Social Media: Who’s Watching?

Social networking sites have reached unprecedented popularity in the last few years. According to the Pew Research Center, “just 29% of online adults used social networking sites” in 2005, while “[t]oday, that figure has more than doubled to 72%.”[1] More important than the growth in SNS usage is how people have adapted to this process. N. B. Ellison and D. Boyd’s research shows that people’s practices have evolved along with the rise of social networking sites. What once consisted of “a self-presentational message created by the individual” has shifted into a “dynamic combination of content provided by the user […], content provided by others […], and/or system-provided content”[2] – and this has big implications for both those who use and those who study SNSs.

On a scientific level, researchers face the challenge of trying to keep up with the rapidly-changing technological environment. Ellison and Boyd warn that scholars have to be especially careful to document the settings of their research, because SNSs’ variable nature means that their findings may not still be true by the time they are published. Additionally, they state that unlike tv and radio content, the content that reaches SNS users is uniquely generated based on their individual networks. From a marketing and messaging perspective, the participatory culture now present in social media has introduced a new, powerful tool: the ability to share subject matter across sites. Henry Jenkins affirms that YouTube has ushered in an era where content’s highest value is in spreadability.[3]

With so many people now following our online activities, important issues have to be addressed about just how much of our information is visible, both on purpose and inadvertently.  B.A. Nardi, D.J. Schiano, and M. Gumbrecht raise an interesting question while investigating blogging: “Why would so many people post their diaries – perhaps the most intimate form of personal musing – on the most public communication medium in human history, the Internet?”[4]  Nardi et al. discover that a variety of reasons exist for why bloggers in particular allow other people to read their writings, including updating friends and family, expressing opinions, and thinking by writing. Yet no matter what one’s underlying reasons for writing blogs or maintaining profiles are, the most groundbreaking fact is that for the first time there is a detailed record of our lives that is being preserved and displayed on the internet for whoever we choose (or occasionally don’t choose) to see.

I have mixed feelings about the wealth of personal information that exists online through SNSs. It seems that the advances, such as being able to easily maintain cross-continental friendships, have so far drastically outweighed the consequences, but as a member of the last generation with an anonymous childhood, I can’t help but be a little relieved that my parents did not have Facebook during my diaper years.

[1]Maeve Duggan, “It’s a woman’s (social media) world”
[2] N. B. Ellison and D. Boyd, “Sociality through Social Network Sites,” in The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies, ed. W.H. Dutton (Oxford: Oxford University Press , 2013), 155
[3] Henry Jenkins, “9 Propositions Towards a Cultural Theory of YouTube”
[4] B.A. Nardi, D.J.  Schiano, & M. Gumbrecht, “Blogging as a social activity, or would you let 900 million people read your diary? “ In Proceedings of CHI 2004 (2004), 239

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