Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Facebook and its relations to artificial identity construction

Facebook presents itself as a platform for self-expression and networking for its users. The site’s various options are meant to offer users empowerment and control over various aspects of their social lives. Users can choose whom to friend, what information is available to which people, the types of interaction between friends, and the type of information they disclose about themselves, all with the aim of creating an optimal networking experience. Upon further examination using Kenneth Burke’s perspective by incongruity, Facebook can be revealed as to not actually replicating real world social relations or enhancing friendships in the virtual setting but merely propagating shallow friendships and inducing excessive self-promotion. Creating and maintaining a Facebook profile has turned into an elaborative scheme for many users as they meticulously upload attractive photos or compose witty statuses to gain “likes” and comments. Facebook has evolved from a Social Networking Site originally branded as bringing together people into an outlet for unleashing egotistical tendencies and inflating the user’s sense of self. It is certainly personalizing the social experience but also increasing the “I” component in a relationship.

Different modes of communication involve different social norms and laws. Face-to-face interactions include both verbal and non-verbal components that require the participants in the social group or dyad to adjust their behavior accordingly. Suggestive glances, firm handshakes, faltering eye contact etc. all have different implications in the context in which they are used and can completely contradict the participant’s verbal message if these gestures are used in juxtaposition. This form of multi-dimensional communication defines “real world” interaction, where both parties are physically present in the same immediate environment. Online interaction lacks this enrichment of communication but users of Social Networking Sites are not despairing. There is actually reason to celebrate as some critics argue that social networking websites such as Facebook enhance social interaction with the availability of an array of features and its capacity to instantaneously reach a large audience. Sharing digital media such as photos and links to videos or restaurant deals etc. attempt to fill the non-intimate void created by the absence of non-verbal communication in an online social exchange.

Another form of “enrichment” available on Facebook is the creation of the user’s online identity. Identity construction is an interesting phenomenon as the initial attraction of Social Networking Sites was the option to create your personal page and then connect with other peers. How thrilling to instantly access information about your acquaintances, relatives and co-workers that would have previously only been available after many encounters and building a real relationship. Now users can bypass the entire phase of building intimacy and close relations while still gaining access to an individual’s life. Users also have the option of presenting their “best” self to their Facebook community; one’s profile picture can be very telling of an individual. Some users’ profile pictures mainly depict glamorous self-portraits while other users may choose to amass pictures of themselves in social settings, surrounded by large groups of friends to highlight their sociability and popularity. In general, users are concerned with impressing their online friends and profile pictures provide the best outlet to do so. Research findings show that people with low self-esteem post attractive pictures of themselves to boost their sense of self-worth while people with high self-esteem post pictures to preserve their “beautiful” status. (Estoisia, Renée, Neema Pithia, Claudia Rodriguez, Teresa Yu, and T. Boellstorff)
The availability of a plethora of pictures provides Facebook users a sense of intimacy with the profile or subject they are viewing. However, the information gained from passing judgment on a profile picture can in no way substitute the knowledge gained from talking to a person. Individuals can only leave traces of their true selves in a digital platform. Simply being privy to an old acquaintance’s vacation photos does not actually translate into a meaningful relationship between the user and the profile being viewed. In reality, individuals use the instant, gratuitous medium of Facebook as a substitute for creating real world relationships that would require substantial more work than browsing through profiles. This is not in any way opposing Facebook’s declaration as a tool that helps users “connect and share” with the people in their lives—users are certainly connecting and sharing. Rather, an evaluation of the meaning of meaningful relationships must be conducted.
Updating one’s Facebook status is a quintessential tool for identity construction on Facebook. A status is directly representative of the user’s consciousness at a certain time and offers ample opportunities for judgment from his Facebook community. Just as with profile pictures, statuses can also be used to aid self-promotion. Statuses can range from musings about mundane daily activities to proclamations about the outstanding quality of life led by the author. In many ways, statuses are more important than profile pictures in constructing identity as they are directly expressing user’s ideologies and consciousness. The Newsfeed is the heart of Facebook and is freshly supplied with new statuses at any given time, lending exceptional importance to the quality of the status posted. The number of “likes” and comments a status receives drives its rank in the Newsfeed, thereby furthering its popularity among the Facebook community.

