what degree the SNSs are being used as a network or networking site. Example sketch:

Such a chart could give a better understanding of what is taking place in the realm of SNSs and how this is developing. It would also show that every SNS is used in some degree for the maintaining of old social ties and the creation of new ones, since no entry would reach one of both ends of the X axis. Of course this is just an example and the entries are in this case based on my own subjective ideas of these SNSs and the posts of my fellow writers on the MoM blog. So most likely the entries on this chart are all wrong. The challenge in making such a graph is to find a more objective way to research and measure the place of all different SNSs on the X axis. In this measurement both the number of new vs old ties of users as the importance of these ties should be considered. Since a users friends list could consist for 90% of people he or she never met outside the SNS, but that user could still spend most of his or hers time on the SNS socializing with the 10% where the social tie was an old one.

Anyway, I think the point that i want to make is that how boyd and Ellison define social network sites is a very useful and clear description, that makes it easy to determine if a site is a SNS or not. But by shying away from defining social network sites as places where social actions take place don’t grasp the meaning and use and essention of the SNSs phenomenon.

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