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Identity, once an elusive concept, is now expressed constantly online.
We introduced this book with me. Now we move on to you – all of you, through whom culture passes and takes new shape. You are a huge part of social media – but what are the factors that come together to make you into you? is an iteration of the self that links individuals with how they are perceived by others. Identity combines how you see yourself and how others see you, in an endless riff that becomes your positioning in publics and in the world.
Being a kid in an era where technology is constantly available in a variety of forms is a fairly new concept. Even going back one generation to my parents, their childhood looked completely different and that is due to the lack of technology that they had when they were growing up. I wouldn’t say that I have had an advantage or a disadvantage from growing up with technology, but once social came into the picture, everything changed.
Throughout my life, I have been a participant in a number of different forms of social media. My favorites have always been Snapchat and Instagram because these are the platforms that the majority of people my age use to connect and I love being able to keep up with what they are up to.
I remember when people my age started to get phones and would ask me for my number so they could text me after school. I didn’t have a phone yet and frankly, I wasn’t that interested in getting one. I didn’t understand the appeal of texting someone when I could just go hang out with them in person. As I got older I started to participate in various different social media and I quickly saw the draw. It was the quickest and easiest way to connect with everyone my age whether or not I was friends with them. At first, I saw no flaws in the world of social media. To me, it seemed like a harmless way to get to know people. However, this opinion did not last long.
As I got older and older I realized that social media can take a real toll on mental health. I was spending countless hours a day scrolling through Instagram looking at people’s perfectly staged pictures and comparing these pictures to myself. It made it really hard to feel confident in myself when everyone else looked perfect online. I started to feel like I needed to post pictures that other people would like rather than post pictures that I loved. Social media abruptly changed from a way of keeping up with friends, to a place where I felt I constantly needed to impress people. It got to the point where my identity on social media was being compromised because I was afraid to show my true self. Although I was in touch with my friends, I didn’t feel like they were seeing the real me and I was not seeing their true self either.
Luckily these past few years people have been more open about talking about how social media can oftentimes only show people at their best. Once I heard people start to validate this idea that social media doesn’t always show the real truth, it became easier for me to feel confident in what I was posting and care less about what other people were posting.
I have also had countless good experiences with social media. Being able to be social with my friends when I am not able to physically be with them has made it easy to stay close with them especially this past year with social distancing. Aside from the social aspect, I have been able to bring certain aspects of social media into my education. For example, I was able to create a Tik Tok to make a fun and informative video for my physiology class. To me, this was much more engaging for myself and the class and ultimately allowed me to understand the content that I was learning on a deeper level. I also have loved social media for the social aspect
Taking into account the pros and cons of social media, I am still very grateful that I was able to have this resource while I was growing up. I think that my experience with social media will be a great asset for my future career because it has made me very familiar with many different types of technology. Social media taught me a lot of valuable tools and lessons that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
About the Author
I am Ally Hendricks and I am 18 years old. I am currently a freshman at the University of Arizona and I am from El Dorado Hills, California.
Respond to this case study… In the sentence “It got to the point where my identity on social media was being compromised because I was afraid to show my true self,” the author highlights one way the relative anonymity of social media can be harmful. How can staying anonymous (or limiting how much of yourself you share with the world) harm one’s personal identity? How can it strengthen it?
Next step: Create a profile
Let’s imagine that you were told that you must create a to continue reading this book or get a grade associated with it. Who would you be? I imagine many of you would reply, “Well I’m not sure yet. Who is the profile for?” The audiences or with you intend to interact shape your identity at any given time.
If the profile you are creating is simply for other students and instructors in the class you are taking, perhaps you’d craft the profile to reflect student teams or organizations you are part of; or perhaps you would keep it vague, if the student community on your campus feels large or impersonal. Compare that to the profile you might craft for a professional site, like LinkedIn, and you might see distinct differences. When students in my courses share LinkedIn profiles they often look very different from the same students’ profiles in our Course Management System (CMS). On our CMS students upload small, fuzzy photos if they upload photos at all, whereas on LinkedIn those same students look directly at the camera, proudly wear suits, and boast of their accomplishments. In class, they want to blend in; but when applying for jobs, they want to stand out.
And now compare your student and professional profile to the profile you might use in online dating. Is it different? I imagine so! Perhaps the focus moves to looking attractive and inviting to attract those you are interested in.
