In “Public Displays of Connection”, published in 2004, Donath and Boyd claim that one of the major flaws of most social network sites is that all of the information provided by an individual is accessible to anyone within their network. While it is possible to hide the information from the general public, once you’ve established a connection with someone, they are automatically able to see everything listed on your profile. This poses a problem for people who wish to maintain a separation between their business life and their social life (ie: the barrier between students and teachers). While this was true in 2004 when the article was written, some SNS platforms have made adjustments to combat this issue.
For example, Facebook has made a few changes in the past couple of years to fix this problem. On Facebook, users now have the ability to hide posts from certain people- you can create specific lists that group people into given categories, and when you post something, you restrict the privacy settings to who can see it based on these lists. This way, mom and dad can’t see the picture you’ve posted of last night’s drinking escapades. Additionally, with the creation of the Timeline feature, you can review your “Activity Log,” to look back on older posts, photos and comments and edit who can see them. As Donath and Boyd point out, this feature makes social networking sites more useful in that your network display is more nuanced and adaptable, and allows us to at least try to forget about those awkward high school photos!
Another major aspect of SNS that Donath and Boyd miss entirely is the existence of unidirectional platforms. All of the platforms they reference are bidirectional, implying that to create a network, people must have a mutual agreement to be “friends.” This does not account for sites such as Twitter which are virtually dependent on unidirectional connections; just because one person follows another, doesn’t require that that they follow the other person in return. This factor plays a major role in devaluing many of the points the article makes as a generalization about SNS. For example, on a site like Twitter, one’s following is a lot less telling of their interests than those who they choose to follow. Unless one’s profile is set to private, they have little to no control over who follows them, unless they remove certain followers. These sorts of connections stand in direct opposition to their point that a public display of connections is a representation of identity. The same holds true for sites such as Pinterest- users with the most extensive networks of follows often have little to no personal connections with the majority of their followers. As this article points out, some of the most influential pinners have millions of followers, almost all of whom they have absolutely no personal connection to. The most popular users pin about the most followed topics (food, fashion, etc.)
One point that Donath and Boyd make that is still very applicable to today’s SNS is the fact that users who maintain only a densely linked group are more privy to all the information that flows through the group, while those who maintain larger networks are almost sure to have networks comprised of weaker ties (80). This is based on the shear nature that is is simply impossible to keep up with thousands of distant people. For example, someone who has only 10 friends on Facebook should have a relatively easy time navigating their news feed for a general idea of what each of their friends has posted, while someone who maintains a network of over 1,000 friends probably doesn’t know everything that each of their friends posted, as it would take hours to go through everything that passed through their newsfeed. The same goes for Twitter, though people can create lists and subscribe to specific people’s tweets to their mobile devices, making it easier to create a digest containing only the stronger connections, while still being able to access the others if needed.
Additionally, their point that people are able to get away with fake identities only as long as their network allows it is still prevalent. Users who create fake profiles on Facebook often don’t have many friends, and therefore, people are less likely to accept requests from profiles with few friends; however, recently, people have begun to provide names for their profiles that are not their real names in order to mask their identities from those outside their networks. For example, high school seniors have begun to change their names so that colleges cannot look at their profiles. They are able to get away with this because their network accepts it.
Recently; however, Facebook has been trying to combat this problem by conducting a survey asking members anonymously if the names provided on certain profiles are accurate. While people are generally not changing their names with malicious intent, it still raises the question of authenticity. It may be an effort to maintain privacy, but some may claim the purpose of these sites is to create a profile of ones authentic identity, which doesn’t account for the use of a pseudonym. This would make it pretty difficult for Gelena Somez or Lemi Dovato to have Facebook profiles, as they would receive friend requests up the wazoo!