Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Online Social Networking: Identity Construction & Social Capital

danah m. boyd and co-author Nicole B. Ellison define social networking sites as “web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct 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 in the system” (boyd & Ellison, 2008).

Online social networking has become the norm in contemporary life. Its trajectory can be traced past the creation of bulletin board systems hosted on personal computers and accessed via modem. Ultimately, the internet gave rise to personal homepages, instant messaging, discussion forums, chat groups, dating services, blogs, and social networking sites. Today’s sites are many; the most popular ones today seem to be Myspace.com, Facebook.com, Twitter.com, and Lookbook.nu.

It is my position that the disparity between representations of self, on- and offline, in community formation, on- and offline, is formed in the differences in the rate of transmission, publicity and archiving of the social worlds of users through their textual and symbolic articulation of one’s being, experiences, and communication between users. These elements come together to form narratives of existence, discourses of dominant and oppositional voices, the formation of and self-positioning in habitus and class-based social worlds, and a departure from music-based ascription to social circles. Such narratives tell the story of our lives as we and others who interact with us represent them and read them. Discourses ranging from dominance of race, gender, class are disseminated prolifically on sites like Facebook and Lookbook. Also, class positions are taken by users in symbolic representation of self, through either images, status updates, declared attendance to social events, the declaration of brand loyalties and taste positions on music, clothing, food, art, activities, practices, and pastimes.

Myspace is a site where one’s profile is a clean slate, fully manipulated by the user, displaying the user’s tastes through image reproduction, statements, and associations, and enables interaction with one’s peers on an interest basis. Facebook is similar in form, however maintains certain aesthetic structures that are consistent across profiles. Facebook users receive instant news feeds on the happenings of their online friends, including photographs, comments, status updates, personal information, consumer tastes and habits, and attendance to social events. Also, instant chatting is an integral, and bridge building, element to Facebook’s capacities as a social network. Twitter is a simplified take on the news feed, and simply focuses on personal statements of current status. In this scenario, complete strangers may become fans of each other’s posts, following each other’s often mundane reports of personal existence. Lookbook is a social networking site that allows relationships to be formed and maintained through the posting of one’s outfits that are rated by other users in a liked or not fashion, commented on, and users also make fans of each other, offering emailed notifications of new looks.

Myspace is primarily used to promote oneself in a naïve professional manner. Users such as musicians, visual artists, bloggers, photographers, use profiles to promote their craft and maintain a measurable and accessible fan base. Many contemporary successes were born on Myspace, such as the emergence of UK singer Lily Allen, or the self-made internet pornstar Tia Tequila turned reality television sideshow. Many audiophiles use Myspace to search for new music; upstart bands that would have had a fan base of a strictly localized scene in the time before the internet, but now have the resources such as this to reach a broader audience.

Facebook is much more a mirror to one’s offline social world; but much like Lacan’s mirror stage, it offers a libidinal relationship with the self and one’s ego. It is my belief that users view themselves in an idealised way from the construction of the self online as representing symbols of being easier formed through textual media than it is in physical interpersonal interactions. Also, networks formed are of a corporate nature, connecting people’s social practices with their consumer practices and tastes.

Lookbook has a peculiar system which influences hegemonies of class, age, and adherence to aesthetic habitum in fashion appraisal. The tagging of clothing articles presents linkages to particular brands; more popular brands have a presence wherein obscurity is obfuscated. The same goes for users, unless browsers of style are altruistic enough to turn a particular vague and unnoticeable filter off, newer members are kept out of sight from more celebrated users. Also, more celebrated users gain more overall attention through their overrepresentation on the site.

Zhao’s research on identity construction on Facebook, mirrored my own postulations that “Facebook selves appeared to be highly socially desirable identities individuals aspire to have offline but have not have been able to embody for one reason or another” (Zhao et al., 2008). His method was a content analysis of profiles on anonymous social networking sites as compared to those on what he labels nonymous social networking sites, like Facebook. Nonymous sites generally focus more on the consumer habits and tastes of the user, whereas anonymous sites present a more stylized, yet realistic, presentation of who the person represents themselves as in real life. In such mastery of one’s identity and social trajectory, youth participants in a study by Schmitt et al. reported “feelings of success, and pride” (Schmitt et al., 2008). The use of such nonymous online social networks allow development of the user’s social world by enriching the textual strength between peers who socialize in the real world; it is as though the platform of the Facebook profile gives the user a buffer by which exploration of each other’s identities becomes a manageable part of our expression of self.

Further, the McLuhanian position on online social networking and the digital image is being researched, Sophie Woodward conducted a project with 800 partcipants using digital cameras to socially interact and engage with one’s world while also socializing online as mediated by the posting and commenting on pictures, its effect on changes in fashion expression of the local club scene were measured. She finds that “the digital camera both mediates the relationship between people and gives rise to… the desire to be rephotographed” (Woodward, 2008). One’s appraisal of self as mediated by online social networks, and the ideal form in the frame of a digital photograph, is beyond the affect of social anxiety in being an actor of a physical network. Facebook offers the opportunity to ‘tag’ or ‘untag’ one’s image, comment, be commented on, the type of social interaction that would take so much longer and pains taking to accomplish in the physical world, that higher levels of social accomplishment must be felt.