Case Study: “Reptiles and Guns”
Finding Community, Finding Identity
is a very important concept in the social media world. Social media allows the users to share as much or as little as they want to about themselves and their life. Whether it be pictures and videos of a trip someone took or a tweet about someone’s favorite sports team, it allows people to show the world who they are, without having to show it in person. Some people like to share their hobbies and interests over social media, sometimes having sports clips of themselves or videos of themselves playing guitar. A perfect example is my roommate Shaun, who in middle school would post pictures of different reptiles and assortments of heavy military weaponry. This was out of the norm of what kids in the middle school age group would post about, thus leading to Shaun being made fun of by his peers and subsequently no longer posting things he was personally interested in. Reflecting on this story really made me realize how much someone’s social media presence can affect their real life and tendencies. The people in the young adult age group now mostly only post about things they’re doing with their friends or families, such as trips and adventures, along with more personal posts about people that are very important to them, such as anniversaries or birthdays.
There is not as much casual posting on social media as there once was, which really goes to show the that exists among young people today. People tend to be much more careful about what they post online and what they keep to themselves. With a crazy world around us and cancel culture in full force, some people feel that if they share their opinion online, they’ll be ostracized by their peers. Along with opinions, people want to have a cool look on their social media in general, and won’t post pictures of their stuffed animals but instead of their recent trip to Hawaii. It’s amazing how obsessed with “likes” people tend to be online, and the desire for online validation by one’s peers has never been higher. People want to post good-quality photos in order to maximize the activity on their posts.
This concept goes hand in hand with online . The ability to choose what people can and can’t know about you from your online persona has changed the way social media is seen and used. A lot of people I know, myself included, take advantage of the privacy options given by various social media platforms. The most relevant examples I can think of, that seem to be used most frequently by my peers are the private story feature of Snapchat, and the private account feature of Instagram. Both of these features restrict who can see posted content on the user’s account. In my experience, I have found that private accounts and stories are where people really share personal information, as the people following the accounts or being hand-selected to be on the stories are close personal friends of the users (in most cases).
This course= has really made me reflect on privacy and what I want my online presence to say about me. I believe that it’s best to keep a public social media account family-friendly and more on the professional side, especially because it’s possible that future employers will be looking into social media to run a virtual background check on a person. I do believe, however, that private accounts are great because it’s great to have a place to post fun things that may be more personal and not meant to be seen by a large audience.
About the Author
My name is Jack Doneux. I’m from San Diego, California. I love music producing, snowboarding, spending time with my friends, and partying. Avid dye player and drip enthusiast.
Respond to this case study… The author describes privacy settings as one tool users can employ to “choose what people can and can’t know” about their online persona. Is someone’s persona or identity the same in every context? When might it be beneficial to limit what other people see of your persona? When might it be detrimental?
You may find your self-presentation of your identity is limited or enhanced by what options or features the platform you use offers. These are : cues in an environment that communicate how to interact with features or things in that environment and that can also communicate to others. A button affords being pushed; snapchat’s snap streaks afforded keeping a visible running count of two people’s interactions with one another. Affordances can also be expanded, as they often are by users in social media platforms. For example, many platforms that do not afford the claiming of gender identities other than male or female find users exploiting creative ways to express gender fluidity.
Of course, users of social media are not always seeking to express their most “realistic” selves. Some platforms are desirable to users because they afford fantasy filters or the trappings of other identities. Video game avatars offer compelling examples of profiles that embody other lives and beings. But does that mean you don’t spend much time designing that avatar, since it’s “not you?” Of course not; it has become standard in the gaming industry to charge significant sums for downloadable content to customize your avatar or “skin” – because your avatar is you, for one or more gaming publics. And that avatar and profile will influence how people treat you in-game; they constitute your in-game identity.
Below: “Outsourcing” the labor of expressing yourself online to other types of identities is common…and complicated.
Who are you? Offline? Online? Across modalities?
Like the concept of information, identity is a notion that used to be amorphous and philosophical. You couldn’t easily set “identity” apart from the human to whom the identity belonged. Today, though, humans try to project every unseen aspect of our lives onto the binary-minded digital world. And that means the formerly shapeless concept of identity has to take shape, and if we want it to represent us online, we have to know what we want and put it out there.
As a human, you don’t just have one identity, or even one online identity and also one offline identity. Our legal world and policies from platforms like Facebook may limit people into having one identity, but in life, both online and offline, we play many roles and thus have many identities.
Two theorists have given us important tools to understand these identity roles, although both theorists began writing about these roles before the internet drew so many of us to craft identities online.
Backtrack to the 1950s. Social roles in North America were rigid. Then the sociologist Erving Goffman put forward a whole new way of looking at identity in his 1956 book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (see overview in the video embedded below). Goffman wrote that we are all actors on a “,” who play particular roles to create our identities and that these roles change as we interact with different people and situations. He also wrote that our selves can only really be understood when we look at all of the roles we play.
Then the cultural critic and feminist theorist Judith Butler advanced and honed the notion of identity roles in her 1990 book Gender Trouble (overview in the video embedded below), focusing on the roles that define gender. Butler’s theories introduced the notion that gender itself is our playing of roles like “boy,” “girl,” “man,” and “woman,” rather than these being “natural” or connected to our biologies. Butler’s concept of says that roles like gender are only constructed through our performances of them; they would not exist without our acting them into existence.
