In writing Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship, Nicole Ellison and I wrote many iterations of the definition of the term “social network sites” and why we chose to use this instead of “social networking sites.” For a good 20 versions, we had included this statement:
“Because the term ‘networking’ emphasizes relationship initiation, often with strangers, it can and has been expanded to refer to any site that allows people to communicate with people that they do not know, including dating sites, chatrooms, community sites, and bulletin boards.
This statement got edited out during the review phase because we were told that no one actually believed that “social networking sites” included all of these other things. The current debate surrounding the Economist’s debate on “social networking technologies” and education (my discussion of it is here) has shown otherwise. If you read the comments on my post and follow the blogs of others discussing the debate, you will find that there is unbelievable confusion about what constitutes “social networking.” [e.g., 1, 2, 3]
For their part, neither The Economist nor the respondents did little to define their terms. The Economist’s question concerns “social networking technologies” and their explanation opens up with “Given that MySpace and Facebook are ubiquitous…” and then goes on. From my POV, they implicitly equate “social networking technologies” with “MySpace and Facebook.” Yet, clearly, there’s all sorts of fuzziness about whether we’re talking about social network sites, social software, social media, collaborative software, or anything that enables any interaction with another human being.
Unfortunately, it makes the “debate” really confusing. When I posted my response, I focused on “social network sites” since that is what I took The Economist to mean by their equation. Not surprisingly given the confusion, I’ve been critiqued as being too narrow and not including wikis, blogs, social bookmarking, Google documents, Blackboard, etc.
I want to make something clear: I think that a lot of social technology is extremely valuable in the classroom, but that is not the question that I thought that The Economist was asking. Furthermore, I think that our failure to define our terms makes it damn near impossible to have a functional conversation about the actual issues. This is extremely frustrating. This is also why Nicole and I put so much effort into creating a workable definition of “social network sites.” We know that there’s confusion and we strongly believe that without a definition, we cannot actually have a meaningful conversation about actual substance. The ongoing use of “social networking” has been damaging to any productive conversation, both in the academy and in startup circles (who all want to be the next “social networking” app, even if there are no “Friends” involved).
So, here’s my question for all of you who use the term “social networking technologies” — what do you mean by that?