Online social networking skills: The social affordances approach to digital inequality
First Monday

Online social networking skills: The social affordances approach to digital inequality by Yuli Patrick Hsieh

This paper sets out to develop a theoretical framework for examining implications of digital media uses for digital inequality in the domain of social interaction. First, by drawing on the social affordances perspective, this paper seeks to establish an additional dimension of digital skills, namely, online social networking skills. Furthermore, to explore the implications of interactional ICT use for digital inequality, this paper theorizes how online social networking skills may condition uses of various digital media for communication (i.e., communication multiplexity) and proposes two propositions for future empirical examination.


Digital skills, ICT use and digital inequality
A theory of online social networking skills
Implications of online social networking skills for social capital enhancement
The social affordances approach to digital inequality
Concluding remarks




Inequalities in access to and uses of information and communication technologies (ICTs) across different population segments have attracted public and scholarly attention since the mid–1990s (DiMaggio, et al., 2004; National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 1995). Work on digital inequality has further addressed the disparities in people’s knowledge and ability of using ICTs among individuals with different socioeconomic backgrounds and ICT experiences (e.g., Hargittai, 2002, 2010; van Deursen and van Dijk, 2009). More importantly, Findings from this line of work suggests that differences in digital skills are associated with differentiated Web uses, whereby more skilled users are likely to engage in more types of online activities with greater frequency and intensity in the digital environment than those with fewer skills (e.g., Hargittai and Walejko, 2008; Livingstone and Helsper, 2010).

Given the rapidly changing nature of ICTs, individuals may need to acquire additional skills just to keep a good grip on their ICT use, even if they only want to keep pace with the ICTs that emerge and become ubiquitous in everyday life. Consequently, digital skills should also be seen as a progressive theoretical concept and should continue to include new components as additional ICTs emerge and are adopted widely by the general population. For example, in recent years, social media, which refers to the Web–based technologies and services used for networking and interaction purposes (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010), have become increasingly pervasive among Web users. A recent report from Pew Internet and American Life Project (Hampton, et al., 2011a) indicated that 79 percent of American adults are Internet users and 59 percent of Web users reported using social network sites. In other words, social media sites are popular online destinations for Americans today. However, prior work in the domain of digital skills has focused primarily on the operational knowledge of ICTs as well as the ability to use ICTs for informational purposes. The discussion of the ability required to use ICTs for interaction purposes is fairly limited. Given the growing ubiquity of social media, it is necessary to put forth the concept of online social networking skills in order to explore users’ knowledge about networking–oriented ICTs and how people use ICTs for communication.

Additionally, digital inequality scholarship has proposed the capital–enhancement hypothesis arguing that more experienced and skilled individuals are more likely to use ICTs to engage in more capital–enhancing activities in the digital environment (e.g., DiMaggio and Bonikowski, 2008; Hargittai, 2010; Hargittai and Hinnant, 2008; Livingstone and Helsper, 2010; Stern, et al., 2009; Zillien and Hargittai, 2009). Given the potential of social media for enhancing social interaction (e.g., Ellison, et al., 2007), it is also essential to explore the relationship between online social networking skills and social–interactional uses of ICTs to understand the implications of digital skills for engaging social capital enhancing activities online.

Of particular relevance to the aforementioned implications is a growing body of research (e.g., Baym, et al., 2004; Boase, et al., 2006; Haythornthwaite, 2001; Mesch, 2009; van Cleemput, 2010; Wellman, 2002; Xie, 2008) identifying the phenomenon of communication multiplexity [1]. Findings from this area indicated that individuals tended to use multiple media to communicate with stronger–tie contacts in their social networks. However, the literature tends to overlook the possibility that the ability of individuals to use various ICTs may affect how and to what extent they maintain social relationships through ICTs. If communication multiplexity describes accurately how people use ICTs for interaction purposes, then who is more likely to engage in such practices and benefit from conceivably more diverse and efficient access to social resources? Are skilled users more likely to adopt social media for maintaining social relationships than their counterparts? The field is in need of new perspectives on the factors explaining communication multiplexity and on its implications for digital inequality. It is this gap in the literature that this paper seeks to address.

