Do Social Networking Sites Really Bring People Together?

By Danah Boyd, PhD
Researcher, Microsoft Research New England / Fellow, Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

If you haven't been dragged kicking and screaming into Facebook or MySpace, you probably think that "social networking sites" are evil spaces where today's youth escape reality to socialize with strangers. Truth be told, these sites aren't really about "networking." They are functionally "social network sites" where folks gather with and leverage their pre-existing social network to communicate and share everything from the mundane to the juicy.

For teenagers, they are spaces to hang out when getting together with friends is not permitted or functionally impossible. Adults use these sites to procrastinate work, reminisce about the past, stalk their kids, and occasionally, but just occasionally, get a date. (Y'see... for all of the focus on teens connecting online, it's primarily adults who are interested in finding strangers for professional or sexual purposes.) Above all, social network sites allow for easy sharing of photos, videos, links, and ideas.

Social media isn't about replacing "real" life. These are tools that are leveraged as part of everyday practices. While we still use the phrase "on the phone" to refer to the moments when we are talking with someone through telephony technologies, we don't think of this practice as escaping reality. Furthermore, we don't think of the phone as fundamentally bringing people together or tearing them apart. We turn to the phone when it's the best channel of communication, but it's our practices that bring us together or tear us apart. The phone may be a great way to call up mom when she's hundreds or thousands of miles away - the distance may create a rupture in our relationship, but the technology lets us do some mending that is valuable and, yet, not the same as other experiences.

This is not to say that there's a hierarchy of communication channels with "face-to-face" being always preferential and social network sites being lower on the totem pole than the phone. Different media are valuable for different purposes. Imagine if you had to drive 500 miles to ask your mom what your blood type is because you can't remember and don't want to get pricked to find out. In this example, a quick phone call or email will do the trick. As a result, we each build a mental model in our heads regarding which channel of communication is best for which people and in which contexts.

Of course, as Bernie Hogan of Oxford Internet Institute discovered, having dozens of potential communication channels available to you can be outright confusing. Each individual one may make life a bit more convenient, but having to keep track of who to contact how and when is just taxing.

So, are these social network sites bringing us together? At the end of the day, it all depends on how we use them and how those around of us use them. When everyone is moving at just the right speed, these sites are great for helping us keep tabs on what's going on. When the gears start grinding, they're just outright confusing.

Do you agree with Danah? Or do you think these sites are great for creating communities? Let us know what YOU think by clicking here! We'll post the comments as we get them, so keep checking back to see if yours makes the cut!