Identity Construction and Self-Representation on Facebook
Professor T. D. Boellstorff
19 March 2009
Not long ago the general public viewed Social Networking Sites (SNSs) as novelties. They were thought to be only accessed by the technologically savvy individuals who knew the intricacies of virtual worlds and innovative technological devices. One of the most popular Social Networking Sites, Facebook.com, has grown exponentially, especially among college students. Facebook, created by Mark Zuckerberg while he was an undergraduate at Harvard University, was at first used exclusively at Harvard. It then expanded into the Ivy Leagues, and with rising popularity spread throughout the whole U.S. college system. Since then, the site has been made widely available by enlarging its user demographic to encompass everyone from ages seven to seventy. In a recent study done by a UC Irvine graduate student it was discovered that 85% of college students would consider themselves Facebook users. Such a large amount of Facebook users provides them the opportunity to meet an eclectic mix of new people, as well as the ability to stay in touch with new and old friends.
Because of the sheer size of Facebook and the possibility that anyone could view your profile, identity construction and self-representation become extremely important. The way people represent themselves in the virtual and physical worlds has similarities and differences. In the physical world people are able to be identified by their clothes, hair, mannerisms, and their use of language. In cyberspace people are likewise identified by language in what they write, and how they choose to visually display themselves. Although the virtual and physical worlds contain the same basic forms of self-representation, the virtual world is much more self-controlled and self-constructed. It is easier to stay in control of your online appearance and reputation because you can enter and leave virtual spaces at your own discretion. After sifting through numerous Facebook profile pages and talking to users, it becomes apparent that users share a commonality in the various ways they represent themselves on Facebook. These vary from the way people structure their privacy settings, to the way they represent themselves through their pictures, to what groups they identify with, and how they define themselves through text on their profile pages. Thus, Facebook is a space where people may construct and share their identities, rather than being just a platform where one “‘keeps in touch‘.”
For this project our methods consisted of participant observation, surveys, and open-ended interviews. Using these methods we interviewed and surveyed over fifty people as a group, in addition to observing several profiles of people in our friend networks. Some of the participants were our friends, relatives, acquaintances, and other people we did not know at all. Furthermore, each interview was tailored to the individual sections that we cover in this paper. There were a variety of questions we asked such as: what one’s Facebook means to them, what individuals’’ Facebook pages say about who they are when others view their profile, and whether they think it is an accurate representation of themselves. Survey questions were similarly tailored, but responses were collected anonymously by targeting random people in accessible networks (asking random friends or groups of people to take our surveys) both within and outside of Facebook. In all, the various methods used were effective in conducting our research because they allowed for a wide range of data to be collected from various sources.
The privacy settings on Facebook may often be overlooked by users on the Social Networking Site. However, the settings that are employed by an individual can establish his or her comfort levels with others and it may give insight into the introversion or extraversion of a personality. Clive Thompson, author of “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy”, explains how Facebook has become “the de facto commons – the way students [find] out what everyone around them [is] like and what he or she [is] doing,” (Thompson:2008) which can be exciting for some, invasive for others. In talking with our interviewees, we noticed that they all used Facebook for researching new and existing friends. When using the site, if they came across a profile that allowed them access to view all pictures, groups, profile text and wall postings, they felt more comfortable examining the page because this friend is willing to share their individuality with an audience. However, if they saw a profile without a profile picture or did not have access to some aspect of the profile that is usually more readily available on a less restrictive friend, they deemed this friend as reserved or secretive. In a sense, more private profiles were considered less desirable and interviewees would second-guess their own willingness to share information with a more reserved friend.
A person’s introversion or extraversion was assumed by the viewer solely on the basis of whether or not they were able to see certain aspects of a profile. As one of our interviewees, Penny, explained, “If a friend of mine on Facebook has part of their profile hidden, I think they’re kind of shy or withdrawn. There’s no reason to hide something like pictures because we all have good and bad ones and if you don’t like one, de-tag yourself. It’s that simple.” But is it that simple? With the rising number of family members, employers and school officials joining Facebook, the need for more privacy should be increasing for users. Maybe more caution should be exercised when any information about yourself is posted to this site because it could potentially be viewed by anyone and could work against you. “I keep my profile pretty low-key because you never know who’s looking at it. It’s better to be safe than sorry,” explained Sammy, whose only information posted about her on her profile is her hometown, sex, and network. She may be perceived as a bland individual because of this, but Sammy believes her omission of personal information is more of a reflection of her cautiousness, rather than an assumed timidity.