This paper proceeds with drawing on the social affordances perspective to establish an additional dimension of digital skills, namely, online social networking skills. Next, this manuscript theorizes the relationship between two theoretical constructs: online social networking skills and communication multiplexity to further explore the implications of interactional ICT use for social capital. This paper contributes to the digital inequality scholarship by offering a theoretical framework for examining implications of ICT uses for digital inequality in the domain of social interaction.



Digital skills, ICT use and digital inequality

Digital skills — A multidimensional concept

The definition of digital skills or digital literacy has long been a part of the research agenda of scholars in education and library and information science (e.g., Bawden, 2001; Buckingham, 2007; Eshet–Alkalai, 2004; Lankshear and Knobel, 2008; Livingstone, 2004; Marcum, 2002). Past literature sought to capture multiple dimensions of skills for using ICTs and broadly defined digital literacy as the ability to access, process, understand and create information or media content in the digital environment (Livingstone, 2004). For example, Eshet–Alkalai and her colleagues (Eshet–Alkalai, 2004; Eshet–Alkalai and Amichai–Hamburger, 2004; Eshet–Alkalai and Chajut, 2009) argued that, in order to be digitally literate, one had to know how to process and understand informational and socio–emotional meanings of various types of digital content; furthermore, one had to know how to use and manipulate digital content to perform tasks.

Digital literacy scholarship mainly focused on individuals’ ability to process information for solving tasks and problems at hand. However, little discussed were people’s capabilities for using ICTs for daily activities and their broader social implications. While pragmatic, such technological capabilities are the foundations for maneuvering within and among digital environments and processing information that users encounter online. An advantage of this pragmatic approach to studying digital skills is that it helps account for the rapidly changing nature of ICTs and allows researchers to include additional skills associated with newly introduced ICTs. When new technologies or services are introduced, new types of skills that enable individuals to use the new technologies are likely to emerge correspondingly. Under such a circumstance, if one of the newly introduced ICTs became widely adopted and ubiquitous, the ability to use that new ICT effectively may also become an additional required skill set for users to possess. Otherwise, individuals may not be able to pursue the potential opportunities brought by that particular technology.

Digital skills and digital inequality

Over the years, scholars have called for more comprehensive approaches to investigate the digital divide phenomenon as well as other social implications of ICTs since the early 2000s (DiMaggio, et al., 2001). Digital inequality scholarship (e.g., DiMaggio, et al., 2004; van Dijk, 2005) has theorized the link between ICT use and digital inequality, suggesting a linear and positive relationship between socioeconomic factors, digital resources and benefits from ICT uses. For instance, DiMaggio and his colleagues (2004) argued that demographic and socioeconomic factors influenced the level and quality of various types of technology–related resources (such as the quality of hardware and software; autonomy of use; skill and availability of social support), which then had implications for the extent and quality of ICT uses; such ICT usage differences in turn might result in differentiated opportunities and life outcomes that users may gain.

Recent developments in the digital inequality literature further addressed the crucial role of digital skills in differentiating Internet users’ opportunities to enhance their life chances (e.g., DiMaggio, et al., 2004; Hargittai, 2008; Livingstone and Helsper, 2010; van Dijk, 2005). A substantial number of studies (e.g., Gui and Argentin, 2011; Hargittai, 2002, 2010; Hargittai and Hinnant, 2008; Meneses and Mominó, 2010; Mossberger, et al., 2003; van Deursen and van Dijk, 2009) empirically documented the disparities in people’s ICT skills as they pertained to different socioeconomic backgrounds and ICT experiences. Findings from this line of work indicated that those from lower socioeconomic status groups tend to be less skilled thereby reflecting and potentially even exacerbating pre–existing inequalities. Furthermore, a few studies in this domain produced some empirical evidence suggesting that variation in digital skills was associated with differentiated Web uses, in which more skilled users were likely to engage in more types of online activities with greater frequency and intensity in the digital environment than those with fewer skills (e.g., Correa, 2010; Hargittai and Walejko, 2008; Livingstone and Helsper, 2010; Stern, et al., 2009).

