Tweaking the Definition of Social Networking Sites

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.

Instagram now claims more U.S. daily users than Twitter, across both apps and web. Source: ComScore

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?



  1. Great blog post Caysey, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I have to agree with you that the ability to media content from inside and outside social media networks is an absolutely crucial feature in social media. The process you are talking about here is called social syndication, which is basically when you have a social networking account that is posting on multiple social networking platforms at once. Most social websites today allow users to sync their social media accounts (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Tumblr, Meetup, Blogger) to their pages, and updates from these various sites will get thrown into a syndication feed. This allows people to interact in ways they prefer, rather than creating a unique interaction platform when many others will suffice. With blogging for example, there are many tools to syndicate your blog feed on both Facebook and Twitter. By linking the accounts together, you are cutting out one extra step for yourself. You just tweet about it on your Twitter and it will instantly be up on your Facebook feed as well.

  2. I love the fourth allowance you add to SNS sites. I think sharing media content from inside and outside SNS has become an integral part of all new SNS that have arose since this article was writing, specifically with twitter. On the other hand, do we really want to welcome the governmental to step in and protect our social media profiles? I’m not sure government intervention is the best direction…One of the affordances of SNS is that people are able to go on and become whoever they so desire. Bringing in the government to protect profiles from advertisers might also bring an unnecessary condition that, in order for the government to protect profiles, people have to be completely truthful about who they are. This would ultimately be contrary to what SNS is used by some for. Your blog suggests a well-thought analysis, one that I’m not sure how to answer. Am I ok with advertisers using/accessing my profile without my consent? I guess my answer would lie in what the alternative would be if I said no.

  3. I believe that our social media profiles deserve the same treatment our medical records, financial records, or any private information receives. That information is protected by law because doing it not only protects our identity but also our right to privacy. I think we should have that same piece of mind within an SNS,. And there should be laws in place that keep our profiles protected from unwarranted invasions. Those invasions could come in a number of ways, you mentioned advertisers, but there is also the risk of identity thieves, sexual predators, police investigating your social media without needing a warrant, employers requiring you to give them access to your accounts, and probably several other risks. I think you can have government protection and retain the freedom to use the space as you desire. The overarching point is that we should have the right to have our identity and privacy protected. That is not to say that we should have the government tell us how we can use the space.

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