When we conducted our interviews, it was interesting to note the blasé attitudes that four of the five people had regarding privacy settings. In fact, it took us a longer time to find someone that was actually concerned with privacy because it seems as if many people prefer to share all information with their friends and even strangers. BBC News did a report on Facebook’s Terms of Service, specifically the possibility that Facebook could keep personal information even if your account is deleted. The interpretation of the services from the article is that “anything you upload to Facebook can be used by Facebook in any way they deem fit, forever, no matter what you do later” (Shiels 2009). When we brought this issue up in the first four individual interviews, shoulders were shrugged and issues of concern were the last things on their minds. “I don’t really see this having an effect on me. I keep my profile open because I’m showing who I am to anyone out there that’s curious and I don’t care who sees it,” said Stanley, a college junior. More often than not, information is willingly provided by users because they want to make connections with others. By displaying as much of their online identities as possible, people are hoping to gain more friends by showing some of their quirks and interests that might otherwise go unnoticed or kept secret in the real world.
Ralph Gross and Alessandro Acquisti, authors of “Information Revelation and Privacy in Online Social Networks”, explain the privacy implications of an open profile and detail that “due to the variety and richness of personal information disclosed in Facebook profiles […] users may put themselves at risk for a variety of attacks on their physical and online persona,” (Gross and Acquisti 2005:8). Issues such as stalking and identity theft are hardly even an afterthought when it comes to many college students on Facebook because the desire to make connections and showcase their personalities outweighs the potential risks involved in the divulging of personal information. Many people are willing to put themselves out into the ether because they feel that Facebook is an appropriate place to make friends, as it is a Social Networking Site after all.
The majority of a profile is affected by the privacy settings enforced by a user. For example, they control the type of audience allowed to view a profile. Those who are more cautious about sharing information are viewed as anti-social, secretive, or unwilling to open up to others. In contrast, a completely open profile is hardly ever met with disapproval. It shows that a user is inclined to reveal information to others and makes others comfortable enough to want to share with them as well. Impressions will be made based on any Facebook profile, regardless of the content that is made public or not. While the profile picture can give a more obvious first impression, privacy settings are the unseen feature that can formulate an assumption because they can regulate the acceptance or denial of a curious click onto an identity revealing profile page.
When a Facebook account is created, the user can upload a main profile picture of themselves, their family, or a logo, among other things, to represent their identity. Those who see the profile picture, whether it is a family member, classmate, significant other, or some random “friend” will make generalizations about the user’s personality. The judgments made can be positive or negative, correct or incorrect. Just like the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words,” whoever looks at the profile can make various assumptions regarding the person when the user could have intended to display an image for a completely different reason. Similarly, an image can be easier for the viewing audience to judge at a glance as opposed to reading the written profile of a user.
Through open-ended interviews, subjects volunteered insight as to the reasons why specific pictures were chosen to be displayed as the profile picture. One interviewee, Becky, said, “I chose my default picture because I like the way I look laughing out loud, and my sister is in it which means I love my family.” From this, it can be assumed that Becky cares about the way others perceive her in relation to her familial bonds. Although one may mistake her sister for a friend in the picture, Becky is also able to show her congenial spirit as she is laughing and having a good time with others which can provide the effect of a friendly personality to those looking at the picture. Another subject, Robert, said he chooses his default pictures based on the way he looks in them. He also explained that he chooses attractive pictures of himself because, “Unfortunately, I care about how the viewer perceives me.” This shows that at times, people choose certain profile pictures because they want to get a positive reaction from viewers. In the physical world, this may parallel the idea of wearing fashionable clothing in order to look a certain way to impress your peers. Indeed, the profile picture can just be another approach that people take to impress online friends.
People are very sensitive about how they look and who is viewing them online. While some choose to have an actual image representing themselves, others choose symbolic images. This kind of image as a default highlights something totally different. For example, when we asked a fellow student, George, about the topic, he stated that “This could be a bragging situation on a luxury car they might have, or it could mean that this person is into cars. As for logos, this could vary such as a mascot for a school, it could mean that they go or have gone to the school, or that the person is a school spirited person and wants to represent their own school.” Another fellow student, Jane, said “Maybe they don’t want to show their picture because of privacy issues. Maybe they don’t want people to find out who they are.” Evidently, profile pictures vary greatly depending upon the person and what they wish to convey about themselves.
After interviewing several people, we came to realize that people want to present themselves in a positive manner in both the physical and virtual world: “being able to self-present in a positive manner has been tied to physical survival” (Walther, Van Der Heide, Kim, Westerman, and Tong 2008:31). People are very self-conscious about their appearance and want to be prepared to “look good” for anyone who may be viewing their profile.
