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Sociology of Social Media

Sociologists use the term cultural diversity to capture the cultural variety that exists among people who find themselves sharing some physical or virtual space. One rough indicator of cultural diversity within a country is the number of languages spoken by its residents. The sociological theories-functionalist, conflict, and symbolic interactionism-help us to think about the Internet as a platform for presenting the self.

Functionalists focus on how parts of society function in expected and unexpected ways to maintain existing social order. They also pay attention to how parts disrupt the existing order in expected and unexpected ways. Of course the use of social networking sites as a platform for presenting the self to others is the part of society we are analyzing. Some expected, or manifest, functions of social networking sites are that they facilitate connections with family, friends, and other parties; allow members to share photos and videos; support discussions with like-minded people about hobbies and other interests; and help users to plan face-to-face meetings with friends. They also allow users to establish and maintain

contacts with a far greater number of people than is typically possible using non-digital means.

An unexpected, or latent, function of social networking sites is that many offer users a tool that allows them to connect with people with whom they have lost contact, including lost relatives. It is also a tool that police departments draw upon to collect incriminating evidence.

One manifest dysfunction of such websites is that there is no way to tell whether people are presenting real or fabricated self-profile. The news feature seemingly endless numbers of stories about people who post fabricated profiles, such as one involving three teens that posted embarrassing material and falsely attributed it to a disliked teacher. As one critic argues, "There is a general feeling that social networking is the wild west of identity management" (Martin 2008).

Many people create a Facebook page for the purpose of meeting like-minded friends or staying in touch, not thinking that potential employers may view postings for clues about someone's character apart from the resume and interview. A unexpected, or latent, dysfunction of social networking sites is that once something is posted for others to access, there is no way to control how it will be used.

Conflict theorists seek to identify advantaged and disadvantaged groups, document unequal access to scarce and valued resources, and describe the ways in which advantaged groups promote and protect their interests. With regard to social networking websites, conflict theorists ask, "Who ultimately controls these websites? And who benefits from this arrangement and at whose expense?" Conflict theorists maintain that the advantaged groups include those who own the social networking websites, advertisers, potential employers, and other parties interested in selling products. No matter how much users think they benefit from social networking, in the final analysis they are the disadvantaged groups, especially if they mistakenly believe that they control the information they have posted. On close analysis we see that the control lies with the website. Facebook (2008), for example, makes it clear that "all content on the Site and available through the Service, including designs, text, graphics, pictures, video, information, applications, software, music, sound and other les . . . are the proprietary property of the Company." MySpace (2008) warns that it may use "cookies and similar tools to customize the content and advertising gleaned from the Pro le Information you have provided."

Symbolic interactionists study social interaction and focus on self-awareness, symbols, and negotiated order. Symbolic interactionists ask, "How do the involved parties experience, interpret, influence, and respond to what they and others are saying and doing?" Symbolic interactionists are interested in learning how social networking platforms serve as a mirror, giving users especially teenagers the chance to be noticed by others and to receive feedback.

Symbolic interactionists studying Facebook and other social networking sites familiarize themselves with vocabulary and symbols people use to convey intent and mood with words such as block (take action to prevent a user from making contact or viewing a profile) and add (to gain a new friend). Finally, symbolic interactionists are interested in how order is dealt with presenting the self and seeking responses to that presentation.

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