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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social network sites: my definition

I would like to offer my working definition of “social network sites” per confusion over my request for a timeline.

A “social network site” is a category of websites with profiles, semi-persistent public commentary on the profile, and a traversable publicly articulated social network displayed in relation to the profile.

To clarify:

  1. Profile. A profile includes an identifiable handle (either the person’s name or nick), information about that person (e.g. age, sex, location, interests, etc.). Most profiles also include a photograph and information about last login. Profiles have unique URLs that can be visited directly.
  2. Traversable, publicly articulated social network. Participants have the ability to list other profiles as “friends” or “contacts” or some equivalent. This generates a social network graph which may be directed (“attention network” type of social network where friendship does not have to be confirmed) or undirected (where the other person must accept friendship). This articulated social network is displayed on an individual’s profile for all other users to view. Each node contains a link to the profile of the other person so that individuals can traverse the network through friends of friends of friends….
  3. Semi-persistent public comments. Participants can leave comments (or testimonials, guestbook messages, etc.) on others’ profiles for everyone to see. These comments are semi-persistent in that they are not ephemeral but they may disappear over some period of time or upon removal. These comments are typically reverse-chronological in display. Because of these comments, profiles are a combination of an individuals’ self-expression and what others say about that individual.

This definition includes all of the obvious sites that i talk about as social network sites: MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, Cyworld, Mixi, Orkut, etc. Some of the obvious players like LinkedIn are barely social network sites because of their efforts to privatize the articulated social network but, given that it’s possible, I count them (just like i count MySpace even when the users turn their profiles private).

There are sites that primarily fit into other categories but contain all of the features of social network sites. This is particularly common with sites that were once a different type of community site but have added new features. BlackPlanet, AsianAvenue, MiGente, QQ, and Xanga all fit into this bucket. I typically include LiveJournal as a social network site but it is sorta an edge-cases because they do not allow you to comment on people’s profiles. They do however allow you to publicly comment on the blog entries. For this reason, Dodgeball is also a problem – there are no comments whatsoever. In many ways, i do not consider Dodgeball a social network site, but i do consider it a mobile social network tool which is why i often lump it into this cluster of things.

Of course, things are getting trickier every day. I’m half-inclined to qualify the definition to say that the profile and articulated social network are the centralizing feature of these sites because there are tons of sites that have profiles and social network site features as a peripheral components of their service but where the primary focus is elsewhere. Examples of this include: YouTube, Flickr, Last.FM, 43Things, Meetup, Vox, Crushspot, etc. (Dating sites are probably the most tricky because they are very profile-centric but the social network is peripheral.) But, on the other hand, most of these sites grew out of this phenomenon. So, for the sake of argument, i leave room to include them but also consider them edge cases.

At the same time, it’s critical to point out what social network sites are most definitely NOT. They are NOT the same as all sites that support social networks or all sites that allow people to engage in social networking. Your mobile phone, your email, your instant message client… these all support the articulation of social networks (addressbooks) but they do not let you publicly display them in relation to a profile for others to traverse. MUDs/MOOs, BBSes, chatrooms, bulletin boards, mailing lists, MMORPGS… these all allow you to meet new people and make friends but they are not social network sites.

This is part of why i get really antsy when people talk about this category as “social networks” or “social networking” or “social networking sites.” I think that this is leading to all sorts of confusion about what is and what is not in the category. These alternative categories are far far far too broad and all too often i hear people talking about everything that allows you to talk to anyone in any way as one of these sites (this is the mistake that DOPA makes for example).

While it’s great to talk about all of these things as part of a broader “social software” or “social media” phenomenon, there are also good reasons to have a label to address a subset of these sites that are permitting very particular practices. This allows academics, politicians, technologists, educators, and others discuss how structural shifts are prompting different kinds of behaviors. (What happens when people publicly articulate their relationships? How do these systems change the rules of virality because the network is visible? Etc.) Because of this, i don’t want the slippage to be too great because people are using terrible terms or because people want their site to fit into the category of what’s currently cool.

