My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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The Term “Social Network(ing) Sites”

Early in my research of Friendster, there was a great deal of discussion by sociologists about the name of these sites. Originally, the press was using the term “social networks” to describe them; this outraged the sociologists who ranted on and on about how these were not actually social networks. Since MySpace exploded, the media has chosen a new term “social networking sites.” Needless to say, this didn’t fare any better in the eyes of sociologists and i got critiqued at a social network conference for using this term. Likewise, on the mailing lists, there has been plenty of grumbling. Although i’m usually the first to defend whatever the mainstream term is, i have to agree with the sociologist’s critique.

“Social networks” are the network of relationships between individuals in society. Social scientists of all stripes study the social networks of people (and corporations, nation-states, animals, etc.). “Social networking” is a term that makes most social scientists cringe. As a verb, it is meant to signal the active process of seeking to build one’s social network. Not surprisingly, every business school goes out of its way to teach social networking to their students based on some hypotheses about how different relationship structures will help people at work. This active schmoozing makes my skin crawl because there’s nothing genuine about it.

By employing the term “social networking sites,” the media is doing a disservice to most people who participate on these sites. The connotation, especially to non-participants, is that people are running around these sites meeting strangers (… who are predators). EEK! We don’t want to think of our teens as networking with unknowns. (Moral panic ensues.) The verb form gives off a problematic impression and it obfuscates what people actually do on these sites. Most folks hang out with their friends. They go there to model their social network, not to engaging in social networking. (LinkedIn and other professional sites are different.)

While parents, authorities, and the media are using the term “social networking site,” it’s not what i’m hearing from teens. They don’t talk about the sites as a collection – they talk about MySpace and/or Facebook. The exception is when they reference the moral panic or parental concern. For example, “My parents don’t think that social networking sites are safe.” When they are talking about what they do, where they go, they use the brand names. Given that teens are not using the term except in reference to their parents, i’m going to stick with “social network sites” in an attempt to properly convey what is actually going on. I encourage others to do the same.

I realize that it’s too late to re-frame this term in public discourse but i also think that the issue needs to be highlighted. All too often we forget how our terms stem from and magnify our fears, subtly and unconsciously. Our terms carry politics with them.

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19 comments to The Term “Social Network(ing) Sites”

  • Hi,

    I liked that post very much. I’m not sure if there is etiquette for this kind of thing but are you cool with having a line or so from that quoted in a piece of work I’m doing?

  • “Not surprisingly, every business school goes out of its way to teach social networking to their students based on some hypotheses about how different relationship structures will help people at work. This active schmoozing makes my skin crawl because there’s nothing genuine about it.”

    I have to disagree with you on this point – this was not my experience in business school at all (University of Washington). Social networking was *not* taught and certainly there was nothing that encouraged disingenuous “active schmoozing” – which seems to naturally occur in all industries, in all workplaces, and at all levels, MBA or not.

  • I really don’t think most of the people who started/are in a panic about social networking sites would understand the difference between “social networking sites” and “social network sites.” The average soccer mom or parent who is scared of these sites are, at least from what I’ve seen just scared of technology and change.

    Drawing as fine a distinction as you are doing is probably overthinking the issue a little bit.

  • Hi, as you intimate in your discussion, audience is important. During participant observation of MySpace and through related interviews I too have seen a variety of means of describing both the activities played out and the place(s) encapsulated therein. For example users often refer synecdochally to ‘my MySpace’ as in ‘I’ve just put up a cool video on my MySpace’. Whereas if I were to frame MySpace in recent (socio-geographic) theoretical discourses I might prefer to explore it as a socio-technical assemblage.

    As for your distinction, you are certainly right to suggest there are politics in the terms we choose. I find the logic of your definition of the two terms ‘social networking sites’ and ‘social network sites’ problematic. You are implicitly defending these sites/services from a perceived threat, which I guess if you are explicit in explaining how you dervie this view is ok, but I wonder why you feel this defense is necessary? Why is ‘networking’ necessarily bad?

    Folowing this, if one were to see the most important aspect of these systems as the production, performance and maintainence of social linkages why carry forward the spatial metaphor ‘sites’? Why not ‘online social networks’? or ‘technically-mediated social networks’? I certainly agree that MySpace et al are places, but if we are going to the bother of thinking through the politics of these terms then surely we also need to (re)think the politics of the place(s) we are describing? For example, how are these places constituted?

