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Social Networking Websites: A Short Essay.

by Giacomo Puliti

This article comes from the need to do some considerations after I read a research concerning MySpace, made by Mike Thelwall: “Social Networks, gender and Friending: An Analysis of MySpace Member profiles” (Link to a Word-Document).

Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Flickr, are names familiar to a lot of people and quite often you hear about them on TV, or of course in the Internet. Some of the readers might be a member of one of these “communities”. Apparently some of these Social Network Websites (I will call them SNW from now on for convenience) are more and more quoted as new sources of happiness, depression, addiction, democracy, and new forms of social and political life. Not a long time ago, during the last elections in the U.S., Obama’s crew set up an online supporter group for Facebook, which allowed users of this SNW to link with other users actively in the campaign of the democratic candidate.

Using Thelwall’s definition, a Social Networking Site is a web server that allows Internet users to register, to create a personal profile and communicate with selected others. Usually you can personalize your personal space on this site in different ways using personal information, interests, personalized graphic and music to give an idea of you to other people: your profile.

When we talk of friendship and “friend” in SNW like MySpace we define a link that the users have with others, after a reciprocal agreement. This allows so-called “friends” to have access to some part of the profile with personal information. “Friend”, IRL(In Real Life), has a meaning strongly embedded in the private sphere of the individual, with references to reciprocity, trust and strong empathy to the other, while in MySpace and other SNW the meaning is just a “summary statement of personal feelings using culturally approved terminology” (Source: Duke, 1992. Quoted in Thelwall, 2007).”

When a SNW user has, for instance thousands of friends, it’s very hard to think that he could exchange social interaction with all of them, and that he could consider them to be friends in the offline-realm, too. Anyway some SNW trace activities of your friends in the communities, so that you can follow their uploads, changes in their profile and so on. The author tends to think that usually there is a core of close friends, and lots of ties of acquiescence. According to his empirical research the average number of friends that a MySpace user has is 27. Maybe more important about the average is the fact that the number 27, which comes from the average among a lot of people with 0-1 friends, many with some friends, and few with hundreds or sometimes thousands of friends. This data is useful to be kept in mind to use it afterwards, because before, to have a clearer idea of the social networking world, I would like to make a distinction of different kind of social networking sites.

For this article I will suggest 3 kind of differentiation.

  1. Professional oriented: website as LinkedIn, Viadeo or Xing. Their aim is to create a set of relationship and feedbacks on workers, so to help both the flexibility of employers, that can built their professional trustworthy with references and feedbacks, and the workers recruiting of companies, that can have an on line easy accessible archive of workers.
  2. Interests oriented: Flickr, aNobii, devianArt, LiveJournal. Here, users are usually linked by common interests as photography, Digital arts, writings, and we can think about the topic as the knot of the web around which discussion and interaction takes place.
  3. Socialize oriented: Facebook, MySpace, Badoo, Netlog, Friendster, Twitter. With these sites you can trace the activities of your friends, chat, have a look at their profile, share pictures with others, link music, post articles or videos and comment on people’s profiles.

Of course, the boundaries among these 3 categories are blurred, as some site could have different uses as their original purpose. Dating, for instance could be seen as a part of the Professional oriented group but on the other side also as part of the socialize oriented group. Some of the above mentioned socialize oriented SNW give the possibility to create group of interests, theme blogs or walls of discussion.

myspace

Thelwall uses the merely social connotation of MySpace to analyze friendship and private factors relating to friendship circle size, age and gender, through quantitative data. He shows that only around a third of all MySpace users regularly log in, and only a third logs in at the day of the first access. This fact is surprising,
as I had impression that every user of a SNW was already very embedded in it, so I thought about some positive and negative aspects of this form of virtual aggregation, and some limit that we
should consider when we talk about this phenomena.

Personally I’m quite optimistic with the potential of SNW. The mere presence in a network allows users to share data, multiplying chances of developing their friendships, their creativity and professional career and creating shortcuts for information. You can use your friends’ sites as direct link to someone else, or some kind of data that he/she can have. You can solve problems, posing your question to your friends online and count on a powerful “web of webs” that virtually could spread your request through thousand of people, giving you more answers, plurality of view, useful links and suggestions.

