Thinking About Theory

WHAT’S YOUR QUESTION? WHAT’S YOUR APPROACH?

Social networking site Facebook hit the Internet in 2003. Five years later it had 100 million users; by mid-2010 it had half-a-billion members networking in 40 languages (Kang, 2010). Half the teenagers using Facebook check in at least once a day, but the greatest growth in members has been among adults aged 35 to 54. These grown-ups spend nearly four hours a day on Facebook, more than any other age group (Orenstein, 2009). What questions do these few facts raise for you? One obvious question is, “Who are these social networkers?” Does the growth in the number of “older” social networkers surprise you? Why or why not? What about the amount of time they spend networking? What about networkers’ gender? Does that play a factor? Where do they access these sites? Why would middle-aged people be such heavy users of a new technology almost ritualistically identified with the young and hip? Another obvious question is, “Why do people use social networking sites?” The Pew Internet & American Life Project (Lenhart, 2009) reported that 91 percent say they use them to stay in touch with friends they regularly see; 82 percent to stay in touch with friends they rarely see; and 49 percent to make new friends (naturally, people could give more than one answer).

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Now what questions arise for you? Are there gender differences in why and how people use these sites? Are there age differences? But what about a different kind of question, maybe a bit bigger in scope? How do these netmaintained or net-originated friendships differ from more traditionally maintained and originated friendships (that is, face-to-face)? Are the kinds of conversations that take place between net-friends different from those that up-close-and-personal friends engage in? How much “truth” happens in online friendships? How is meaning made when friends can’t see facial expressions like smiles or hear voice inflection? Maybe it isn’t enough to describe these users by age and gender; maybe a more interesting question concerns what’s going on in their lives. For example, can lonely or depressed people find comfort or relief in social networking sites?

There is research linking the amount of time spent online to loneliness, depression, and alienation from friends and family (Engelberg and Sjöberg, 2004). Are social networking sites a symptom or a cure? After all, there is solid evidence that instant messaging has a “direct positive effect” on young people’s friendships (Valkenburg and Peter, 2009, p. 79). Might not the same thing be said of social networking sites? And those marketers! What happens to social networking on the Internet when the sites where this activity occurs become increasingly commercialized? There have been several instances where fake “friends” have been created specifically to push a company’s new product or to trash a competitor, and Facebook has suffered three major user revolts over its commercialization of members’ chats (O’Brien, 2010). What happens when trust is lost?[/sociallocker]

Every major national politician is “making friends” on these sites (Williams, 2007). How might these sites differ from “real” friends’ sites? Will candidates’ sites attract more young people to politics? How might candidates tailor their messages on different issues for these sites? Test yourself—how many more interesting questions can you develop?

Now, what’s your approach? What is the best way to answer the question or questions you find most interesting? As a postpositivist, for example, can you devise an experiment comparing the level of trust between friends who meet online and those who meet in person? Using hermeneutics, you could examine the kinds of exchanges (texts) that occur between social networking friends. But maybe you want to take a critical look at the intrusion of advertising on the content of these sites. Or from a normative perspective, you might want to assess how politicians’ use of social networking sites changes traditional notions of the role of the media in electoral politics. But wait. What if you want to understand the kinds of exchanges that occur between social networking friends, but you want to compare different age groups, or people at different stages of their relationship? Haven’t you blended postpositivism and hermeneutics? And how can you assess the impact of advertising on the content of these sites unless you are familiar on a fairly deep level with commercial content as a text?

So, what’s your question? Or should we ask, what are your questions? What’s your approach? Or should we ask, what are your approaches? And what about your own interests and values? Are you a member of a social networking site? Does that experience shape your thinking? How could it not?

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