Monday, September 15, 2008

Social Network Site vs Social Networking Site

I read with interest the post and ensuing discussion on TechCrunch regarding Facebook's communication about intended uses of the site. Evidently, the PackRat application encourages rampant Friending, even with strangers, prompting the company to explain in an email that "Facebook is a social utility that connects you with the people around you, not a “social networking site.” I don't know whether Facebook is aware of the academic discussions surrounding the distinction between social "networking" sites and social "network" sites, but danah and I purposely use the term social network sites in our JCMC article, and explain the rationale behind our choice. We write:

While we use the term "social network site" to describe this phenomenon, the term "social networking sites" also appears in public discourse, and the two terms are often used interchangeably. We chose not to employ the term "networking" for two reasons: emphasis and scope. "Networking" emphasizes relationship initiation, often between strangers. While networking is possible on these sites, it is not the primary practice on many of them, nor is it what differentiates them from other forms of computer-mediated communication (CMC).

This seems to be very consistent with the distinction that Facebook is making when they say the site is a "social utility that connects you with the people around you." The research my colleagues at MSU and I have done addressing Facebook usage suggests that, at least among the population of undergraduates we study, Facebook is most commonly used to either a. articulate existing relationships or b. develop nascent relationships that are built on some shared offline connection. Although it does happen, we find that it is far less common for these users to friend complete strangers. Additionally, as we argue in a new paper, using Facebook to find out information about weak ties may be beneficial to users in ways that connecting with existing close friends or trying to friend total strangers may not be.

(Thanks, Eszter!)

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Some updates

A quick update about some of my recent activities:
  • Last March I participated in a session on SNS at iConference in Los Angeles with danah, Fred, and Alice Marwick. I presented some of our work on social capital and Facebook.
  • I spoke at my alma mater, Annenberg (USC) in March as well. As part of the Virtual Communities Speaker Series associated with their APOC program, I spent a day speaking with faculty and students. The Annenberg Program on Virtual Communities is a new Master's Program being offered by the school which is innovative in many ways.
  • This summer I'll be in Northern California for a few weeks, working and visiting with family here. On Friday I spoke to HP's Social Computing Lab and Tuesday (July 1) I will visit Facebook and present the research I have been doing with Charles Steinfield and Cliff Lampe. I am also planning to speak at a panel on Web 2.0 technologies at the CRA Conference at Snowbird.

Monday, June 02, 2008

I blame twitter

I have been abysmal at blogging recently, and I blame twitter. Now that summer is here, I am going to try to be more active. Fred Stutzman has posted some thoughtful insights about twitter, and I'll echo some of his ideas here. I think the two reasons I have been twittering and not blogging boil down to:
1. Knowledge of who my audience is when I blog
2. Limited amount of text on twitter
Not having a sense of who is reading is disconcerting and makes me less likely to try to fit blogging into an already busy day. Which relates of course to point 2 - the time commitment needed to maintain a vibrant blog seems beyond my capacities at the moment. Especially when it would take time away from actually getting research published. 140 characters is just so addictive and so effortless. On the other hand, twitter posts are ephemeral in two ways - they disappear (for the most part) and don't seem to be indexed by google. Thus my decision to try to maintain both modes of broadcasting, plus the occasional facebook status update, and to focus on the blog as a way to update folks about my activities and engage in pre-scholarship that will lead to published, peer-reviewed research. Wish me luck!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Freakonomics on the Benefits and Pitfalls of Social Network Sites

The Freakonomics blog over at the nyt has posted a set of responses to the question, “Has social networking technology (blog-friendly phones, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) made us better or worse off as a society, either from an economic, psychological or sociological perspective?” My response is there, as are others by danah, Judith Donath, Will Reader, Martin Baily and Steve Chazin.

Overall, I found the range of opinions was surprisingly narrow, with most of us agreeing that the SNSs had both positive and negative potential outcomes depending on how they were used and who was using them. The demonization of SNSs (Myspace abductions and the like) that I expected did not materialize, and many of Chazin’s comments weren’t really SNS-specific, but rather concerns about mediated communication replacing f2f (which have accompanied the introduction of the telephone and every communication technology since).

Two points struck me:

Few would disagree with Will Reader’s claim that “Face-to-face contact is, I believe, very important for the formation of intimate relationships.” I do disagree, however, with his suggestion that college students are using SNSs to manufacture friendship networks before arriving on campus and thus insulating themselves from friends who don’t mirror their beliefs and preferences (similar to the concept of the “Daily Me”). Reader writes, “It might be if, by choosing potential friends via their Facebook profiles, it means that folk cut themselves off from serendipitous encounters with those who are superficially different from them, ethnically, socio-economically, and even in terms of musical taste.” I haven’t seen Reader’s SNS papers as none are publicly available, so this may be true for the population he is studying. But our data suggest that students typically do not use Facebook to meet new people. (This is based on our 2006 survey data as reported in the JCMC article and is reinforced in our 2007 data, which we are currently writing up.) Rather, they use the site to learn more about people with whom they share some kind of an offline connection (e.g., live in their dorm, in the same class). This information-seeking can result in a f2f conversation, a casual friendship, or may go nowhere. Although we haven’t probed the specific case of what students do the summer before they begin college, I think Reader’s concerns about students using Facebook to create social echo chambers before setting foot on campus are unfounded.

Secondly, although I agreed with many of Judith’s points (and love her work on SNSs and other social media), I did wonder about one of her statements: “[SNSs] devalue the meaning of “friend.” Our traditional notion of friendship embraces trust, support, compatible values, etc. On social network sites, a “friend” may simply be someone on whose link you have clicked.”

This echoes a common set of concerns I’ve noticed around SNSs, involving the ease with which SNSs allow individuals to link to others as “friends” and the belief that this will somehow dilute the meaning of this term. As noted by “Stacy” in her comment on the NYT blog, Facebook users we’ve surveyed are very savvy about the wide range of relationships that are described by the term Facebook “Friend.” In fact, we’ve asked users in surveys and interviews about how many Facebook “Friends” they have and how many of these are “actual” friends. Our respondents can articulate how many of their "Facebook Friends" are "actual friends" - about one-third, on average. This suggests to me that
  1. Facebook users are able to distinguish between the term used by Facebook to indicate one’s contacts and “friendship” as traditionally conceived.
  2. Many of these “non-actual” friends are “weak ties” and thus the source of perspectives, information, and opportunities that Judith and I reference.

This is a small point, though, and overall I thought her summary of the benefits of weak ties as enabled by SNSs was excellent, as were danah's examples of SNSs in action. I also enjoyed the comments by readers, although I'll admit I found a few of them rather crytic.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Facebook Friends

So, word on the street has it that friends lists privacy controls are on the way. I believe allowing Facebook users to specify who has access to which information will allow them to take advantage of the self-presentational opportunities afforded by the site without having to use workarounds, such as a dull, dull profile or rejecting friend requests. Grouping people and then being able to control the kinds of information they have access to makes perfect sense. Unfortunately for me and all the other dozens of FB researchers, all those papers on FB Friending will have to be rewritten, trashed, heavily marked "At the time data were collected...." or otherwise tweaked. If only the academic publishing cycle wasn't so incredibly long! Or the technology didn't change quite so quickly!