Research Article: Recent Themes in Social Networking Service Research

Date Published: January 20, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): John S. Liu, Mei Hsiu-Ching Ho, Louis Y. Y. Lu, Gaoxi Xiao.


The body of literature addressing the phenomenon related to social networking services (SNSs) has grown rather fast recently. Through a systematic and quantitative approach, this study identifies the recent SNS research themes, which are the issues discussed by a coherent and growing subset of this literature. A set of academic articles retrieved from the Web of Science database is used as the basis for uncovering the recent themes. We begin the analysis by constructing a citation network which is further separated into groups after applying a widely used clustering method. The resulting clusters all consist of articles coherent in citation relationships. This study suggests eight fast growing recent themes. They span widely encompassing politics, romantic relationships, public relations, journalism, and health. Among them, four focus their issues largely on Twitter, three on Facebook, and one generally on both. While discussions on traditional issues in SNSs such as personality, motivations, self-disclosure, narcissism, etc. continue to lead the pack, the proliferation of the highlighted recent themes in the near future is very likely to happen.

Partial Text

Social networking services (SNSs), denoting web-based services that provide users with social interaction and microblogging functions, have suddenly become a large part of people’s life in recent years. One research report [1] estimates that 72% of American online adults in 2015 are Facebook users, while the same estimations for Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter are 31%, 28%, 25%, and 23%, respectively—all of which saw significant growth. Such an overwhelming usage of SNSs has led scholars to study the cause, nature, and impact of the phenomenon and attempt to answer questions like who these SNS users are, why and how they use the services, and what the influences of SNSs have on their users and the society as a whole. In less than 10 years, the related academic articles on SNSs have gradually formed a large body of literature worth a detailed examination.

Referencing previous works is a standard practice in publishing the results of scientific research. This practice allows one to construct from a collection of target articles a citation network in which nodes are articles and links are the referencing relationships among the articles. Citation links in a citation network are usually assigned a direction pointing from the earlier to the later articles, indicating that knowledge is diffused from the earlier articles to the newer articles.

This study obtained articles and citation data from the Web of Science (WOS) service provided by Thomson Reuters. Data collection was conducted in two steps. It began with a search in WOS using a query string consisting of SNS related terms. These terms are designed by referencing search terms used by several review articles on SNS [3, 30–32], Phrases like “online social network*”, “Internet social network*”, “social network* site*”, “social network* website*”, “social network* web site*”, “social network* service*”, “social network* web*”, and specific services such as Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc. are included in the query string. Noting that the wildcard character ‘*’ allows variations of a specified term. Articles that have their title meet one of the conditions specified in the query string were retrieved from the WOS Social Science Citation Index (SSCI) database. We retrieve data from SSCI, because we are interested in the development of the social science literature. This step returned 2,445 articles on January 30, 2016.

Edge-betweenness clustering divides the citation network of SNS literature into many subnetworks, each consisting of a group of articles that cite each other more than those outside the group. The top nine largest groups are 739, 129, 51, 44, 39, 38, 36, 35, and 32 in size, while the sizes of the remaining groups are no greater than 28. The largest group contains roughly one-third of the articles in the dataset and is regarded as the current core SNS literature. It contains articles elaborating on SNS themes that have already been around for a while. As mentioned earlier, we look for two signs of recent themes: a coherent subnetwork of proper size and growth in the number of publications. These remaining eight groups not only meet the first condition (not too large, not too small) but also the second one. As exhibited in Fig 1, publications within each of these groups are growing. We thus emphasize our examination on these eight groups. Fig 1 summarizes the characteristics of these eight groups. The information for the largest group is put in the left-most column for reference.

The recent themes presented above span a wide spectrum of disciplines that are mostly within the areas of social science and healthcare science. This is because that our primary goal is to study SNS’ societal implications rather than their algorithmic aspects and structural characteristics. SNS literature in computer science, physics, mathematics, etc. are excluded in the data collection stage. The themes captured are thus quite reasonable, but readers are reminded to interpret the results with some caution. First, the analysis does not include all the articles we intend to study. Notably missing are several highly recognized papers that are presented in conference [112–114], book chapters [115, 116], and published in journals not listed in WOS [117]. These articles discuss legitimate issues, such as why people use Twitter [112], the closure process on Twitter [113], finding similar users in Facebook [116], etc.

This study uncovers the most recent research activities that have congregated into small coherent body of literature. Hopefully, the results presented herein are able to inspire researchers across social science fields to further drive these themes and to enlighten scholars who are not already on the SNS bandwagon with some new directions.