Jennifer M. Jones MA Dissertation


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Jennifer M. Jones MA Dissertation

  1. 1. Department of Media and Communications: Incorporating the Centre for Mass Media Research.Social Networking and Identity:Understanding the Relationshipbetween and its Users’Notion of Sociality. Dissertation submitted for the degree MA (New Media and Society) 2007/208Word Count: 17,082Date: 27th of September 2008Candidate: Jennifer Mackenzie
  2. 2. Contents1. Introduction ……………………………… 6[1.1] Introduction ……………………………… 6[1.2] Social Network Sites: Definition 7[1.3] Introduction to Facebook 7[1.2] Aims and Rationale ……………………………… 8[1.3] Research Questions ……………………………… 92. Literature Review 11[2.1] Wellman’s Network Analysis Theory ……………………………… 11[2.2] Strong and Weak Ties ……………………………… 13[2.3] Role-to-role Networks ……………………………… 14[2.4] Online Egocentric Networks ……………………………… 16[2.5] The Virtual Community ……………………………… 17[2.6] The Virtual Identity ……………………………… 18[2.7] Online Identity Management ……………………………… 21[2.8] Social Networking Website Research ……………………………… 223. Methodology 27[3.1] Discussion of Methods ……………………………… 27[3.2] Sampling ……………………………… 30[3.3] Procedure ……………………………… 31[3.4] Focus Group Questions ……………………………… 32[3.5] Ethical Considerations 334. Discussion of Results 34[4.1] Self Disclosure ……………………………… 34[4.2] Identifiability ……………………………… 42[4.3] Strength of Network and Ties ……………………………… 45[4.4] Use of FB for Relationship ……………………………… 49Maintenance 2
  3. 3. 5. Summary of Focus Groups 55[5.1] Dynamicity ……………………………… 56[5.2] Offline Contextualisation ……………………………… 56[5.3] Abundance of Weak Ties ……………………………… 56[5.4] Social Networking as a Database ……………………………… 57[5.5] Summary of Methods ……………………………… 586. Conclusions and Reflections 60[6.1] Overview ……………………………… 60[6.2] Research Questions Revisited ……………………………… 60[6.3] Limitations and Recommendations ……………………………… 61Appendixes 63[i] Adobe Connect Pro Screen Capture ……………………………… 63[ii] Exemplary Facebook Profile ……………………………… 64[iii] Overview of Focus Group ……………………………… 65Bibliography ……………………………… 66 3
  4. 4. Abstract.Social networking sites (SNS), such as, are becomingincreasingly part of the daily landscape of their users – allowing them toorganise and maintain their social lifes from within the software itself. Basedon data collected from focus groups discussing aspects of self-disclosure,identifiability, network strength and ties and relationship maintenance, thisstudy investigates what influence Facebook has on the user - in terms of theirideas of sociality. Findings suggest that Facebook users’ are aware of thedynamic nature of profile construction, where they are conscious of who hasaccess to view their profile - mostly due to the offline contextualisation that isrequired for Facebook to work for them successfully. Furthermore, users withan abundance of weaker ties (such as class mates, work colleagues andfriends-of-friends), feel that Facebook provides an accessible and reliabledatabase of contacts – avoiding the need to share personal contact details,such as a mobile phone number or a home address. 4
  5. 5. 1. IntroductionSince their introduction around ten years, social networking websites (SNS),such as Facebook, Myspace and Bebo, have been attracting the attention ofmillions of users, academics and industry researchers alike (boyd and Ellison,2007: 1). Most of the sites are designed to support pre-existing offline socialnetworks, whilst offering the ability for participants to connect to new peoplebased on shared interests and activities. As SNSs can be characterised bytheir ability to “enable users to articulate and make visual their socialnetworks” (boyd and Ellison, 2007: 2), academic researchers have beenintrigued by the transformative potential that SNSs may have on society andthe emerging social protocols that have occurred from SNSs’ increasingnumber of regular users who are integrating the platforms into their daily lifes. A page on Myspace, filled with flashing logos, obscure comments, poorly focused yet revealing photographs and laced with twinkling animated gifs, may not look to the casual observer like the harbinger of the next stage of human social evolution. But perhaps it is. (Donath, 2007: 2)Although Donath considers present SNSs primitive, the author presents atheoretical framework in order to assess to the transformative potential ofSNS and attempts to define guidelines for making social networking websitesmore effective social tools. (Donath, 2007: 2) Furthermore, SNSs haveprovoked questions ranging from identity construction and expression, to theprocess of building and maintaining social networks, to notions of relationshipmaintenance- online and offline. (Hargittai, 2007; Stefanone and Jang, 2007)[1.1] Social Network Sites: A Definition 5