Of course, like most categories, there are huge issues around the edges and there’s never a clean way to construct boundaries. (To understand the challenges, read Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things.) Just think of the category “game” and try to come up with a comfortable definition and boundary for that. Still, there are things that are most definitely not games. An apple is not a game. Sure, it can be used in a game but it is not inherently a game. Not all sites that allow people to engage in social activity are social network sites and it is ridiculous to try to shove them all there simply because there’s a lot of marketing money to be made (yet i realize that this is often the reason why people do try). For this reason, i really want to stake out “social network sites” as a category that has meaningful properties even if the edges are a little fuzzy. There is still meaningful family resemblance and more central prototypes than others. I really want to focus on making sense of what’s happening with this category by focusing primarily on the prototypes and less on the edge cases.

Anyhow, this is a work in progress but i wanted to write some of this down since i seem to be getting into lots of fights via email about this.

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20 comments to social network sites: my definition

  • Your definitions feel somewhat static. Where does all the communication that happens on Social Networking sites fit in? That’s:-
    – One to One private messageing
    – Few to Few discussions in a club, tribe or group
    – One to Few Broadcasts of things like Meeting announcements
    – One to Many broadcasts in the form of blogs or listings

    And so on. Surely there’s more to this field than just profiles, testimonials and people search?

  • “network through friends of friends of friends”

    a nice short definition 🙂

  • The concept of “Social Network Site” is flawed and short term anomaly. Social Networks exist regardless of “Social Network Sites.” Web 2.0 is about open. Currently all Social Network sites are closed silos of user SocialTrust data (my relationships). When users can take control of their SocialTrust data and take it with them from site/service to site/service, this will transform the entire Internet into one homogeneous Social Network.

    Anyway, I have been riffing on some of these ideas over on my blog. Would love some feedback.

  • I like this definition, Danah, but it might be too functional.

    I wonder if calling these “Social NetworkING Sites” instead would help clear up just exactly what slice of these sites you are trying to define.

    As in: “The governing principle of the site is to facilitate user social networking, represented as a primary system for site navigation or the foundation for interactive tools contained within a more traditional site taxonomy.”

  • As suggested in the previous comment, I think there’s a lot to be said for constructing a verb-based definition vs a noun-based one (e.g., I think “blogging” is a better definable subject for discussion than “blogs”).

    In any case, I think the distinction you are making is important–the distinction between social network sites and sites / technology that allow people to articulate their social networks.

    I wonder if intent or priority or scope is a useful concept to add to your definition, e.g., sites created with the principle intent / priority / scope being to faciliate social networking?

    I’ve developed several social knowledge base intranet sites that include most or all of the features you describe, but social networking has always been a secondary priority to information sharing / KM.

    I know, with LinkedIn and MySpace, almost the entire scope of my interactions with those sites are “social”–adding new friends / contacts, commenting on others, etc.

  • Julian – i think that a lot of social network sites have other features but the three that i document are the ones that are consistent and (mostly) unique to social network sites. Not all have groups, not all have broadcast/bulletin capabilities, not all have listings/blogs. I wanted to narrow to what is pretty universal.

    David – of course social networks exist regardless of sites. People have had social networks forever. I also think that the articulation of social networks will exist beyond the sites themselves. Blogrolls are an example of how this happens already. I am also AOK with it being a short term anomaly – it’s still something important to document. If articulated social networks break free of the sites that contain them, fantastic, that will be a new form. That doesn’t negate the fact that we’re dealing with a set of sites now with core properties.

    Noah & Jay – i don’t think that turning this into a verb would help at all. First off, people network on tons of other sites that are not social network sites. This would broaden the definition too far too be useful. Second, a huge chunk of users who participate on social network sites have ZERO interest in social networking. They want to hang out with their friends. It’s like saying IM is about meeting new people… for some, it is, but for most, it’s where they talk with their friends. I tried to articulate this above but i think there’s some confusion. Social network sites are NOT first and foremost about meeting new people; they are first and foremost about articulating a social network for others to view. This is why the social networkING label is problematic and dangerous – it confuses what people do.

  • Bertil

    No doubt your definition and boudaries are fine and needed.

