Performing Identity in Social Media

As we develop our online community research platform here at Face, we’ve been asking a deceptively simple-looking question. Should people have usernames, or real names, or some mixture of both?

It sounds trivial, but in fact design decisions such as this can have substantial impacts on how people contribute to online communities. Should participants use real names, as clients choose this kind of research to get in touch with “real consumers”? Or – as danah boyd and Skud have argued (note their names!) – can real name policies be oppressive, as in the case of Google Plus? Might pseudonyms (a) help people talk more openly about difficult topics, and (b) be a more authentic representation of social media use in the wild, outside market research?

The bigger question here is one of identity.

Social media and social networks foreground this issue by the way that identities literally have to be written and created whenever we join a new group or network. Companies such as Facebook invite us to describe our identities within pre-defined categories – age, gender, location, favourite bands, favourite brands. Others such as Twitter, offer a 140-character blank box. Our updates and public messages then continue this process of producing an image of a certain kind of person – we tweet much more about things that make us look good than anything naff or mundane.

In an excellent blog post about this “identity work”, Jenny Davis (a PhD researcher in sociology at Texas A&M) concludes:

“1) the social construction of identity is a laborious process;
2) the labor of identity construction must remain unseen; and
3) the architecture of social media asks us to present ourselves in explicit ways.
A tension is therefore created between the prevalence of interaction media which facilitate explicit self construction, and the appearance of a self, constructed through such media, that must appear to have organically emerged.”

Jenny Davis, ‘Identity Work and the Authentic Cyborg Self’

A very interesting argument – but one potentially resting on two implications that need to be questioned:

  1. How hidden is identity construction?
  2. Are identity construction and authenticity really diametrically opposed?

Two distinctive features of digital life in 2011 are Lady Gaga, and self-branding blogs. Both seek to project a certain image in order to produce a particular reaction from people – fame and career success respectively. This method – “fake it to make it”, if you will – is backed up by the sociological concept of performativity.

Social theorist Judith Butler argues that our speech and actions (performance) produce what people understand as our identities and social norms:

“Butler [explores] the ways that linguistic constructions create our reality in general through the speech acts we participate in every day. By endlessly citing the conventions and ideologies of the social world around us, we enact that reality; in the performative act of speaking, we “incorporate” that reality by enacting it with our bodies, but that “reality” nonetheless remains a social construction. […]
In the act of performing the conventions of reality, by embodying those fictions in our actions, we make those artificial conventions appear to be natural and necessary. By enacting conventions, we do make them “real” to some extent (after all, our ideologies have “real” consequences for people) but that does not make them any less artificial.”

Dino Felluga, “Modules on Butler: On Performativity” in Introductory Guide to Critical Theory.

Butler makes the post-structuralist argument that the distinction between “real” and “constructed” identities is a misnomer – the ‘real us’ is something we perform and construct. Bringing this back to social media research, the question is how far might our research participants agree that the same is true for their online identities?

We can start by asking people what choices they have made in (a) setting up their social media profiles, and (b) in deciding what content to share on a daily basis. What may be most revealing is asking people what they choose not to mention – e.g. only mentioning your activity or location if it’s interesting and a bit braggable; not sharing links to the Daily Mail horoscopes (which you’ve actually been reading for the last 10 minutes) but rather a breaking piece of news about some new Silicon Valley start-up.

Every professional on Twitter, in particular, is making daily choices about the balance of personal and industry-relevant content they want to present. This is seen as normal and good practice, counter to the idea that the work of identity construction is supposed to remain hidden. This “conscious performativity” is most visible in the case of Lady Gaga – and legions of fame-hungry contestants on reality TV shows – who take calculated self-construction to an extreme, presenting conceptualised, mediatised packages where artifice becomes very much the point.

If people acknowledge the effort they put into presenting their online identities, what does this mean for authenticity? Empirically we can see that authenticity is still valued in people’s online identities – “self-branding” is fairly widely mocked (at least in the UK) for encouraging fake and pushy personas online. But how can identity be authentic and yet also constructed and performed? Why does Lady Gaga insist that she was “born this way”?

The issue is what we mean by “being authentic”. Being “made” is acceptable – what is at stake is the sincerity of our identities. Erving Goffman’s classic text on performed identities, The Construction Of Self in Everyday Life (1959), makes this point clearly:

“When an individual plays a part he implicitly requests his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them. They are asked to believe that the character they see actually possesses the attributes he appears to possess, that the task he performs will have the consequences that are implicitly claimed for it, and that, in general, matters are what they appear to be.”
Erving Goffman, 1959

An insincere or cynical performance violates the trust required for social interaction, hence its taboo nature.

Finally, it is important to note that we can be authentic in different ways in different contexts. For example, James is an honest man and also kind. At the funeral of his wicked uncle, he will not be honest about his thoughts about the deceased, in order to be kind to the feelings of the rest of his family. As Erving Goffman highlights, the performance is specific to the stage where it occurs – our identities are not socially universal.

To sum up, this results in a conception of identity departing from Davis’s:

  1. the social construction of identity is a laborious process;
  2. we are aware that this labour of construction occurs, and do not demand self-making to be invisible
  3. nonetheless authenticity is still required, specifically in the sense of sincerity
  4. authenticity depends on context

So what are the implications for online research communities? A few suggestions:

1. Participants need a space where they can determine the social context for their community and construct the appropriate identities. Researchers do this with initial getting-to-know-you tasks, asking people to introduce themselves to the community, but research communities don’t tend to offer much more than this – which potentially results in ‘thinner’, less fleshed-out identities and interactions between the group. Allowing people spaces to share “irrelevant” content, e.g. in status updates, general chat or personal blogs, provides the necessary space for people to build ‘thicker’, deeper identities – and also provides more interpersonal information to help participants come together as a community.

2. Should your community use an external ID provider, e.g. Facebook? No, as this will bringswith it a pre-determined social context that may not be appropriate for the community you’re trying to build. (e.g. LinkedIn IDs won’t get people in the right frame of mind for a community about parenting.)

3. In an ongoing community, let people choose and change their userIDs, display names and avatars between projects, as a way of helping them foreground the relevant social identity (e.g. as student, or mum, or twentysomething, or Italian) for the project at hand.

4. Clients may want to see “real names”, but this may not necessarily be the most appropriate and relevant identity to foreground – some social groups (e.g. video gamers, sports teams) are strongly nickname-based.

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