Thursday, March 20, 2008

Identity Creation: Food for Thought For Facebook Fans

A week and a half ago at USF, Fred Stutzman (his interesting blog is here) academic/expert on Facebook in particular, talked about the Social Networking Site that has come to dominate teen/young adult social life.

I was interested to hear Stutzman speak for many reasons: Facebook is HUGE; identity creation/formation on Facebook has interested me- like how people create what they want people to think of them, like a sort of self- advertisement, which I thought of as a negative thing; and after reading a few blogposts of his I realized how Facebook is different from other SNSs, because it is situationally relevant, since it is rooted in an offline community (that community first being college campuses).

Danah Boyd, academic/SNS analyst (her interesting blog here), talks a lot of about identity formation on SNSs in her article Why Youth Love Social Networking Sites: the role of networked publics in teenage social life, which we read before Stutzman's talk for our Davies Forum on Digital Literacy class. In this article, she says, "...SNSs are providing teens with a space to work out their identity and status, make sense of cultural cues, and negotiate public life." She continues later on in this essay with, "the process of learning to read social cues and react accordingly is core to being socialized into a society...". The act of creating a virtual presence is surely different from creating one through our bodies- the digital process involves self-reflexivity through its articulation. So this was a new way that I thought about identity creation on SNSs before hearing Stutzman speak.

He said about identity creation that we are "writing ourselves into being," making decisions about what is going to represent us, and "creating commonalities," like hometown, interests, etc. He said Facebook is three things: a directory, a social management space, and a time- waster. He broke down the kinds of relationships SNSs create and what they mean. In our human relationships, we have strong ties, and we have weak ties. The strong ties are our family and close friends. The weak ties are our coworkers, acquaintances, etc. Strong ties are important of course, but weak ties are also important, he said.

He addressed the idea of the Social Network "friend." Who are these friends? How valid are our relationships with them? SNSs are changing the idea of friendship perhaps. Boyd says friends' profiles for teens provide a sense of what types of presentations are socially appropriate, and also that SNS friends are not just people one knows, but "public displays of connections. 'You are who you know'."

One issue users encountered with Facebook is that before the controversial introduction of the "mini feed,"users had one idea of what their "friendships" meant, and an idea of what their privacy was. Now, after the mini feed has been introduced, friendship means 'welcome to the stream of my life' (since the mini feed updates a user on the online Facebook actions of all their friends). So now a person would know everything that all of their "friends" were doing all of the time, even if they didn't necessarily want to.

Another issue Stutzman mentioned that Facebook users have is figuring out how to make the transition from college to the workplace, as far as what is appropriate to have on your profile. I am interested in this, as I have recently thought about the idea of "cleansing" my profile in preparation for job navigation. Stutzman said there are all sorts of "social negotiations" going on as we leave old friends and make new ones. Facebook allows for new opportunities for friendships to emerge as there are all sorts of "vectors for connection." This issue of transitioning social situations online and off is interesting too because his research shows when we create content on our profiles, we conceive that it is our close friends who are looking at our profile the most. But then the question looms in the air, 'what if my boss sees it somehow?' Cleansing is a precaution in these cases. But also, more interestingly, what if you are close friends with your boss?

So the whole idea of identity creation Boyd and Stutzman have a LOT to say about. Stutzman asked the questions, "Are we just ourselves? Are we creating new selves?" And Stutzman's company ClaimID lets you control your Google identity. Don't like what comes up when you google your name? Check this company out. Stutzman ended the talk with an eerie thought, "ID is interesting because it's sort of one of the last unclaimed territories." I encourage you to read more at Boyd's blog, apophena - making connections where none previously existed- and Stutzman's blog, Unit Structures.

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