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.