The Case of the Facebook Identity Crisis

Mika, a friend from high school, had been going through a “Facebook-identity crisis” over the past couple of days; each time I had logged into Facebook during this time, the “Recently Updated” tab indicated that Mika had changed several elements of his profile. Often, his changes would include a reference to the Facebook medium itself. At one point, his profile was exceedingly honest and somewhat vulnerable, his “About Me” declaring himself to be a “nice, open-minded guy,” inviting others to talk to him and get to know him more. However, this brief display of stark honesty was quickly deleted, to be replaced by a more minimal, utilitarian profile.

Curious, I sent him an IM (instant message) and struck up a conversation. Though he admitted to occasionally “giving Facebook a shot,” in assessing these attempts at honest self-portrayal he put himself in the position of someone else viewing his profile and came to the conclusion that “I would think I’m a loser.” He noted the inadequacy of Facebook profiles for truly getting to know others, particularly those he had recently met but had yet to develop a good friendship with, and expressed his desire to be able to connect “directly to people’s brains.”

His observations, spurred by his experiences with Facebook, can be applied to virtually every medium of human communication- beginning with language itself. As the early 20th-century philosopher-poet T.E. Hulme puts it: “Language is by its very nature a communal thing; that is, it expresses never the exact thing but a compromise—that which is common to you, me, and everybody.” From face-to-face conversations to modern technologies of communication, our experiences of the world are mediated by language. Through language, humans develop mutually understood symbols by which we define ourselves, our worldviews, and reality itself.

The struggle to effectively communicate one’s “true” self is not particular to online social networking; rather, the tension between one’s inner sense of self and outward portrayal of that self had been a subject of concern in Western culture long before the advent of the Internet. From the dawn of recorded language, Plato spoke of the “great stage of human life.” If, as Shakespeare mused, “All the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” then what happens when the curtains close and we go backstage? In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman (1956) elaborated upon this dramaturgical approach in crafting a sociological theory that has come to be known as “symbolic interactionism.” Once backstage, “the impression fostered by the presentation is knowingly contradicted as a matter of course (112).”  From the symbolic interactionist perspective, one performs a certain role on the public stage that is often subverted in the private sphere (“backstage”;). This private sphere allows for a more “truthful” performance of self, but is nevertheless still a performance tailored to a specific audience. The question then becomes: may one understand the “true self” when no audience is present?

Paul Ricoeur, an eminent scholar in the field of hermeneutics and phenomenology, challenges the notion that the self is transparent to itself. Rather, he theorizes that the hermeneutic self is revealed to that self through the ‘other’- immediately and directly through two interlocuters. Furthermore, this face-to-face, intersubjective encounter is a relation that is “invariably intertwined with various long intersubjective relations, mediated by various social institutions, groups, nations and cultural traditions (Kearney 2004: 4).” One continually attempts to define the self as an individual with a unique “personality,” however this process is itself co-constructed through one’s everyday interactions with others as well as the subjective appropriation of various cultural markers of identity. From this perspective, online social networks mirror the process by which individuals construct their identities by extending interpersonal communication and providing fields in which they may articulate their cultural tastes and group affiliations.

Despite the evidence that all experiences are mediated and that the “self” is co-constructed, I have time and again encountered the pervasive belief that experiences with online social networking diminish the quality of interpersonal communication and fail to accurately portray one’s identity. This perceived disconnect may be attributed to a number of factors.

Firstly, computer-mediated communication reduces the kind of social cues we frequently rely on in face-to-face communication (such as gesture and intonation), thereby increasing the likelihood for miscommunication.

Secondly, effective computer-mediated communication demands not only literacy and the ability to effectively communicate through written text, but also a certain level of “fluency” with the specific language of the online environment in which one is participating.

Thirdly, popular online social networks pose the threat of enmeshing myriad social contexts, effectively challenging the distinctions between public and private. In these cases, the protective boundaries between the various roles we perform “onstage” and those we perform “backstage” become dangerously blurred.

Finally, because these audiences are often invisible, we may come to know more about another through their online personas than through “natural” face-to-face interactions, and vice versa. In such cases, the “self” is projected rather than co-constructed, substantially altering the process through which we come to know another. The awkwardness of this new social phenomenon is humorously portrayed in a comic I recently came across:

Lit Review: Rhythms of Social Interaction: Messaging Within a Massive Online Network

-Extensive empirical analysis of 362 million message sent by 4.2 million Facebook users over a 26 month period.
-Results found a temporal rhythm that extended across campuses and seasons.
-Nearly all communication occurred between a small proportion of “friends”.
-Social Network Research: how people make friends, number of friends, and forms of social support.
-Their understanding of the Poke: Users can ascribe whatever meaning in the context of their relationship to the poker or pokee; described as a “virtual intimate object”, an active meaningful social gesture that necessitates reciprocity. Such a situation is a marker of a strong social bond.
-The privacy inherent in messaging/poking frees the act from the pressure of self-presentation.

