The Construction of an Online (Facebook) Identity

On: September 28, 2009
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About Charlotte Hendriks
Now a Bachelor of Arts, Charlotte has mainly focused on new media throughout her academic career. At the University of Amsterdam she started the Media & Culture BA in 2006 and earned the degree mid 2009. Apart from studying New Media, she also focused on Art History, Philosophy and Science and Technology Studies. This year she is aiming to earn my Master Degree in New Media, also at the University of Amsterdam.

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The web has become something other than the illusive place where we can get as much information as we want at all times. More than a knowledge database, the Internet has transformed into a place where we can not only extend information, but also extend ourselves.

Social Networking sites have taken a huge jump in user numbers in the past few years. Comscore reports enormous growths over the past couple of years, even compared to the growth of Internet use in general. The global use of the Internet grew with 11% in the period of June 2007 to June 2008 (from 778,310,000 unique users to 860,514,000 unique users).  The Social Networking use has had an even more dramatic growth: from 464,437,000 unique visitors in June 2007 to 580,510,000 unique visitors in June 2008. Of these Social Networking Site Facebook is the biggest, with 132,105,000 unique visitors in June 2008. Interestingly, the numbers show that Social Networking is most popular number wise in the Asia Pacific, with Europe coming in as a good second.

These numbers are interesting, mainly because Social Networking seems to me to be the most personal web application to date. More than any other form of Internet applications, Social Networking Sites invite the user to add a little part of themselves onto the World Wide Web. And, according to the numbers as shown above, that is exactly what people want. What interests me about the whole Social Networking revolution though, is the way people choose to represent themselves online. Sure, first and foremost Social Networking can be seen as an extension of the human into cyberspace and as such might mean a one on one conversion of the actual self into cyberspace. However, this is not possible. We cannot yet completely transform ourselves into digital data and therefore won’t be able to make that exact copy of ourselves. Instead, we make ourselves online, just the way we think fits.

And here we get to the point of this blog: the way people choose their representations online. Because that is what in fact one does: one makes choices as to which interests to display, which photos to upload and who to befriend. Let’s use the world of Facebook to illustrate this further. Apart from the obstacles named above (interests, pictures and friends) one has the ability to join groups and pages on the Facebook platform. Here is where it gets tricky, for which groups to join in order to represent yourself the way you want to be represented? The groups one signs up for are on the exact same page as one’s personal information, and are therefore in the same realm as Basic Information (name, sex etc.) and Contact Information.

Here I would like to turn to an article published by First Monday in which Linda Gallant et. al. describe the five heuristics a Social Networking Site’s design should take into consideration. Of these five – interactive creativity; selection hierarchy; identity construction; rewards and costs; and, artistic forms – the third is most applicable here. Gallant et. al. write: “In order for people to engage in a lively manner, recognition and organizing of common interests, backgrounds, demographic groupings are important. Users can gravitate toward others with similarities.” One then does not just join a group in order to be in a group, but to engage to other users. One might conclude that online construction of identity is not so much an online construction of one’s person, but of one’s friendships. In order to contact others, one has to create a self online that wants to be contacted. So, even more than in the actual world, online representation is affected by the way people judge and want to be judged.

References

Comscore. ‘Social Networking Explodes Worldwide as Sites Increase Their Focus on
Cultural Relevance: Facebook and Hi5 More Than Double Global Visitor Bases
During Past Year’. (12 August 2008).

Gallant, Linda M. et. al. ‘Five heuristics for designing and evaluating Web-based online communities’. First Monday, vol. 12, nr. 3 (5 March 2007).

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