    I’m just not sure the ability to comment someone else’s profile is universal amoung all what you would call SNS. I don’t know English-speaking examples, but they are clearly equivalent of what you describe.

  • You’re right — re-read your definition and there certainly was some confusion. (Not to mention missing the part where you bring up “social networking site” yourself :*)

    Again, this is a great definition for your timeline. I think on the ground, however, this is a nomenclature issue, because anything that facilitates networking, i.e., sharing information within new or established relationships within a website, is going to sound like a “social network site.” That’s why most people see no problem with lumping 43things and Last.fm into this category when they don’t (entirely) fit your needs.

    Like “AJAX” — we hated it at first, but now, say it and everyone knows what you mean — something new and far more specific, will need to be created for this particular subset of elements to reduce confusion.

  • “This is why the social networkING label is problematic and dangerous – it confuses what people do.”

    Ah, right. A verb-phrase to define would have to be something other than “social networking”.

    So, where I had commented:

    “. . . sites created with the principle intent / priority / scope being to faciliate social networking”

    It’d need to say “. . . to facilitate _____”.

    Is there a verb-phrase that fills that blank? (Maybe not.)

    From your current definition, I could fill the blank with (the noun-phrase) “profiles, semi-persistent public commentary on the profile, and a traversable publicly articulated social network”.

    But, is there some unifying activity that these features are not only intended to serve, but in fact define a primary purpose of these social network sites?

  • Danah, what I was trying to get at was the Social bit in Social Networking. Here’s an example. Q: Where is the Social in Linkedin, Spoke and Plaxo? A: On Yahoogroups. Almost every forum out there has profiles, guestbooks, people search and quite a lot of them have “Friends”. At least some of the sites that have these things don’t have much Social function at all and LinkedIn is the most prominent example although Opinity and Rapleaf come to mind as well.

    Which I think means that Social Networking isn’t a category of web sites, but rather it’s a set of functions that are now seen in very large numbers of web sites. Only a few of those have Social Networking as their main raison d’etre. Most of them exist for some different reason entirely. Such as talking about music.

    So the reason for my previous comment was not to require specific forms of social interaction in the definition, but rather to require *at least some* social interaction. Which means communication. Which comes in many forms, of which 1 to 1, few to few, one to many are just some examples.

    Or does that just fog the issue again?

  • Andreas Hellmann

    I’m currently working on my bachelor thesis about different business models of online social networks (as I called them).

    I work with a definition similar to danah’s. But I would agree with zephoria that the different tools that allow commnication (and interaction) are an integral part of online social networking sites and should therefore be part of a definition.
    In addition I think that there’s another basic element: the common interest or objectif that unites users on an online social networking site and let’s them chose “their” site. In my opinion this common objective always exists but may be very broad and difficult to define. One categorization (I think also used by danah) could be: networking (business), dating, having fun/discussing hobbys (this is the most difficult to define I think).

    I find it a great idea to post and discuss a definition of online social network or social network sites because this is something that is missing at the moment but could help a lot when doing research in this area. But I think s well that it’ll be difficult and take time to find a definition that allows to exactly state which web 2.0 site is an social networking site and which is not.

  • I’m curious why one needs to come up with a definintion of “social network” sites, and try to rigidly define features that are requisite to be a social network site…

    It’s all about keeping up with your contacts, and meeting new ones… right? Then why flickr and last.fm has to be “edge cases” in this regard? These are media centric social network sites, and for many people they achieve this function of -keeping up, meeting new- better than myspace or any other…

    To me, profiles suck anyways. They’re deceiving, boring, and totally different than real world interaction environments that people are accustomed to.

    I’m sure one would come up with a superior form of “social network” someday, which is not profile centric (last.fm and flickr are good steps in this manner).

    So going back to my point, I don’t think it makes sense to define “social network sites” in relation to any features / functionality.

  • Danah,

    Following on the comment about last.fm and flickr, I’m not sure that a profile is necessary. Rather, the crucial piece of the puzzle is the ability to gain an understanding of a person’s reputation or history… see how Usenet newsgroups were used without explicit profiles.

    Is the profile is merely an identifier to show that contribution A was made by the same author of contrbution B?

