Social Networking Technology: New Public Sphere

                Danah Boyd examines the phenomenon of mediated public life, what kind of characteristics it has and how it is different from traditional public life. Today’s youth engaging in public life through social networks sites like MySpace, Facebook, and Bebo. In his article Boyd examines “social dynamics of mediated public life” in order to understand the role of technology in shaping public life.

                The emergence of technology has changed the relationship between ‘public’ and ‘private’ these terms should not be considered in “binary oppositions” to one another, but rather as overlapping notions.   According to Boyd social interaction and information distribution practices has changed dramatically, which is directly correlated to new social technologies. However, the majority of adults do not see the significance of these shifts.

                Boyd discuses the structure and functionality of social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. He is saying that people (he mostly speaks about teenagers) all over the world are joining these sites. Users generate profiles which represent themselves using “text, images, video, audio, links, quizzes and surveys.” Boyd highlights three key features of social networking sites such as profiles, friends lists and commenting feature (“Testimonials, Comments, The Wall”). According Fogg Facebook became even more powerful when it launched Facebook platform that allowed 3rd party developers to build in their features into Facebook, new features allowed users to share music and photos, voice interaction online, less than in a year 3rd party developers have created over 6000 apps and attracted millions of users. Facebook platform made for the first time MIP (Mass Interpersonal Persuasion) possible (Fogg 2).       

                Let’s go back friends feature. It is crucial to see the difference between friends in real life vs. friends in social networking sites, Boyd is saying that this group does not have close ties but rather this feature (friends) “allows participants to articulate their imagined audience- or why they see being a part of their world within the site”.

                Social networking sites can be seen as “mediated publics”- it can be characterized as the type of environment where “people can gather publicly through mediating technology” (Boyd). Mediated publics have similar functions to unmediated publics, however social networking websites should be examined as another form of public sphere which has its unique characteristics:

  1. Persistence– the conversations are not erased, but stay on the web for a long time and can be accessed at any moment by users.    
  2. Searchability– the conversations and activity can be searched and tracked which is more difficult in unmediated publics.
  3. Replicability– the conversation can be copied into different places which makes a very difficult to determine if the content was slightly altered.    
  4. Invisible audiences – the audience is might not be present at the moment a person was expressing him or herself it became possible with the other three characteristics.     

The imagined audience of friends is a key concept of rules and structure changes in the alternative public sphere. In mediated publics physical environment cannot determine what is appropriate and what is not. It is impossible “to speak to all people across all space and all time” (Boyd). That is why we often have to imagine our audience and direct the speech to them; however the actual audience is different. In other words mediated public life have several complications in its architecture: lack of context and the other one is the phenomenon of scale. Potentially internet has the ability to reach millions of people; however in reality the most people remain invisible unless something happens such as embarrassing videos which were directed to a small audience, get enormous popularity and spread with incredible speed.

                The functions of Replicability and Searchability has lead to a situation where “conversations spread and context collapse” (Boyd) In other words we can easily search and find conversations, however they will be lacking the context because it could be only a part of conversation moreover it could be doctored.  The function of searchability makes people easily trackable, but the common logic is why anybody would need to do this. The question is should we create the surveillance for the mediated publics which is based on traditional form public unmediated life? Boyd is saying that the invisible audience has a lot of access to personal profiles, for example employers will try to uncover ‘true personality’ of their future employees. The users often assume that they are invisible because nobody cares about them; however this assumption is wrong, we do not know who our imagined audience is. The function of persistence of mediated publics can reveal a lot of personal information and conversations, journalists will often use the internet for their sources and it is even possible to destroy somebody’s public persona. The architecture of social networking sites can be seen as database where the personal information, profiles, images are separate pieces of data. Mediated publics have all characteristics of database and that is why such function as searchability and replicability became possible.     

                The next part of Boyd’s essay addressed to educators who should acknowledge how mediated public life is shifting the lives of youth. Educator should take into consideration next aspects:

  1. Youth want to hang out with their friends in youth space
  2. The internet mirrors and magnifies all aspects of social life
  3. There are no truth, only conversations             

Then Boyd discusses an educator’s role and that they should guide their students through conversations but not through the assertion of power. In order to participate in conversations with the students educators should prepare themselves: create a profile, use text, images and songs to build their online identity, not to serf for their students, but if they invite them (educators) as a friend to accept it (it is a sign of respect) and etc.  Boyd sees very important to acknowledge this new phenomenon of mediated public life which became possible with the emergence of social networking technologies. It is still unclear how it should be regulated, but it is very important for the users to understand the characteristics of new public sphere (Persistence, Searchability, Replicability, Invisible audiences) which make online persona visible and traceable.

