Facebook has a reputation for being the “cheapest” example of social networking, though this can be directly attributed to its accessibility, publicity, and age. Sorry, I know“age” sounds a little harsh, but what I’m trying to convey can ironically be summed up in this satirical tumblr. Actually, I guess it does have to do with “age” however, that’s precisely the point that requires an update to Donath & boyd’s analysis in their article Public Displays of Connection. Though we may admire (or at least I did the night I found this gem) the cohesive display “old people writing on the Facebook pages of chain restaurants” the deconstructed meaning of why this seems humorous speaks volumes about Facebook users and how Facebook is used to “connect” today.
Donath & boyd discuss the evolving culture of social networking sites in their paper, and explain how one’s network may consist of friends they likely know offline, as well as Friends to “network” with for multiple opportunities (business, frienship, dating). Though there are more business-oriented social networking sites like LinkedIn, that Donath & boyd reference, placing limits on the network a user can create proves itself to be very difficult.
Donath & boyd contrast online and offline networking and how people establish their connections to others. They call this “signaling theory,” which is to say how people establish social capital to their “network.” Offline, people demonstrate their social capital by name-dropping, displaying photos with friends (even celebrities), or being seen in public with acquaintances. Online, one’s network of connections is displayed on their profile for friends and Friends to see, nearly indefinitely. Furthermore, you don’t need to attend parties to find out your friend knows your crush, or learn that they met Damien from Mean Girls after having seen a photo of them together at their home or on their …binder. Matter of fact, you don’t even have to physically see someone to find out they’ve just seen a celebrity on Larchmont and shamelessly asked for a picture. The point here is that social networking sites do not boast the modesty of their users.
Donath & boyd say that both offline and online, the company one keeps provides information about themselves as well. Friends (should) have mutual interests, and their connection or friendship is a co-operation of trust. However, since Donath & boyd’s article has been published in 2004, there has been an increased privatization of social networking connections. In their article, Donath & boyd say “links are mutual: if A shows B as a connection, then B has also agreed to show A as a connection” which does not hold true to today’s Facebook platform. In the more literal sense, now users can change their profile’s privacy settings to reflect how they want their connections to be interpreted – i.e. choosing to hide their Friends list or photos from specific users, or their entire Friend network. Moreover, by users blocking Friends from seeing their connections, the platform and culture of the social networking site has indeed evolved.
However, a user may choose to withhold their connections of friends and photos aligned with Donath & boyd’s analysis on “signaling theory,” namely, college bound high school students. A student planning to begin college in the year 2012 has likely had a few years to curate their online reputation. In an article (in combination with a short video clip) published by CBS news, it’s stated that students with public social networking profiles have more at stake when applying to colleges. In the clip, 17-year-old Emily Caramelli mentions “horror stories” of friends being denied acceptance after college admission boards were able to view photos of applicants drinking underage. Caramelli states she “doesn’t think this is fair” however, “it is out there.” The increased integration of social networking sites into offline-life has called for users to scale back their connections to ensure that social networking won’t disable their educational or employment opportunities.
Conversely, signaling theory is still very much active and present on social networking sites. As of Thursday (yesterday!) Facebook users can now buy Friends gifts via Facebook, and present them on their Friend’s profile. Somini Sengupta from The New York Times writes in her article “Facebook Lets Users Buy Real Things for Friends” that “gifts range from cupcakes to sunglasses.” Beyond the capitalist-driven motives of Facebook and subscribing companies, Facebook gift-giving could be linked to numerous points made by Donath & boyd about “connection” as well as Don Slater’s paper Social Relationships and Identity Online and Offline. Similar to how Donath & boyd categorize offline signaling theory, by giving a Friend a gift online, Friends of the receiver could view the display of affection on the receiver’s profile and eliminate the newly adapted privatization of connection. Moreover, like Donath & boyd’s writing on signaling theory, Slater’s analysis of online and offline identity can be seen in the Facebook gift giving as well. Slater writes, “The agenda [of social networking sites] is to deconstruct the notion of real and authentic identities (particularly notions which anchor them in nature, reason or the body) in favour of a model of identity as performance” (537). Like Donath & boyd’s “signaling theory,” of social capital, there is also an element of identity performance underlying the gesture. This could span many social hierarchies or gender role expectations, however it is ultimately an act anchoring the social networking user to their offline, authentic, or otherwise expected identity.
Are you a good F/friend? We can evaluate this by whether or not you’ve chosen to send me a Crumbs cupcake, instead of just writing on my wall on July 14, 2013.