While people’s online abilities may have crucial implications regarding the extent to which people may benefit from spending time online, prior work on digital skills and their inequality implications has focused primarily on the operational knowledge of ICTs as well as the ability to use ICTs for informational purposes. For example, from self–efficacy and confidence (Livingstone and Helsper, 2010), competence (Meneses and Mominó, 2010; Mossberger, et al., 2003), to understanding of Web–related terms (Hargittai, 2005, 2009), many measurements of informational Web use skills have been proposed and applied in empirical research settings. The discussion over the ability required to use ICTs for interaction purposes is fairly limited. Given that uses of Web–based social networking and content sharing services — loosely categorized as social media — have been the most increasingly popular types of ICT usage since the mid–2000s, I argue that it is necessary to put forth the concept of online social networking skills to understand further how people use ICTs to communicate with others and access social resources for social capital enhancement.



A theory of online social networking skills

Based on the theoretical conceptualization of the digital skills literature, online social networking skills can be defined as the ability and knowledge of how to use ICTs, specifically for social interaction. However, the substance of such skills remains a puzzling question. It is not intuitively obvious as to what constitutes ability and knowledge in this domain, given that communication function is an inherent element of virtually every form of ICTs. While being able to use ICTs can certainly allow users to communicate and interact with others, it is not sufficient to define such usage as interaction skills.

For example, experiences such as knowing how to e–mail or how to use instant messaging (IM) to stay in touch with others are clear indicators of the ability to operate and use these two technologies. However, such ability does not guarantee that the e–mail message or IM correspondence will sustain the interactions between communication partners successfully. Consider a communication episode of a friend of mine, Bill, who works at an advertising agency. Bill sent an urgent IM message to the members of his work group to call off the weekly routine meeting at the last minute. However, when Bill sent the message, he did not notice that none of his colleagues were logged on to the IM service. As a result, while Bill successfully sent the note to everyone, they did not receive it and got together in the meeting room due to the miscommunication. In this extreme instance, Bill clearly knows how to use IM to initiate an “instant” communication, but he may not understand completely how IM supports his communication with others and under what circumstances he can initiate interaction through IM successfully.

In other words, not all ICTs are designed and used in the same way across social settings. In order to initiate an interaction and communicate with the corresponding counterpart(s) appropriately, users may also need to understand what the ICT of choice can do in an interaction setting and how such an ICT affords and supports their intended communication. To address the aforementioned conceptual problems, I draw on the social affordances perspective to establish a nuanced theoretical underpinning to define online social networking skills.

Affordances — From materiality of objects to agency of actors

Affordances can be seen as opportunities for action. They refer to the perceived and actual properties of objects and surrounding environments by animals or humans (Gibson, 1977). The concept of affordances has been used to study the usage and design implications of artifacts and communication technologies (e.g., Gaver, 1991, 1992; Norman, 1990). For example, people perceive a “knife” as an object that can cut things into pieces because such an object possesses a sharp edge with a dihedral angle. Additionally, affordances are attributes of both objects and actors. People intuitively perceive objects or environments with respect to their functionality for action, at the same time, objects and environments also contain perceptual information that indicates the potential actions they afford (Bloomfield, et al., 2010; Bonderup Dohn, 2009). Bonderup Dohn (2009) further assigns more weight to the agency of actors in the concept of affordances, arguing that affordances of an object are not always perceived in the same way for everyone. The affordances perceived and enacted in a certain situation by a given person are relatively dependent on the knowledge, skills and agency that person has acquired in her past experiences. Going back to the “knife” example, a knife affords a chef the opportunity to cut and cook food while it affords a one–year–old baby a huge risk of injury as he does not know how the blade should be used.