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3 responses to “Social Networking Technology: New Public Sphere

  1. Throughout your article this particular sentence replayed within my mind; The emergence of technology has changed the relationship between ‘public’ and ‘private’ these terms should not be considered in “binary oppositions” to one another, but rather as overlapping notions.

    The notion of overlapping between the two spheres in my eyes lays at the heart of the rest of the social networking phenomena that Boyd describes. Taking two supposedly opposite forces and having them blend together to create a sort of hybrid force that we have witnessed via social networking sites like Facebook, has lead to a sort of limbo between our real lives; family, work, friends and the increasingly growing fabricated lives; our outreach to various ‘public’s as Boyd describes them.
    Increasingly it is becoming more and more difficult to break apart the various facets of our lives that are indeed ours in a material sense and then fully understand and appreciate the various ‘publics’ that we engage with via the Internet .

  2. In her essay, danah boyd says, “when things go mobile, location based information will add a new dimension to the hyperpublic infrastructure.” I think it’s safe to say that since this essay has been written, things have gone a lot more mobile. Take Twitter and more so FourSquare, where your location and what you’re doing is key to the network. This makes a friends, a parents, and a predators job a lot easier if they’re trying to track someone down..

    danah boyd also brings up educators being friends with their students on social networks. She says it’s important because the more present you are, the more opportunity you have to influence the norms. At “The Internet as a Playground and Factory” conference this past weekend there was a debate about whether or not professors should friend their students because it leaves one asking where to draw the line between work and play. I wonder what everyone thinks about this and whether there is a difference between educators friending secondary school students and university students.

    I also think it is interesting to note the socioeconomic difference between Myspace and Facebok users. I read an article of boyd’s where she mentions that Facebook users typically come from more wealthy backgrounds because the network is geared more toward college kids while Myspace is not as restrictive. Facebook has opened up more recently but there still seems to be a divide. In an NPR article, race as well as money is cited as a characteristic divide between users. White users of Facebook say the glittery graphics and templates are trashy and they like the organized, uniformed look of Facebook while minority users like the personalization Myspace allows. One person said, “I have friends who are white. … They are mostly on Facebook. That’s why I use Facebook. My brown people are on MySpace.” (here is a link to the article http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113974893 )

    There is a great PBS Frontline documentary called “Growing Up Online” (you can watch it online here http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/kidsonline/view/ ) and I think it really speaks to these articles. The Internet is transforming childhood and kids are growing up online.

    Speaking of growing up online, I think it’s interesting that “Unfriend” was The New Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year. It goes to show how social networks have become such a huge part of our lives. ( http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120510385 )

  3. One thing that I keep grappling with is how certain social terms, or social theory, like “group think” or sexism and the separation that promotes between the public and private spheres, fit into this new digital culture. Maybe they don’t. Maybe I’m trying to fit square pegs in a round hole. Or maybe it is an interesting lens through which to interpret this new world.

    One area of social theory that I am very interested in is group think and the behavioral theories constructed specifically about the dynamics of groups. The internet takes the word “group” to a whole new extreme: it’s like the world has the potential to be one gigantic group. So, from this point, I sit and I wonder. How does group think play into the social relations of the internet? Do social media possibly exacerbate the power of group think? I think you could make the argument that it does.

    Additionally, restrictive, oppressive forces like sexism are founded on the ideas of inclusion and exclusion and the separation of what is public and what is private: women are forced to remain in the private sphere, at home with children, while men have access to the public sphere and the ability to have great influence in society as a result. When we were discussing this article in class, though it is not directly related, again I couldn’t help but wonder how this dynamic fits into the digital age. That’s the thing about the internet- it is borderless and egalitarian. While there are sites that require membership, like Facebook, it is free and does not directly discriminate based on any orientations.

    I feel like I am discovering something rather interesting here: while certain oppressive social structures (like sexism) are diminished when our social interaction is transferred online, it seems that the capacity to influence or our power to brainwash each other is heightened by not only the incredibly reach of the internet, but the many different outlets with which we can do so.

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