a feminist technology blog

Month: February 2007 (Page 1 of 2)

MySpace Profiles and Identity Formation

In my last post, Kevin pointed me to the work of Larry Rosen, a psych professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills (where Torrence’s boyfriend went in Bring it On!!) and his work on MySpace. He conducts empirical, quantitative studies of teen activities on MySpace, and his conclusions are twofold:

1. That there is very little “predatory” action, if any, on MySpace, and
2. That parents should stop worrying about sexual predators and start helping their teens by setting boundaries, talking to them about their online experiences, and helping them make sense of identity formation online (emphasis mine).

IANAP, so I can’t say much about his recommendations (although boundaries and talking sound like one of those universally good things you really can’t argue against), but it was his last point that really struck me.

When I started working on social networks in 2003, I was interested primarily in online self-presentation. I don’t focus on that anymore; my paper on MySpace customization (eternally in draft) is the only project I’m working on that really covers identity. But I do have a very strong background in identity theory and self-presentation theory, so I thought it might be fun to revisit the topic, especially considering the explosion in SNS popularity in the last four years. So a few maxims.

1. MySpace profiles are identity work.
We are all constantly tweaking our identities to perfect how we appear to others, and to ourselves. While we have this cultural idea of a “true self” or an “inner self” (hence the popularity of such inspiring American Idol-isms as “follow your heart”), in reality our “selves” are much more complex and variable. Particularly in the modern, liberal democracy, there’s this idea that we “work” on our selves to become better, stronger, more “accurate” people– we “find” ourselves.

This work could involve taking up yoga, finding religion, travelling the world, or so forth, but in actuality it’s more likely to consist of adopting a new style of dressing, getting a new haircut, buying a car or a house that we think reflects our personality. The teen obsessing over his Panic! at the Disco-style haircut and the 30-something spending a grand on the hottest brand of stroller are both attempting to indicate something very specific to their peer groups. The messages are different, but the mediums are very similar.

The work we do tweaking and pimping and blinging-out our profiles is the same. I ask my students about their first web presences and I get a roomful of groans and eye-rolling as they confess to their first Geocities web page or Britney Spears fansite. As danah recently wrote, teens are more likely to chuck an entire established, groomed online identity and start from scratch than they are to remodel something fully formed. The point is that our current profile should reflect not necessarily who we are, but who we want to be perceived as.

And that’s constantly changing, improving, getting more current and more “hip”. Hence the work. One of my students told me that his best friend’s profile included a long list of bands that he’d never heard of. “I’ve known this kid for five years,” he said, “And I’ve never seen him listen to that stuff.” It’s a carefully edited version of yourself, for public consumption.

2. Identity work is becoming automated
Profiles must be up-to-the-minute; my friends, who are all 20 and 30 somethings who really should know better, consistently update their pictures and preferences with the latest and greatest. What is my February playlist? Am I still really into that Girl Talk album, or do I need to replace it with the new Klaxons? I’ve been hitting the gym more recently, time to put a new picture on MySpace.

Tracking widgets help us to do this without even thinking about it. iLike and Last.fm let us show off our current music without any effort:

The popularity of weight loss trackers, travel maps, “mood-o-meters”, and so on show off to the world exactly what we’re doing. The latest entrant in this crowded marketspace is Slifeshare, which tracks everything you do online and broadcasts it to your eager audience. I’m assuming that you can turn this off once you start trolling Rotten.com, The Superficial and, of course, pr0n.

Of course, while this information might be nice to add to our profile, it also makes tracking our activities extremely easy. Which means determining a demographic profile for us is extremely easy. Which means selling to us becomes extremely easy. (Watch out for more on this from me soon).

3. Our self-presentation strategy depends on context and audience.
This is an old chesnut from communication/performance theory favorite Erving Goffman, who wrote a book in the 1950’s called “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” which is still regularly assigned to reluctant undergraduates. He watched people in regular, every day situations, as they put on smiling faces or professional faces or relaxed around their friends. Goffman came up with the dramaturgical metaphor for everyday life which includes the idea of “frontstage” (public, to all) and “backstage” (private, to “insiders”). If you’ve ever worked retail or food service, you know what it’s like to go on the “floor” versus “the back” or “the kitchen”. The floor is scripted and artificial; the back is just as constructed, but in a much more relaxed, “real” kind of way.