For the mere fact that you are part of a network you can be part of the spreading of information: political action could be supervised and demonstration or political-oriented e-mailing could be organized via SNW (and it happens already). The tagging and linking features often linked to SNW, help in quickly sharing photos, articles, issues of discussion, or just a picture that brings you to lose yourself in the vast see of memories. Or easily, you can chat or leave messages to more friends that you usually can meet in a regular day IRL. As we said before, the average number of friends in MySpace at the time of Thelwall research was 27, which allowed to think of a core of closest friend and a biggest number of ties of acquiescence. And just these ties of acquiescence – a large number of friends with limited social interaction or sometime none – could be strengthen, giving you chance to do new face-to-face encounter new friendship or to access to interesting groups.

In this sense, online social life could be a good integration to the face-to-face one. I do not think of a completely interchangeable way of having friends and connect with people even if there are some interesting points that link more and more online and offline presence. According to teenagers for instance, the narration of itself is shown on MySpace profiles. It influence the self esteem of the young user, where the hierarchic positioning in the own set of friends, is influenced by the fame online. The possibility then of looking at friends’ profile, friends’ information and interests, how they change their profile seems to satisfy the need that you have IRL to look at the people surrounding you during an encounter, expression, little facial movement and other nonverbal behaviors, called “ambient awareness”.

Research stresses that this medium can change the user and we can see that SNW and online socialization in general, has a strong potential and are embedded in peoples’ social life. Another richness is in the idea of web 2.0 itself, and on the possibility to shape connections and the web that define you and online world around you, shaping SNW as a proper social arena of identity construction, access to cultural resources, facilitator of changes of social and symbolic capital.

But then, again we have to came back to the real world.

Time resources, digital skills, information skills and strategical skills are required to be able, in order, to operate with computers, search, select and process information in the network for a specific goal. Cultural capital can influence the way one can use SNW. The different uses of Facebook and MySpace for instance seem to be education oriented. Education influences also your skills, giving more or less chances to profit from the good side of SNW. And also the – offline – politic can make differences in looking at Internet resources as SNW. Not only in assuring or not a computer affinity since one is a young student, but for instance legitimizing some of the use of SNW, like recognizing their importance in aggregating people for social or political reasons.

From the time of the research some things have changed. The use of Social Network Websites is more and more embedded into people’s lives – new regulations about their use in working places are taking place in Europe and USA. This is caused by the viral marketing that characterize the spreading of the use of SNW’s and the power that networks have in finding common friends in the web, common interest among people and the power to be virtually closer to hundred and thousand of people, once you got your profile, through which you can access to your friends’ friends site.

Facebook overtook MySpace as more popular social site, being also the site with the biggest archive of shared pictures. Apparently the average number of friends of a user of Facebook is higher, statistic online says 80-100 friends; but even if it seems reasonable this is not formally confirmed.

Despite the great diffusion, there are likely still very different ways to make use of SNWs. Thelwall’s research shows that there are a lot of people with a small usage and small number of friends, and few people with thousand of friends and a regular log in MySpace. I think that this pattern is very useful to think about this phenomena anyway, and helped me to place my idea of SNW into a more realistic framework. It’s also true that SNWs are a growing phenomena, with big power to shape web 2.0, and the complexity that this way of using and looking at the Internet holds together, and I guess that makes research more difficult. It is hard to say ( maybe because it is difficult, but more likely due to my lack of knowledge) if we are in front of new effects and new mechanisms of online social life, and if offline needs are satisfied in the WWW.

I would note then the quickness of normalization of this medium – WWW was born on 1991, the explosion of SNW go back less than 10 years ago – and economy, education, and social life, open symbiotic relationship with this new medium maybe make us misleading the roots of the shape of web 2.0, and SNW, still offline.

References:

  • Thelwall, Mike (2007): Social Network, Gender and Friendling: An Analysis of MySpace Member Profiles.
  • Jan Van Dijk (1999): The Network Society. Sage Publications.
  • Clive Thompson, I’m so totally, digitally close to you. (New York Time 07-09-2008)
  • Yee, Baileson, Urbanek, Chang, Merget: The Unbearable Likeness of Being Digital. The persistence of nonverbal social norms in virtual environment. Available under vhil.stanford.edu/pubs/2007/yee-nonverbal.pdf, available on 17.03.2009.
  • Chen, Boasen, Wellman: Comparing Internet users and using around the world. Available under www.chass.utoronto.ca/~wellman/publications/villagers/gdd13-final.PDF, available on 17.03.2009.
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