Interestingly, we observed that when users of Facebook post a default picture of themselves, personal self-esteem levels are evident. People that are self-conscious may want to put a great looking picture of themselves, in order to get a positive comment, or post it to make their self esteem higher: “individuals with low self esteem orient toward self-enhancement while those with high self esteem try to protect themselves” (Danowski and Zywica 2008:6). Having high self esteem seems to be a social compensation for an individual in the virtual world. People like compliments, looking attractive, and sharing their interests with others. The user that is going to update their default picture does not want anything negative about them posted: “these symbols that appear with some kind of frequency can designate that someone may be labeled with a stigmatized identity because that symbol or object vouches for the individual’s status” (Boostorn 2008). Personal implications of iconic representation are felt through different alterations in the appearance of the profile picture.
The Groups feature on Facebook is another part of the Facebook profile which members can use to either provide more information about themselves or learn more about other ‘’“friends.” However, it is distinctly different from the rest of the profile in that groups link to whole different spaces, separate from the user’s main Facebook (the profile, homepage/News Feed, and often separate from one’s friend network). In these groups one can interact with other people based on a shared interest in the group subject, and anyone can create their own group for others to join, from a few select friends to anyone in the world who has a Facebook account (Facebook.com 2009). Moreover, the groups section appears to be one of the more public parts of the profile by virtue of being shared, and because people rarely seem to censor access to this information as they would pictures or other text.
Thus, our initial hypothesis was that while other information such as interests and pictures also provide personal information that the individual has chosen to make public, the difference between such information and groups is that individuals consider profile information and pictures to be more personal aspects of their identities, whereas groups represent personal, but less private aspects of identity. Although this idea holds up to a certain extent, the information provided by the participants suggests that the relationship between identity and groups instead lies in what individuals consider to be representative of their identities (self-perception), and interaction with others.
The issue of self-perception came up when trying to determine how important Facebook groups are to individuals in representing themselves. According to researchers, “people will use whatever information is available within an on-line environment in order to form impressions of others (social information processing theory) including cues that are volitional, consciously chosen by the user (such as profile pictures and textual self-description), and information that is not necessarily provided by the individual with intent (such as the number of friends)” (Tong 533). Furthermore, others suggest that through all the content provided by the user in the profile, the individual creates a ‘performance’ indicating things that differentiate them from others, and moreover that group identification in Social Networking Sites may be used to express prestige that comes from ‘inside knowledge’ of the group (Liu 2007). As a result, one would expect people’s choices in joining Facebook groups to be of significant importance; however, responses from participants indicates that this is not the case, or at least that the participants do not consider this to be the case. Out of 37 people surveyed or interviewed, the majority stated that joining specific groups was not really important to them in creating their profiles or did not really matter. Moreover, a significant number of those who stated that it did matter also had a tendency to make their groups private, which means that other users cannot see them.
In addition, most participants claimed that even though they were aware of implied meanings, implying them was not their primary intention when adding groups. When asked about the reasons people added groups, the majority said that they mostly added based on the group representing a subject or activity of interest, or a social group that they considered themselves a part of (identified with the group of people) or that has a counterpart off-line (such as clubs and workplace). On the other hand, most said that they rarely or never added groups due to their popularity or fad status, or to provide additional information about themselves. Also, while most responded that things like sexual orientation, ethnic, gender, and political identity were important to their identities, they rarely had groups based on these. Rather, most added groups when these were more community or group based, and if the person identified with the community, such as age or peer-based groups (“You Grew Up in the 90s if...”), hometown and school network groups, and groups with shared meanings that are random or funny, or that “bring the lolz,” according to survey responses.
The issue of interaction came up when trying to determine to what extent the groups you join are representative of your self-identity. As previously stated, it turns out that although people consider certain markers (ethnicity, gender, etc.) an important part of their identities, they don’t necessarily feel the need to represent these. On the other hand, we found that social interaction is more significant in choosing representative groups. As the author of The Facebook Project discusses, in one Facebook group about gender relations the members highly identify with the issue and debate abounds as the topic can be controversial (Ginger 2009). Thus involvement in identity creating happens in groups when there is interaction within the groups (in the actual group page) and through the group (sharing an identity), not by adding or displaying a group (self-representation to others). When this happens, we find such groups where people are actively identifying with the description of the group. In our project, this is supported by informants who said that group activity often mattered in whether they would add a group.
So while groups are used as markers of identity, their importance does not really lie in self-representation as much as it does in having a perceived shared identity and then sharing this identity with others. Still, ultimately respondents did not consider the groups section to be as important in their Facebook (their self-representation). However, this conflict is in part addressed by author Mizuko Ito, who suggests that spaces like Facebook are places where people are forming norms on how they represent themselves, but are used largely to expand already-existing friendships (Ito 2008:38). Thus investment into the groups section is perceived to be not as strict. Lastly two findings that remain unexplored: first, the difference between interests versus identity came up a few times in individuals’ responses (as brought up by interviewees T.C. and Maria), which is problematic in how identity is defined and secondly, even though individuals did not really consider their Facebook groups to be representative of their identities, the majority claimed that they do in fact look at other people’s groups in order to get a better idea of who the other person is, which is a pretty significant contradiction in perceptions.