In social networking sites, “context” can be a few things. First, the application itself– my LinkedIn profile is very different from my MySpace profile (which is under a pseudonym for this exact reason). This is not only because the assumed purpose of the application is different, but because the fields and capacities available to me are different. Second, it can be our location within a larger network of friends. If you look at teen MySpace profiles, you’ll see common visual and textual tropes from friend-to-friend, throughout communities – maybe they all have sexy pictures of themselves, or ironic names, or use a certain font or have a certain widget.

Audience also comes into play. The cultural anxiety around teen profiles is often about parents or teachers seeing “backstage” identity performance where they’re used to seeing “frontstage” identity performance. When I was a naive MA student, I used my RealName in my MySpace profile, which severely embarassed me while I was visiting Northwestern and found that the current PhD students had looked up all the prospectives on MySpace. My bad! I tell my students that I don’t look at their Facebook profiles, and I really don’t. Although Facebook is fairly good about letting people set their privacy settings, the fact that Facebook originated from semi-closed student communities created certain cultural norms around university communities. We create profiles based on who we think will see them, which can be very different from the people who do see them.

4.SNS don’t care about you.
They care about you as an eyeball or as a creator of sticky time, but they don’t care about you. They just want you to stay on the site, tell them what bands you like, and ratchet up their numbers (pageviews, user accounts, clickthroughs). Merge your contact info, install their proprietary IM application, invite all your friends to join, create a really awesome profile that will encourage other people to spend more time on the site, provide more and more and more and more information that lets behavioral targeting get more and more and more and more “accurate”. But MySpace or Friendster or Hi5 or Bebo or Facebook would remove your favorite feature or block your favorite widget provider in a second if it threatened their profit model. They would disallow MySpace codes if they could. It’s all about the money; it’s not a free service. It’s a service insofar as it encourages you to stay on the site. It’s not about what’s the best experience for you or what’s the most fun or the most interesting.

I’m finishing up my paper for the JCMC about social networking sites and profit models. Look for more on that soon.

Identity 2.0 Talk

I was interviewed by Aldo Castaneda for his podcast “The Story of Digital Identity”, which will be released this week. As part of the podcast, I’ve released my PowerPoint and notes for the “Selling Your Self: Examining Values in Identity 2.0” presentation from the Identity & Identification conference at NYU in September.

This doesn’t reflect the many, many changes in the ID2.0 landscape since September, unfortunately. I’m working on a re-write of the piece which will be released to publication in a few months.


Marwick, A. (2006). “Selling Your Self: Examining Values in Identity 2.0.” Identity and Identification in a Networked World, New York University, New York, September 29-30.

links for 2007-02-22

links for 2007-02-21

What I’m Working On

Two new projects this semester:

1. To Catch a Predator? MySpace Moral Panics
I’m looking at rhetoric around “child protection” and the internet, tracing it through the CDA, to CIPA, COPA, and DOPA. I get to read lots of awesome history/sociology literature on moral panics and the construction of child abuse (see the Satanic daycare center witchhunts of the 80’s, etc.), and I get to weed through thousands of articles on how MySpace is sooo terrifying.

Note: has anyone noticed how all the moral panic discourse is rilly, rilly sexist? It’s always people freaking out about girls taking pix of themselves in bikinis, never about boys posting shirtless pictures online. That New York Magazine cover story last week, which for the most part I thought was pretty good, surveyed like 8 girls and one guy. I’m stoked on the recent barrage of stories about the oversexualization of young girls because I do think it’s a real problem, but I think this is very different from the MySpace moral panic discourse, which usually paints teen girls as wanton temptresses who turn on the wrong guy and then get hacked to death. Anyway. More on this as this project progresses.

2. Untitled project on Manhunt (potentially NSFW)
I’m beginning some ethnographic work on the gay hookup site Manhunt, so right now I’m basically just talking to people. I need ethnographic subjects! If you live in the NYC area and you use Manhunt to meet guys, email me. Likewise, if anyone else is working on this site, let me know. I know John Edward Campbell’s work on gay chat rooms, but any other citations would be really helpful.

