SYMPOSIUM: Computers in Human Behaviour

This study was conducted in order to delve into the social online World. Many works have been published regarding the behaviour exhibited in anonymous online sites with far fewer investigating the role of the user in a less anonymous setting. Facebook is a social platform in which the users will already know each other before choosing to share any personal information or photographs.

When comparing the data found over the last decade regarding these two opposing aspects of the online social sites, it was found that people act very differently when they are under an anonymous shield and when they are interacting with real-life contacts. The understanding of self-presentation is an interesting one, and I found this article’s inclusion of the comparisons intriguing, as it is an area i which I have not yet delved.

They continue to breakdown the understanding of identity and the self-concept; ‘the totality of a person’s thoughts and feelings in reference to oneself as an object (Rosenberg, 1986)’ ‘An identity is the part of the self by which we are known to others (Altheide, 2000)’. This quote alone, though used from another author in this article is one I intend to include in my own work, as I feel it summarizes an understanding in the identity whilst relating it to this particular medium. ‘The construction of an identity is therefore a public process that involved both ‘identity announcement’ made by the individual claiming an identity, and the ‘identity placement’ made by others who endorse the claimed identity, and identity is established when there is a ‘coincidence of placements and announcements (Stone, 1981)’.

They continue on to discuss the ways in which physical social encounters constrict the levels of identity-claims that are possible to be made by the individual, as the likelihood is the contract will already obtain some understanding of the subjects life, background and characteristics. This limits the false claims that can be made. However in an online setting, slightly different rules apply due to the connection with people more removed from the subject’s life. In this case, the ‘viewers’ will have some understanding of the individual, but not enough to deem their claims inconsistent with reality. The attempts to put forward these alterations is quotes as being a ‘personal-front’, with the intetion of ‘generating a desired impression on others, (Goffman, 1959)’.

‘An important characteristic of this emergent mode of identity production is the tendency for people to play-act at being someone else or to put on different online personae that differ from their ‘real-life’ identities (Stone,  1996, Turkle, 1995)’. As the writers claim, the ability to create an online identity provides the user with the ability to ‘reinvent themselves through the production of new identities’. 

This online platform is the new ‘environment’ as claimed as the ‘nonymous World’. There is a very strong difference in the self-presentation through this in comparison to both the physical World and the anonymous World. As apposed to showing either the real self (physical World) or an acted-self (anonymous World), users typically will show a ‘preferred self’. This simply means that the constraints of the connection with the physical World contacts, limits the act that be put on by a user, yet it provides a leeway into the representation of the real self. This leaves something in the middle, which is what is found to happen; the user will present an image of a preferred self, which is their real self with minor adjustments to alter their identity into the ‘hoped-for possible selves (Markus, Nuius 1986)’. According to them, each of us embodies two versions of the self; the ‘now-self’ and the ‘possible-self’. The now-self is an understanding of the real-self, whereas the possible-self is a preferred version; a fantasized version of lifestyle and personality. For example a shy person may not have many friends in the now-self, but may present a Facebook page showing lots of images including large friendship groups. This would be the possible-self; the self they wish they could be. Another example would be physical appearance. Unless we see a contact very often they may not be aware of certain physical changes in the user. The ability to control what images are used gives the user the chance to only upload flattering photographs that may be an inaccurate depiction of the users physical form if they thought they were overweight, not pretty etc.

This study expected the subjects to ‘engage in identity constructions on Facebook and adopt strategies of self-presentation that help them deal with the nonymous situation.’ More specifically  they expected people on Facebook to present their hope-for possible selves rather than their ‘true’ or hidden selves. ‘Facebook users may emphasize or even exaggerate the part of  their possible-selves that are socially desirable but not readily discernible in brief online encounters, such as one’s character, intelligence  and other important inner qualities.’ 

It was found through this study that ‘the most implicit identity claims are visual, involving the display of photos and pictures uploaded by the users themselves or pictures along with comments posted to their accounts by others’. This proves photography has a strong connection with the online creation of self, as it was the method used by the subjects to make the strongest claims on their identity, and also provides a strong enough reinforcement method (reliable) for the viewers to deem it believable. The strongest and most common of these claims was the claim to friendships. ‘The visual self: projected via the inclusion of large numbers of peer groups and friends, and this alone would provide a strong sense of identity’. It was an attempt at claimed-identity, ‘aimed at generating desired impressions on their viewers, especially in terms of the depth and extent of their social ties.’ 

‘On a continuum of claims from most explicit to most implicit, Facebook users in our sample appeared to prefer the most implicit, with the almost universal selection of dense displays of profile photos and wall posts, followed by highly enumerated lists of cultural preferences associated with youth culture, and finally the minimalist, first-person ‘about me’ statements.’ It was found that the majority of users preferred to ‘show rather than tell’ a preferred-identity, leaving many of the optional writing sections regarding interests, religion, culture etc blank of the profile, but using many photographs to present a point. Perfectly summed up, ‘a picture is more than a thousand words, and positive remarks from others are more effective than self-praise’. 

The most popular claim made by the sample users, which is clearly deemed the most socially desirable identity trait is popularity amongst friends. ‘Most of the pictures we saw were group pictures, showing users having fun with his or her friends…single-person pictures were rarely seen…the fact that the majority of users chose to either not show their faces at all or to only show their faces along with the faces of others in their profile picture is very revealing, indicating, amongst other things, an effort to construct a group-orientated identity’. This is a fact that intrigues me greatly, as when I look through my own Facebook friends, myself included, very few show single-person images. A strong majority of profile pictures show the users with at least one other person. What is so wrong about appearing along in a display picture? After all, our personal Facebook pages are designed around us, not our social group. A second strong use of profile picture, if it was not a group scene was a user with a romantic partner. In discussion with one particular user in the sample, Zhao concluded, ‘by publicly proclaiming her love and affection for her husband on Facebook, the female user constructed an identity of devotion and faithfulness towards a heterosexual marital relationship. This life affirming portrayal of devotion in a traditional marital content parallels the broader, positive identity claims of the collective Facebook users’. A third strain of subject I feel was missed through this study was the inclusion of a users children, or simply using a single-person photograph of their child, as though this offspring is the users only important identity claim once becoming a parent.


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