    These are questions I am interested in addressing my own research, nominally within the discipline of geography, I’d be interested in your thoughts…

  • jenka gurfinkel

    perhaps the term “social networking site” came from the way that myspace / facebook, etc. actually positioned themselves?

    after all, selling the site as a place where people can come and hang out with their friends online isn’t particularly exciting (you can do that via email, im, etc).

    if you’re at that place of trying to attract the early adopters (who wouldn’t be joining simply because all of their friends are already on it), the fact that the majority of activity will, inevitably, be hanging out with your friends, isn’t really the selling point. the potential for network enhancement is.

  • I am mid-way to agreeing with you here. On the one hand, I can see your logic in thinking that “networkING” brings up images of meeting new people, but I don’t think it necessarily has a *negative* or particularly *dangerous* connotation (I am all for dispelling the fear-myths, but I am not convinced this is a point of origin for them). If anything, I think “networking” has a connotation of meeting unknown people in a *positive* way – in business (or academia), networking means that you connect up with people who will in some way enhance your work, your opportunity for growth or upward mobility, potential for collaboration, etc. This is very different from meeting people who would in some way harm you, or take advantage of you (of course it doesn’t preclude those things, but I don’t think that’s an immediate implication).

    Also, in terms of what gets done on the sites, it seems that there IS some networkING activity in the sense of “creating a network.” As we know, people aren’t JUST constructing reflections of offline networks, they’re enacting new/different ones, which usually intersect with the offline ones but also can look very different. And they do this not just by using the site’s features with a network once it’s established, but also by actively establishing it in the first place (i.e., offering and accepting/denying friend requests). To me, “network” sounds static and actually lacks some implication of the vitality of the sites as places of interaction, active social construction. You say that “as a verb, [“networking”] is meant to signal the active process of seeking to build one’s social network.” I don’t see how MySpace or Facebook does NOT do this (even if that’s not ALL they do), nor do I see why it should be such a repulsive concept to social scientists. I’m sort of one, but I’m not a sociologist, so is there something I’m totally missing here? I can see how you want to distinguish that it’s not networking like schmoozy business networking, but that connotation alone doesn’t quite cut it out of the picture completely for me.

    One last suggestion: perhaps part of the problem is that we parse the term “social networking site” as [[social networking] site] rather than [social [networking site]]? Where [social networking] is taken to imply that you’re actively seeking a “social network,” which of course isn’t what consciously goes in people’s heads when they befriendster someone, and also has a very technical meaning for social scientists. A “networking site” that’s “social,” on the other hand, could be the very thing we’re looking for: it’s like networking, only it’s explicitly for socializing – “hanging out” – not meeting potential clients, or bosses. Guess this doesn’t do away with the unknowns=predators issue, but again I’m not sure that is such the problem: when parents hear “networking,” my guess is that they don’t think of “meeting pedophile,” but probably think something like, “what does my 13-year-old need to be networking for?” (i.e. she’s not even old enough to have a job)

  • Bertil

    In my (academic) papers, I tend to define them quite generally, give some examples to show that no one is the same (hence the brand name, that carries distinction, connotation, history, usage) and call them “SNS”: it could be the acronym for “Social(izing) Nertwork(ing) Site/Services/Software”, but it’s more three convenient letters instead of a name.

    I haven’t made much presentation, but so far, I’ve always insisted on the fact the whole idea was new, and an accident: we need a new name, let’s pick up three random letter—“SNS” sounds like “SMS”, so it’s not perfect, but if, like “blog”, it doesn’t really have an sound etymology and a clear frontier, it’s fine.

    Same with “IM”, Instant Messaging — that thing everybody still calls “MSN”, though the service used to be called MSN *Messenger*, and is now Windows Live Messenger (but not “WLM” yet); no real frontier, as Skype & Co blurred the line with the phones.

    Brand are clear-cut; encompassing names aren’t, so they can’t convey as much value yet.

    To tell the truth, I use a special text editor (LaTeX) that lets you call commands: I type ‘\SNS’ in my paper and presentation, and try to chat around about my talk before presenting. Whatever suitable expression comes out of the preliminary conversations, I have it replace all the ‘\SNS’ by the program instantly, just before beaming my slides. I like the idea of a “non-relevant” blank field, because it conveys this idea that it does not really fully exist yet, it still has no name.

