Concerns About Identity in Social Media

Identity construction is a thread that I see running through Buck’s (2012) and boyd’s (2008) article.  Buck gives us a picture of Ronnie, an avid social media user who saw platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr as part of his “self-branding” (2012: 14) conquest to put himself out there.  boyd, on the other hand, looks at the way teens treat (and simply love) Myspace.  I have been and still am part of the social media-sphere, yet there are some things that still make me wonder…

Specifically, while reading these two articles, I could not help zeroing in on the idea of trying on new personas, the idea that individuals can create different selves online.  I question, however, just how much of themselves online users are transforming without having to truly let go of their offline personas. (In the fanficiton community, we affectionately call this “OOC,” or out of character.)  After all, even though it was a stupid  April Fools joke, Ronnie pretended that he had a girlfriend, made a Facebook account for her using a fabricated university email address, and in a way posed as her by writing posts that we supposedly written by her, he still changed his relationship status to “In a relationship,” which meant that offline he is still being the typical young adult experimenting with flirting and creating relationships.  If social media users are trying to show themselves to a specific audience and for a specific, perhaps personal reason, I would think that their content (relationship status, texts, images, videos, music, etc.) would have to retain some semblance of their offline selves.

The impression that I got from boyd’s article is that adolescent’s shape their identity in order to have an identity prepared for their world outside of social media.  This is probably part of negotiating one’s identity that will be presented for specific spaces and audience either online or offline.  It is also a case where, through writing and designing the look of one’s website, which was the case for Xanga and Myspace when I used it, social media users’ online and offline worlds may collide.  We are always warning students to be mindful of the things they post on Facebook or Twitter because future employers can search them out and assume that the identities they create online are a reflection of what they will bring to workforce.  I have to agree with what Monica posted on her blog about searchability because I have done random searches of my name, my older Facebook accounts, which I deactivated, popped up, and I was able to read the nonsense that I wrote.  I am not saying that I had to completely change my online persona to reflect my offline persona; I still wrote about anime, but I did so in a way that projected the persona of a civil, careful writer.  My question, though, is how we might simulate this in a composition class if an instructor were interested in helping his or her students shape themselves online and offline to benefit them in the future.

Furthermore, I want address the issue of ownership of one’s identity on social media platforms.  As I was reading Buck’s story of Ronnie occupying different social media platforms to “manage” (p. 21) his identity, I wrote the following questions in my notes: Who really owns the content users put online?  In fact, who owns the identity that is being portrayed online: the person trying to portray their identity by using text, music, color, pictures, etc., or the person who owns the domain in which the identity is situated?  After all, for adolescents Myspace allowed its users to tinker with their pages’ HTML code so that instead of having the default layout, the user’s page could have a music player playing songs that “described” the user or featured Tinkerbell on it.  They could do anything to project their identity to hopefully be accepted by their peers and eventually gain some kind of status.  On Facebook or Twitter where design is more constrained, users post text or video that somehow show their identities, but these sites are hosting the content users post online.  At the end of the day who is the real owner of these identities being projected?  Myspace, Facebook, and Twitter have control over what its users are able to do, but it is the users who are the ones leveraging these platforms to create personas others will consume one way or another.  Students, especially those in college, are consuming and using social media, but as academics who see the implications writing in social media platforms, how might we make teachable this issue of ownership of one’s identity on social media?




Social Media: The Renaissance Self-Expression and Community.. or is it?

I have spent the last few hours pondering what Micheal Wesch would say about the changes in spaces like Youtube and other social media since he made his video on Web 2.0 and his anthropological study of Youtube. Once upon a time, (though really it was not that long ago) vlogs and other personal videos were absolutely the predominant videos and content type on Youtube. Looking all the way back at 2006 we see much of what was being discussed by Wesch in simple user generated videos with just a few thousand views sitting on the front page.

youtube 2006 screenshot.png

Credit: Graphitas

I am sure if we used The Way Back Machine then we would see many response videos, even to these front page entries. If we take a peek at the front page of Youtube today, the field has completely changed. Every front page is tailor made for the person who is consuming the media, especially if you have any viewing history or an account linked to your Youtube habits.

Youtube Today.png

As you can see, the trending videos look like a Hollywood catalog; they are almost completely comprised of massive company sponsored channels or the titanic channels with hundreds of thousands of subscribers making professional content for our consumption. Now, I am not saying that this is necessarily bad, since millions of hours of entertainment have arisen from the ability of an individual to monetize their videos on Youtube, but the community of videos that was so exciting to Welsh ten years ago is dying if it is not completely dead already. It seems that a significant amount of social media is moving away from being a way of interconnectivity toward being a way to create or popularize a brand. Even my own Facebook feed has become more of a space to see updates from news and entertainment sites than just seeing what a friend is up to on any given day, resulting from giving a page or website a “Like.” Is there a new social media that has replaced this phenomenon? Maybe Vines? Snapchat? My experience with these new medias are limited so I have no real idea if those kinds of apps are filling this void.