    So, based upon previous contributions, a sense of trust can be built around past behaviour or events; can you explore someone’s visible history? Coupled to that, the ability to give feedback on a person’s contributions is important. Given those to features, the group (as a whole) can evolve content.

  • Danah, I found your definition both logically functional and descriptive. I don’t see the constraints and rigidity that some other folks commenting see. You obviously understand social networks necessitate descriptive overlaps and that no perfect definition will ever exist, yet we need a way to talk about them and be effective. This comes across in your post above just fine.

  • Yea there a little static, Social networks are defined as the communication between people within a group, when the group become large it’s called a community. Social Networking is a key web 2.0 feature. Any site that provides interaction between members associated with it is classed social networking i thort.

    Sorry about the spelling i have the grammer of a child I tell you.

  • jermaine propane

    Hey thats a good point

    http://www.profilefly.com/jpropane

  • I like how you explained how social network sites i sure couldn’t of explained it that good myself.

  • According to my research social networking sites are too social for sharing matter without privacy..more then sharing information they are for sharing personal relation through internet..people intrested in getting induldge in making freinds and getting egaer to know about people around them..are mostly associated with this all site
    They are basically a way for timepass

    The profile of guys related to this site are
    1.The age group of this all people is round about 13or 12 and till…on..
    2.This all people are educate to have a computer literacy..i will prefer tht not computer literate but internet literate..
    3.They include all people from office,student,and other all fields….
    4.This site r use just for motive after which people get bored with them..

  • Dev

    These days you have online social network for every field. But a successful network will be one that will have simplicity at its core, while enhancing the user experience and interaction.
    We at http://www.doof.com(private beta)hope to provide our users with same.

    We hope to give our users an online games community where by users can play free skilled casual games, meet people, participate in friendly competition, express and share themselves.

  • Kyle Manjaro

    Interesting and provoking write. Taking a step back (in perspective) to get some more perspective how about the view that:

    Social networks – analog and digital – are living artifacts (if it’s dead it sure ‘ain’t’ social) which are the ‘space’ of social networking, itself, functionally, a cultural connection and communications activity. Social networking in turn is a subset of “Interactions” which McKinsey articulately defined in a 1997 article in the McKinsey Journal entitled ‘A Revolution in Interactions.’ It basically said that a revolution in interactions would profoundly change how we work. It compared this revolution to the industrial revolution:

    Excerpt (from http://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/A_revolution_in_interaction_abstract):

    “The modern world economy is in the early stages of a profound change in the shape of business activity. Two centuries ago, dramatic shifts in the economics of transformation of production and transportation precipitated the Industrial Revolution. An upheaval of equal proportions is about to be triggered by unprecedented changes in the economics of interaction.

    Interactions are the searching, coordinating, and monitoring that people and firms do when they exchange goods, services, or ideas that pervade all economies, particularly those of modern developed nations. They account for over a third of economic activity in the United States, for example. More than that, interactions exert a potent but little understood influence on how industries are structured, how firms are organized, and how customers behave. Any major change in their level or nature would trigger a new dynamic in economic activity.

    Just such a change is now beginning to occur. A convergence of technologies is set to increase our capacity to interact by a factor of between two and five in the near future. This enhanced interactive capacity will create new ways to configure businesses, organize companies, and serve customers, and have profound effects on the structure, strategy, and competitive dynamics of industries.”

    Now if you take McKinsey’s definition – i.e. Interactions are the searching, coordinating, and monitoring that people and firms do when they exchange goods, services, or ideas – and broaden its focus (it’s going in the right direction already!) to make it something like this:

    “Interactions are the searching, coordinating, and monitoring that people and firms do when they exchange goods, services, or ideas, share each others company, or participate in joint activities.”

    I think as another (additional) point of view we can see that the social graph approach is just one way to think about and attempt to model Interactions in the subset of “social networks” and “social networking.” Furthermore, ‘Interactions’ opens one’s thinking (I think! 🙂 ) to the same idea in other kinds of domains – such as a ” ‘social’ network” for firms or like-minded or similar-interested organizations. Let’s scale! and Let’s play!