Social Signifiers on Social Networking Sites

On: October 31, 2009
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About Thomas Wielemaker
Graduate of UvA's MA in New Media New Media and Digital Culture, Thomas Wielemaker currently works as new media strategist whilst also pursuing his interests in information visualization.


The days when ‘fellas’ in high school gave their gals their class rings to establish their relationships are long gone and in its place dudes are getting away with simply changing their relationships statuses on Facebook or MySpace when they “bag a chick.” Today, Joe Schmoe likes to show everyone in his profile picture that he drives a BMW, or his brief encounter with a celebrity or sports star hoping that it might trigger some interest in his profile. As our lives are moved increasingly to the web by way of social networks, personal websites, and blogs so are our social signifiers. Social signifiers are those things that stand for something else, to someone in a social capacity. Don Norman, professor of cognitive science at Northwestern University, defines them as “something that is either created or interpreted by people or society, signifying social activity or appropriate social behavior. In the realm of online social networks, as research is suggesting, these clues can lead peers to make a variety of conclusions about each other. So, how does profile information inform us of a person’s social standing among his or her peers? How are the perceptions people have of us being skewed by the content on our social networking pages and how is our behaviour changing in light of these developments? Are we ignoring important traditions and behaviours by digitizing our every thought and emotion?

In an article by the New York Times, “On Facebook, Scholars Link Up With Data,” Stephanie Rosenbloom tracks the progress researchers at Harvard, UCLA, University of Colorado, Carnegie Mellon, Penn State, Tufts, University of Texas and others are making on analyzing the different uses of Facebook. One of the biggest questions being asked by these scientist is the “degree to which taste determines friendship, or to which friendship determines taste.” Each bit of information that people post to their profiles can be seen as a mini status symbol that may influence who engages with that person. Danah Boyd has studied how social networks themselves have different social implications as divides arise along socio-economic lines between sites like Facebook and MySpace.

Although sites like Facebook and MySpace promised to offer a higher degree of social transparency it may stand to reason that information on social networking sites is being tweaked or fabricated to communicate social signifiers that are seen as more or less favorable in order to attract more attention and influence one’s own popularity. However, popularity on social netwroking sites is not necessarily measured by sheer number of friends or contacts. Researchers at Penn State have already studied how the number of friends a person has influences how that person is perceived. People with a high number of friends are seen as popular while those with “too many” friends, 800 or more, are seen as insecure. Could other information be quantified to reflect perceptions of user profiles?

This study is, essentially, about the establishment of social capital at the cost of eroding more traditional forms of social interaction, favoring efficient and immediate browsing through categorized text rather than face to face interaction and a higher, albeit sometimes artificial, control of a social space.



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