Moving to a slightly different sphere, in “Examining Digital Literacy Practices on Social Network Sites,” Amber Buck examines what she calls, (finally…at the end of the article) “a rather extreme case of social network site use.” Throughout this study, her subject, Ronnie, is shown to be trying to make a “brand” much like the celebrities that we see on Twitter, Facebook, and other networking websites. I feel that this discussion is a bit disingenuous as a result because it is not indicative of most students practices on a social networking site. While we all create an online identity, I do not believe that most people are developing as complex rhetorical skills that Ronnie is displaying and Buck is discussing nor do I think most people are trying to generate fans and fame from their social media exploration. To me this kind of study just screams outlier case.

(As a side note her abstract mentions that the literacy practices we explore include navigating user agreements, which means that she thinks that many young adults read them.)


Now this is not to discount that rhetorical  and genre learning is going on and we as teachers cannot take advantage of that, but social media and how people, especially youth, interact with that media evolves faster than we can build data and studies on how to incorporate it into pedagogy and the classroom. We have read many papers examining Myspace, but that website is now a wasteland with most people’s profiles sitting derelict, an interesting photograph of our past social media lives. It makes me wonder how much of that study is still relevant as things so rapidly change. I am extremely interested in what the next few years hold and how social media and literacies will continue to evolve.

Will we see another website emerge to replace Facebook? Or has the evolution of social media begun to settle and slow down? If students are as active as Ronnie and I am just ignorant of this, then how might we best bring this to the forefront in the classroom?

I think I have rambled like a terrible cynic for long enough today. So I shall do what I always will and leave you all with an OC remix of the day. This is a remix by FoxyPanda of the famous “Aquatic Ambiance” Theme from Donkey Kong Country. Cheers!

Facebook? Why not Reddit?

Please excuse my lame attempt to connect this blog to the Zoidberg meme.

Social media are spaces in which people can connect with others online or in some technological medium.  Today, many academic discussions about social media seem to gravitate towards MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter.  Will Richardson, the author of Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms, discusses two ways in which users use social media: “friendship-based” and “interest-based” (131).  Friendship-based is pretty straightforward; people engage in social media to stay in contact with people they met, and use platforms like Facebook to communicate with others.  Friendship-based social media usually relies on profile pages that display one’s identity and a group of friends to begin with.  Richardson also argues that Facebook also helps users form groups or other social networks based on interests.  This leads to individuals learning through a self-build network created by connections with other people.  Furthermore, Richardson’s definition of interest-based learning applies more to a newer website that’s on the rise:

Reddit, as many people already know, is a social networking and micro-blogging site in which users can submit content and others comment on it.  Redditors (users of Reddit) can either “upvote” or “downvote” content, which generates a quantitative score for that post.  The more points a post has, the more popular the post is.  The posts with the highest amount of points go on what Michael Wesch (who I’ll discuss shortly) would call the “front page” (a term he used to describe YouTube’s most popular video sites).  Furthermore, comments can also be upvoted or downvoted; thus, users can view the most popular response to a post.

However, despite Reddit’s obvious connections to social media, I have not seen many scholars discuss the pedagogical implications of Reddit, even though it has been increasing in popularity over the past few years.  Furthermore, based on Michael Wesch’s and Danah Boyd’s discussion of social media, Reddit can serve as a useful tool to illustrate participatory, connective learning through social media.

Wesch’s talk, an Anthropological Introduction to YouTube, details how YouTube has become a site for users to distribute user-generated content, engage in discussions regarding various topics, and experiment with identity.  YouTube is a site of participatory remixes and remakes, that often go viral, and the recreated content serves as a celebration of this process.  Reddit is no different.  Aside from having a similar front page display on the home page, Redditors often post viral content (including pictures, .gifs, videos, articles, etc.) that get reposted and re-commented on frequently.  Furthermore, similar to YouTube, these users are usually not friends commenting on friends’ content, but rather strangers of an “invisible audience” (Boyd 120).  In other words, Redditors post for the public, and the public responds to the post.  This allows for what Boyd would call a “networked public”.  Boyd defines the networked public as a space for persistence in asynchronous communication, searchability for certain content, replicability of original content, and as already stated, the invisible audience.  For Boyd, social media is a site where all people from all space and all time can connect.   Reddit fits all of these characteristics.