  6. 6. Generally, SNS are defined as a web-based service that allows the user tobuild, maintain and frequently update a public (or semi-public) interactiveprofile page within the boundary of the website, through which they canarticulate a list of other users’ profile pages in which they share a connectionwith (boyd and Ellison, 2007: 2). An important factor affecting the proliferationof SNS is the ease of use and the wide variety of sites available to the user.The SNS tools enable/empower anyone with access to a computer and theInternet to create and maintain a social network profile page, as little technicalknowledge (e.g. HMTL) is required. Different SNSs afford different levels ofprivacy and different natures and nomenclatures of connections (boyd andEllison, 2007: 2).[1.2] Case Study: FacebookFor the purpose of the study, was selected as an exemplarysocial network website. Facebook describes itself as “a social utility that helpspeople communicate more efficiently with their friends, family and coworkers.”Facebook proclaims over 90 million active users on their network (as ofAugust, 2008) – based on the number of users who have returned to the sitewithin 30 days1. To put such figures in context, the city of Leicester networkhas 208,468 members; where as the city of Glasgow network has 136,848, asof the 7th of September 2008.Facebook has two distinct features to its platform; namely the networks andthe ability to privatise different elements of the websites. Facebook is madeup of many networks, each of which is based around a region, school orcompany. These networks were designed to reflect real-life communities thatexist offline in order for users to discover more about the people they work,live and study with. Facebook only allows users to see profiles of the peoplethat have accepted friends’ requests and the people in their networks. It also1 6
  7. 7. has an extensive privacy feature that allows for the user to control who cansee what on their profile2.The core experience of Facebook is centred on the profile, the networks,friend’s lists and the private inbox. Furthermore, the user has the chance toadd multimedia elements such as video, photo albums, notes, join groups andcreate event notifications – these all sit alongside the ability for third-partydevelopers to invite users to use custom made applications that sit within theFacebook platform. An example of a Facebook profile is available in AppendixII.[1.3] Aims and RationaleThis study sought to recognise the potentially transformative effects of socialnetwork websites and, from the perspective of the software users, develop anunderstanding of their considerations regarding identity construction, theformation of interpersonal relationships and the social institutions thatmaterialise from these relationships (Rheingold, 2000). Specifically, the focusof the study was based on the perspective of users of the social networkwebsite,, their understandings of the website itself, theirinterpretations of how using the website may have had an influence on theway in which they conduct and organise themselves online and how they mayhave chosen to form and maintain relationships with other members of community. In particular, the following information wasrequired from the participants: • Self-Disclosure - Their thoughts on how, why and what they choose to reveal about themselves on their Facebook profile. • Identifiably - Methods of confirming the identities of those who wish to connect to them on Facebook and the signifiers that would aid verification that the profile belongs to the right person and is not faked.2 7
  8. 8. • Network Strength and Ties – Ways in which users may chose to separate profile information destined for strong ties (such as family and close friends) and information suited for weaker ties (university contacts, work mates) • Use of Facebook for Relationship Maintenance -Techniques the participants may use to organise and maintain their online and offline relationships through Facebook. The effects that becoming a Facebook member may have had on their existing social organisation in an offline context. (Adapted from Stefanone and Jang, 2007: 8)A subsidiary aim was to highlight, where appropriate, the reasons forchoosing to use Facebook as a platform to connect to other members of theiroffline social network. This aim was used to establish an understanding of thepotential influence that Facebook may have on society and to gain insight intopotential gateways for future research.[1.4] Research QuestionsRather to assume the position where we were to monitor the general usage ofFacebook across a large sample of participants (by survey, for example), it isimportant to consider what the respondents are doing and feeling when theyare online (Madden, 2005). Furthermore, it is thought that content-creatingand communication exercises that exist within social networking websites aremost popular with young adults (Lenhart, 2007: 2) –allowing for thepresumption that users of Facebook would be familiar to other methods ofonline communication. Therefore, from the stated objectives, the followingresearch questions were generated: • How do users of, understand its capacities as an online social network? What significance does their use have for them and who do they perceive their audiences to be? 8
  9. 9. • What influence does the framing of the social networking software have on the user? What are the motivations for deciding on joining one (or more) social networking site(s) over another? How does the sites’ framework influence the user’s identity management? • How does the social networking website,, affect the organization of the users’ social relationships that exist both within an online and offline context? Does the social networking website change the way that the users organise their “real lifes” and if it does, how do they relate to one another?The questions shall be investigated by situating the technology (Facebook)within users’ social contexts. Specifically, the individuals’ traits, such as self-disclosure and identity verification, will be explored in context of their personalsocial networks and the extent to which Facebook’s framework influencespeople’s adoption and use of SNS in general. 9