Social affordances — How technology afford social practice

In line with the original concept of affordances, researchers have put forth the notion of social affordances to theorize specifically the link among technologies (i.e., objects), interaction (i.e., actions), and social environments (i.e., social structure) in which interactions take place (e.g., Bradner, et al., 1999; Hogan, 2009; Kreijns, et al., 2002; Wellman, et al., 2003). For instance, based on the evaluation studies of the adoptions of computer–mediated communication (CMC) systems in organizational settings, researchers initially theorized social affordance as the properties of an object that enable or constrain interaction depending on the social norms in different situations (Bradner, et al., 1999; Kreijns, et al., 2002). Similarly, some researchers (e.g., Boase, 2008; Wellman, et al., 2003) conceptualized social affordances specifically as the technological capabilities of ICTs, such as spatial and temporal transcendence as well as personalization, etc. They further contended that ICTs have an empowering potential for social interaction as the social affordances of ICTs can enhance users’ local and global connectivity and provide users an additional means for social interaction. Alternatively, Hogan (2009) stressed less the technological properties and contended that social affordances may be better understood as the perceptual cues of social environments that produce different opportunities for interactions.

One common theme of these propositions of social affordances is their understanding that technology and social contexts are mutually shaped. The aforementioned researchers (e.g., Hogan, 2009; Kreijns, et al., 2002) underscored the match between technological properties and social contexts in social interaction, arguing that people were likely to use a certain kind of ICT only when its capabilities were able to fulfill the interaction purposes and were suitable for social contexts in which communication occurs. Different ICTs can support social interactions either in the same way or in different ways, depending upon how users employ ICTs appropriately in a given social context. In other words, social affordances of ICTs are technologically bounded and socially constructed. On the one hand, ICTs provide technological capabilities facilitating communication and social interactions in various ways. On the other hand, the social contexts of interactions and users’ knowledge and skills of ICTs may shape the way users perceive and employ ICTs in actual communication practice.

The concept of social affordances has been applied specifically to explain how the intrinsic properties of ICTs may be appropriated for social interaction (e.g., Boase, 2008; Chen and Wellman, 2005; Wellman, et al., 2003). However, following the notion of Bonderup Dohn (2009), the important point is that individuals’ knowledge of ICT properties and their ability to use ICTs are also an essential component that enact technological affordances to support social actions and achieve goals. Recall Bill’s episode, IM did not afford Bill the opportunity to communicate with his colleague promptly, given that he sent out his alert when everyone was logged off the service. However, if Bill had been very conscious of the online status notification and knew that such functionality can provide information about the “instant communication availability” of his colleagues, then he might have decided not to use IM to alert his colleagues. In other words, Bill’s knowledge about how to use IM features appropriately to sustain his communication for a certain purpose plays a crucial role in enacting IM’s social affordances to support his intended interaction.

Therefore, as conceptualized through the lens of social affordances, digital skills imply more than just the ability to use ICTs. It is also theoretically insightful to highlight the context of ICT use. Digital skills can be theorized as the ability to utilize ICTs’ capabilities for specific social practices. Such an affordance–oriented notion of digital skills does not necessarily contradict their traditional definition posited in the digital skills literature. In fact, this extended notion of digital skills is an inclusive one, given that it can highlight the information processing and seeking in the digital environment as the intended social practices for using ICTs. Moreover, following this extended notion, it is theoretically appropriate to formulate additional dimensions of digital skills by specifying the purposive practices of ICT use. Thus, I argue that online social networking skills can be defined as the ability to use ICTs to facilitate social interactions.

Operationalizing online social network skills

To operationalize online social networking skills, the next important inquiry is to explore the properties and capabilities of ICTs that enable social interaction. A substantial body of research (e.g., Birnholtz, 2010; boyd and Ellison, 2007; Gilbert, et al., 2008; Grinter and Palen, 2002; Lampe, et al., 2008; Markus, 1994; Setlock and Fussell, 2010; Zhao and Rosson, 2009) has empirically investigated the functionalities and capabilities of various ICTs such as e–mail, IM, social network sites (SNS), and micro–blogging services (i.e., Twitter). Two important findings from work in this area lend support to develop the operationalized definitions of online social network skills [2].

