SYMPOSIUM: Melisa Melcombe

Women’s perceptions of identity construction on Facebook: A Thesis by Melisa Melcombe

This study is of particular interest to me, as it discusses the understanding of the users in the construction of their personal profiles. ‘Facebook is an online space where people can form a self-presentation strategy and construct an identity through a personal profile.’ This is a study conducted by a student of Gonzada University in order to investigate the considerations that take place when women construct an online profile. ‘The findings imply that a woman transforms her identity online as she takes on new and different roles in life, adjusting her self-presentation strategy appropriately for each role.’

‘Self-presentation is often seen as a set of processes employed by people for the purpose of convincing others that they are a particular type of person or have specific characteristics (Smock, 2010). As users carefully put together their Facebook profile, they are forming an online identity congruent with the self they are aiming to present to their network of connections’. Facebook is the most popular of online social networking sites, and as such has provided people with a platform on which to construct a preferred profile from scratch. The interesting factor to understand through self-presentation is why users will do this. What drives the choice of profile picture or album and the thought processes leading to this finale give us an understanding of the individual priorities of users, and the similarities that can be seen throughout the site on many different profiles.

A helpful aspect of this journal alone was the simple definitions of the terms under scrutiny. This is something I haven’t done, sought out the simplest descriptions of the words themselves to provide an elementary understanding.

‘A social networking profile is a “personal web space for descriptions about the self, using multimedia components” Gerhard & Kang, 2010)’.

‘Self-presentation is a “theoretical construct that refers to the process individuals user in attempting to control how other users perceive them” (Smock, 2010).’

‘Identity theory is a “theory of role-related choice behaviour deriving from a structural symbolic interactionism…which assumes that humans are actors, recognizing the possibility of choice in human life” (Stryker, 2000). Identity theory also assumes that multiple roles can make up the sel, which can impact role-related behaviour (Gearhart & Kang, 2010).’

As social networking has become such a significant part of our society, it has a strong influence on our physical lives. This means that it provides a strong insight into the human psyche and the reasons behind our behaviour. It is a show and tell of the decisions we make in order to shape our personality, as it is presented on a site that can be revisited and altered as desired. ‘As the user creates and structures his or her online profile, an identity is being crafted and represented through text and photographs. All digitally imprinted on a user’s Facebook profile, this information becomes the user’s way of constructing a self to present to others in their network, which could otherwise be thought of as their “audience”. Most users carefully choose an identity based on the self they are aiming to present to this specific audience, and continual maintenance of the profile is often necessary. While constructing an identity through Facebook, users can choose to present a self that is congruent with who they are in face-to-face interactions, or can present a self that is different or reinvented.’ Through the research I have conducted so far, I feel the personality representation of an average user is somewhere in the middle. It is not a wildly exadurated version of life, no is it a perfectly true depiction. It is the middle ground that is most common; a slightly altered preferred self.

Much of this thesis and its findings relate to Facebook as a whole, though I am only interested in the development and reinforcement of the presented self through the use of photography. Though it is of an interest, it is not relevant to my personal study. ‘Though each element of the profile is significant and contributes to the creation of a specific identity, the profile picture is one of the first steps in the selection of the self each user would like to present to his or her audience (Ellis, 2009). This picture is the first representation any other user will see when searching for individuals to add to their network. Profile pictures can be changed or can stay on a user’s profile indefinitely.’

The inclusion of a profile picture on the site provides a slight dilemma in the construction process, as this picture alone is, to any users no selected as friends, the only representation that will be seen of the user. By appearing on comments, wall posts, messages and the profile itself, the profile picture must be a complete summary of the personality the user is portraying.

‘The researcher’s main observation was that participants cared as much, if not more, about what was not on their profile, as what was there. One participant explained: I don’t put things up that would make me look bad, like photos o myself completely [drunk. I guess I do try to represent myself as best I can on Facebook. I untag gross photos and try to share exciting news.’ A second participant commented that ‘I’m afraid people will judge me. What if the music is not hip enough or the shows are girly musicals? If I actually put [my favourite book] I would be scared of being judged.’ The strong understanding through the participants of this study as to the reasons behind their choices is intriguing, as it is clearly a very conscious effort made by the users regarding the creation on their preferred self. The conscious understanding allows an insight that would not be possible given the sub-conscious choices.

