Assessment 3

Social Network Sites and their Online and Offline Contexts

Breanna McGaughey – SID 430188811
Tutorial: Thursday 12-2pm, Fiona Andreallo
Word count: 1298 words

In today’s technology-reliant society, social media is an integral part of most people’s lives. Social media can be thought of as a communication channel by which social network sites (SNSs) facilitate the interaction, connection, and engagement of people through their own user generated content (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010; Hinton & Hjorth, 2013). Van Dijck (2013) defines social media as, “online facilitators or enhancers of human networks – webs of people that promote connectedness as a social value”.

network-connections-e1444317168400Figure 1: Example of a human network created through connections made through social media.
Source: Stock image Google images.

SNSs, such as Facebook, Twitter, and WeChat, are sites that facilitate the building of an online profile and the subsequent connections made with others on the SNS. These connections support the creation of an online network with others that can be used to find answers or ask questions, help maintain friendships, find support, connect with others with similar beliefs or values, and often provide entertainment (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013). These networks formed of online connections are known as ‘networked publics’; which are defined as being both a space where the connections occur and a collection of people (boyd, 2011).

SNSs embody the concept of Web 2.0, as they support and encourage users to become networked publics rather than just a relatively non-participatory audience for information (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013). A simplified way of understanding the principle of Web 2.0 was put forward by Ethan Zuckerman; “Web 1.0 was invented to allow physicists to share research papers and Web 2.0 was created to allow people to share pictures of cute cats” (Zuckerman, 2008). This definition, although amusing, is incredibly accurate, as it exemplifies the ability of Web 2.0 to encourage users to become ‘producers’ and create and share their own user-generated content, in this case, pictures of cute cats (Figure 2). The content on social media sites influences and is influenced by the cultural context in which it is created, as such content is shaped to reflect the beliefs and needs of the users.

imgFigure 2: Picture of a Cute Cat – an Example of Web 2.0 User-Generated Content.

There are many forms of SNSs, however, most are centred on the idea of forming a ‘network’ rather than ‘networking’ and searching for new people, who are strangers likely with shared interests (boyd & Ellison, 2007). Although it is not the primary practice of most social network sites, they can still involve networking for strangers and forming new relationships (boyd & Ellison, 2007). For example, Facebook users may connect with strangers through groups and pages that express their shared interests and beliefs; however, this is not usually to generate new relationships. SNSs that would specifically facilitate relationship initiation may include dating apps such as Tinder and Grindr, where new connections are purposely sought outside the person’s personal networks.

Social media, such as SNSs, are integral to everyday life for most people. 50% of Australians use social media at least once every day (Figure 3a) (Sensis, 2016). With the integration of mobile and locative media with social media, this has only become more apparent. 72% of people will use their smartphone to access their SNSs (Figure 3b), this is compared to only 34% in 2011 (Sensis, 2016).

a.Screen Shot 2017-04-20 at 12.59.29 pm b.Screen Shot 2017-04-20 at 12.58.45 pm

Figure 3: Sensis Social Media Report Data on Usage (a) and Devices Used (b).

In real life, relationships come in many forms, both in the strength of the ties, strong or weak, and in the context of the relationship, such as professional, personal, and acquaintances. Online SNSs are often a reflection of real world (offline) relationships and interactions (Haythornthwaite & Wellman, 1998; Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007). Studies have shown that people who have stronger ties in an offline setting are more likely to communicate with greater frequency online (Haythornthwaite & Wellman, 1998), and SNSs are used mostly to support and enhance existing offline connections (Parks, 2011). The average Australian has 272 Facebook friends and 409 followers/friends across their social media accounts (Sensis, 2016). These 409 connections are likely a mix of strong and weak ties.

Weak ties are also important, as they form components of each person’s social network and facilitate connections to be made between different sections of a network. SNSs help increase bridging social capital through weak ties between people which encourages the creation of larger, more connected networks which may be a source of information or other resources (Donath & boyd, 2004; Wellman, Haase, Witte, & Hampton, 2001). SNSs also support maintained social capital through the connections made with people who we have previously had interactions with and are keeping in touch with (Ellison et al., 2007).

SNSs are clearly influenced by and have influence over both online and offline contexts. SNSs, in an online context, support the connection and maintenance of relationships between people; both those known from face-to-face offline interactions and those who are only known in the online world and are strangers in real life (boyd & Ellison, 2007). Networked communities are an online phenomenon encompassing the ideas of community and networks formed online through social interactions (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013). SNSs are arguably both networks of connections and communities of belonging. Parks (2011) defines the three characteristics of communities: connection, personal expression, and membership. SNSs have all of these characteristics; connection through the formation of networks of interactions, personal expression through user generated content, and membership through profile creation on each SNS.

SNSs are not solely an online creation, as they are heavily influenced by the offline contexts, such as personal relationships, geographical location, and cultural influences. SNSs may be based online; however, they will often have real life consequences in social, political, economic, and cultural terms (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013). SNSs may be used in personal, business, and political contexts as a form of communication with others to share information. For example, in Australia, 48% of small businesses and 79% of large businesses have an online social media presence (Sensis, 2016), which will help them share information about their business, promote specials, and can use online ratings from customers to help promote their business. This online SNS will have very real impacts on the offline performance of the business.

