“Following” Not “Friending”! When Content Rules Social Media

Danah Boyd’s early 2000 study Friends, Friendster, and Myspace Top 8 did an excellent job analyzing the impact of social media on culture and social interaction. Boyd makes the assertion that social networking sites are not just “digital spaces disconnected from other social venues”, they are actual extensions of the human social network, a modeling of “participants social world’s”. What defines social media, according to her study, is its structure of “people first and interests second”. From her study of Myspace & Friendster, Boyd suggests that these online spaces become actual communities based on people rather than information:

This act shifts the context to be defined egocentrically which means that rather than information being shared based on a common interest, it is shared based on an affiliation with an individual. The poster presumes that anyone who is interested in being Friends should also be interested in receiving such content.

Let me make clear from the beginning that I do not believe that Danah Boyd is wrong in her assessment of social media communities. In 2003, Jenny Sundén argued that, “in order to exist online, we must write ourselves into being.” Sundén’s point is relevant in assessing informations’ place in social media because all Internet content is user driven and follows similar social obligations and rules present in the real world. The reason for this is up until 2006, most relevant social media platforms relied completely on “Friending”. This process helped form a structure for one’s social network, providing boundaries, norms, and expectations. In essence, Friending in social media “serves as a necessary substitute for the lacking structural definition of a situation”.

Following this structure, Boyd’s theories on Egocentric Networks makes complete sense. If we are constantly defined by our community of “Friends” and how we structure our digital image, then it follows that information will always be ancillary to personal interactions. In order to change this, there must be a change in social media platforms. And that is exactly what happened in 2006. I, of course, am talking about Twitter.

In 2006 Twitter burst onto the scene of social media. Defined by its structure of limited character capacity for posts, by February 2010, over 50 million Tweets were being sent each day (Wikipedia). Twitter has been revolutionary to social media’s relationship with information. If Danah Boyd were writing her article today she would have to account for Twitter and the structure of Following rather than Friending.

Danah Boyd went into considerable analysis of the social implications of online Friending and with good reason. “By restructuring social clusters around networks of Friends, social network sites have allowed for a new way to build social context.” But Twitter did something different. It’s goal was not to replicate social experience onto the Internet, instead Twitter focused on enabling users to spread information quickly and easily.

Following was a key component to accomplishing this goal. It was different from friending in the sense that you do not need to accept individual requests. What this allows is massive communities of people that don’t actually know each other or feel mutual social ties besides the desire to consume and spread information. Twitter is usually not complicated or “deeply connected to participant’s offline social life”. Unlike Facebook, a users choice of who they are Following does not have “the potential to complicate relationships with friends, colleagues, schoolmates, and lovers”.

Twitter it seems is solely devoted to forging a community of information, a fact supported by a recent article from CNET news. During a recent keynote, CEO of Twitter Dick Costolo said another change was coming to the social media platform. Soon users will be able to “download” all their old tweets and others people’s Tweets as well. This fact distinguishes Twitter from other social medias in that users want to download information for external purposes, whether it be scholarly, political, economic, or social. To quote the article this change is “one of the most-desired capabilities” and will “certainly make a lot of Twitter users happy”.

The article demonstrates just how important the information transferred on Twitter is. Further emphasized by the affordance of Hashtags and the invention of trending topics, Twitter is one big playground of news, opinions, and often times random, pointless thoughts.

Danah Boyd’s analysis on social media and its relationship to information is out of date simply because when she wrote it the platform for Following had not been invented. Because Twitter is less constricting it is less of an Egocentric Network, the purpose of the website is to discover information that is poignant to the individual, not to judge others based on the content they consume. What remains relevant from Danah Boyd’s Friends, Friendster, and Myspace Top 8 is the way information is spread. Boyd suggests that when someone consumes and spreads content on social media they are doing it because they recognize “that just because they received [the information] it did not mean that all of their friends did as well.” What changes, according to Boyd, is the context in which this information is delivered.

On Twitter, sometimes this is true, but sometimes it is not. More often than not people include an opinion, or a witty hashtag, when spreading information like an article or breaking news. But the power of retweeting is truly making it possible to spread information from one source to a mass audience with little to no alteration.

What we can conclude from all this is that Twitter changed the game. With a redesign of structure, Twitter’s driving force became as much about Content as it was about People. If Boyd were to revamp her study, it seems logical that she must take the phenomena of Following into account. Surely there are social implications of a network that is not a “friends only space”.

Still, it is foolish to assume that egocentric networking does not play a role in the platform. It is simply on a different and often larger scale. Consider all the celebrities on Twitter and their millions of faithful followers. What effect do they have on social media networks and society in general?

Boyd should consider what it means to be in a public network where information reigns supreme. What can these trending topics tell us about society in general? What can one persons participation in the mob of Twitter reveal about the individual consciousness? It is a nebulous and ever evolving territory, but we can be sure of is that social media will continue to have profound impact on our society, our content, and our lives. 



  1. Lizzie Azran · · Reply

    I really enjoyed reading this piece, because I just finished reading “Social Network Profiles as Taste Performances” by Hugo Liu. Twitter is definitely a newer type of social media than Myspace or Facebook, but I believe that they all maintain some consistencies about identity construction. In regards to Liu’s article people using Twitter still care about their “prestige” by forming their own creative, witty responses or tweets, to establish their identities. Whether it’s making subculture or pop culture references, or following certain types of people (musicians, comedians, reality show stars), each person can be judged based on their profile. So Sunden’s argument about “in order to exist online, we must write ourselves into being” can also apply to Twitter, but in a different light based more on dialect and followers. Twitter is definitely a community, like other social network sites, which has “taste neighborhoods,” which is part of Liu’s theory. Although it may be more difficult than Facebook or Myspace to decipher which Twitter users have higher prestige or socioeconomic upbringings, it is still possible. And if not, you can probably just look them up on Facebook or Myspace to confirm!

  2. Great post–really interesting to know that we’ll all be able to download our tweets from Twitter–I think this is going to change the way we understand persistence and searchability on Twitter. It’s great that you shed on how Twitter is so eager to say that it will please its users with its new technological affordances.

    I absolutely agree with you that Twitter has changed the field with following vs friending, but can we really reduce it down to just information? Is information really king? What about ideas of personal branding over social media? You bring up the fact that there are a lot of celebrities with millions of followers on Twitter. Some of them don’t even Tweet that much–the celebrity I believe is an interesting point to study when looking where Twitter, will be possibly going in the next few years.

  3. Also definitely interesting to see how Facebook uses generally bi-directional connections (questionable with the advent of subscribing to users) and Twitter can either be bi-directional or uni-directional, we don’t have to follow back the people we’re following and vice versa. How is this reshaping the idea of communities? I think that the people someone is following does in some ways affect/complicate relationships they have outside of that, I know many people who look at ratios and go into peoples lists to see who they follow, and information can be deducted from this.

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