If you have ever walked through a door and just before you went through, you either straightened your dress, dusting off invincible specks or straightened an otherwise perfect tie, or smoothened or ruffled your hair, depending on what impression you wanted to create, then you have actively been engaged in the construction and presentation of yourself (Goffman, 1959). Although there is a difference in manifestation, individuals also engage in the construction of identity online.
In anonymity, individuals are able to construct and explore multiple identities online which may not be consistent with their offline identities.
This paper seeks to explore how users of Facebook construct self-identity in non-anonymity through impression management (ibid) and contends that even in non-anonymity individuals can still construct identities which may not be in tandem with their offline selves just as in anonymity. The construct is however, more on behavioural identities than on issues such as gender, race, age and nationalty which are commonly explored in anonymity.
Nobody knows you're a dog
With the advent of the internet and the rise in online environments, individuals found an avenue where they could construct and explore different identities which sometimes may not be in tandem with their identities in the physical world.
Earlier research on online identity focused on the construction of identity in anonymity. One could argue that this had been the trend because the nature of most internet communication in recent past was text based and as Valkenburg and Peter (2008) opine, low auditory and visual cues encourage identity exploration. A number of researchers have explored the construction of online identity in anonymity. Turkle (1995) provides insight on how the anonymity of MUDs (Multi-User Domains or Multi-User Dungeons) provides a platform for people to explore multiple self-identities, affecting ideas of self and machine. Furthermore, some researchers highlight the adverse effect of this. For example, Simpson (2005) focused on the manipulation of identity in cyberspace and how this can negatively affect children like in the case of pedophiles. Contrarily, others have looked on the positive aspects and need for anonymity for the propagation of free speech and privacy (Akdeniz, 2000).
Similarly, a large number of researchers have however argued in support of age, race and nationality as possible reasons for online anonymous identity exploration, however the most common and recurring argument explored by a number of researchers revolves around gender (Reid, 1995; Berman and Bruckman, 2001). Although some researchers have begun to call for a shift from an over-engagement with identity construction in anonymity to beyond anonymity as more and more, offline and online identities are becoming interwoven (Kennedy, 2006).
Stepping out of the closet
The concept and principles of web 2.0 can be said to be influential in the emerging cultural and social shift from anonymity to non-anonymity in the construction of identity online. This is so because internet sites that conform to Web 2.0 offer users greater opportunity for interactivity, participation and social networking amongst others (Flew, 2008). Social networking sites which are part of sites associated with web 2.0 are user generated content sites, this gives users the control and opportunity to construct and explore self-identity although without anonymity as the nature of these sites are such that anonymity erodes the purpose of membership to an extent, members therefore sign up with their real identities. Steiners’ (1993) popular cartoon with the caption ‘On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog’ is one anecdote whose truth is largely becoming obsolete. Some popular social networking sites include LinkedIn, created to foster business relations, Friendster, to foster romantic get together, Flickr for photography, Twitter for politics and Facebook, for friends, amongst others.
We shall however limit our scope in the exploration of how users construct self identity without anonymity to Facebook. Our choice springs from the popularity of the site as evidenced by the more than five hundred million active users worldwide, as recorded on Facebooks’(2011) factsheet.
Is Facebook two-faced?
[[size larger]]Originally created for college based students; however, it has expanded and membership is free and open to anyone above the age of thirteen. Facebook and the nature of Facebook (that of finding and keeping in touch with friends) encourages members to sign up using their real names and identities. It is worthy of note that members can set their privacy settings so as not to share any information with other users who are not expressly their friends but two major marks of identity are not subject to privacy, users name and gender. Nonetheless, we would acknowledge that some individuals sign up with an alias or an otherwise unknown identity, our interest however mainly revolves around how the majority of members who are non-anonymous construct self-identity.
Users’ profile picture (if one is uploaded) is often the first mark of identity perceived by Facebook friends and any other users who may deliberately search or stumble across their profile. The profile picture it would be argued has come to mean something of a power statement (Hogan, 2010). It could be a symbol, an animal, exotic architecture, a celebrity image, cartoon character or a personal picture. Whatever it may be, it is oftentimes carefully selected and chosen. Sometimes, the profile picture is specifically taken for the particular purpose of uploading it as a profile picture. An extreme instance of this practice is the case of a twenty year old man who fell to his death from a seven storey building while posing for a profile picture in the course of playing the game called ‘planking’(Dominczak, 2011). The game which gained popularity in Australia, requires individuals to lay face down in a board stiff position with arms by their sides and toes pointing down, no location is out of bounds and a disregard for personal safety is held in high esteem. The essence of the game is to upload the picture to Facebook.
Also key to the construction of self-identity on Facebook is the personal profile page which contains information including members’ current city, hometown, education and work, activities and interests, relationship status, philosophy, preferences in music, books, films and an ‘about me’ section. Although some Users judiciously fill in these information, one would argue that the information given may not necessarily be true of the individual but in a bid to present a front that is in tandem with how he/she wants to be assessed, the individual may manipulate the information for the benefit of his/her Facebook friends and potential unknown audience. Some users do not fill in all of the information or do not fill in anything at all, that in itself is a form of identity construction which the user is actively engaged in by not engaging in it (Goffman, 1959). For another user who may wish to check out such a person, coming up against this sort of wall may be mildly annoying.
Another tool of construction is the ‘wall’ in Facebook where users can post any material ranging from text to pictures to videos, these posts can be seen by all the people on their friend list and depending on their privacy settings, can also be seen by friends of friends, a very large number of people indeed. Drawing on Goffmans’ ideas, the wall can be likened to a stage where actors on Facebook put up performances for the sole benefit of their audience.
Based on the foregoing, one would argue that although users may tend to stay within the bounds of socially acceptable behavior, costruction of self-identity is still largely manipulated and therefore cannot be taken as a true representation of their identities. In a society where more and more our online and offline selves are becoming intertwined, the implications could have far reaching effects when for instance judgements are made of our offline selves based on our online identities like in the emerging trend of potential employers checking out potential employees on Facebook. (Smith and Kidder, 2010). A detailed exploration of these implications is however beyond the scope of this study but a good starting point for future research.
Construction of self-identity is one phenomenon which individuals have always indulged in, the coming of the internet only provided another platform for this. Cashing in on the nature of the internet, individuals took to the construction of identity in anonymity, exploring multiple identities. The emergence and culture of web 2.0 however necessitated a shift from anonymity to non-anonymity in signing up for membership in most popular internet sites, especially social networking sites. This study focused on users of Facebook and the different means by which they construct self-identity. It contends that in as much as interaction on Facebook is largely in non-anonymity, through active manipulation, individuals can still construct and explore identities which are different from their offline identities. The emphasis however would tend to shift from gender, age, race, nationality to more complex behavioural identities. An empirical study to measure the degree of consistency and/or departure between users’ offline and online identities is however suggested for deeper understanding.
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