Referring to Livingstone (2008), how do people use social networking services to construct their identities, and how do social connections form part of those identities?
The explosive spread of online culture during the 1990’s gave birth to the notion that identity could transcend the physical world and in the case of social networking sites, facilitate a more fluid means of expressing oneself. Prior to the digital age, individuals carved their identities through avenues such as fashion and other lifestyle products and reinforced their sense of self through affiliations with social groups and movements. It was apparent that whilst individuals had the freedom to perform their identities to others, and themselves, the receiving audience was localised and largely influenced by uncontrollable aspects such as age, gender and nationality. (Hinton 2013) The emergence of social networking services leading into the 21st century however, represents the liquidation of the barriers that existed between these fixed identity factors and the freedom to rewrite one’s identity using the imagination. Online networks as chatrooms or sites like Facebook and Myspace provide a platform for which individuals can experiment with previously unperformed facets of their personality and develop connections with relevant communities without restriction.
The heavily saturated celebrity culture of our modern age has also profoundly influenced the construction of online identities and social connections. The marketing of names/celebrities as products or brands themselves has emphasised the value of a strong identity in order for success and recognition. This has a particularly significant impact on the impressionable youth market whereby adolescents now use social networking as a medium for developing their own brand and marketing themselves to their peers to gain approval or social status. (Halpern 2008) Online social networks respond to the lust for exposure and risk, whilst simultaneously dissolving pre-existing perceptions of privacy. Social platforms offer adolescents the indulgence of narcissism and allow them to conduct identity experiments in an online context that is exclusive of adult surveillance or censorship. Hence, they are presented with a balancing act of risk and opportunity (Livingstone 2008).
As Livingstone also suggests, the customisation features of social networking sites allow users to revise their online identity with ease to reflect a change in interest – thus mirroring the everyday identity decisions we all make. Just as physical appearances reveal aspects of someone’s identity, the online profile, also facilitates the same ‘first impression’ experience and reveals a great deal about an individual’s identity. Users can construct an identity through the exhibition of online connections and content themes. For example, friend/follow lists, photos, likes and reblogs as well as the concern for privacy through the availability of this information. (Also see: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.91.617&rep=rep1&type=pdf).
Furthermore, it is also an indication in itself which social platform or profile style is used. Younger demographics have higher rates of involvement on MySpace for customisation, whilst teens prefer the sophistication of the Facebook structure, and so on (Hinton 2013).
This can also be seen in the adult demographic whereby individuals seeking employment construct a social presence to promote their professionalism or market their skills to prospective employers. It has been found that 95% of companies use LinkedIn as an employee recruitment technique, hence highlighting the importance of a mature online identity.
This also removes the discrimination of fixed identity aspects in the hiring process. It should be acknowledged however, that these features often give rise to the risk of misrepresentations or ‘false advertisements’ of online users.
People’s profiles can be ‘just a front’… it seems that position in the peer network is often more significant than the personal information provided, rendering the profile a place-maker, more than a self portrait (Livingstone, 2008, p.399).
The notion that social networking services have become a cultural phenomenon is largely testament to their ability to respond to the innate human desire for inclusion and belonging (Zengotita 2005). Contrary to popular belief, social networking sites not only allow for international interaction, but more often than not, reinforce ‘real’ offline relationships. These networks mimic the structure of physical communities but as an undeniably more egalitarian dynamic.
Halpern, J 2008, Fame Junkies, Mariner Books, New York.
Hinton, S 2013, 9022 Digital Media Literacy, lecture 3, week 3: Identity, lecture PowerPoint slides, viewed 3 September 2013, <http://learnonline.canberra.edu.au/course/view.php?id=10393>.
Livingstone, S 2008, ‘Taking Risky Opportunities in Youthful Content Creation: Teenagers; Use of Social Networking Sites for Intimacy, Privacy and Self-Expression’, New Media & Society, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 393-411, viewed 29 August 2013, University of Canberra E-Reserve.
Social Media and the Creation of Self: Identity Development in Youth, 2011, online video, 10 November, melsa85, viewed 20 September 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7cd0VTn_czk.
Stutzman, F 2005, An Evaluation of Identity-Sharing Behaviour in Social Network Communiites, Version 1, University of North Carolina, USA, viewed 20 September 2013, <http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.91.617&rep=rep1&type=pdf>.
Zengotita, T 2005, Mediated; How the Media shape your world, Bloomsbury Publishing, USA.