Furthermore (and perhaps more interesting for scholars of social media,) Reddit is divided into what Redditors call “subreddits,” in which the content is categorized based on interest.  Redditors can find a subreddit for almost anything: gaming, sports, politics, culture, and more.  Each Redditor also has its own front page complete with the most popular posts.  (I should note that Redditors can friend other Redditors for easier access to postings and comments by their friends.)  Thus, Reddit’s community organizes itself into different categoriesThese sub-communities display a shared understanding that is mediated by its users, and defined by the types of discussions and content present within the subreddit.  I think this is what’s at the heart of Richardson’s excitement over social media – the ability to form discourse communities with the public.  This is also what Boyd notices in youths’ ❤ for social networks.  Boyd recognizes that youth desire to participate in a system with common understandings, interaction with other members, and discoursing in a mediated public (125).  Furthermore, the more interesting part of these interactions is that a Redditor’s identity is based more on the comments they make on a post, rather than a profile page with an image that constructs their identity.  A person’s wit, humor, intellect, etc. is the first impression.

The main question that I’m left with after this short discussion is why isn’t Reddit talked about like Facebook or Twitter?  I understand that Reddit is newer than these mediums and often has more viral content (like cute cat pictures).  However, Reddit is arguably a stronger example of how people write anonymously for the public, and create discussions based more on interest than friendship than other forms of social media.  Furthermore, I also wonder how composition instructors can incorporate Reddit into the classroom.  My initial reaction would be to tell students to find a topic that interests them on Reddit, and respond/engage in a conversation with the public, and see where that takes them.  Students can also create their own post on an academic subreddit, and see how the public responds to their content and ideas. I feel like there are a lot of possibilities, and interested to hear how other people may approach using this in the classroom.

What do you guys think?  I know I did not cover everything that can be said, but I’m also trying not to go overboard here.  🙂

Academic Identity and Social Networking

One of my Introduction to English students, who has recently been released from juvenile hall, sits in my office this afternoon tapping her fingers vigorously on her notebook, and tells me about the difficulties she encounters being a first-time college student this semester.

“I just don’t even know what I’m doing at all.” She says distressed, looking anxiously around my office.

Fatima is a first generation college student, who had never thought about attending college much before, and had a troublesome track-record in high school. She recently received her GED while incarcerated, and is now looking to further her education.

I asked her to talk about some of the issues that she specifically felt were challenging to her, and she shared a list of roadblocks that she felt were preventing her success. The first of which I found particularly interesting. She had to write a short paragraph for her Ethnic Studies class where she evaluated herself as a college student. I thought this sounded like a pretty straightforward assignment, and one that would be great for a student who is underprepared academically. I was contemplating the metacognitive awareness connections she would gain from such a task.

“What are you finding challenging about the assignment?” I asked her.

“I don’t know, I guess I don’t really know what that means. What it means to be a college student. How do I rate myself? What is a college student? I hope that’s not a dumb question.”

Her response has had me thinking all day. What she really seems to be struggling with is not the inability to start writing a paragraph (though that may be a component), but more importantly, her current personal identity is not linked to academia. She does not have a sense of self in college.

The creation of an academic identity for at-risk, basic skill students in community colleges can be a crucial step in facilitating access into higher education. When a population of marginalized students has been placed on the outskirts of the educational community, their entryway will be the organization and definition of themselves as being academic beings. Fatima needs to start creating an academic identity and this will help her analyze the issues she is having as a student and seek solutions.

Professors longing to see all their students succeed, but unable to make necessary system-wide structural changes, must find ways to combat the achievement gap. C. Cooper (2002) has reported that there are five key bridges to students’ pathways to college, and all five share the theme of identity. At-risk students, students who belong to a group that is statistically below the average college completion rate, must form identities as college students if they are to complete their college education. The relationship between identity development and academic achievement is one in which researchers and educators alike have a stake. Identity achievement has been argued to be essential to academic success.

What possible ways can this academic identity be created and fostered? Introducing Identity discusses the multiple uses of technology socially and educationally. When discussing social networking, Beckham says, “It appears to be used primarily as a means of reinforcing local networks among peers.” One possible avenue for helping a student who is creating their academic sense of self could be through digital media, like Facebook, where a cohort of students, in say, her English class, can collaborate and interact, reinforcing a connection with peers who are in academia. This could be an especially useful tool for students like Fatima who have no friends or family who are enrolled or who have attended college. This can create a more personal, and perhaps more easily accessible space for networking with fellow college students, thus understanding and feeling like one herself.

