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.