These short blurbs of life, philosophy, ideology, wit etc. are effective in relaying effectively and concisely what a user is feeling at a given moment. Checking one’s Newsfeed every morning does a wonderful job in being constantly updated about one’s peers’ activities and whereabouts. The need for this constant inundation of peers’ lives must be questioned. Of course, users care about their friends’ activities and there is a natural human tendency to share information with their loved ones. However, most of the time the Newsfeed serves to fulfill the Peeping Tom ‘s desire to participate in exclusive activities that did not involve him in any way. In this way, “facebooking” can be likened to peeping through a kitchen window. The user is constantly reminded of others’ activities that he was excluded from. Additionally, he is forced to update his own status to stay relevant in the Facebook community.

An issue that must be addressed in status sharing is self-disclosure and privacy. Facebook in essence is sharing. However, the extent of what is being shared and to what type of audience is usually disregarded or not given serious thought by the user. “Facebook stalking” has become a standard phrase in vernacular among college students. It is not unusual for groups of friends to research or stalk an attractive male from class. Glancing through his status updates can provide the “stalkers” an instant snapshot of his personality, activities and personal interests—depending on how much he chose to disclose. In general, users of Facebook are aware that they are being watched, stalked, researched etc. and take special care to generate statuses that are in accordance with the image that they want others to perceive them as. If someone is trying to be popular, he might update status’ regarding social activities and tag many people in them to establish his desire to be viewed as “cool” and highly social. Therefore, posting statuses is not merely an act of sharing but yet another tool that Facebook provides to manipulate personal identity in the virtual world.

Many parallels can be drawn from status sharing to posting on friends’ walls in the world of Facebook. However, an additional utility to Walls is that users can witness entire conversations unfold between peers of a certain social group. The choice to make a conversation public is telling of the users; private conversations can be kept intimate via messaging. Choosing to post on a friend’s wall signifies that the user does not mind the rest of his friends seeing this certain post. This is in accordance to Facebook’s philosophy of sharing and connecting with others and feeds users’ methods of identity construction. Users are letting their friends know the content and nature of their communication as well as the agent and target of their discourse via Facebook Walls.

In the passive, voyeuristic world of Facebook, users are defined by every trace of expression they leave. It is easy to judge the superficial self constructed by a user’s Facebook activity but it might not be reflective of a person’s true personality. The information a user discloses on his profile informs the Facebook community of what he wants them to know, not his authentic, whole self. This can be likened to wearing a t-shirt with a certain band or singer imprinted on it; he is sharing a certain aspect of his personality. Profiles offer an outlet for self-expression but can also be a venue for brutal distilling of the user’s self into an abstract image. The user sets out to establish a certain Facebook image via the selection of a specific profile picture and posting statuses in conjunction to that image. It is impossible to expect a complete or authentic interaction on a social networking site as individuals are only offering an abstracted version of themselves. Individuals choose to only offer information that they think is vital in others’ perception of their identity. (Wollam, Ashley J) Facebook can be argued to be a venue for an interaction that is artificially induced and thoughtfully manipulated stemming from individuals that painstakingly created profiles to impress their peers. Of course this is a harsh perspective and not completely true. Users are given a choice to represent themselves in a way that is simply not available in the real world. However, offering only faint traces of an individual does not promote meaningful relationships. Facebook profiles only offer a fraction of a person’s real identity and essence; technology can never be a substitute for the prototype or human.

Through severe abstraction of one’s identity on Facebook, authentic interaction is sacrificed. There are certainly plenty of advantages with using Social Networking Sites but it can never replace face-to-face interactions. In addition to manipulating identity construction, they also promote excessive focus on the self. Instead of communication occurring between a set of individuals, it is represented as having been exclusively initiated by the user via wall posts etc. Dialogues have turned into exclusive galleries of users and their lives. Instead of empowering users, Facebook is creating a generation of excessively self-conscious users that participate in ever increasing shallow social relations.

Zhao, Shanyang, Sherri Grasmuck, and Jason Martin. "Identity Construction on Facebook: Digital
Empowerment in Anchored Relationships." ScienceDirect.com. 17 Mar. 2008. Web. 11 Apr. 2011.
Estoisia, Renée, Neema Pithia, Claudia Rodriguez, Teresa Yu, and T. Boellstorff. "Identity
Construction and Self-Representation on Facebook." Culture, Power, Cyberspace. 19 Mar. 2009. Web. 12 Apr. 2011. <http://anthrocyber.blogspot.com/2009/05/identity-construction-and-self.html>.
Wollam, Ashley J. "Facebook - Encouraging (in)(a)Uthentic Identity Construction." Scribd. 21 Apr. 2008.
Web. 12 Apr. 2011. <http://www.scribd.com/doc/9713634/Facebook-Encouraging-inaUthentic-Identity-Construction>.

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