First, different ICTs possess different capabilities for communication. For instance, e–mail allows users to communicate with others asynchronously (Markus, 1994), while IM enables users to communicate with others synchronously (Birnholtz, 2010; Grinter and Palen, 2002). SNS primarily allows users to network with a large amount of existing contacts through multiple ways and it provides abundant features for users to engage in entertainment, purchase and civic participation (boyd and Ellison, 2007; Hogan and Quan–Haase, 2010). Micro–blogging service mainly enables users to share personal thoughts, updates and other information rapidly through one–to–many or many–to–many communication (boyd, et al., 2010; Honeycutt and Herring, 2009; Zhao and Rosson, 2009).

Second, different ICTs afford varying degree of social presence (Short, et al., 1976), which means they provide different degree of social cues and awareness of others. The predominately text–based media such as e–mail, IM and micro–blogging provides relatively lower degree of social cues than a multimedia–based SNS (Xie, 2008). However, a recent research suggested that users were able to manipulate social presence and interactivity of ICTs while using them (Stephens, et al., 2008). Based on the insights of the findings from research on the ICTs of interest, I propose two theoretical dimensions to capture users’ skills to use ICTs for social interaction. Online social networking skills are consistent of (1) understanding the technological properties that specifically enable social interactions; and, (2) knowing the practices that can increase interactivity. The first definition allows researchers to design survey questions, interview probes, as well as ethnographic observation protocols revolving around features and functions of specific Web services or ICTs. The second definition allows researchers to further investigate whether and how individuals use specific functions to increase their interactivity and in turn encourage interaction via ICTs.



Implications of online social networking skills for social capital enhancement

As noted earlier, the implications of differentiated digital skills and ICT uses for users’ capital enhancing opportunities and subsequently their life outcomes are another important research inquiry in the digital inequality research. A few prior studies (e.g., Hargittai, 2010; Hargittai and Hinnant, 2008; Hassani, 2006) looking at the factors of various online activities found that users with more access points, more experience, and higher skills are likely to engage with more types of capital–enhancing online activities such as health–information seeking. While findings from these studies offered support to the capital–enhancing hypothesis (DiMaggio, et al., 2004), these studies focused mainly on demonstrating the systematic relationship between operational skills and the engagement of a wide range of general online activities. The core agenda being advanced here is that given that the prevalence of social media uses and their potential for maintaining and developing social capital, it is essential to investigate whether and how digital skills, especially online social networking skills, are related to social–interactional uses of ICTs.

Communication multiplexity — How ICTs afford social interaction

Of particular relevance to this digital inequality research agenda is the communication multiplexity perspective (e.g., Haythornthwaite, 2005), a recent approach to the ongoing debate concerning the positive or negative implications of ICTs for social interaction, and subsequently social connectivity and social capital (e.g., see DiMaggio, et al., 2001; Hampton, et al., 2011b; Hampton and Wellman, 2003; Rice and Haythornthwaite, 2006 for a review of this literature). Drawing on the social affordances approach to conceptualize how various ICT use enable interactions, a few researchers (i.e., Haythornthwaite, 2001; Boase, et al., 2006) employed the term “media multiplexity” to describe the empirical findings of the ways in which individuals maintain their social relationships through the use of multiple ICTs. However, such a term may signal an implicit emphasis on media technologies rather than the purposes of their uses, namely, communication with people in one’s social networks. Herein, I call this phenomenon of interest communication multiplexity to focus on the substance of the interaction contexts.

Initially, communication multiplexity was conceptualized to describe the interaction patterns between close relationships. For instance, by analyzing a series of social network studies of various groups of researchers and professional students, Haythonthwaite (2005) found that her research participants tended to use more types of media to be in touch with those with whom they shared strong ties and communicated more frequently. Boase and his colleagues (2006) also found a similar pattern from their survey of a national representative sample in the United States, suggesting that the usage frequency of media is positively related to the communication frequency with one’s personal contacts. The researchers further found that respondents reported connecting with both stronger and weaker ties through multiple media uses, and that e–mail users reported getting more social support from others (Boase, 2008; Boase, et al., 2006).