  10. 10. 2. Literature ReviewIntroductionThis study seeks to investigate the implied transformative capability of socialnetworking websites and examines the ways in which social networks, offlineand online, are formed, maintained and explored in a research context.Different authors have investigated the connections between the individual,social groups, networks and communities and the effects that technologicaladvances in information communication technologies (ICTs) may have had onconcepts of identity, relationship building and social institutions. Through areview of key literature, the present study can be placed in context of existingsocial network theory and situates the exploratory investigation within recentSNS research.[2.1] Wellman and Network Analysis TheoryOne contemporary explanation of the effects on users of social networkingwebsites (Rheingold, 2000) has been Wellman’s network analysis theory.Wellman’s (1983) earlier work on the basic principles of network analysisdescribes it as a direct process of looking at the pattern of linkages (ties) thatjoin the members of a social structure (Wellman, 1983: 157). Wellmanexplains this procedure as a shift from “seeing the world as a composition ofegalitarian, voluntary chosen, two-person ties and concentrates instead onseeing it as composed of asymmetric ties bound up in hierarchical structures.” 10
  11. 11. (Wellman, 1983: 157) Importantly, Wellman acknowledges that the networkanalyst desires to understand the effects of structural properties and howbehaviour is influenced beyond individual attributes, person-to-personrelationships and social normatives - that is, an understanding of the widerpicture and what it means to be part of a social network as well as thesignificant opportunies and constraints that may arise from the access toresources (such as information, wealth and power) through being part of suchnetwork (Wellman, 1983: 157). Thus, Wellman suggests “network analyststreat social systems as networks of dependency relationships resulting fromthe differential possession of scarce resources at the nodes and thestructured allocation of these resources at the ties” (Wellman, 1983: 157)The notion of implied hierarchical structures can be explained throughWellman’s recommendation of analytical principles relating to the networkanalysis theory (Wellman, 1983: 172). He discusses the importance ofacknowledging how a participant’s social network is formed, through theprocess of asymmetrically reciprocal ties - differing in content and intensity: Each tie gives participants potential indirect access to all those with whom other dyad members are connected. These compound chains transmit and allocate scarce resources, fitting networking members into larger social systems. (Wellman, 1983: 168)Wellman emphasises the participant’s milieu during the process of networkanalysis research. He states that, “ties link network members indirectly as wellas directly; hence ties must be analysed within the context of larger networkstructures.” (Wellman, 1983: 173) In context of the research, examples ofsuch network structures could include personal, work and university relatedconnections between the participants’ social network contacts. As Wellmanargues “The structuring of social ties creates non-random network clusters,boundaries, and cross linking arises.” (Wellman, 1983: 174) Two differentmembers’ personal networks could contain very similar connections-especially if the two members are closely linked (family, friendship or work 11
  12. 12. colleagues, for example) - however, the way in which they define theirconnection could also vary in strength and/or consistency.[2.2] Strong and Weak TiesGranovetter (1983) revisits and reviews a selection of empirical studies thatfollowed the publication of his original 1973 work, “The Strength of WeakTies”, in an attempt to elaborate further on the phenomenon. His work relatesto the importance of the network links between individuals, focuses on theimplied strength of weaker ties; arguing that “our acquaintances (weak ties)are less likely to be socially involved with one another than are our closefriends (strong ties).” (Granovetter, 1983: 201) He continues by summarisingthat: The set of people made up of any individual and his or her acquaintances comprises a low-density network (one in which many of the possible relational lines are absent) whereas the set consisting of the same individual and his or her close friends will be densely knit (many of the possible lines are present.) (Granovetter, 1983: 201)Granovetter’s emphasis is on the importance of acknowledging the weak tieswithin the analysis of an individual’s social network. He argues that a personwith few weak ties “will be deprived of information from distant parts of thesocial system and will be confined to the provincial news and views of theirclose friends.” (Granovetter, 1983: 202) He believes that this is because “thestronger the tie between two people, the greater extent of overlap in theirfriendship circles,” (Granovetter, 1983: 218) therefore “those whom one isclosest are likely to have the greatest overlap in contact with those onealready knows, so that the information to which they are privy is likely to bemuch the same as that which one already has.” (Granovetter, 1983: 205)Furthermore, Granovetter proposes that an individual’s acquaintances aremore prone to move in alternative social circles than the individual. Therefore,Granovetter believes that a social network without these weak ties would failto recruit additional members out with the original “cliques” of existing close 12