‘Overall, participants aimed to present a self to their audience that appeared either “fun” and social” or “well-rounded.” Choosing a profile picture was a vital part of this process for the women in this study, as it represents a main component of the user’s self-presentation strategy.’ The common thread found through the study was the similarities in the presented-self by the subjects. I find it also very apparent when I look at both my own and my friends Facebook’s, as there is a clear correlation with the kind of information and photographs deemed important enough to present to the audience. The vast majority show either the user with many friends around, being out and drinking, or with a romantic partner. Each of these common threads show that the main interest within users, and the most important quality to present is the number of relationships in a person’s life; the users popularity and strength of a relationship with a romantic partner. It also seems to me that many of the photographs that are not physical photographs of the user with people, they are comments on relationships; ‘in jokes’.

It was unanimously found that the users in the study ‘felt that their profile picture was a critical piece of their overall profile and took great care when choosing which picture to present to their audience… [and] expressed that this picture unarguably had to be flattering in some way.’ The changes in the personalities we wish to present change according to age and social status. For example, a married subject admitted to choosing most profile pictures showing her and her husband, though when she was younger she felt a strong need to present a picture that made her look ‘cool’. This relates to the lecturer in Hong Kong, Tony Lau who had to alter his profile for a work interview; as opposed to altering his profile to appear either ‘cool’ or to have a strong marital relationship, he presented a profile that appeared intellectual.

One interesting comment made by a participant whilst viewing her own profile, was that she ‘shares the public persona of me. It’s who I am [but] it’s a version of me. It’s a manufactured part of me. I choose the part of me I want to show [to everyone] and my friends and family know the actual [me].’ ‘I don’t always have make up on, but I do [in my pictures] on Facebook. I’m not manufacturing something, but I’m conscious and selective of what others get to see.’ The thought and consideration that is taken through the choice of a profile picture is intriguing, and I wonder if the same conscious decisions are made through male users. The attempt to present oneself in the best light possible is not something singularly used online, we each partake in trying to present a positive impression of ourselves throughout life to both new and old acquaintances.

As mentioned before, the feature of untagging on Facebook provides the users with a second avenue of control over what doesn’t appear on their profile. ‘When asked about having unflattering pictures on their profiles, all twelve participants interviewed…expressed that they had, at some time, untagged a picture they found to be uncomplimentary. For some participants, untagging pictures is directly correlated with the image they are trying to uphold for their professional audience, while others simply want their network to see them as looking beautiful all of the time. One participant explains, “I immediately untag pictures where I don’t look good. It will bother me if I look horrendous and I can’t untag the picture right away. I’m careful about my image and how people see me.” A second participant described this as her ‘own pride. [She doesn’t] want [those pictures] to represent [her].’

Interestingly one participant argues against this with the point that it is a real-life photograph, and if she looks like that in real-life then why not in her pictures. ‘I’m not really doing anything by taking it down except showing everyone that I was self-conscious.’ The way a user believes they are perceived by others directly influences the choices made when constructing a profile. The way they believe they will be judged will influence the choice of which images to include or untag as to present a positive image of themselves. The choice to alter a profile, as described by Snyder, ‘can be tied to…a desire to maintain social approval.’ ‘An individual who self-monitors is “one who, out of a concern for social appropriateness, is particularly sensitive to the self-presentation of others…and uses these cues as guidelines for monitoring [their] own self-presentation.’ Viewing a friends profile getting many ‘likes’ and attention on certain posts or photographs will directly lead an individual of concern to present a photograph or post that is similar, in the hope to get the same levels of praise.

As users alter their own profile to avoid scrutiny from others, they judge their own profile and the understanding of what they want to and to not present by the judging of others; ‘I worry about my Facebook friends sometimes. Why would you  take [such pictures]?’ ‘Every user felt as though seeing this behaviour exhibited by other users would make them less “annoying”’ by learning what to not do. As Goffman explains, an ‘individual may attempt to induce the audience to just him and the situation a particular way.’

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