Ellison et al. examine the formation and maintenance of social capital through the use of Facebook among members of current and previously inhabited communities; the findings showed, among greater psychological well-being, users gain many social benefits from online social networks (Ellison et al., 2007). This research is framed in a Bourdieu and Wacquantesque fashion, and emphasizes the shared habitus of communities formed off- and online; regarding social capital as “the sum of resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” (Ellison et al., 2007). Social capital is measured in three forms: bridging, bonding, and maintained. The first measures efforts to branch out using “external assets for information diffusion,” the second measures efforts to strengthen friendship through textual communication, and maintenance measures the continued interpersonal relationships between friends in the absence of physical presence.

Social networking sites mimic unmediated social structures around people, not group membership necessarily (boyd & Ellison, 2008). Online relationships are stronger in boyd’s finding than offline, though she stresses there is a connection between people’s associations on- or offline, such as people who share a class but do not necessarily engage each other face-to-face, will find it easier to do so online. “Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible” (Reichelt, 2007). This is a buzz term, recently come into popular use from philosophical and sociological considerations of Twitter.

“We all act as both users and makers of representation, telling stories and listening to them, making causal analysis and reading them” (Becker, 2007). In online social networking, users and makers are one and the same. The perceived agency of expression, and the felt control over what is expressed, along with the access to others personal lives and presentations of self, make social engagement in this textual way a progression in cultural literacy, and thus mastery. For example, there are users of Lookbook, who at the age of twelve have a fashion sense and style way beyond their years. I wonder if this is McLuhan’s theoretical position at work; the access to media based content affecting the concept of self and expression of cultural symbols. Once, young women had only homemaking texts to construct themselves as female. Later, fashion magazines offered a product mediated construction of femininity. Today, the construction of image discourses are user driven, lending to higher levels of literacy in cultural contexts at a younger age.

In the chapter, Summarizing Details, Becker discusses the reduction of social realities into any representation as “making a little out of a lot” (Becker, 2007). Meaning, the selection of what is communicated is an attempt to speak for a ‘thousand words’ what a few ‘words’ state; in this case words stand in for all textual communications, including image, video, and sound. In the case of online profiles, the little that is read represents that lot of information to establish a complete perception, causing narratives to be formed on the part of the user in appraisal of the maker.

My ethnographic investigation of online social networks follows from Becker’s consideration of Whyte’s Street Corner Society, a participant observation approach to the study of people’s interactions and social meaning making in a place based cultural context (Becker, 2007). I am doing much of the same; however the ‘place’ is in the digital landscape. Observations are made on interactions between people in their “institutional capacities,” within and without their social circles, the structure to online social networks implying certain strictures in user agency, the publicity and awareness of each others ‘friends’ and the existence of mutual acquaintances (Becker, 2007). Also, I am considering the juissance in perceiving the self as part of a social world, especially in the context of urban dance scenes, through public declarations of where and when one will be and through legitimisations of one’s participation in these real world social engagements through representation on photoblogs and personal online photo albums.

Aside from participant observations, my research will entail content analysis of online profiles, and photo-elicitation interviews to determine the users’ perception of self as represented online. I hope to gain an understanding of how people make meaning through symbolic representation, a dramatalurgical approach. In a Sausurrian sense, I am interested in how people read other’s presentations of self, as a measure of meaning making in reading text. I would like to investigate how users feel about their representation of self and how those relate to their perception of the self as presented in the physical world. To me, some important considerations are of profile lurking, friend requests and online vs. offline acts or omissions of intimacy, the idealistic properties of pen-palling, feelings about the networking sites themselves and their effect on the users’ daily lives.

Communication technology has progressed throughout the ages. To further Walter Ong’s line of theoretical pursuit, communication and meaning-making has passed from primary orality, to residual orality. This path is followed by Barthes’ studies on the orality-literacy turn, arguing a progress in cultural, intellectual, and social performance and appraisal in the latter aspect of the binary. Other technologies, such as improved means of travel, novels, telephonic and facsimile communications, book of the month clubs, radio, moving picture, television, news media, all convey cultural texts and a social participation of masses and intimate interactions within and across virtual and physical locales. I assert that each progression in this linear trajectory of communication technologies there occur changes in the way people relate to one another and how we do so is paramount to understanding society as a whole. In addition to top-down considerations of systems, the bottom-up approach regards society as the sum and sense of interpersonal relations in the fulfilment of desires, in social positioning, and acts or omissions in response to institutional structures.

Online social networking, as vanguard of communicative technology provides strength to users in amassing social capital among peers. There is a disparity between the online self and the offline self, and thus so too is there inconsistency between community formation on- and offline. What are these differences? What are the implications herein for future social engagement and concept of self? 

Becker, H. S., (2007). Telling About Society. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

boyd, d. m., & Ellison, N. B., (2008). Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13, 210-230.

Ellison, N. B., Stanfield, C., & Lampe, C., (2007). The benefits of Facebook “friends:” Social capital and college students’ use of online social network sites. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12, 1143-1168.

Reichelt, L. (2007). http://www.disambiguity.com/ambient-intimacy/

Schmitt, K. L., Dayanim, S., & Matthias, S., (2008). Personal homepage construction as an expression of social development. Developmental Psychology, 44(2), 496-506

Woodward, S. (2008). Digital photography and research relationships: Capturing the fashion moment. Sociology, 42(5). 857-872.

Zhao, S., Grasmuck, S., & Martin, J., (2008). Identity construction on Facebook: Digital empowerment in anchored relationships. Computers in Human Behaviour, 24, 1816-1936.


Anonymous said...

just wanted to say thankyou for posting this..its really interesting!
Im doing an essay on hyperrealism and the idea of 'self' in todays virtual world and your findings really helped me!

thanks again

Paul Revered said...

thank you for reading it!