Since its debut in the digital world in the late 90s, the term social network has been linked to websites that have transformed the way people around the world connect and interact with one another. While the Oxford English Dictionary defines a “social network” as a system of social interactions and relationships or a group of people who are socially linked to one another, this term also can be applied to the context of a website and its users. These websites, according to danah boyd and Nicole Ellison’s definition, give individuals the option to create a semi-public or public profile within a confined site system, construct a list of users they are connected with, as well as access to see other users profiles and lists.
But long before the birth of the internet, the term social network made its first appearance in 1845 through the work of an American temperance orator named John B. Gough. In his work An Autobiography, he uses the term in connection to his addiction as well as to describe the societal snares that draw him away from his actual home and responsibilities. He states, “Alas! forgetful of a husband’s home duties I again became involved in a dissipated social network, whose fatal meshes too surely entangled me . . .” He thus taints the term with a negative, consuming quality as well as draws a clear distinction between the realms of the social network and his home life. These sorts of issues foreshadowed the even greater complexities that would come once computers were involved with social networks.
It was not until 1998 in Business Wire, however, that the term “social network” was used in its more common, contemporary form as a signifier for an online community. A year earlier in 1997, the first recognizable social network site had formed under the name SixDegrees. Drawing from the theory that anyone can be connected to another individual through a chain of relations of no more than five intermediaries, his website provided its users with the ability to create personal profiles, lists of their Friends, as well as access to their Friends’ lists. By supplying these different facets of interaction in one place, SixDegrees revolutionized the content and capabilities of social-based sites. As David Kirkpatrick notes, “The sixdegrees service was the first online business that attempted to identify and map a set of real relationships between real people using their real names, and it was visionary for its time.“ Just as in offline social constructs in which people interact with a chain of friends of friends, SixDegrees allowed one to connect with those who are up to six degrees or links of one’s friends of friends away. But due to operating costs as well as users’ complaints over limited interactive capabilities past Friend Requests, the site was shut down in 2000.
The next big development in social network sites came in 2002 with the creation of Friendster. It was set up as a competitor to the dating site Match.com by aiding friends of friends, who had similar interests, in meeting one another. Friendster adopted the degree connection of SixDegrees and limited its users from going farther than four degrees of separation. But the site did not stop where SixDegrees ended – it enhanced the experience by providing the ability to upload pictures on one’s profile and connect the offline world more to the online one. dannah boyd explains further the significance of Friendster’s site setup, ““Friendster was not the first online tool to juxtapose and make visible global and proximate social contexts, but it was the first tool popular enough to test of the limits of the concept . . .” So while Friendster did not completely change the construction or essence of social network sites, it did show the potential for online social worlds. In fact, issues that led to the decline of the site’s popularity, such as how it handled Fakesters who created profiles under fake names or identities, inspired others to create social networks that met more of the needs of its users.
MySpace, for instance, was partly born out of the falters of Friendster and it used the other social network’s mistakes to elevate itself to the top. It began in 2003 under the direction of Tom Anderson, Chris DeWolfe, and Brad Greenspan. By not applying a rigid real identity-based service or certain, uniform design for people’s profiles, MySpace soon attracted Fakesters, bands, and those who wanted more freedom with their profile page. But allowing users to act unrestrained or use HTML code to decorate their pages was not the whole reason why the site took as much of a hold as it did – the greater use of broadband internet and allowance of minors to establish profiles also played into its success as well as accessibility. The site culminated in 2005 with News Corporation purchasing MySpace for $580 million. While it remains one of the most used social networking sites, a challenger now simply known as Facebook overtook it in 2008 and redefined the potential power social networks could have over offline society.
Formed in 2004 under the name Thefacebook, it was the project of a nineteen-year-old Harvard student named Mark Zuckerberg. It was originally made exclusively for students at Harvard but then was expanded to support other colleges and universities. By 2005, the site had opened up to high school students and then later to professionals as well as everyone else. On the site, users create personal profile pages under his or her real name where one can post pictures, contact information, and a variety of personal data. Facebook also provides a variety of distinctive interactive features, such as the Wall, a space for Friends of the user to post messages; the Status Bar, a device that allows the user to share messages with all his or her Friends; and a News Feed system that appears on every user’s home page to update about changes in Friends’ profile information, events, etc. As of October 2010, Facebook had 500 million active users and more than 70 translations available of it.