Accounting for the intensity and diversity of ICT use, the notion of communication multiplexity seemed to offer good theoretical insights into the relationship between ICT use and social connectivity. A growing body of work indicated similar results regarding maintaining different social relationships through using multiple ICTs (e.g., Baym, et al., 2007; Hogan, 2009; Kim, et al., 2007; Mesch, 2009; van Cleemput, 2010). For example, Hogan (2009) conducted an in–person survey collecting information on interviewees’ social networks and ICT uses in an urban Canadian region. While he found that his Canadian participants used multiple ICTs for networking with members of their social networks, he also found that the participants were likely to be in touch with the most socially accessible contacts rather than those with whom they have the strongest ties. Hogan’s findings pointed out an important characteristic of communication multiplexity. He argued that ICT may increase the flexibility for users to reach to both close and remote social circles for maintaining relationships or accessing resources. But as a result, practicing communication multiplexity may also become a burdensome management task, which may demand an additional skill set of users for constantly negotiating with their social networks regarding the consensual use of certain ICTs for communication.

Who are more likely to engage in communication multiplexity?

By accounting for the varying affordances associated with different ICTs, the communication multiplexity perspective offers a rigorous approach arguing that the Internet affords users a more individualized way of networking. However, while work in this domain has produced rigorous discussions about multiple ICT use for social networking, little was discussed the factors that may explain the level of engagement in communication multiplexity and its implications for digital inequality. If communication multiplexity reflects how users maintain social relationships and access social capital, then who is more likely to engage in such a sophisticated ICT usage? Is such a practice likely to improve one’s well–being by bringing in more social support and other resources? The literature in this domain is able to shed fairly limited lights on these research questions.

A few studies that explore whether ICT users experience changes in social connectivity find that demographic and socioeconomic variables were not highly correlated with the extent of engaging in online social interaction (di Gennaro and Dutton, 2007; Mesch and Levanon, 2003). For example, di Gennaro and Dutton (2007) find that gender, marital status and social class exhibited a small and direct association with developing online relationships while other variables such as age, education and employment did not explain any of the variations in their models. In addition, given the complexity of the phenomenon of interest, the aforementioned literature tends to focus more on exploring the link between ICT use and social connectivity. Consequently, questions about whether one’s demographic characteristics and socioeconomic background may influence such a link are still under–developed in terms of theory.

Another possibly more relevant factor that may explain how one uses ICTs to maintain social relationships is one’s Web–use ability. As Web–based communication services become more embedded in our daily routines, ICTs may complicate the way people maintain social relationships and access social capital by introducing an additional technological context. Sociologists (e.g., Granovetter, 1973) have already highlighted the importance of active networking in one’s personal network in order to access and mobilize different resources rather than rely on local communities or social groups. However, the emergence of communication multiplexity suggests that one’s ability to maintain social relationships and access social capital through new ICTs may be driven by one’s digital skills [3].

Additionally, if using multiple ICTs for networking becomes a complex management task for users (Hogan, 2009), then it is logical to suspect that users require certain abilities and skills in order to engage in such a technological networking practice. Wellman’s claim on the enabling roles of digital skills in networking is in line with the recent development in digital inequality literature (e.g., van Dijk, 2005) that aims to explain factors and implications of ICT uses on a broader scheme. In other words, while an individual’s media repertoire may consist of both traditional and online media, digital skills, particularly online social networking skills, may also affect the extent to which people rely on Web–based media to maintain their social relationships and access social resources.



The social affordances approach to digital inequality

The growing penetration of social media has posted new research questions with respect to social implications of ICTs, the nexus of digital inequality research as well as the studies looking at ICTs’ influences on social interaction. Drawing from the above–reviewed literature, I put forth a social affordances framework to look at the relationship between digital skills and ICT uses in the realm of social interaction and its implications for digital inequality.

First, I suggest that an additional type of Web–use ability, namely, online social networking skills may emerge from the rapid incorporation of social media into mainstream Web activities. Additionally, I point out that the concept of communication multiplexity describes a detailed and complex account of ICT uses for social interaction. Taken together, I argue that it is necessary to employ these two nuanced concepts to examine and understand better the inequality implications of ICTs in the realm of social interaction. Figure 1 illustrates the theoretical framework proposed in this study.