    I understand you’ like to have a good name for your topic — so would I — but if you ask me, I’d say it’s like love: the best way to find it is not by looking for it.

  • More and more – for the sake of brevity – I’ve just been calling them “social sites” in my blog and newsletter. And they kind of just are that – I agree that teens don’t seem to be networking so much as socializing on them. Curious if sociologist would take umbrage with that. 😉

  • i agree with your overall point that the words we choose have meanings we all need to think about, and understand your academic/linguistic argument, i disagree with this:

    “Most folks hang out with their friends. They go there to model their social network, not to engaging in social networking.”

    i have personally met many new people on such sites, particularly Tribe.net – people i did NOT meet IRL first, who struck up engaging email conversations, and who i then proceeded to meet face to face. so, while *many* people only go online to talk to people they already know, i myself do actually use such sites to expand my existing social network, and thus the term DOES apply to me.

    so then the question i have then is: even if the majority of people are NOT using the site for “social networking” in the sociological sense of the term, but the site ALLOWS people to engage in that practice if they wish, is it not then a social networking site? does how people use the site determine it’s categorization, not how the site is designed? from a software standpoint, i think i would say that the design of the site is what determines its categorization; not how it is eventually used.

  • I completely agree with Anne. Networking is what these sites are about by means of their structure (data and interface structure). Calling them Social Network Sites makes not much difference to classical forms of online communities (without FOAF-options). This way you could loose just the notion you need to describe this difference. IMHO it’s the FOAF-principle which reduces contingency (e.g. to have no clue about who the other is) and the problem of trust in online communities.

  • What about using “social media” as the larger umbrella term? Within that category, you could then mark out sites like MySpace or Facebook or Minty as networks or online networks. At iMediaConnection.com, where I am the exec editor, we are toying with changing over to “social media” as the umbrella term for blogs, MySpace, and the like.

    And I’d like to second Heidi Adkisson’s objection to your notion that business networking is inherently false– it certainly CAN be false, but just because networking has an over and capitalist agenda doesn’t make the connections, when they occur, any less genuine than in an environment bounded by a school affiliation (Facebook) or no affilation (MySpace) or any other affiliation (Tribe, Gather…). I’ve made real friends in all my careers, and also made acquaintances with whom I hang out only while I’m in that field.

    One failure as a social network — speaking only from my own experience — is LinkedIn. It’s a handy service and I use it regularly, but it seems to only be a resource, a space, rather than an online place where I’d go to connect with folks in a more meaningful way.

    This all lends pressure to the question about what defines an online community. Michael Gilbert of the Center for the Digital Future and I have a running debate about whether dating sites count as online communities. He thinks they don’t. I think they do. Just because somebody joins a community with an agenda and with only a transient commitment to the community, as in many dating sites, that doesn’t, to my way of thinking, make the community any less a community. We certainly tend to think of our schools as communities, but we’re only in those for a short time and with a clear agenda.

    More generally still, I think that it IS worthwhile to, as Ms. Boyd has done in her initial post, take seriously the needs and opinions of traditional social scientists. The commercially available internet is still relatively new, and so being able to communicate productively with traditional social science seems worthwhile, particularly if we want to advocate for the internet within those communities.

    All best,

    Brad Berens, Ph.D.
    Exec Editor
    iMedia Communications
    http://www.imediaconnection.com
    & now blogging at
    http://www.mediavorous.com

  • I apologize – i’ve been offline and unable to respond to the comments here.

    Here’s the thing… Networking is *perceived* as problematic by most parents AND it’s not what most youth do. It obfuscates their primary practice and improperly conveys the intention of most users on most of these systems. The sites originally positioned themselves as “social networks” without the site. The phrase “social networking site” came about through the media. And you will often hear parents on TV ask why their teens need to be networking. (And it’s not just a matter of for business, it’s for anything.)

    I think it’s great that some folks are networking on these sites but i think to assume that it’s the primary practice is problematic. It’s a framing issue.

    Lauren – i like your point about [repartitioning] but i think that it’s not what people hear. And it’s certainly not what the sociologists hear when folks talk about social networking as a practice.

    While social media is great for an overarching term, there are good reasons to talk about this particular kind of site and namely, the primary feature that is being offered: the explicit articulation of “friends” that results in a visible network that people can navigate. In this way, i talk about LinkedIn and an SNS but not as a public where folks hang out. It’s pretty asocial in that way.

