Analysis of social network sites and supporting functions
Social network sites are quickly becoming ubiquitous across the Internet. While research has explored user behaviors in relation to the sites, supporting functions, largely has been overlooked. However, the functions encourage or prohibit user behaviors. In this paper a matrix of social network sites and functions is identified. This illustrates the functions common to these websites. This further illustrates which websites house what functions. A definition for functions is provided. All websites contain profiles, picture management, email, network management, and search, while only four utilize instant messaging, event planning and blogs. It is important to understand the technological landscape of social network sites in order to get a better understanding of how the sites are used.
Social network sites (SNS), such as Facebook and Myspace, have become widespread on the Internet. Their usage by American adults has grown from 8% in 2005 to 46% in 2009, according to Lenhart (2009). Further, Lenhart (2009) shows that usage trends of SNS in 2009 are consistent with usage trends of the Internet as a whole. This means that as of 2009 adult users are diverse, with no significant differences between gender, race, education level or region. As more people utilize these websites it's important to understand how they're being used. To do this, it is first necessary to understand what social network sites are.
SNS have been defined by Boyd and Ellison (pg. 211, 2008) 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.”
To engage in any of these activities, users must access to supporting functions within the system. SNS can't exist without supporting functions. Research has examined psychological and sociological issues; relegating the functions to a minor or non-existent role. However, it is important to investigate these functionalities as they encourage or prohibit particular behaviors, based on their designed processes and features and the designs can change. For example, all communication transactions occurring through Facebook were asynchronous until their system developers' added instant messaging (IM) functions. Supporting functions is defined here as one or more processes with a common user interface that perform one specific task. It is a technological artifact working within a bounded system. For example, Facebook employs such functionalities as email messaging and status updates. Both of these are separate artifacts working within the bounded Facebook system. The purpose of this study is to create taxonomy of functions according to common SNS uses.
Leitner and Grechnig (2008) created taxonomy of supporting functions according to usage, with three categories: frequent, normal, and rare. They found that 70% of all functions fell in the frequent group; 30%–70% fell in the normal group; and < 30% fell in the rare group. While useful, the authors do not associate the functions with the specific SNS, nor do they illustrate the relationship between functions and uses.
Skog (2005; 2006) investigates the impact of technology on behavior. The author provides an ethnography of a Swedish SNS describing a nook (Skog, 2005), which is comparable to a profile, and a Lajv (Skog, 2006), which is comparable to a chat room. These studies take a first step at illustrating the relationship between SNS uses and SNS functions. Further analysis of remaining functions is needed.
The next step in understanding these websites is identifying their supporting functions.
This study conducted a content analysis of nine SNS to identify and describe common functions. Popular SNS were determined by the scale of their user base and included general interest and niche topic sites by Lenhart (2009). These sites are Myspace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo!, YouTube, Classmates.com, BlackPlanet, Orkut, and Hi5.
The researcher signed up as a user with each site in order to examine and interact with the supporting functions. Each technical artifact was utilized in order to classify and describe it. The researcher went through the site twice to insure that all functions was included and thoroughly documented in the analysis.
Fourteen technical artifacts were found to exist on the examined SNS (see Table 1). Profiles give users a space to display personal information, such as interests and hobbies. Picture management allows users to upload pictures and create photo albums. It also allows users to modify and/or delete pictures. Email allows users to communicate asynchronously through private messages to one or more members of their network. Network management gives users the ability to add and delete friends. Some systems also allow users to give permissions to particular network members for particular information, such as pictures. Search gives users the ability to find people registered with the system. Most systems include filtering options, such as age and location.
Table 1. Supporting functions of social network sites
|LinkedIn||X|| ||X||X|| ||X||X|| ||X||X||X|| ||X||X|
|Yahoo!||X||X||X||X|| ||X|| || ||X|| ||X|| || ||X|
|Classmates||X||X||X||X|| || ||X||X||X||X|| || ||X||X|
|YouTube||X|| ||X||X|| || ||X|| ||X|| || ||X|| ||X|
|BlackPlanet||X||X||X||X||X||X|| || ||X||X||X||X||X|
|Orkut||X||X||X||X||X||X||X||X||X||X|| ||X|| ||X|
|Hi5||X||X||X||X|| ||X||X|| ||X||X|| || ||X||X|
This is a study in progress. The next step is to empirically demonstrate the relationship between the uses provided by Lenhart (2009) and the common SNS supporting functions. Future research should build upon this data to consider the relationship between psychological and sociological issues and supporting functions. This is only a snapshot in time of any of the examined SNS. They are perpetually morphing phenomena, encouraging and prohibiting behaviors with every innovation.