SNSs, Online and Offline Contexts, and #BeTheFilter

In the #BeTheFilter campaign I worked on this semester, there is a reliance on acceptance by the SNSs communities in the uptake of the campaign and its messages. These users of the SNSs must interact with the campaign and actively call out fake news when they see it and encourage people to think critically about what they come across online. SNSs are an excellent platform to help disseminate the program and its key messages, as SNSs are cheap, easy to use, and the target audience of the campaign will mostly have SNS accounts and be able to interact with the information.

As a largely online campaign, #BeTheFilter will also influence offline contexts as people will use the skills learnt through the campaign in their day to day lives and critically analyse information and its source. This is an example of how online interactions will have real consequences and influences in the offline world as well. The online world where the campaign is based will also be heavily influenced by the offline world, which would influence the information being shared as related to current events. For example, a meme we created for the #BeTheFilter campaign encourages social media users to check the information they are promoting and sharing is accurate and think before they share anything online (Figure 4). This meme played on current events with the election of US President Donald Trump and his inappropriate use of SNSs.

Figure 4: #BeTheFilter Meme – Think Before U Tweet

As the online landscape is ever-changing and dynamic, changes are unavoidable in the future. How people communicate through social media and SNSs will expand and develop to suit the cultural contexts that are creating the content being shared. It is entirely foreseeable that new SNSs will emerge and current platforms may lose popularity. Ultimately any future changes will be to suit the online and offline environments and adapt to the needs of the users.

boyd, d. (2011). Social network sites as networked publics: Affordances, dynamics, and implications, in Z.Papacharissi (Ed.), A Networked Self: Identity, Community and Culture on Social Network Sites. New York: Routledge, 39–58.

Donath, J., & Boyd, D. (2004). Public displays of connection. bt technology Journal22(4), 71-82.

Ellison, N. B. (2007). Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship. Journal of ComputerMediated Communication13(1), 210-230.

Ellison, N. B., Steinfield, C., & Lampe, C. (2007). The benefits of Facebook “friends:” Social capital and college students’ use of online social network sites. Journal of ComputerMediated Communication12(4), 1143-1168.

Haythornthwaite, C., & Wellman, B. (1998). Work, friendship, and media use for information exchange in a networked organization. Journal of the American society for information science49(12), 1101-1114.

Hinton, S., & Hjorth, L. (2013). Understanding Social Media. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Kaplan, A. M., & Haenlein, M. (2010). Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of Social Media. Business Horizons53(1), 59-68.

Parks M. R. (2011). Social network sites as virtual communities, in Z. Papacharissi (Ed.), A Networked Self: Identity, Community and Culture on Social Network Sites. New York: Routledge. 105–123.

Sensis. (2016). Sensis Social Media Report 2016. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 April, 2017].

Van Dijck, J. (2013). Engineering Sociality in a Culture of Connectivity. The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. Oxford University Press.

Wellman, B., Haase, A. Q., Witte, J., & Hampton, K. (2001). Does the Internet increase, decrease, or supplement social capital? Social networks, participation, and community commitment. American behavioral scientist45(3), 436-455.

Zuckerman, E. (2008) Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism. Paper presented at the O’Reilly ETech Conference, 3–6 March.


2 thoughts on “Social Network Sites and their Online and Offline Contexts

  1. Great article, Breanna. Thanks!

    One of the points you’ve articulated has made me think a bit about the next phase in communication online:

    “There are many forms of SNSs, however, most are centred on the idea of forming a ‘network’ rather than ‘networking’ and searching for new people, who are strangers likely with shared interests (boyd & Ellison, 2007). Although it is not the primary practice of most social network sites, they can still involve networking for strangers and forming new relationships (boyd & Ellison, 2007).”

    This is a really interesting observation and one, I think, that could be the next phase of innovation in communication online. At the moment, the “weak ties” that are available to us are very much finite – often they are dictated by the acquaintances we have in our offline lives. The prospect of developing, and potentially strengthening, weak ties with strangers online through a mediated platform is an incredibly exciting one. Yes, this has been happening in forums for a long time, but it’s hardly become a mainstream undertaking.

    What do you think are the barriers for us to slowly veer away from the need for an offline context in the online relationships we develop? We’re seeing it happen with applications like Tinder, but the implications for it moving beyond dating, to a manner in which simply find like-minded people – perhaps professionally or personally speaking – are far greater. Are the technical affordances available to us simply not there yet? Is it a U/X problem? Or is the barrier more psychological? Is there a limit to how much of our lives we can conduct online?

    Again, thanks for a really informative read!


  2. Hi Breanna,

    Thanks for your interesting post, I enjoyed reading it. It is great that you mentioned the importance of weak ties – they sometimes or most of the times get overlooked. I am interested to see if you and your team made use of weak ties that individuals have in your #bethefilter campaign? Judging by your image of Trump, does this form of a weak link amongst the online community that knows about Trump, giving them something in common thus drawing this whole group into your campaign? Given that the target audience for this campaign seems to be huge (all who use the cyberspace), maybe weak links would prove to be very effective here in connecting with your audiences perhaps?

    I think you picked an excellent theory for your #bethefilter project. The main backbone of the campaign is to encourage an individual to exercises their personal skills to analyse information before sharing it with “the world”. In other words, they have the power to “regenerate” the information in a different light, be it negatively or positively. Individuals need to acknowledge the power that they each have in the cyberspace, full of unreliable sources, to filter information out for themselves and especially for those who are less well versed in the area. This again reflects the power of SNS and the need to understand it.


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