-Average of about 180 friends per user.
-About half of messages sent to friends at same school, 41% to friends at another school.
-Strangely, over 98% of pokes were sent between people from the same school.
-Reciprocity of messages occurs 59% of the time if senders are at the same school, but only 41% of the time if the sender is from a different school.
-Messaging/poking highest at the beginning of the week, declining drastically Friday and Saturday.
-The rhythm of activity differs from that of a corporate network, where most activity takes place during working hours.
-Trend of messages sent to those at different schools during the daytime, to nonfriends in the same school during the late-night hours.
-No change in rhythm, even during the summer, with the exception of a dramatic increase in messages sent to school friends during school break times.
-Different universities consistantly show either a disproportionately large or disproportionally small number of Facebookers who are active during the weekend.

-Concludes that internet sociality is an activity that frequently occurs alongside work-related tasks rather than as a leisure activity in and of itself.
-Though messages are sent primarily to friends, most friends do not receive messages. What does this say about the strength of Facebook “friend” ties?
-Seasonal variation in same/different school messaging demonstrates the importance of Facebook in supporting geographically distant relationships.

Not sure about the importance of this bit of research (though it could serve useful as a statistical supplement), however it was interesting to discover that such an intensive statistical analysis has been conducted on Facebook. With all the information available on the site, a vast array of studies concerning Internet activity could be conducted, as well as looking at the relationships between group memberships, interests, demographics (political and sexual orientation, gender, “looking for”, religion) etc; The study would probably have been much more interesting had they focused on wall posts, the most active form of Facebook communication by far.

Lit Review: Digital Relationships in the ‘MySpace’ Generation: Results From a Qualitative Study (Dwyer)

A qualitative study of online social networking sites and instant messaging.

-CMC reduces the exchange of social context cues, affecting perceptions of truthfulness, interpretation and response to messages, and the formation of impressions.
–Social Information Processing Model (Walther): CMC relies on paralinguistics, slowing the rate at which social cues are received.
-Impression Management (Goffman): The subtle process of controlling another’s perception of something by managing the information exchanged in a social interaction. When that something is one’s own identity, it is referred to as self-presentation. We interpret others through inference of their roles, derived from the information they or others present to us.
-Social-Technical Gap: The space between what technology can support and what actually happens in the social world.

The Study
-Examined the use of technology to manage relationships, and the ways in which these technologies mediate behaviors pertaining to the management of these relationships.
-The semi-structured interview designed inquired about self-presentation/impression management, pros and cons of these systems, usage and dependency for social communication. It also probed participants for information on how they used the tools provided by this systems in developing new relationships, restricting access, and responding to negative events. Expectations of privacy were also investigated, pertaining to what individuals felt comfortable with sharing and why.
-Interviews were conducted by 6 undergraduates, who interviewed a total of 19 college-aged participants. The transcripts were content-analyzed and coded.
-Participants reported heavy use of communication technologies, heralding their low cost, entertainment value, and convenience.
-Profiles provide the opportunity for impression management. Authenticity plays a large role here- profiles that appear (or are known to be) false or contrived trigger a very negative impression. However, they also discussed the need to create a “cool” persona and intense awareness of how others would perceive their self-presentations. Nevertheless, the act of constructing one’s profile was generally considered a fun, entertaining activity.
-As one participant put it, “The defining characteristic of social networking sites is extreme impersonality. The people that one talks to on these sites are not treated as other human beings. They appear more like characters in a story.”
-Though privacy concerns have been well-documented, the participants expressed general apathy, countering that they as members are responsible for the content and management of their virtual personas.
-Acknowledged that relationships formed online are superficial in nature.
-General enjoyment of these systems’ ability to maintain bonds with those one doesn’t see every day, as well as reunite one with old friends.
-Instant Messenger Away Messages: A user is able to monitor others while behind the “barrier” of the away message.
-Comfort level increased as the degree of their own anonymity rose, decreased with the anonymity of others.

Communication technology features (profile, visibility, and identity management) enable interpersonal relationship management (forming new relationships, maintaining existing relationships), which is in turn influenced by individual attitudes (impression management, concern for information privacy).

Questions Raised
How is impression management carried out within CMC?
How to explain the apparent contradiction between privacy concerns and the overwhelming popularity of social networking sites?

Individuals are fluid, not static, and in the act of creating a profile of the self one undergoes a strangely simplified process of impression management. I would like to examine the paralanguage of Internet communities, the ways in which social cues are subtly communicated, as well as the complex ways in which impression management is enacted.