Right now I’m finishing up a paper for the JCMC special issue on social networks. Once that’s done, I’m planning on a) putting a lot of my older work online in PDF form so people can use it, b) rewriting my ID2.0 paper in light of current situations and submitting that to a journal, maybe First Monday and c) getting ready for SXSW, which is going to be a blast. I’m speaking on “Combinatorial Media”, which is the creation of tactical media to be mashed up (see: Yahoo Feeds, etc.). If you’ll be around lemme know! I might also be going to Women, Action and the Media again since it was so much fun last year.

(Here’s my panel description. )

Incentivizing Creativity

Got into a juicy argument today in my Information Law & Policy class over the idea that dismantling the copyright system (bear with me) will prevent artists from making money off their works. This is the classic “incentive” argument in copyright law, which states that a limited time of monopoly ownership over information is necessary in order for the creator of the work to profit from it. In other words, I am Stephen King, I write The Stand, I get to reap the profits from it as long as I’m alive. Otherwise I might never write anything. (I’m ignoring the “creators will create no matter what” counter-argument because I think it’s kind of insulting; it may be true, but that doesn’t mean people should create out of pure artistic love and not get paid for it.)

So we have two ends of the spectrum here. Either copyright disappears, or copyright enforcement continues on its current path.

So let’s fiat first that copyright disappears. Poof. So how does Mr. King make money off this work?

All of a sudden, everyone can produce copies of The Stand and sell them. I’m unsure whether the costs to rival producers are really worth this effort, as I can already go into any used bookstore in the world and buy The Stand for about $3 US. Likewise, Lessig’s Code 2.0 is Creative Commons licensed, but nobody else has bothered to put it out as a book, as the printing and distribution cost is much higher than creating a wiki or a PDF.

But King could use the book as an incentive to get fans to pay for different kinds of work. For example, a patronage model to write chapters of a novel, an audiobook read by him, an autographed copy, or tickets to see him lecture. Maybe Stephen King t-shirts.

If Stephen King was, say, a tenured professor, he might write articles for free (as all professors do) and edit a journal for free (as some professors do, although few journal editors get paid) because this would enhance his reputation (or social capital) which, along the line, would convert to economic capital (tenure, a better appointment, a fancy chair).

(This is also analogous to IBM working on open-source software in order to charge the big bucks for software consulting.)

King could also create an edition that’s worth paying for due to its materiality. One of my friends just showed me the new Creatures box set – it’s beautiful and elaborate and definitely geared towards fans only. I could easily pirate a copy of it off my favorite private tracker, but a “real” fan will want the extras.

So let’s look at the other end of the spectrum. Continue using public resources (courts, police, etc.) to enforce copyrights.

King is a superstar, so he probably does get money from every sale of his work. But it’s not likely that your average small band fighting to get notice from their record company is really pulling in huge amounts of royalties. The effort that the record company might put out enforcing their copyright might not actually enhance the profits that the small band sees.

Instead, the small band would probably do better for itself going the OK Go route and writing MySpace messages to local promoters.

We also need to remember that it will only get easier and cheaper for people to get digital copies that are DRM-free. Right now, BitTorrent setup really does require tech savviness and a knowledgability about private trackers, search engines, et cetera. But that’s likely to change with sites like Oscar Torrents that are aimed squarely at your average Joe, if Joe is a reasonably smart fifteen year old.

Let’s say King decides that all of his work will be in some sort of magical DRM format that is extremely difficult to crack. Every time you open one of his books you have to key in a code, and without this code you can’t read the book.

Even if I heart King like nobody has ever hearted King before, this is going to piss me off. I’m likely to choose one of the many entertainment options that is not purposely crippled, or I’m going to get content from an author who’s giving it away for free to promote her work (like Cory Doctorow), or I’m going to find a pirated copy that is cracked. If you charge users for content, you have to make it better than what they can get for free. DRM is not better. It’s worse.

The model where the “incentive” for creativity is “selling your work to a big corporation who will dole out a tiny percentage of the profits to you” doesn’t work for anyone except big corporations. I defy anyone to look at the current climate in which people, far from only creating things for money, will create things that are ILLEGAL (mashup albums, parody trailers, etc.) and could get them fined enormous amounts of money just for fun, fame, or notoriety. There are plenty of ways to make money off creative works that don’t involve this model. Let’s not insult creators by propping up dead business models in the name of protecting artistry.

