Community, to me, is the most pure form of comfort and contentment that we as social beings can experience. Community is the sense of being wanted, needed, appreciated, or included in a group setting of any sort—united by cause, status, identity, location, or any other method of differentiation. The strongest communities between individuals are formed when there is active engagement on the part of all the participants, when acquaintances become strongly bonded by a shared sense of duty or belonging. An instant and implied community is formed when individuals become friends, but a deeper and better-defined community is collectively created when some of said friends engage with each other on the much more specific and intimate level of, say, forming a club around a shared interest.
In her 2006 article “Friends, Friendsters, and MySpace Top 8: Writing Community Into Being on Social Network Sites,” danah boyd examines the formation of community in two examples of these mediated spaces, specifically the social network sites (SNS) Friendster and MySpace. boyd distinguishes how a “friend” (indicative of physical shared space) and a “Friend” (found in the digital spaces of SNS) are two entirely separate concepts and explains how she aims to investigate “what Friendship means and how Friendship affects the culture of the sites.” Through her examination of the Friending practices of circa-2006 Friendster and MySpace users, boyd finds the politics of Friending and de-Friending individuals particularly loaded and argues, “Friendship helps people write community into being in social network sites.” While an agreeable and certainly well supported thesis statement, her argument nevertheless is in need of revision in light of both the passing of time and the technological developments that have progressed from the time of the article’s publishing.
Friendster, as boyd notes, instated the semantic practice of calling the individuals who networked with each other “Friends,” and one would have to “add” or “Friend” another (and wait for the other’s pending approval) to incorporate another individual into his/her/zir’s network. In Friendster and MySpace, sites primarily predicated on “Friendship” between users, community was formed naturally through the practice of choosing whether or not to Friend a person, and since the act of Friending was the only main interactive function of these sites, nuance and politics in the decision to Friend soon arose. When Friendster users attempted to create fake profiles for shared interests (like Homer Simpson or Brown University) in order to Friend and add to networked lists, Friendster administrators eliminated these “Fakester” profiles “in what was eventually termed the Fakester Genocide,” thus eliminating a method by which to form community because it did not fit within the framework of Friendster (profiles intended only for real individuals, etc.). From a current (i.e., 2012) perspective, boyd’s argument proves obsolete, as the methods of community creation have shifted markedly since 2006 with the evolution and popularity of SNS such as Facebook.
Facebook, now the de facto SNS of the American public, affords many more and better opportunities for users to exploit to find and create strong communities. Merely being Friends (a term based on Friendster that has carried over) with an individual no longer distinguishes any real sense of community as compared to the Facebook options to create or join groups or “like” pages; while a Friend list now only designates which other individuals a certain person “knows” (or at least claims to know), pages for celebrities reveal which users are fans through the amount of “likes” posted, and groups can keep communities of current classmates or attendees of the same former high school alike together through a system that promote text-based interaction and information delivery. Facebook-exclusive features like pages (which can in fact form communities among individuals who are not already Friends), groups, posts, comments, and the act of “poking” others (unforgivable, in my book) encourage interactive practices by design and demand participation, while Friending in the Friendster sense is static. A Facebook group community is as active as the frequency of its participants’ posts; a Friendster Friend list need only be amassed and even looked at once by an individual, and therefore the social media-shy individual is not a true participant in a SNS community.
Testaments to the strength of Facebook-formed communities over the weak and now-defunct Friendster community abound. A recent WebProNews article documents a Lab42 survey that found that “50% of people find brands’ Facebook pages more useful than their websites.” The firm attributes these staggering findings to the fact that communities formed around liking Facebook pages is stronger than ever: “liking is one of the primary ways people exert their tastes and preferences online, and it has created an entirely new type of conversation – one between consumers and brands.” Then, too, techradar recently wrote on how “Facebook Gifts could be the social network’s gift that keeps on giving,” as the high traffic of the virtual gift-trading community on Facebook has given rise to a new business plan to sell physical gifts for individuals to ship to one another via the familiarity of the Facebook feed. This program has already attracted high-profile vendors like Starbucks, GUND, and Magnolia Bakery to sell their products on the Facebook marketplace.
Of course, boyd’s piece proves importance still in many areas. In her article’s emphasis on the community formed by Friending, boyd emphasizes the undeniable importance (if not dominance) of the process of Friending as a community shaper, which in its way still rings true: though the communities of Facebook are strongest in specialized areas, most are only able to form through the foundation of the classic Friend list as started by Friendster. The enduring (perhaps surprising) importance of Friendster is further proven in a recent Mashable piece, in which Friendster’s founder, Jonathan Abrams, is profiled as the creator of a new social-news app called Nuzzel. The article notes that Abrams “previously launched Socializr and HotLinks” as well as Friendster, and that he “created the site based on his Twitter experiences,” giving credence to both his legacy as a father of modern SNS and the importance of newer social network technologies building off of the foundations and features of older ones.
Nevertheless, boyd’s article would do in a revised edition to emphasize the importance of the concept of Friending as a foundation for future SNS, but highlight the affordances and spaces within Facebook beyond the simple Friend list as the areas where true and meaningful mediated communities, much like the ones in “real life,” are written into being.