If these theories have truth in them – and I believe they do – what does this mean for our identities online? Well, our online identities offer some additional evidence that gender and other social roles are constructed. Many early internet adopters were thrilled at the possibilities of expressing themselves without being defined by their bodies. But what we have learned from maturing of the internet – aided by Goffman’s and Butler’s theories – is that humans’ “selves” have never existed only in or on our bodies. We perform our selves into existence. And so when we perform ourselves into being online, we carry much of that same old offline, embodied baggage with us
What if the profile I asked you to create above would be seen on multiple social media sites? What if you learned the profile would be associated with both your dating and your LinkedIn profiles? And also visible to your network where you connect with family? If this idea makes you feel uncomfortable, you are experiencing the threat of context collapse. is when the different contexts or worlds you associate with overlap or become mixed together. Friends snicker at an embarrassing comment your mother makes in reply to your photo online. A job recruiter sees an Instagram photo of you partying and decides not to recruit you.
Context collapse is a constant danger as our online identities proliferate. In her research, new media scholar danah boyd found that teens develop strategies for dealing with context collapse, including using coded language to communicate. It is also common practice for people to try to keep their social media accounts separate and hide some details or even entire accounts from specific people and publics (as we’ll discuss in more detail in Chapter 3).
What keeps us using platforms even when our interactions feel uncomfortable or compromising? Well, , which means that the more the platform is used – the more often we go there to interact with family, or friends, or customers, or all of these – the more valuable it becomes.
When my ‘professor’ and ‘mother’ roles overlap
I deal with context collapse too. As a professor of social media, I encourage my students to embrace their online experiences as part of their real worlds; in this professor role, I recognize the value in online interactions. And then I head home from class to find my teenaged son or daughter has been on social media for hours. I freak out. Enough screen time! I shout. I don’t care what you’re doing on there!
It feels hypocritical that I behave so differently in these two roles. So why do I do it? I ask myself this a lot, but I only have tentative answers; they have to do with what I perceive as distinct responsibilities in each role I play. When I teach, I don’t want my students to shut me out; I know from experience that they are only willing to examine their online interactions in my class when they feel comfortable I’m not judging them. But my job as a mother is not to help my son understand his online life. My job is to keep him safe and healthy, and when he spends too much time in virtual worlds, his safety and health slip out of my control.
Why context collapse is more extreme online
You could say I am getting off easy with my own professor-mother context collapse. My mother role is mostly an offline role, so context collapse between my mother and professor roles online is not frequent, and it doesn’t last forever online. Whatever roles you feel the need to keep distinct in your life, it is likely their online expressions that you worry about the most. There are that danah boyd emphasizes are far more pronounced than they would be offline (It’s Complicated, pg. 11). They are:
persistence: online content and expressions can last for a very long time
: many audiences and publics may be able to see what you post over time
: it’s nearly effortless to share content posted online
: content posted online can be searched for
The four affordances identified by boyd raise the stakes of online context collapse and communication in general. When we consider who controls our data, and what we agree to when we agree to use their services, it can be especially chilling to realize how easily what we express online might become visible to unintended audiences. They may spread this information to other publics, who will be able to search and find it easily. Finally, this threat will persist for a very long time.
Core Concepts and Questions
identity is an iteration of the self that links individuals with how they are perceived by others
sociologist Erving Goffman wrote in his 1956 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life that we are all actors on a “social stage,” who play particular roles to create our identities, and that these roles change as we interact with different people and situations. Our selves can only really be understood when we look at all of the roles we play
in her 1990 book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler’s concept of performativity says that roles like gender are only constructed through our performances of them; they would not exist without our acting them into existence
context collapse is when the different contexts or worlds you associate with overlap or become mixed together
a concept meaning that the more the platform is used, the more valuable it is – because the more likely it is where we go to interact with family, or friends, or customers, or all of these. A shorthand definition is “the more, the merrier”
signals or cues in an environment that communicate how to interact with features or things in that environment
there are four affordances of online communication that danah boyd emphasizes are far more pronounced than in offline communication (It’s Complicated, pg. 11). They are: persistence (online content and expressions can last for a very long time), visibility (many audiences and publics may be able to see what you post over time), spreadability (it’s nearly effortless to share content posted online), and searchability (content posted online can be searched for)
…AND don’t forget that each of the 4 affordances of networked communication is a core concept and glossary term!
A. Questions for qualitative thought:
In what ways have a social media platform’s affordances on how you can present your identity felt restrictive to you? If you were in charge, how would you rewrite them?
Write about an example of context collapse you have seen or experienced online. Who were the intended publics, or audiences, or each presentation of self involved? How did the situation end up?
