Social networks, identity, etc

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.

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5 comments on “Social networks, identity, etc

  1. “This new participatory culture has changed the way that we interact, as a society, as whole.” I agree wholeheartedly with your statement here. As I have attempted to claim in my own my own posts, this is a fact, and any resistance and diminishment of it is a disservice to our students. You’re right, it is problematic. But what are we supposed to do about it? Ignore it and demean it? Personally, I make a valiant effort to minimize my media intake, but I don’t expect the same of others.
    As much as I like to think I’m not an avid, and competent, user of technology, experience and feedback tells a different story. This past week I held student conferences. My students had the choice of meeting with me in person or online. If they chose to meet online they needed to create a google doc of one of their essays they wanted help with for their midterm portfolio, and we would use the chat feature. I was surprised at how difficult this was for a lot of students. A lot of them had no idea what a google doc was or how to use it with another user.

    All this time, I thought I was the novice. More and more, I am realizing that although I am not a digital native per se, I am technologically savvy. Just today I met with the accountant to work on the bookkeeping in the office I manage. My boss, who at 70 years old puts most of us to shame, told the accountant that when it comes to me and numbers it’s like oil and vinegar. The accountant recounted by saying I make up for that by being so technologically savvy. I hate numbers, but I can manage the software and accounts better than most of his clients.

    This doesn’t relate specifically to your post, but it really got me thinking. I consciously limit technology and only had it the latter part of my life, but I am, somehow, more adept than those that more regularly participates in social media.
    Despite the frustration and tension that came with some of my online conferences, there was a greater lesson to be learned. I trust that at some point in their studies they’ll need to know how to collaborate with their peers in a google doc. The effectiveness of my online conferences is debatable, but the value of their new found knowledge of the technology is not.

    Disclaimer: I’m pretty long winded when I don’t edit or proofread. Sorry.

  2. I thought that you did an excellent job of synthesizing the readings and also contextualized them current debates over online privacy. It was helpful to learn that YouTube’s privacy policies have changed since the time Wesch’s anthropological study was published, and it would be interesting to find out how this may change Wesch’s (what I see as mostly celebratory) view of identity formation on YouTube. I agree that Ronnie’s playful/experimental behavior with online identity creation would have been limited, if not impossible, had it occurred after the more stringent rules for “authentic” identities were enforced. My question regarding Ronnie’s playful online behavior, though, has to do with whether it violates any ethical or moral boundaries. That is, at what point does creating an entirely fictional persona and then involving others in that fictional persona’s online life, become unethical or deceptive? I understand Ronnie created his fictional girlfriend to make a point about how easy it is to fabricate one’s identity in online environments, but the fact that it was so easy for him to create this persona may, in my view, point to the need for the more stringent privacy rules that have since been imposed. Do these rules unnecessarily limit/restrict playfulness and creativity, or are they a much-needed protection against deception and manipulation? This is the question that your post has left me wondering. Thanks for your thoughtful insights.

  3. You make some really interesting points about social media and identity. I definitely agree that that social media becomes a medium in which we can experiment and negotiate not only our own identities, but how we form relationships with the identities that other people create. I also agree that the policies of these sites need to allow its users to accomplish this goal as well.

    Wesch`s video revealed how the YouTube community condemned those who purposefully created false stories, when the medium is supposed to produce a more organic and real experience. Thus, I think his analysis suggests that identity negotation needs to be an honest negotiation with oneself.

    However, I am curious what these authors may say when users intentionally create fake identities for the purpose of deceiving somebody else online. Jordana makes an interesting point about creating another identity as play. But what do we do about those that actively seek to misrepresent their real identity for unethical purposes? The internet has no shortage of folks that create false identities in order to find love or relationships (also known as ¨catfishing¨). This usually involves taking somebody else`s pictures, information, etc. in order to construct one`s identity. Thus, are privacy policies/settings that aim to prevent this behavior acceptable? Even though I can argue for the ability and space to negotiate my identity, is it unethical the minute I start appropriating aspects of others’ identities?

    I cannot say that I know the answers myself. But with this type of behavior become more in the limelight before, I think the construction of identity in social networks warrants more discussion.

  4. The issue of identification and social usages of online medias are interesting and relevant. I especially appreciate the activist approach you take to defending the right of users to self-identify however they see fit. It is in fact desirable to have grant users as much freedom as possible while perhaps having some safeguard measures in place as a platform to prevent the egregious social breeches from getting out of hand (i,e. criminality).

    However, I’m left to wonder in which ways a social media platform might foster its sense of desired community and establish ‘rules’ for usage. In looking at social media from a Composition Studies perspective, I’m considering the ways that the composer of a platform might be creating particular genre conventions for the internet and the various ways that is necessarily signals to users how to communicate on their platform. How much of the general public would feel comfortable with a more open-ended platform for usage? How much freedom and choice can a platform provide and still have a productive user-base? How does the composer necessarily create the opportunity for collaboration with users and to what extent? All of this necessarily intersects with the individuated and collective desires for self-presentation on the web.

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