  • Looks like most of the commenters thus far are talking about the fear of these sites, so I’d like to talk about the hope.

    At their best, these sites (whatever the end up being called) support social networks by providing additional communications & sharing tools, and (most exciting to me personally) encouraging people to think about the many interpersonal connections they already have in their lives. This can, I think, lead to a moment of enlightment as more people realize that we are all connected.

    In practice, however, it seems that most of these sites just get in the way of existing networks — either through ad saturation like evite, or poorly designed and/or unusably slow UI like so many, or easily foreseen privacy debacles and general FUD like we’ve seen recently with myspace, facebook, etcetera.

    But with any of those, it seems to me that social networks are still very much the core of what these sites are offering and/or trying to capitalize upon — so perhaps the term still fits.

  • Justin Ellis

    hi, i didnt read your blog, but i did see you in a picture with meghan terhune on blogher or whatever that was, i’ve been trying to get a hold of her forever i dont have any of her contact info, would you happen to know her email , or phone number or something? i’m an old friend that hasn’t talked to her in ages. i really miss her and would like to get a hold of her somehow. please get back to me! my email is stzaellis@yahoo.com or my phone number is 1-206-861-5953.

    thank you so much

    -Justin Ellis

  • cat!

    Hi, I just came upon this post and havent read all replies yet… so this entry may have evolved into something else already, but I just want to state about the main topic….maybe its because Im in Malaysia or maybe its just my age (not young) that I only came upon the term “social networking sites” pretty late this year.
    Even wrote a feature about it, but from the tech industry point of view which hardly scratches the surface of what Danah is doing here.

    To the point it never occurred to me that the term was inaccurate. But, in all honesty…I think it could even generally refer to a blog community like those found on ie. Blogspot, Blogsome, etc etc.

    After all, arent the conventional social networking websites taking on text blog features now? And even video/music blogging etc.?

    The same is almost true of blogs…the hardworking bloggers or at least those who’d like to retain more of their identity without having a MySpace or Facebook brand, go to the extent of adding features so that their friends, visitors can not only just visit but can also leave comments or chat. Or drop in to view a video or listen to music.

    From what I understand – Social networks (online)or social networking sites create the structures (blogs, photo sharing sites etc etc) for peeps to locate each other and communicate (if they wish), or even keep friends and relatives in the know about going-ons. Too lazy to mass email peeps about how your weekend turned out? Just send them link to your blog. IMHO. (Or is there another term for this relationship structure and way of communication?)

  • Emma Pele

    I’m always amazed when academics in a particular field turn into the language police. Language is always changing. Words are taken and adapted by different groups of people. And, in fact, this will happen more and more in the world of. . . dare I say it. . .social networking! What will happen if we set the words free to be used as people like? Is the fear of a potential ego loss, a fear that the basis on which these edifices are built might crumble? Well, doubtful. I think the teens know more than the academics, since they are perfectly savvy about context.

  • gobiram

    hai,
    i want to make many friends,please help me for the same.

  • In on of the descriptions of networking, it was about being a better person, selling or whatever. To me that is the difference. We are all part of many social networks from the time we are very small. People had social networks before there were computers or the Internet. We don’t make those networks to get something and often we have to think hard to even know they are there. They are like language, we use it all the time but don’t pay attention to it too often. In fact, it requres special training to go meta to it.

    I tend to think of “networking” as instrumental. One networks to get something. Joel Podonly, a highly regarded network analyst now at Harvard says “by the time you need to network – it’s too late.” We can use the networks we have built in our lives for information and lots of cool stuff, but they are not built by trying to get things out of people, they are built by giving to or exchanging things with people. If someone goes to a party to sell real estate, there are lots of influence techniques he or she can use to develop rapport with someone he or she meets, and sometimes that can be effective. The individuals may become part of that person’s social networks. But to think of this a all of what social networks are is missing the core of social networks.

    Because of how much we learn by social learning, social networks teach us, they give words meaning, they are the source of or beliefs and values, they even influence and to some degree create or personalities. Our very personhood come from context.

  • Dermot Ryan

    my experience is Networks mania is for immature millions ‘Running around’ – Huge scrabbling in, dross unrelated out.

    my experience is: Scrabble in and get 66% unrelated and 20% odious spam exploitation out