The Anonymity Debate: Should commenters be allowed pseudonyms?

We recently discussed the issue of trolling–the practice of posting inflammatory comments with the intent of provoking others or igniting some type of emotional response.  With the recent media attention on cyber bullying, trolling can almost be seen as a form of that, played out in the arena of public opinion.  James Rainey wrote an interesting article in the LA Times, “On the Media: Your words, your real name,” regarding this very issue.

In attempt to counteract some of the mudslinging and derogatory commenting, the media has experimented with different methods of control, trying to keep the online commenting environment from becoming “too ugly.”  Sometimes that involves tighter monitoring from the moderator, but this can be difficult given the amount of content that many media outlets put on the web, and the dwindling staffing resources that they’ve been forced to contend with.  Rainey reports that big media outlets such as the Washington Post and the New York Times have employed staff whose sole job is to moderate the comment boards. Recently, the LA Times has adopted a self-monitoring system using a red flag icon that other readers can click to “report abuse.”  But can handing over the policing of the comment boards to the public really help solve the orignal problem?

The latest solution for managing, what’s become a costly and time-intensive feature in online news articles, is requiring readers to sign-in with their Facebook accounts.  The Bay Area News Group (which includes San Jose Mercury News) and the Los Angeles News Group (which includes the San Bernardino Sun, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Pasadena Star News, Los Angeles Daily News, and The Long Beach Press Telegram) have both moved to a model requiring Facebook log-ins.  The reasoning behind the decision was that eliminating the anonymity and forcing readers to sign-in with their real identities kept commenters accountable and cutback on the trolling.  The Los Angeles News Group has created a FAQs page explaining their reasoning for the change in policy stating: “We’ve found that article commenting became more civil when a person is easily identifiable with their name and face attached to a comment.”  Still, others argue that this new sanitation effort is a subtle form of censorship and doesn’t grant equal access.

Networking is a lot of work

As requested last week I created a Twitter account and oh man is it a lot of work! I already have a facebook account that I check regularly and actively participate in but I guess somehow this has become apart of my daily routine because I no longer notice that I am “wasting” time on the site. However, Twitter has become sort of like a job to me. I jumped in wholeheartedly and started following people and looking for interesting leads to read and found myself more than overwhelmed very quickly. When I log into the site there are so many updates to read that I get lost trying to catch up on what I have missed in the last few hours since I have logged on. In fact I have only followed one actual thread or lead or link or whatever it is called and the rest have fallen by the way side. I am sure that there are a ton of interesting things that I am missing but I feel like I dont have the time to be shifting through all of it to get to the good stuff. Now I totally agree that these networking sites can be valuable tools for both personal and educational purposes but I think you have to be very familiar with the technology in order not to be overwhelmed and also not to overwhelm those students who may be less technologically advanced than some of the other students, especially for returning adults. I have started looking into lesson plans that incorporate these networking sites and the salient factor is that you have to know before you do.

I am curious what some other have experienced with these sites, please share!

Michael Wesch made a very convincing argument for the connectivity of YouTube and, more specifically, the potential value in broadcasting to a vast and unknown audience.  I have never used YouTube for more than sharing iMovied slideshows with family and friends.  I didn’t really dial into the social connectivity of the site until one of my slideshows (of a camping trip to Lett’s Lake) showed 302 hits and a video clip of my daughter’s indoor skydive showed 159 hits.  At first I felt fear.  I was involved in a nasty custody dispute over my daughter when she was an infant and was forced into terminating all contact with her biological father.  It is for that reason I’ve always been very cautious about what and how I post to the web.  Over time I came to realize that we were not being cyber-stalked, that people were simply doing searches for “Lett’s Lake” and “indoor skydive” and these videos came back in their searches.  Suddenly I realized that my “channel” didn’t exist in the isolation that I had once imagined.  I honestly believed that no one would be interested in my videos unless I had specifically sent them the link – or unless they were a psycho cyber-stalker.  So, while my experience was different than speaking to the glass dot, I became aware of just how many people lay beyond it.  This realization can be both frightening and empowering.

Social networking sites, such as facebook, can also be frightening and empowering.  Who, in our generation, doesn’t have a story of some blast from the past coming to haunt them on facebook?  Scary for anyone who would like for their past to remain, well, in the past.  But there is a fascinating psychology behind the way that people develop their profiles on such sites.  As danah boyd points out, these sites offer the “opportunity to craft a personal representation”, something that is not so easy to do in face-to-face situations which require more immediacy in response.