The social affordances approach to digital inequality
Figure 1: The social affordances approach to digital inequality.


In line with the framework being put forth by the digital inequality literature, I offer two propositions denoting the research hypotheses regarding the relationship between digital skills and ICT uses in the realm of social interaction and its implications for digital inequality. First, I argue that online social networking skills, as a type of digital resource, may vary by people’s demographic background and socioeconomic status. The corresponding hypothesis is that, people with higher socioeconomic status and more ICT experiences are more likely to acquire better online social networking skills.

Next, I explore implications of online social networking skills for ICT usage diversity in realm of social interaction. I argue that online social networking skills serve as crucial enabling factors in engaging in communication multiplexity. Specifically, I hypothesize that individuals who have higher online social networking skills are more likely to have a more diverse ICT repertoire for social interaction (i.e., higher propensity of practicing communication multiplexity).



Concluding remarks

By putting forth a nuanced approach to digital skills, this study aims to offer a better understanding with respect to the relationship between user characteristics, digital skills and ways of using ICTs for social interaction. There are two important theoretical contributions in this paper. First, this paper seeks to extend the notion of digital skills by developing an additional dimension of online social networking skills. As new technologies and services are introduced to society progressively, new digital skills that enable individuals to take advantages of the new technologies are likely to emerge correspondingly. In response to the prevalence of social media, the framework and definition of online social networking skills proposed in this paper offer a theoretical approach to digital skills and underlie additional dimensions of skills that enable users to grasp the benefits from social media uses.

Second, this refined framework aims at examining factors related to interactional ICT uses and its implications of for digital inequality. Although far from becoming ubiquitous, social media seems to provide more instruments for users to maintain their social relationships at their convenience. However, the practice of communication multiplexity may also become a complicated management task demanding not only the knowledge to use ICTs, but also the ability to sustain interaction by negotiating with their communication partners for mutual accessibility. In other words, users may have to grasp the knowledge regarding how social media enables communication to further benefit from the enhancing opportunities of social capital. Although this paper is not able to demonstrate the utility of this framework with empirical investigations, I believe the proposed framework of online social networking skills should be able to provide some nuanced directions for future empirical studies with respect to the inequality implications of social media and the capital–enhancement perspective in the digital inequality scholarship. End of article


About the author

Yuli Patrick Hsieh is a Ph.D. candidate in the Media, Technology & Society program at Northwestern University.
E–mail: yulihsieh2012 [at] u [dot] northwestern [dot] edu



The author is grateful to Ericka Menchen–Trevino for her helpful input at various stages of the project. For their most helpful feedback on the ideas contained in this article, I thank William Barley, Eszter Hargittai, Bernie Hogan, Eden Litt, Kelly Quinn, and Jeffrey Treem. This paper was improved by comments following presentations at the Oxford Internet Institute 2011 symposium: A Decade in Internet Time and at the 2011 International Telecommunication Society Asian–Pacific Regional Conference.



1. Please see the Communication multiplexity — how ICTs afford social interaction section for detailed accounts of such a concept of ICT uses for social interaction.

2. For illustration purposes, I look at four types of online media and their social affordances. These four online media are e–mail, IM, social network sites (SNS), and micro–blogging services (e.g., Twitter). They are chosen because they are arguably the popular choices for social interaction in current days. These four Web–based services offer fairly different properties and functionalities for communications; and, more importantly, the ways in which people use these media to engage in social interaction are also somewhat different. While other ICTs such as chat rooms, blogs, mobile phones, texting, voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services (e.g. Skype) are also important ICTs that affords social interaction, it is virtually impossible and unmanageable to include every type of ICT in this initial deliberation. Therefore, conceptualization of the skills related to ICTs other than the four proposed here is regrettably beyond the scope of the current project.

3. Wellman, 2001, p. 248; Wellman, et al., 2006.



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Editorial history

Received 14 December 2011; accepted 18 March 2012.

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Online social networking skills: The social affordances approach to digital inequality
by Yuli Patrick Hsieh
First Monday, Volume 17, Number 4 - 2 April 2012

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