Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship

For over a year now, Nicole Ellison and I have been working on putting together a special issue of JCMC on “Social Network Sites.” Not all of the pieces are live yet, so I’m going to wait until they are before highlighting them and encouraging you to go there. (But! If you want to get a taste, their abstracts are all up on the site as temporary holders.)

In the meantime, I wanted to announce that our introduction is live. So, go check out: Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship by danah boyd and Nicole Ellison. Many of you helped us put together the history section (thank you!) so now you can see the completed version. This piece contains four key sections:

  • a usable definition of “social network sites”
  • a history of some of the major shifts in the development of SNSs
  • a literature review of work done in this space
  • a description of the articles included in the special issue

Given all of the emergent work in this space, we hope that this article will help scholars, businessfolk, and curious individuals get a coherent picture of what’s happening in the space. Of course, as with all definitions, histories, and literature reviews, much is open to debate. We of course welcome your critique and look forward to the conversations that this piece might spark.

More soon on the rest of the special issue. Much appreciation goes out to JCMC and Susan Herring for letting us do this and helping us along the way. Likewise, I can’t say enough nice things about the AMAZING Nicole Ellison. She was the most rocking co-editor/co-author ever and I can’t believe how fortunate I was to get to work with her.

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9 thoughts on “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship

  1. John B.

    I worked for an SNS (There) back in 2002, took a break for a while, then worked another SNS (IMVU) up until earlier this year. We were aware of sites like Friendster and MySpace coming in to existence but it’s pretty amazing to see that timeline in the article – how far we’ve come in only several years! (I’m glad someone was paying attention enough to document it too)

    I’m actually curious if anyone has charted the evolution of the economics of SNS’s where user generated content is a major draw. What interests me the most is the relationship between the marketing/revenue organizations within these companies and the class of members who are the elite creators/earners. I have a ton of thoughts on this based on personal experience but I’d be thrilled to compare notes with anyone who has similiar interests.

  2. Logical Extremes

    danah, this issue looks like it will be a fascinating read. I’ve been following with interest the recent happenings with SNSs trending toward openness. One of my primary concerns is with privacy control. Do you have any thoughts on OpenSocial, and how it may affect how SNSs are used?


  3. Brian O' Hanlon


    if you are looking for great visuals similar to those Stewart Brand always had in his book, How Buildings Learn, you aught to check out Herman Hertzberger’s second Lessons on Architecture book, because it devotes a whole chunk to just looking at how people behave it various kinds of spaces.

    My favourite from Stewart Brand’s book, is the couple of shots he takes of his little group each week, while they were compiling the book, and how the formation of sitting arrangements in the group transforms over the time.

    It is the same technique that Stewart uses to studies how buildings change, and in a way how buildings are more than just bricks and mortar – that SNS’s are more than just lines of code – they are infact living. Making a building isn’t an end, its a beginning.

    Remember this was a huge feature in ancient cultures too, how temples etc were periodically rebuilt as a matter of ritual almost. Stewart looks strongly at the problems of maintenance in his book too. Llyods of London and Pompidou centre got mentioned alot. Pompidou is an intensely ‘social’ experience – it is much more than a building, but then again, maintenance is savage with the thing. Funny, how your observations of SNS’s fall into same category, intensely social and high or constant maintenance.

    As we all know Stewart is now applying the same thinking of evolution, or biology and buildings, to the large scale of cities. I guess, Stewart’s observations were years ahead of the full blown ‘Big Brother’ phenomenon we now see on TV. Big Brother is like Stewart’s observations only constantly under surveillance.

    I don’t know, maybe Stewarts method was more like those ‘fast forward’ movies of plants growing and clouds moving in the skies. By freeze framing the picture at intervals, you begin to witness the larger ‘glacial changes’, while watching big brother, as in real life one isn’t aware of the bigger wheels within wheels.

    What do you think about the relationship between Big Brother and SNS’s Danah? I am reminded a little of a archaeologist researcher called Christine Finn, who works out of Bradford University in England. She used everyday technology that kids understand to demonstrate the principles of archaeology to the kids. The kids are so adept in understanding the faster cycles in culture and technology – culture and technology being almost synonymous in certain geek and semi-geek cultures today. Christine Finn went right to the fastest layers in Stewart’s diagrams, and tries to apply an archaeologist’s way of looking at them. She has a couple of books worth looking into.