Consider one or more aspects of yourself that do not feel like they have places to be expressed online. What is happening with these aspects of yourself that cannot be expressed online? How does it feel? Envision and describe or map out a platform where this type of expression can be shared.
B. Review: Which is the best answer?
Scholarly Sources on Identity (cited in APA):
boyd, d. (2013). White flight in networked publics. How race and class shaped American teen engagement with MySpace and Facebook. In L. Nakamura & PA Chow-White (Eds.), Race after the internet, 203-222. Find in Google Scholar
Pitcan, M., Marwick, A. E., & boyd, d. (2018). Performing a vanilla self: Respectability politics, social class, and the digital world. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 23(3), 163-179. Find in Google Scholar
About these sources: Racial and cultural identities are expressed online through everything from choice of platform to user language choices. These articles use interviews and observation of online environments to unpack how such choices culminate in cultural coding of online spaces and performances.
Read it: Internet Society’s Understanding Your Online Identity
The organization Internet Society, or internetsociety.org, was founded in 1992 to manage and guide technical and social standards for internet use. Today they are “a global cause-driven organization …dedicated to ensuring that the Internet stays open, transparent and defined by you.”
Online identity can be viewed through many lenses. The internet society has dived deeply into online identity through the lens of technical infrastructure, and found that not only public policy, but public education is essential in managing identity-related data collection and privacy online.
Click here to open the short reading “Understanding Your Online Identity” by InternetSociety.org, then highlight the passages you find useful. Be sure you understand the terms below.
The complete set of characteristics that define you
Name, nicknames, birth date and any other unique characteristics that com- bined make you who you are
A way of referring to a set of characteristics
Your email address (myID@me.com) or user name (RaulB) or an account number (7633)
A subset of the characteristics that make up your identity
Demographic information about you or any purchase history is stored in your account at a website
Profile (according to InternetSociety.org)
Information collected by others about your actions and characteristics. (See also chapter definition.)
A search you conducted for “discount shoes” or a list of websites visited
A partial identity created by you to represent yourself in a specific situation
A social network account or your online blog
Hear It: “Timelessness” from the Social Media and Ourselves podcast
Listen to / read the transcript of this second episode of the podcast Social Media and Ourselves, “Timelessness.” Then consider: What were or are your past “selves” captured on social media? If they can still be found online, are you comfortable with that? If not, imagine you had the power to right this situation from the tech side. How would you change things. Envision making changes not only so that these past selves no longer haunt you online, but so that the shame of a past self online does not affect so many younger people in the future.
An iteration of the self that links individuals with how they are perceived by others
An ecosystem that connects people and companies while retaining control over the terms of these connections and ownership of connection byproducts such as data
A selective presentation of your identity online. This term can also refer to information collected by others about your actions and characteristics and without your knowledge or intention, such as data drawn from a search you conduct or a series of websites you've visited.
people paying sustained attention to the same thing at the same time
An iteration of the self that links individuals with how they are perceived by others.
Context collapse is when the different contexts or worlds you associate with overlap or become mixed together.
This section includes contributions by guest authors who are graduate students or whose work was made available through Creative Commons.
signals or cues in an environment that communicate how to interact with features or things in that environment
Sociologist Erving Goffman wrote in his 1956 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life that we are all actors on a "social stage," who play particular roles to create our identities, and that these roles change as we interact with different people and situations. Our selves can only really be understood when we look at all of the roles we play.
This concept from Judith Butler's her 1990 book Gender Trouble asserts that roles like gender are only constructed through our performances of them; they would not exist without our acting them into existence.
A concept meaning that the more the platform is used, the more valuable it is - because the more likely it is where we go to interact with family, or friends, or customers, or all of these. A shorthand definition is "the more, the merrier."
There are four affordances of online communication that danah boyd emphasizes are far more pronounced than in offline communication (It's Complicated, pg. 11). They are: persistence (online content and expressions can last for a very long time), visibility (many audiences and publics may be able to see what you post over time), spreadability (it's nearly effortless to share content posted online), and searchability (content posted online can be searched for.)
the affordance that online content and expressions can last for a very long time
the affordance that many audiences and publics may be able to see what you post over time
the affordance that it's nearly effortless to share content posted online; the ability for media to be spread to many people, who may then choose to use, modify, and/or spread it further
content posted online can be searched for
the more the platform is used, the more valuable it is - because the more likely that platform is where we go to interact with family, or friends, or customers, or all of these
A way of referring to a set of characteristicsYour email address (myID@me.com) or user name (RaulB) or an account number (7633)
A subset of the characteristics that make up your identity. Example: Demographic information about you or any purchase history is stored in your account at a website.
A partial identity created by you to represent yourself in a specific situation. Example: A social network account or your online blog