These sites offer a way of collecting people that sit like window dressings on any user’s friend list.  Some people will accept and solicit friends in an attempt to get their number up, while others will carefully select who may enter the sanctity of their fb domain.  boyd, in “Why Youth (heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life“, suggests that, “by looking at other’s profiles, teens get a sense of what types of presentations are socially appropriate,” but savvy teens can also make moves that others may not in order to generate more social interest by who they have on their friend list, and what types of postings appear on their wall.  Facebook can be incredibly clicky in that you can see in your news feed that certain people’s wall posts and status updates generate an obscene amount of comments while yours may sit, if not unnoticed, uncommented on, which can make you feel on any given day like a HUGE loser!

Scrolling through your friend list on fb is kind of like looking at a bug collection in a shoe box – you can open the lid (or click on the link) and admire all the critters you’ve picked up along the way.  The only difference (ok, besides species and the fact that hopefully most of your fb friends are still alive and crawling around) is that the collection helps to tell you something about yourself every time you look at it.  Are your friend choices authentic?  Are most of your friends nerdy or hot?  How many of these people interest you enough so that you visit their profile independently?

It is all so interesting how we can be little sociologists on our own playground.  For more danah boyd check out her dissertation.

TWinaDA Means “I Love You” Even If I Don’t Understand You

In “Introducing Identity,” David Buckingham identifies an argument that supports the view of today’s new media technology as “a force of liberation for young people–a means for them to reach past the constraining influence of their elders, and to create new, autonomous forms of communication and community” (13).  But I’m not sure how “autonomous” the younger digital generation can really be.  They are definitely empowered to break away from traditional opressors–parents, like the argument suggests, and perhaps also institutional (at least in its traditional forms).

Still, are they (or any of us) really free from controlling forces in digital media?  One of Buckingham’s concerns points to “the undemocratic tendencies of online ‘communities'” (14).  In fact, if we look at one such online community like Facebook, it’s quite apparent that there is a lot of follow-the-leader activities going on.  One day about a month ago, women (and girls) on Facebook started putting up colours and patterns on their statuses.  Some men even joined in, many without knowing what exactly they were participating in–their favourite colours?, the colour of their current mood?, or what?  And when many asked those who participated, the resulting elitism and reluctance to reveal was met either with participants’ own lack of understanding, or a cliquish desire to keep that knowledge from more people.  Only after a whole day, or even longer, did many find out that it turned out to be the colour of the bra you are wearing at the time in support of breast cancer awareness.  Nevermind the irony esoteric knowledge/practices against the purpose of awareness, what disturbs me more is the antisocial, anti-democratic behaviours that arose from the event.  And this is but one example on Facebook, while many others include the so-called “doppelganger” profile picture week, viral gaming like Julianne has noted, etc.  And these behaviours are certainly not limited to Facebook.  Go to any site that has social interaction–MySpace, Twitter, even markets like Amazon and eBay–and they’re all there.

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What good is identity?

Reading about the various methods of identity construction people use has been perplexing. I have a tendency to try and directly apply what the theory we are studying to a hypothetical classroom, and it was initially difficult to see the specifics of how knowing students’ histories will change the types of assignments I would give or the teaching approach I would take; how would I move beyond the problem of just having students type a five paragraph essay on Moby Dick on a computer instead and declaring them to have technological literacy.

I’m not sure I have a good answer yet. But to start, although this may be too simplistic, I see identity and literacy issues as fodder for the types of class discussions about situatedness that we have read about from many different theorists. I used to see my own reading and writing practices apolitical and closed for debate. I never used to think that my appreciation of classical Western literature was informed by any specific value system; Shakespeare was simply what I should be studying; Watchmen was just for fun. But graduate school has forced me to change my world view and start looking at the ways everything I do carries some sort of loaded meaning, and our job as teachers may be to get students to understand this. This brings students personal histories into the mix, and technology is an increasingly important part of most students’ personal histories.

Learning to see this way is It seems like demonstrating how these experiences are value-laden is the window into using students’ understandings of technology and identity. I may be speculating wildly here, but it seems likely that until they are questioned about it, many people may not see technology use as something that carries “values” with it. Knowing how to appropriately respond to your friend’s Facebook status and embed videos in the comment sections of blog posts doesn’t seem like it has any relation to a debate on health care reform. But examining how you respond to your friends, what kinds of videos you post, and how your economic, social, and historical situatedness has allowed you to do engage in those activities can make connections in ways that our students may not have seen before. And it is seeing literacy as Gail Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe define it, something where “the practices involved in reading, writing, and exchanging information in online environments, as well as the values associated with such practices–cultural, social, political, and educational” are relevant, that can help us to use this. Continue reading