This evolution of Six Degrees to the present, dominating social network Facebook shows not only a development in the structure of social network sites but the firmer grasp they have obtained over the offline world. These websites have transformed how we gain information, define our relationships, and communicate with others. As Paul Levinson notes, the Status Bars on both MySpace and Facebook allow one not only to post one’s activities or general thoughts but also questions that can be answered by others. If old media based news channels fail to report an event or a search-engine does not bring up the desired results, one can utilize the new media provided by social network sites to gain answers.
One can also inform others through Groups, affiliations of users that can use their own page to post text, video, pictures, and videos on their topic of interest. Most notably of interest, political based groups have used Facebook as a platform their causes with awe-inspiring results. For example, the group “Un Millon de Voces Contra Las FARC” led to massive demonstrations, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, in Columbia. Political campaign groups have also taken notice of the power of social media as an economical and effective way to reach voters.
In terms of relationships and communication, social network sites have provided a new medium for people to connect and communicate easily through to others, regardless of one’s location in the world. The use of Friend Requests allows the development of these sorts of interactions as well as a network of strong and loose ties of friendship. While one has the potential to “friend” strangers, sites like Facebook generally show offline social connections behind online friendships, such as attendance at the same college. But actions taken on social network sites regarding one’s friends can have impacts on one’s relationships in the offline world. For example, “defriending” or removing another user as your Friend online is often viewed as an affront or display of severed ties in the offline context. The phrase “Facebook official” has also become a colloquial expression that signifies a romantic relationship listed on two users’ profiles. It conveys that the affiliation has become legitimate, as both mutually acknowledge its romantic context online.
Although Marshall McLuhan was never able to personally witness the rise of Web-based social networks, his writings on the extensions of man in new media seem to provide insight into potential consequences entities like MySpace and Facebook could bring. In his work Understanding Media, McLuhan likens that new media or technology, from the wheel to television, is “an extension of ourselves”” or extension of our senses. Present social network sites, in the frame of digital media, would also fit within this scheme.
But McLuhan indicates that a danger lies in this immersion into media and he warns of the downfalls man can encounter by becoming captivated by his own image in outside materials. He uses the myth of Narcissus as an illustration of the negative consequences: “This extension of himself [Narcissus] by mirror numbed his perceptions until he became the servomechanism of his own extended image . . . He had adapted to his extension of himself and had become a closed system.” One essentially loses himself in the media and becomes detached from the outside environment they once inhabited.
As social network sites provide profile pages to reflect the likeness of the user, this form of media seems to present an even greater risk than previous forms. While books or the radio served as extensions of man, these never specifically reflected the individual utilizing them. By imitating the self in images, words, and Friend connections, social networks provide a truer mirror for the Narcissus like user to be fascinated and entrapped by. And as people currently spend 700 billion minutes per month on Facebook, one can only wonder how numb McLuhan would think we have already become from this new form of media.
Contemporary theorists have also explored the relation social networks have to the self and its identity. Matt Hills, for example, has examined the use of profile pictures and the exhibition of the individual. He states that entities like Facebook “. . . place a new-found digital-cultural emphasis on the presentation of the self. Such an emphasis typically hinges on, and reinforces, the use of mobile digital media to capture and image moments of self-expression, identity, and play.” The image of the user changes not only to reflect the individual’s shifting offline social life but also as a way for others to gauge the user when they are examining their Friends’ profiles. These “up-to-the-minute performances of self” to the expansive social network sites show a shift in the way we interpret and judge one another as well as ourselves.
Social networks, in the context of digital media on the internet, have thus changed the way we connect to and communicate with others as well as how we define ourselves and our friendships. Yet the potential for social network sites has still only just been tapped and only the future will reveal how far these sites will mimic as well as impact the offline world. Just as the film-portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg states in the movie “The Social Network” regarding the promise of Facebook, “We don’t know what it is, what it can be, what it will be. All we know is that it’s cool; that’s a priceless asset and we’re not giving it up.”
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Hills. “Case Study: Social Networking and Self-Identity” in Digital Cultures: Understanding New Media, edited by Glen Creeber and Royston Martin, 117. Glasgow: Bell & Bain Ltd, 2009.
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