The textual aspect of Facebook is the portal into someone’s private beliefs and pleasures. It is something which when analyzed can be recognized as constructed in order to portray the desired image of each individual. Jenny Sunden, a professor of English at UC Berkeley, coined the term “textual embodiment” to describe the environment created by text online as “a virtual life free from the constraints of bodies and materiality” (Sunden 2003:139). The freedom that the virtual world provides allows people to construct their identity in any way they wish. With the freedom of constructing identity in multiple ways comes the freedom to socialize in multiple ways. Many people use virtual worlds, such as the social networking site, Facebook, in order to expand their social networks. According to a study done by Jeff Ginger people spend most of their time on Facebook investigating and viewing the profiles of other friends or potential friends. With all of this social predation one would assume that people would customize their profiles in order to provide the most efficient and positive advertisement of themselves. In several personal interviews that were conducted I received feedback that correlated with this hypothesis. Sammy Jones, an avid Facebook user, stated “I already have a serious girlfriend, so I don’t really care about forming relationship…If I wasn’t with my girlfriend I would probably put a lot more effort into my Facebook.” Facebook is a tool for free personal marketing, and the great thing about it is that it is completely self controlled. With a Facebook page you use its different features to create yourself from nothing and in essence design yourself.
With a desire for forming relationships identity construction becomes essential. The way in which people choose to define their identity on Facebook is mainly through their “info sections.” These sections consist of political interest, activities, favorite movies, and favorite books, to name a few. A study done by Shanyang Zhao, a professor at Temple University, defined “the [Facebook] text [as] the cultural self… [It] is the in-between category, more explicit than the ‘watch me’ of the photos, but still indirect” (Zhao:10). The textual aspect of Facebook has more layers than the iconic aspect of Facebook which lies in the pictures. The textual aspect is much more explicit than the photos because it allows one to specifically define aspects of themselves. These definitions can get rather intimate and personal, especially when it comes to identifying your religious, sexual, and social orientations. The virtual world of each person’s Facebook page consequently becomes an open book of personal identity that in the physical world may take years to decipher. Additionally, the textual aspect of Facebook can be seen as the cultural self. With a quick glance at the laundry list of interests of each individual person one can see that they conform to a cultural precedent. The favorites of most people vary across different cultures. Evidence for this was found upon surveillance of numerous Facebook profiles across the different regions of the United States and England. “Users create a mediated interaction with their peers by saying ‘see me first and foremost in the context of my group’” (Zhao 2008:12). This popular type of group association with identity is seen not only in the virtual world, but also in the physical world. The sense of belonging to a certain group of people gives someone the sense of identity that they need, and that is why it is paramount in the construction of an online identity.
An important concept, ambient awareness, correlates with the idea of fitting into a certain group on Facebook. The concept of ambient awareness was coined by social scientists and included in the article “The Brave New World of Digital Intimacy” by Clive Thompson to refer to the idea of “being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does — body language, sighs, stray comments — out of the corner of your eye” (Thompson 2008). Facebook is a social networking site, therefore the way that someone chooses to define themselves allows other people in society to feel like they can really “see” them. Knowing personal and sometimes intimate details about people allows others to feel a sense of indirect manufactured proximity to someone without really getting to know them. Everything that is written on Facebook, a personal profile, contributes to a cumulative definition of the individual. Some people feel that writing about themselves does not do them any justice. One young college student, Samantha, stated “I don’t have much written. Honestly, I like to depend on pictures to tell who I am.” The way people define themselves online highly correlates with the way they define themselves in physical life. Whether someone classifies themselves as an intellectual, an athlete, or a beauty, it will be prevalent online in the way people construct themselves. The amount a person writes also tells a lot about them. Some people are introverted, some are extroverted, and some wish to administer a veil of curiosity upon themselves in order to “keep people guessing.” Textual embodiment is a process which requires a large amount of deliberation and formulation in identity construction.
We want to make our profiles as accurate as possible to reflect our physical selves while consciously omitting some flaws of which we may believe others will disapprove. There is a tendency for some people to format their profiles based on the reactions they think they will get from their Facebook friends and even strangers viewing their profile. For many people, the different parts of the profile carry varying degrees of importance. To some, the pictures are accurate representations of the real person because it shows them in action and sometimes, a picture can be more descriptive of an individual than anything written. For others however, the written profile gives straight to the point specifics on a person’s likes and dislikes that can lay a general overview of their personality. Regardless of the information provided on a Facebook profile, users’ pages are automatically seen as a representation of the physical person who created it. The conclusions drawn from Facebook can be as close to or as far away from the truth, but the profile will always serve as a manifestation of the physical person.
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