  13. 13. friends, which could restrict links between other clusters of social networks,resulting in most of the population remaining “untouched” by resources (suchas knowledge of job recruitment, support and information flows) circulatingwithin the clique. (Granovetter, 1983: 202) In sum, Granovetter supports thatweak ties are recommended as “they people with access to information andresources beyond those available in their own social circle,” however hebelieves that the individual’s possession of stronger ties “will have greatermotivation to be of assistance and are typically more easily available.”(Granovetter, 1983: 209)In addition, Granovetter establishes that through the examination of evolvingsocial systems, the most significant source of weak ties stems from theseparation of labour. He states that, “the increasing specialisation andinterdependence result in a wide variety of specialised role relationships inwhich one knows only a small segment of the other’s personality.”(Granovetter, 1983: 203) Granovetter builds on the Durkheimian view that thisexposure to a range of role relationships and a variety of alternativeviewpoints is “the essential prerequisite for the social construction ofindividualism.” (Granovetter, 1983: 203)[2.3] Role-to-Role NetworksWellman (1988) possesses a similar understanding of role relationships in thecontext of social network structural analysis and suggests an example whereindividuals are concerned about and routinely ask questions regarding otherindividuals’ career and lifestyle choices in order to position said actors withinoccupational, educational and friendships networks. Wellman (1988) states: If we can locate people in such networks, we can then make some useful estimates as to who and what they know, the resources to which they have access, the social constraints on their behaviour, and how they are likely to think and act. (Wellman, 1988: 16) 13
  14. 14. He attempts here to move the concept of structural analysis from simply beinga method into a more substantial theory. Wellman argues that the processrelies on the system of ties to build the basis of social structure, thereforeadvises that the structural analyst must ‘“describe networks of relations asfully as possible, tease out the prominent patterns in such networks, trace outthe prominent patterns in such networks, trace the flow of resources,”(Wellman, 1988: 16) in order to establish the effects the network may have onthe people who may or may not be connected within it.Wellman continues by suggesting several analytical principles that theresearcher should consist when embarking on network analysis. Initially,Wellman states that, “structured social relationships are a more powerfulsource of sociological explanation than personal attributes of systemmembers.” (Wellman, 1988: 31) This demonstrates the importance ofdisplaying one’s network– in the case of the overall analysis of online socialnetworking websites, this could be revealed through observing the profilewhere most include a section visually listing the profile owner’s connectionsas part of their “page” – allowing for the examination of the relationshipbetween network variables (i.e. the “friends” of the individual) and not justfocussing on the personal characteristics related to the individual’s identityconstruction. Wellman argues that this is because people belong to a varietyof networks as well as categories (for example, using your occupation as amethod of defining “who you are”), that, “categorical memberships reflectunderlying structural relationships, that is, patterned differences in the kind ofresources are linked.” (Wellman, 1988: 32)Following on, another principle that Wellman (1988) proposes regards thesocial norms that may emerge from the analysis of such networks. Wellmanstates that, “structural analysts first seek explanations in the regulations ofhow people and collectivises actually believe rather than in the regularities oftheir beliefs about how they ought to behave.” (Wellman, 1988: 33) That is, anattempt to move the focus of social research away from the actors’ personalresponse to how they think they should behave. For example, instead of justasking a SNS user to describe what they think the correct etiquette for profile 14