    I will end this rant of mine, with yet another reference, a friend of mine, the architect Richard England from Malta who reminded me, when looking at a site, (real world potential building site) to always look for the ‘present absenses’ and the ‘absent presences’. I think Danah that over the years you have become a talented expert in observation in this way. What is so significant on so many of the ‘sites’ you describe, is who is absent often, rather than who is there.

    Or likewise, the absent presence of the parents, lurking around in the background making it uncomfortable for the kids. Richard England’s book of poetry should be available to buy on the web, I do recommend it. It is full of many powerful insights like the one above. Howard, he is another guy that should really be invited over stateside some time to lecture.


  4. Brian O' Hanlon

    What I would like to say, is my basic suggestion for research is to take Stewart’s approach of freeze frames – 1905, 1940, 1970, 1990. That is kind of how architects learn to take horizontal or vertical sections through ‘space’ to understand buildings. Even at that unexpected things often happen, like that little ‘space’ in the studwork over the fireplace, in one of Stewart’s examples in his book. A space that did not reveal itself in the ‘plans’.

    Stewarts method, it is sort of a 3D brain scan through the time dimension. A favourite obsession of Stewart’s is to take buildings or spaces which remain constant over time, despite the city changing wildly all around it. The library in Trinity college in Dublin, if you are ever near there, have a visit, is one such space i know of.

    The other method to use, is the Big Brother method. But as in real life, the coverage is so constant, it is possible to miss the ‘big shifts’. I know most of your research technique is similar to a big brother approach. It would be interesting to contrast your research results, with those of someone who took a more Stewart Brand, freeze frame approach. Or perhaps, it could be possible for yourself, to scan back through the research and data, to dissect it using a different set of tools?


  5. Brian O' Hanlon

    In reference to the statements about Stewart Brand and the seating arrangements snap shots taken each week. There is a strong sense here, in which Stewart taps into a great history on the thinking of space, society and buildings.

    I once attended a lecture by the british academic architect, Peter Smithson, cited as being one of the most sophisticated thinkers ever, in his area. Peter that night talks a little about habitation, the lecture later became a book of his, as it often can from many lecturers. His book was called Habitation too.

    Basically, Peter was looking at architects such as Mies van der Rohe and Robert and Charles Eames. Both designed ground breaking houses, and both designed famous chairs. I was struck by one comment Peter made, about the modern cities at the time, almost being contained in these jewel habitation structures designed by these architects. And Peter said, that at a stretch, one could almost see the city they imagined in the chairs they designed too!

    That is really what I want to establish Danah. That crucial link, established by Peter Smithson in his book Inhabitation, which ties together somethings which we take for granted, and having little significance in themselves, chairs, seating arrangements etc, and whole urban territories, cities, landscapes. I want to know in relation to networks, online spaces, what are those significant chair designs, that seem to anticipate those large urban settlement patterns?


  6. Colin Koopman

    This is helpful, but I have a question which I’ve been wondering about for awhile now as I’ve read your work.

    Why move back and forth between a description of “networks” (a very broad concept and set of practices) and “SNSs” (a very narrow concept and set of practices).

    Some of your work reads as if it is an attempt to grasp “networked publics” by way of “SNSs”. But is that really a useful strategy? Supposing that this is not even your intention, I wonder about the value of focusing on SNSs as opposed to trying to more broadly what is emerging in terms of networked information/communication in general? SNSs provide a seemingly tidy site for fieldwork, but I wonder if they are really so analytically distinct (in practice as well as in theory) as you seem to suggest. And if they are so distinct, then what is the value in focusing on this relatively narrow domain? (In any event, thanks for all your useful research, which I’ve found very helpful thus far.)

  7. Brian O'Hanlon

    I recently came across one of Markoff’s ancient articles online.

    New Venture in Cyberspace By Silicon Graphics Founder
    Published: May 7, 1994

    I would ask the question how does, research like that of Markoff’s from 1994, fit in now in the entire historic context of networking?

    It is also interesting how Marc Andreseen becomes the ‘wise, experienced commentator’ at web 2.0 conferences.

    One property that Danah has been quite strong is drawing our attention to is ‘searchability’.

    If you take the example of the NYT’s article above by Markoff,
    It is sort of like Stewart Brand’s freeze frame shots captured at various intervals.
    The searchabilit of ‘old media formats’ like newspapers such as NYT,
    does add a new dimension to newspapers.

    But I still would not read a newspaper online, or emails either, if I really want to enjoy reading them.

    I still much prefer ink squeezed onto dead pieces of wood.

    It is infinitely more portable, since I am on move and get my reading
    done when/where I can.

    I still greatly enjoy this basic convenience factor of everyday printed newspapers.


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