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links for 2007-02-12

Link roundup for February 10, 2007

WoW/LOTR-style nerdcore porn movies. Totally NSFW. The mainstreaming of geek culture continues. They sell shirts that say “I PWN B3WBS”.

John Edwards, Bloggers, and Democracy

The recent skuffle over John Edwards’ decision to hire the bloggers behind Pandagon and Shakespeare’s Sister illuminates the differences between the political blogosphere and the conventional mores of US politics. Bloggers, particularly young, leftist bloggers, tend to be irreverant, personal, and opinionated. US presidential politics tends to the bland and milquetoast – witness Gore distancing himself from Clinton, Kerry distancing himself from the anti-war movement and Bush distancing himself from reality-based thinking- and the kinds of strong opinions found in people’s blog archives aren’t considered appropriate for public consumption. One of the reasons Dean was so popular with the blogosphere was that his blowsy, aggressive rhetoric was in concordance with the way most liberal bloggers viewed Bush at the time.

I’m glad Edwards didn’t bow to extremist pressure and fire Amanda and Shakes, but the fact that both women had to back-pedal and apologize for their previous remarks demonstrates a certain lack of, shall we say, balls on the part of the Edwards campaign.

At some point, people need to call out so-called “Christians” on their involvement in politics while still happily claiming 501(c) status as non-profit, non-political organizations. I fully support your right to worship in any way you want. But legislating religious morality on others, such as the display of the Ten Commandments, outlawing gay marriage, promoting abstinence-only education and campaigning against the HPV vaccine, goes far beyond personal spirituality. My mother is a committed Christian and I was raised Christian; I am not anti-Christian. But I am against strategic promotion of particular political viewpoints under the guise of Christianity.

Bill Donohue may be Catholic, but his group sure doesn’t represent most Catholics, and he’s very selective about which anti-Catholic comments bother him. It’s also clear that “taking offense” is a political strategy. Extremist right-wingers will jump all over any suggestion of leftist bias against Christians, but will ignore Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter’s horribly racist remarks about Muslims, calls for the death of liberals, etc., and will make apologies for charming anti-semites like Mel Gibson.

Here’s a remark from Donahue himself:

“The gay community has yet to apologize to straight people for all the damage that they have done.” – MSNBC, Scarborough Country, 4/11/05

Lovely! What a religious man.

Anyway, getting back to the blogosphere: I finished Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks a few weeks ago and I’ve been musing over his claims that participatory culture will improve democracy. I loved the book and I like all of Benkler’s enthusiasm and positive thinking, but I really don’t think that the blogsophere, especially when he’s mostly talking about Daily Kos and Talking Points Memo, is really having an enormous effect on democracy per se.

What’s “democracy”? We don’t live in a direct democracy, we live in a republic. By “democracy”, most people mean “increased participation”. Does the blogosphere actually increase political participation in meaningful ways, or does it just increase the number of people who can talk about politics in the public arena? Sure, I know all the Habermasian theory about the public sphere. But I’m not convinced that political blogging is having an effect that goes deeper than that.

I do think that political blogging is great for investigative journalism of certain topics— although it still requires legitimacy from the mass media in order to have a significant effect. Trent Lott’s pro-segregation remarks, for example, were ignored by the mass media, then harped on by the blogsophere, then picked up by the mass media, then actually impacted him. And now, several years later, he’s in the exact position he was previously in. I also think that political blogging is good for fund-raising and coordinating targeted activist efforts. Although, again, the anti-war movement has been one of the most organized leftist movements of the last two decades and has drawn enormous crowds to huge, record-breaking rallies, and has basically been ignored by the mass media until conventional media polls showed that the majority of Americans agreed with it (and I’m never convinced that pollsters are really getting representative samples; I think they skew too suburban/rural and leave out everyone without landlines, which is all my peer group).

The blogosphere operates in its own rarified atmosphere. Amanda and Shakes’ comments were par for the course for leftist political bloggers. The fact that Edwards was shocked– shocked!– to see such filth coming out of the mouths of nice young women (and let’s face it, the fact that they are women had a lot to do with this supposed offense and shock) just shows how out of touch mainstream politics and “blog politics” are.

Let’s not forget what the real problems in the political system over all the online hype.

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links for 2007-02-09

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