  15. 15. management is, according to Wellman, the research should also seek toestablish what is actually occurring by examining the behaviour of the users incontext of the social networks they inhabit, such as personal, work andeducational ties. Wellman concurs that this is one of the basic advantages ofusing a “whole network approach” as “it permits simultaneous views of thesocial system as a whole and of the parts that make up the system,”(Wellman, 1988: 26) allowing for the ability to “trace lateral and vertical flowsof information, identity sources and targets, and detect structural constraintsoperating on flows of resources.” (Wellman, 1988: 28)[2.4] Online Egocentric NetworksWellman’s recent work on social networks relates the process networkanalysis and the formation of structural network ties to the evolvingdevelopments in computer mediated communications (CMC). Wellman (2001)assesses how networks of community that exist in physical spaces – such asa neighbourhood, can also develop in “cyberplaces”- present on the Internet,and how computer-supported networks can affect access to communityresources (Wellman, 2001: 228). Wellman refers to the notion of “networkedindividualism” – which he believes “affords truly personal communities thatsupply support, sociability, information and a sense of belonging separately toeach individual,” - a process of person-to-person connectivity, influencedheavily by innovations in communications technology (Wellman, 2001: 238).Wellman’s view of networked individualism is one where “rather than beingembedded in one social network, person-to-person interactors are alwaysswitching between networks.” (Wellman, 2001: 238) There is an emphasis onindividual autonomy and agency where “each person is the operator of his/herpersonal community network.” (Wellman, 2001: 247). Furthermore, accordingto Wellman, the process of online communicating has allowed for individualsto extend the reach of their social networks - “allowing more ties to bemaintained and fostering specialised relationships in networks.” (Wellman,2001: 242) Wellman argues that because of this, interactors are only sharing 15
  16. 16. particular aspects of their persona: “role to role instead of person to person,much less person to group.” (Wellman, 2001: 242)Castells (2001) also draws on the concept of networked individualism,describing it as a “social pattern” where “individuals build their networks,online and offline, on the basis of their interests, values, affinities, andprojects.” (Castells, 2001: 131) Castells examines the virtual community inrelation to his work on the concept of the Network Society. He states, “theemergence of the Internet as a new communication medium has beenassociated with conflicting claims about the rise of new patterns of socialinteraction.” (Castells, 2001: 116) and builds on this through his examinationof the social reality of the Internet’s virtuality. Castells, like Wellman,emphasises on the emergence of a new system of social relationships thatcentre on the individual, where the “networks are built by the choices andstrategies of social actors, be it individuals, families, or social groups.”(Castells, 2001: 127) From this, Castells advises that generally networkparticipants are defined by the theme in which their online network has beenorganised around – similar to Wellman’s notion of role-to-role connections, anexample of this could include mothers connecting to other mothers, they mayor may not know previously, online, and using their shared role of a mother asa signifier, a shared interest or a method of verifying trust and identity.Castells explains that one expectation for the construction of a network basedon social interaction, is that on the Internet, “you are what you say you are” –an important and much debated concept that will be examined later on.[2.5] The Virtual CommunityRheingold (1993, 2000) investigates the phenomena of online socialnetworks, through over twenty years of participant observation and describesthem as “virtual communities”. Rheingold explains that his goal is to inform awider audience about the importance of cyberspace, in relation to politicalliberties, and the way in which “virtual communities are likely to change ourexperiences of the real world, as individuals and communities.” (Rheingold,2000: p xvii) He defines virtual communities as being “social aggregations that 16
  17. 17. emerge from the Net when enough people carry on public discussions longenough with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationshipsin cyberspace. (Rheingold, 2000: p xx) Importantly, Rheingold recognises thatsocial networks can only exist when participants interact continually, citingthat “they have to be useful or they wouldn’t exist.” (Rheingold, 2000: 360)Believing that it provides a useful framework for discussing the impact ofonline socialising, Rheingold argues that Wellman’s network analysis theorycan be used to counteract the “critique of virtual communities as alienating,dehumanising substances for more direct, less mediated human contact.”(Rheingold, 2000: 361) Rheingold proposes three levels of transformativechange on social interaction, providing a framework in order to examine inter-influential effects that CMC has had on our lives. Rheingold looks at changesand the shaping caused by communication technologies at a personal,individual level, arguing that “perception, thought, and personalities areaffected by the ways we use the medium and the way it uses us.” (Rheingold,2000: p xxvii) The second level of change triggered by CMCs is the way inwhich person-to-person interactions (such as relationships, friendships andcommunity membership) occur – where the ability to communicate on a new“many-to-many” capacity, an attribute to CMC technology- can be applied toour daily lives (Rheingold, 2000: p xxvii) Lastly, the third transformative levelinvolves changes in political structure, where Rheingold states “politics isalways a combination of communications and physical power, and the role ofcommunications media among the citizenry is particularly important in thepolitics of democratic societies.” (Rheingold, 2000: p xxvii) Consequently,Rheingold deduces that virtual communities have the ability to “affect theminds of individuals, the interpersonal relationships between people, and thesocial institutions that emerge from human relationships.” (Rheingold, 2000:351)[2.6] The Virtual IdentityTurkle’s (1995) participant observation research concerned the cognitive andemotional effects of online communication, where Rheingold affirms that “we 17
