Friends and Communities: What Comes First?

In today’s undoubtedly “connected” and “plugged in” society, I believe it is easy to say that people generally have, interact with, and put emphasis on friends and friend groups. An important aspect of this especially “connected” society are social networks and networking sites. These sites generally garner online interaction and participation from a group of friends, seemingly connected to the “real friends” of our offline lives. But what are considered “friends” nowadays? Do social networks allow us to make friends, or only strengthen (or distance us) from the friends we have in “real life”?

Danah Boyd delved into this topic of discussion in her piece written in 2006 titled “Friends, Friendsters, And Myspace Top 8“, trying to elucidate what it means to have “friends” in the context of social networks, and even why we feel the need to have these friends. She looks primarily within the realms of the most prominent social media networking sites of 2006, which at the time were Friendster and Myspace. To her, she believes that “friendship” should indicate,

 an exceptionally strong relationship with expectations for emotional and practical support (Boyd 3)

To me this sounds pretty spot on, whether it is describing online or offline friends. But how do these friends come about? And what “community” is built from these friends? Well, according to Boyd,

Social network sites provide a new organizing mechanism for developing context. Instead of slicing interest first and people second, the Friending process allows people to choose people first and interests second. People define their community egocentrically. (Boyd 15)

She assumes that the communities come as a byproduct or is an effect of “friending”. While this may have been the case for the social networking sites that she was researching (Friendster and Myspace), this is one aspect of the article that I feel is outdated, and is something that I propose should be updated. Despite the obvious emergence of a myriad of successful social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest) that Boyd would be forced to take into account today, I believe that the overall “landscape” of social media networks have changed a bit.

In this article titled, ” CyPOP Draws Inspiration From South Korea By Connecting Users Through Common Interests” which I found on Techli.com,  is about a new social network proposing the opposite of what Boyd was getting at. In this start-up social network (which is now in beta) created in Seattle, the creators hope to connect people through common interests rather than just “friends” or “acquaintances” . Specifically, this site allows for  “online cafés in which users can come together to discuss common interests including music, books, video games, fashion, and much more. Each user can create a folio, which they can make private or share with fellow users, gathering all the things they love across the web into one central place. This folio creates a visual interest map, in which users can navigate to recommended cafés and meet other users whose interests align with their own” (Techli).  Boyd’s assumes that,

 social network sites do not provide physical walls for context, the context that users create is through their choice of Friends. They choose people that they know and other Friends that will support their perception of what public they are addressing through their presentation of self, bulletins, comments, and blog posts. This completely inverts the norms in early public social sites where interests or activities defined a group (Usenet, mailing list, chatroom, etc.) and people chose to participate based on their interest in the topic…

which might not necessarily work with the emerging social networks of today. In fact, CyPOP and others like it where  friends are made online through common interests seem to be more similar to the early social sites that she speaks of.

I believe that Boyd’s analysis of how “Friending” is done on social media networks must be expanded. With sites like CyPOP that hope to follow in the footsteps of other social media networks where,

digital communities go beyond simply who you know and venture deeper into connecting with others through specific interests

and the whole meaning of “making friends” can be turned on its head.  CyPOP is not the only “social network” that has done something similar to this. Massive multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft and to an extent, Second Life, allow for entire communities to be made, mostly with people unknown in the “real” social realm of our lives. As seen in the jarring but incredibly “real” documentary, “Life 2.0” that we watched in class, it is evident that relationships and “friends” can be made very real within these communities. Likewise, even Facebook has created options for “Groups” or “Pages” where people that may not know each other in real life can talk, friend each other, and bond over common interests. Friending to me is no longer something that has to start offline.

This is not to say though that some notions in Boyd’s work on “Friending” does not hold true. In fact, I agree with her point on the fact that people on social networking sites must,”require participants to perform their relationship to others” (Boyd 4), as almost everything we do socially on these sites can be seen as a performance. Despite how we make friends, when we are on these sites, we take on a sometimes slightly, sometimes drastically, different version of ourselves. A (literal) example of this is Second Life, where people are actually taking on an imagined avatar of themself. A more “social” approach to this idea might be the notion of liking, posting, or commenting on certain things on websites like Facebook, and how that performance may be perceived by others. What we do on these websites constitutes who we are in the realm of social media, and I believe this is something that despite age, might not change for a while.

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One comment

  1. After reading your blog post I immediately thought of the class twitter feed. Your chosen article found on Techli.com clearly shows that not all social media network sites through the process of “friending” allows users to choose “people first and interests second.” People can be connected through common interest like our CSMT twitter feed. As you know, for class we each had to “follow” each other on Twitter and connect by using the class hashtag #csmt2012. We are connected through a common interest (the class topics) and some of us became friends or have started to build friendships.
    I just finished watching the show Survivor and on the television screen it would provide hashtags for people to use when tweeting about the show. This affordance of Twitter allows people to create a community based on the common interest in the show. This is similar to the Facebook groups and pages you speak of, which bond people based on common interest.
    You say “friending” doesn’t have to start offline and I agree that it may be dependent on the site. For Facebook, it is not the norm to “friend” someone you don’t know or comment on pictures of people you’re not “friends” with. In this case boyd may be correct in her assertion that “friending” on social networking sites allows “people to choose people first and interests second.” It is more common for me to use the site to “friend” people I have an offline connection to, with the possibility of forming a new community on Facebook pages and groups with people I’m not “friends” with online.
    I also agree with you that boyd’s point on how social network sites require participants to “perform their relationships to others” holds true today. I even came across an article recently on digitallife.today.com that proves this idea. The article, Facebook Gifts program lets you give real stuff- good stuff, even (http://digitallife.today.com/_news/2012/09/27/14126208-facebook-gifts-program-lets-you-give-real-stuff-good-stuff-even?lite), discusses the new program Facebook unveiled that lets users of the site send “real” gifts versus the virtual gifts initially allowed through the site. Facebook’s technological affordance gives you the ability to perform your relationship easily with others and without much effort. Now that I write this, I’m thinking this may not be such a good thing! It should make us think about the different effects of performing your relationship online versus offline.

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