Foster Care Alums Hop on the Social Network Bandwagon

 

In a recent Mashable article by Zoe Fox, New Social Network Aims to Fill Void Left by Foster Care System, the author introduces the Camellia Network, a newly-launched site designed to guide foster children when the system can no longer support them after the legal age of 18 (or 21 in some cases). The article states that once foster children outgrow the system, roughly 25% become homeless, 25% go to prison, 3% earn a college degree, and 60% have children within four years. On the Camellia Network, foster care alums can create profiles to state their needs and future goals, and others can create profiles to write words of support or donate gifts and money. The assumption the article makes about this new social network identifies Nancy Baym’s discourse of the social shaping of technology from her novel Personal Connections in the Digital Age.

Baym argues that technologies are being used as a co-production. She notes, “People, technologies, and institutions all have power to influence the development and subsequent use of technology,” (Baym 45). Her point is very much in line with Fox’s assessment that the Camellia network is “part crowdsourcing platform, part support network.” In other words, Fox implicitly states that the Camellia Network is succeeding so far partly because it obtains information from a large public audience including philanthropic institutions and online users, and partly because there are many individual friends, family and coworkers who would be happy to support the network and what it stands for. In this sense, the network would not be sustainable without its users, nor would users be as motivated to help if there weren’t a network. The idea that we influence the technology but are also able to respond and affect it, can therefore be applied to Fox’s article. Fox does not claim that the network will positively change the whole course of the foster care system in a technologically deterministic way, nor does she assume that it will fully be controlled by people with no effect on them. Rather, Fox convincingly makes the case in her title, “The Camellia Network Aims to Fill Void Left by Foster Care System,” and additionally expresses that “The Camellia Network…wants to provide young people who age out of the foster care system with the support and resources of a family.” Fox’s tone reveals that the Camellia Network is a work in progress, which has potential to grow based on the way users interact with the technology and what it will allow them to do, also known as Baym’s version of social shaping.

When reading about the Camellia Network, a few points from the YouTube video, An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube, came to mind. If foster alums are introduced to this social network, they have the ability to create profiles and list which tools they need most to succeed in their lives. Anyone who goes on Camellia Network’s webpage can donate gifts or words of support, but these alums are basically putting their dire situations out in public in front of what the video suggests is an “imagined community.” They can distribute information and interact with other users, but they do not know who is watching them or who can potentially help them. Additionally, just as people on YouTube share very private parts of their lives to an open public, the foster alums express emotional and financial burdens on this public platform in hopes of reaching their goals in the future.

It is arguable whether the Camellia Network is even considered a “social network site,” by boyd & Ellison’s definition in Social Network Sites: Definition, History and Schlarship. They suggest that a social network site allows individuals to, “(1) construct a 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” (boyd & Ellison 211). Yet the Camellia Network described by Fox only has the first of three components of boyd & Ellison’s definition, and is still considered a social network in the title of the Mashable article. It is unclear whether users on the network share their connections with one another on the site, and what the interactivity is like from the foster users to the people who are donating to them.

The conflict I see between Mashable’s version of what a social network is and the distinction that boyd & Ellison point out, is similar to the difficulty Beer expresses in his article, Social network(ing) sites…revisiting the story so far: A response to danah boyd & Nicole Ellison. Beer believes that “we should be moving toward more differentiated classifications of the new online cultures not away from them” (519). While many sites are not about networking but are themselves networks (like Camellia Network), I think this should allow us to categorize them into even smaller labels, rather than putting them all under one definition of social network site or social networking sites. The Camellia Network is a form of a social network, yet it may not precisely fit into boyd & Ellison’s broad definition. As such, Beer proposes to subcategorize these networks based on their differences rather than molding them into one definition.

It is interesting to think about the ways in which a new social platform can respond to so many of the daily issues we face, hitting upon technological influences, governmental and philanthropic institutions, and reaching people like myself and close friends and family. What is even more fascinating is the power of writing about it. By going through the steps that all of the authors mentioned above provide, we are able to better understand the discourses of many of these broad ideas and hopefully shape them into something meaningful and beneficial for our society.

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