Its now widely agreed that the two most common behaviors on social networks are self expression and communication.
Most of the online revolutions have been driven by new forms of communication. This started with Usenet and BBSs back before there was an internet, moved through the chat rooms of early AOL, the mainstreaming of email and the instant messaging revolution with AIM and ICQ. Communication has always been a large portion of overall time spent online because it drives both frequency of visit (people check for communications often) and depth of visit (reading and responding to your messages takes time).
Social networking is no exception, and that is what has driven the extraordinary pagesviews for the top social networks. In the case of social networks, the primary communications channels are private messages and public comments. You can see how these relate to other older forms of online communication below:
Social network private messages look a lot like webmail. Public comments on social networks are newer and more interesting. Indeed, Danah Boyd includes public comments as one of the three defining features of social networks (along with Profiles and Friends lists). Unlike message boards, public comments “belong” to a single person and are addressed directly at them. But as Danah has also pointed out (I wish I was half as smart as her!), there is also a performance component to public comments on social networks.
This is best understood with an example. Suppose it’s your birthday, and I know it. If I send you an email wishing you “Happy Birthday” then you’re happy that I remembered. This communication is part of the social lubricant on which relationships are built.
But supposed that I post “Happy Birthday” to your Facebook Wall instead. Then not only do you know that I remembered, but ALL OF YOUR FRIENDS know that I remembered as well. They may find out from the feed, or by visiting your page, but they will know that I’m a good enough friend of yours that I know when is your birthday. That is the performance element of the communication.
Indeed, Danah says that your Friends list is your best guess at the audience for whom you are performing:
The collection of ‘Friends’ is not simply a list of close ties (or what we would normally call ‘friends’). Instead, this feature allows participants to articulate their imagined audience – or who they see as being a part of their world within the site. While SNSes have millions of users, most participants only care about a handful of them. Who they care about is typically represented by the list of Friends. If an individual imagines her profile to be primarily of concern to a handful of close friends, she is quite likely to have very few ‘Friends’ and, if the technology allows it, she’ll keep her profile private. If she wants to be speaking to her broader peers, her Friends list is likely to have hundreds or thousands of Friends who are roughly the same age, have the same style, listen to the same music, and are otherwise quite similar to her. She is also quite likely to keep her profile publically [sic] visible to anyone so that she can find others in her peer group (boyd 2006).
Historically, the Wall (Facebook)/Friend’s Comments (Myspace, Bebo and others) has been the only place on a profile where another user can put something on your page. The rest of the profile has been completely under the author’s control.
However, some of the Facebook apps have changed this paradigm. A number of the most popular apps allow another user to put something on your profile, including #2 Graffiti, #7 X me, #8 Superpoke, #9 Free Gifts, #15 Superwall, #16 Foodfight and lots more. [Note: X me and Superwall are both owned by Rockyou, a Lightspeed company].
In my own experience, performance is an aspect to the use of these apps as well. I feel a certain pressure to choose something “clever” to X someone (e.g. “defenestrate”, “disdain” or “milk”), and if I’m leaving graffiti on a friends page, I try to make it good. The popularity of these apps suggests that social network users are craving more stages for their performances.
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