Social networking sites (SNS) could mean different things to different people. Likewise, the conventions for an SNS can vary from person to person. However, from an academic perspective, articulating a workable definition of an SNS should be an ongoing challenge.
Danah Boyd and Nicole Ellison took on the challenge of defining what a social networking site is while the phenomenon was still in its general infancy. In their article “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship,” Boyd and Ellison provide the foundation for defining an SNS.
We define social network sites as web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system. The nature and nomenclature of these connections may vary from site to site. (211)
I endorse all three allowances without question. I think they are at the very core of every prominent SNS. That said, I think coupling technological changes with changes in convention of use beg for a fourth allowance to be added. Therefore I introduce this: (4) share media content from inside and outside SNS.
In all fairness, this article was published in 2007. At that time Twitter was a burgeoning technology that had yet to even develop a retweet button. Facebook allowed you to share links to content outside its own network, but user image sharing was clunky, and videos had to be uploaded and could not be embedded. And of course, SNS’s like Instagram, Pinterest and SOUNDCLOUD did not exist. Boyd and Ellison do discus media sharing sites like YouTube and Flickr, however they are hesitant to define them as SNS, and instead refer to them as content sharing sites that implement SNS features.
I think it was valid in 2007 to demarcate content sharing sites that implement SNS features from sites that strictly adhere to Boyd and Ellison’s allowances. But today I feel the lines have been blurred, and content sharing has become a necessary allowance. You could even argue that content sharing is becoming a principle convention of use for many social media users. WIRED’s Ryan Tate points out that Instagram use has “septupled” in use in just six months, and has now passed Twitter for mobile use. This indicates that technology has changed the way we use social networking sites, and perhaps also suggests what we want out of a social networking site – connecting to others and the ability to share media content.
Instagram is an interesting case study into the phenomenon of content sharing. Aside from its rapid growth, The Wall Street Journal’s Katherine Rosman illustrates that advertisements are now imitating the images we take on our smartphones, which we than share on multiple social networking sites. According to Rosman, clothing company Rebecca Minkoff published an ad that featured Instagram photographs. Taco Bell has also noticed the shifting trend and launched an Instagram campaign of its own. Commercializing social media type content indicates that the sharing of media content is not just a trend, but also a normative practice within an SNS. Therefore, I think a revision is needed for Boyd and Ellison’s definition. You don’t have to just take my word for it; at the end of this post is an infographic that illustrates the growth in content sharing since the Boyd and Ellison piece was written.
Sharing your own content can be problematic, however. Privacy is an obvious concern when you share images, videos, or now with SOUNDCLOUD, your music. Boyd and Ellison raise some points about the legalities of privacy that still hold up today, despite changes in technology and conventions of use. They cite Matthew J. Hodge when they explain that, “the fourth amendment to the U.S. Constitution and legal decisions concerning privacy are not equipped to address social network sites” (222) Thus, they conclude there could be tricky legal issues concerning the protection of “private” profiles.
When we fast-forward to today, as in September 27, 2012, we see that these concerns are starting to be addressed at the governmental level. The Los Angeles Times reports that today, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a social media privacy bill into law (then tweeted about it). The law is said to protect “unwarranted” invasions of social media accounts. A similar bill has already passed in Maryland, and likely many more states will follow.
I would welcome more governmental action aimed to protect social media profiles. I would also welcome ways for individuals to protect their content from commercial use without consent. Taco Bell, for example, gained the rights to its ad’s photos from Instagram and not the users. This goes beyond privacy, it raises questions about content ownership and licensing. Should the SNS have ownership rights over the content we upload? I would argue no. That said, like most, I too click accept on terms and conditions without ever reading them. So who am I to protest?