Often, academic discussions of social media describe a place where people can connect with each other in a multiplicity of ways, not just by using various tools and services, but also by how they present their identities and selves through these mediums.
For example, Michael Wesch’s talk Anthropological Introduction to YouTube (recorded and published on YouTube, no less) gives a sampling of YouTube culture, and the various ways its users interacted through vlogs and video responses. As part of their study of YouTube culture, Wesch and his students participated by creating their own vlogs and interacting with the communities they were studying. Through this, they came to various insights about identity, authenticity, relationships, community, and social networking. “YouTubers” share small portions of their authentic selves through video–selves that are sometimes reflective, sometimes performative, sometimes narcissistic, and sometimes even fake. And, others respond, subscribe, watch, and participate in those same activities in ways that are just as various.
Wesch’s talk was published on YouTube in 2008, long before Google and YouTube began to merge all of its social networking features into one account and require its users use their real names instead of psuedonyms. With this in mind, I would like to know what Wesch and his students think about how YouTube culture has (or hasn’t) changed after the rules of how to use the site have changed. “Media mediates human relationships“, afterall, and the YouTube culture that existed in 2008 made heavy use of pseudonyms and anonymity. I wonder if the same kinds of emergent communities are still possible now that YouTube asks its users to connect their accounts to their Google+ account, and asks everyone to use their real names.
Amber Buck’s article “Examining Digital Literacy Practices on Social Network Sites” looks at the literacy practices of one student who considers himself an expert at social media, and uses it frequently as an important part of his social, personal, and academic life. Buck saw how Ronnie “Filtered and processed his offline life through his online activities”, essentially using media to mediate parts of his life and connect with others.
What I found especially interesting and important is how Ronnie not only manipulates and plays with his identity on various networks by presenting some details in some places, but not in others, he also actively manipulates what personal information he shares, going so far as to give false information (e.g. saying that he graduated from Hogwarts) in order to make a statement about how his peers were using social media.
Robbie is shown to be sensitive to privacy issues and the question of who controls and owns his information. These questions of privacy and control of personal information have grown since this article was published in 2012, and seem to go hand in hand with the use of social media. At the time Robbie’s use of social media was being studied, Facebook had not yet implemented its controversial rules about requiring users to only use their real first and last names. If these rules existed, Robbie’s playful interactions with friends and experiments with identity would not have been possible in the same way.
If media mediates human relationships, as Wesch says it does, I think it follows that media and social networks need to be flexible enough and open enough to allow people to form relationships and identities in all the different ways that human beings are capable of.
I find policies that dictate how users present themselves or identify themselves online to be terribly problematic and counter to the powerfully human and productive ways that people would otherwise use social networks. Judging by the controversies these policies sparked and continue to spark, I know I’m not alone.
A response to these issues by danah boyd goes even farther and describes how dangerous these kinds of policies can be to the privacy and safety of its users, and not just to users for whom disclosing their real names is dangerous for political or legal reasons. Some people have private but still very real reasons for wanting to be anonymous, including simply being a minor, or having unpopular opinions, or being a target of bullying, or feeling discomfort with what current news about the NSA suggest is happening with our private data.
What all of this teaches me is that I think it’s that social media, identity, and community are things that are not possible to separate from each other, and while that’s not a bad thing, it’s something to keep in mind when we think about what institutions, companies, or governments are providing the platforms for so much of our identity-creation, community-formation, and social interaction. So much of what we do is captured and shared online, which does allow us to connect with each other in awesome ways, but it also means that all of that connection and sharing is mediated by the decisions that the social media companies make.
While social media may mediate human relationships, the companies that control that media may also be in a position to mediate and change us. And, I am not sure any of us really knows what that means yet.