When I was a kid I loved going on message boards. My favorites were Her Interactive’s message boards for their Nancy Drew PC games. My mom set me up with an account in September of 2004 and at a mere 12 years old I started going online asking questions whenever I got stuck in a game. After familiarizing myself with the norms of the board, I garnered some courage, and started responding to other users’ posts. Soon after I realized that beyond the hints’ boards there were even more boards just for talking about what books they would base future games on, about our opinions of the games, and so much more. These were places where you really got to know other members of the message boards, and developed relationships with the other posters who shared your thoughts and ideas. You’re probably wondering why I’m telling you this. Aside from getting extremely nostalgic, it’s because this was my first taste of not only a social networking site, but of developing relationships online with people I didn’t know previous to this interaction. Maybe it’s not a social networking site in the typical MySpace/Friendster/Facebook sort of way, but it was definitely something similar in the sense that I was talking with people I didn’t necessarily know in real life.
This raises an interesting question – were these people ever really my friends? Did I develop genuine relationships with these people? In order to understand that it’s important to understand what the term ‘friend’ actually implies. This was the central idea investigated in danah boyd’s paper “Friends, Friendsters, and MySpace Top 8: Writing Community Into Being on Social Network Sites”. In her paper boyd seeks to understand “what Friendship means and how Friendship affects the culture of some sites.” Through an analysis of both Friendster and MySpace, boyd sought to explain the phenomenon of Friending, and how these Friends differ from the friends we have in the real world.
This leads me to wonder can there exist any truly objective definition for the word ‘friend’ that is relevant to both our online and offline friendships? The definition boyd provides according to “everyday vernacular” is “a friend is a relationship that involves some degree of mutual love or admiration.” While I’m the first to admit that I have a big heart and love a lot of people, do I really love my 606 Facebook friends? Even after only adding people that I know (mind you some of them I know from meeting them online) I definitely do not love, or even particularly admire some of these people. My Friendships were formed for different reasons – we shared a class, we shared a friend, we shared a meaningful conversation on a different SNS or message board, the reasons could go on and on. Just because they’re my Friend, doesn’t mean they’re my friend, which is what I believe is what boyd is trying to get across and is still relevant today.
One of the main reasons I think this article needs to be updated is because both MySpace and Friendster are fairly irrelevant nowadays (though I hear MySpace is making a comeback? This is good news because I LOVE MySpace so much more than any other SNS, but that’s another story for another blog post). I think it would be compelling for boyd to come back to this paper and apply her analysis to Facebook, as it has taken over as the most popular SNS. A lot has changed since 2006 when this paper was first published. On Facebook users are not forced to rank their friends as on MySpace nor encouraged to collect as many contacts as possible as on Friendster. I can only speak of my personal experiences with the site, but with Facebook I friend/accept friend requests only from people I know. And while these people may not necessarily all be my friends, they’re definitely all at the very least acquaintances. Additionally, Facebook gives its users the opportunity to put their friends into different lists, so if they desire they have the freedom to show different groups different portions of themselves and could even put some Friends on limited profile, though let’s face the facts – most people don’t even touch their privacy settings. Again though, that’s another tangent for another blog post.
I acknowledge that not everyone thinks the same way that I do and that some people add Friends without even knowing who they are adding. This is exposed in an article recently posted in The Guardian called, “Facebook and Twitter: The Art of Unfriending or Unfollowing People”. For the most part the article describes this awkward act – going even so far as to declare any unwanted Facebook friends as “clutter” (which is a disturbing, yet accurate, metaphor when you realize that they’re talking about people). It’s true though, when you look objectively at your newsfeed and realize you don’t know/care about most people whose posts are appearing, you realize that you have a problem. What’s even worse is that people aren’t notified when they’re unfriended, so you have no idea when (if ever) they will realize that you’ve chosen to sever ties with them. This article emphasizes that society is reaching a point where Facebook users acknowledge that they have too many connections to people who aren’t their friends, and we’re tired of using politeness as an excuse to remain Friends with them, instead of just outrightly admitting that we don’t care about them.
Furthermore, I think an update is necessary to assess if users still perform their relationships on Facebook as boyd claims they did on MySpace and Friendster. boyd stated, “The public nature of these sites requires participants to perform their relationships to others.” I disagree, and think that this point needs to be reassessed to acknowledge that these sites don’t require us to perform our relationships, but instead to perform our selves. It’s easy to see how we put up a performance of ourselves, as exposed by Shakespeare’s claim, “All the world’s a stage.” We set up how we are perceived by others – we design our profile, choosing a picture to identify ourselves with, list our interests, etc. We can choose to ‘hide’ anything we don’t want others to see and untag ourselves from unflattering images – we have the freedom to filter our profile so that our Friends are forced only to encounter who we want them to see, giving them a false sense of our true self. We are not performing our relationships, we are putting on a performance of self that another person can interact with. While the performance, however, can vary from person to person as we interact with different contacts, it is still a performance of self, and not a performance of relationship.
While the relationships I built on Her Interactive seemed significant at the time, looking back I can barely remember the usernames of my closest Friends. At the time of interaction I genuinely considered my fellow users my friends. I think a reanalysis of boyd’s paper is necessary not only due to a change in popular Social Networking Sites, but also because I’d be interested in what she’d have to say about other not so typical SNSs, like message boards. Finally, I firmly believe we are not performing relationships, but instead are just performing different versions of our self which I feel definitely warrants a reassessment of how boyd analyzed relationships in this article.