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Noelene Callaghan

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In Search of a True Definition of a Social Networking Site

Posted on 21 October, 2012 at 7:20

So, what exactly is a Social Networking Site (SNS)?

Defining Social Networking Sites is as complex as finding and agreeing on a most accepted term for this internet based technological tool. The terms ‘social networking’, ‘social media’, ‘social networking service’ and ‘social software’ are all used interchangeably in ones attempts to define these websites that many individuals are embracing in their personal, professional and educational lives. It is noted that the term ‘social networking sites’ is most commonly used by scholars and bloggers and perhaps considered to be a more respected term within scholarly documents, thus will be used as the preferred term for the purposes of this paper.


Interestingly there are differences in social networking site definitions written by scholars and bloggers. Scholars tend to define social networking sites by their technical capabilities and its benefits whereas bloggers tend to define social networking sites quite vaguely as well include a list of its characteristics. A comparison of these will be discussed in this paper. There are also vast differences in definitions of what ‘a social networking site constitutes of’ over time. This is mainly due the development of tools, widgets, add-ons and applications that are now available that may not have been available at the original time of print of that particular publication. These definitions will also be recorded. Moreover, many definitions (including those written recently) state that social networking site users are teenagers and often solely refer to this demographic when explaining its use. This is extremely interesting as there is much data that confirm that the most typical users of social networking site are female and aged between 18 and 30 years. Recent data has also noted that the elderly are also utilising this tool.


It must also be noted that there is an extensive collection of literature that discusses social networking sites within a medical context. Within each of these definitions, specific medical websites are identified in an attempt to authenticate the definition. In most instances, the definition of a social networking site is general and only consists of its ability to connect numerous people within a virtual context. Additionally these papers proceed to illustrate the full acceptance and active use of medicine based social networking sites for its professionals and patients. It has also been identified that there is an emergence of scholarly publications that discuss social networking in various professions, such as that of marketing and advertising, translation, media and nationalism, which also discuss social networking sites in context with their industry.


According to a report by Nielsen (2012): “In the U.S. alone, total minutes spent on social networking sites have increased 83 percent year-over-year. In fact, total minutes spent on Facebook increased nearly 700 percent year-over-year, growing from 1.7 billion minutes in April 2008 to 13.9 billion in April 2009, making it the No. 1 social networking site for the month.”

Rationale for finding the ideal definition

Determining the most sound definition for social networking sites is imperative as it determines which sites can be classified as a ‘social networking site’. Some scholars and bloggers include social networking sites to be a part of the Web 2.0 suite whereas, others do not. Some classify websites to be a social networking site, whereas, others do not. Additionally, some recognise social networking tools and add-ons to be a critical component of what constitutes a social networking site whereas others do not. This is quite important as it results in some identifying sites such as twitter and Google as a social networking site whereas others do not. Having a clear definition of what a social networking site is may lead to a distinctive list of which website IS a social networking site. This is actually more difficult than anticipated as even Alexa Web Company (2012), the most accepted internet traffic tracking website has multiple categories for social networking sites and each category is a stand-alone list. For example, Facebook is only in ONE of their many lists that fall under the social networking site banner.

The most accepted social networking site definition

The first considered definitions of social networking sites were those that referred to Computed Mediated Communications (CMC’s) (Lockyear) which are considered to be a communicative transaction that occurs through the use of two or more computers. Recent definitions have also extended this and include ‘computer mediated formats’ which accept tools such as instant messaging, email, chat rooms and text messaging (Thurlow, Lengel, & Tomic 2004) to be considered as a CMC.


The most common social networking definition is a definition that is repeatedly used as a point of reference in many scholarly publications is that by Boyd and Ellison (2007). Boyd & Ellison (2007) define social networking sites (SNSs) as “web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system” (para. 4). Boyd & Ellison (2007) also state that “what makes social network sites unique is not that they allow individuals to meet strangers, but rather that they enable users to articulate and make visible their social networks” (para. 6). Thus, this definition is the most recognised and accepted definition of social networking sites. It should, therefore, be used as a basis for further elaboration, simply due to the technological advancements (as stated) since 2007.


Boyd and Ellison (2007) use the term "social network site" to describe this phenomenon, the term "social networking sites" also appears in public discourse, and the two terms are often used interchangeably. We chose not to employ the term "networking" for two reasons: emphasis and scope. "Networking" emphasizes relationship initiation, often between strangers. While networking is possible on these sites, it is not the primary practice on many of them, nor is it what differentiates them from other forms of computer-mediated communication (CMC).


They continue to add that on many of the large SNSs, participants are not necessarily "networking" or looking to meet new people; instead, they are primarily communicating with people who are already a part of their extended social network. To emphasize this articulated social network as a critical organizing feature of these sites, we label them "social network sites." While SNSs are often designed to be widely accessible, many attract homogeneous populations initially, so it is not uncommon to find groups using sites to segregate themselves by nationality, age, educational level, or other factors that typically segment society (Hargittai, 2007), even if that was not the intention of the designers.


Today, almost all definitions use Facebook as an example when defining social networking sites. Facebook is the number 1 social networking site, and has been, since its commencement into the World Wide Web regardless of being blocked (not available) in numerous countries.

Categories: 2012, Research, Social Networking Sites