  18. 18. are changing what it means to be human, we have been doing it for a longtime, and we have recently invented ways to accelerate the whole process.”(Rheingold, 2000: 353) Turkle believed that the Internet was the first instancewhere the collision between technology and the sense of human identitybecame apparent. She states that, “in real time communities of cyberspace,we are dwellers on the threshold between the real and virtual, unsure of ourfooting, inventing ourselves as we go along.” (Turkle, 1995: 10) The authormakes it clear that the virtual identity, like any other aspect of human identity,relies on shared facets and social interaction. Turkle suggests that, “withoutany principle of coherence, the self spins off in all direction.” (Turkle, 1995:258) Turkle believes that the multiplicity of identity cannot be feasible ifpersonalities cannot communicate with each other and that is not “acceptableif it means being confused to a point of immobility.” (Turkle, 1995: 258)The quest of identity neutrality is also reflected within Haraway’s ‘CyborgManifesto”, where Haraway (1991) uses the Cyborg metaphor to expose theway in which the human body, which is considered “natural”, is not, butinstead constructed from our ideas of it. Haraway’s context of the Cyborg is ofone that is overcoming mental restraints and deconstructs binaries of controland the lack of control over the body as an object and subject. Harawaystates that, “to be One is to be an illusion, and so to be involved in a dialecticof apocalypse with the other. Yet to be other is to be multiple, without clearboundary, frayed, insubstantial. One is too few, but two are too many.”(Haraway, 1991: 177) Turkle describes a similar experience as beingunderstood as a cultural “eroding of boundaries between the real and thevirtual, the animate and the inanimate, the unitary and the multiple self,”(Turkle, 1995: 10) – a fundamental shift in the way in which human identity iscreated and experienced. Turkle continues by referring to the Cyborg as a“trangressive mixture of biology, technology and code,” where the “traditionaldistance between people and machines has become harder to maintain.”(Turkle, 1995: 21)From this, it could be suggested that Haraway and Turkle’s early discussionsof the Internet as being a “fresh, even raw” experience - where technology 18
  19. 19. and the sense of human identity was seen to primarily collide – is somethingthat perhaps requires critiquing, especially as the Internet has evolved fromthe more primitive environment that the authors first examined. The myth thatthe Internet can be used as an instrument for the transcendence of historicallybounded concepts of identity – such as nationality, gender and race – is one,according to Mosco (2004), that should be taken lightly. Mosco discussesBarthes’s concept of historical “inoculation”, which he describes as “theadmission of a little evil into the mythic universe in order to protect against amore substantial attack.” (Mosco, 2004: 36) In relation to cyberspace, Moscobelieves that we attempt to transcend the history of communicationtechnological advancements (such as the telegraph and the telephone), andinstead favour the ability to ignore them whilst believing, as the myth statesthat, “cyberspace is genuinely something new, the product of a rupture inhistory - the Information Age.” (Mosco, 2004: 35)What Mosco argues is that once such utopian vision is lost, “they becomeimportant forces for social and economic changes.” (Mosco, 2004: 6) WithinSNSs we see the user engaging with locations – be it based on university,work or family networks. Similarly, traditional identity characteristics, such asgender, sexuality and race, are very much prominent within the construct ofthe user profile pages. It could be argued that now we are becoming moreaccustomed to computer-mediated communications in our day-to-day lifes,the virtual identity is less about transcendence and more about affirmation.The way in which we present ourselves online has become less aboutfabrication and experimentation (although that occurs in some instances), andmore about being a continuation of our existing, “offline” identity constructs.As Mosco puts it, “Perhaps the greatest mistake people make abouttechnology is to assume that knowledge of its inner workings can beextrapolated over years to tell us not only where the machine is heading butalso where it is taking us.” (Mosco, 2004: 14) 19
  20. 20. [2.7] Online Identity Management and ConstructionCheung (2000) discusses social and cultural identities, including those basedin gender identity, nationality, religion, family relationships, sexuality,occupation, leisure interests, and political concerns, in relation to the constructof the self within personal homepages. Cheung states, “The ‘selves’ that wehave are composed of multiple identities and the associated contradictoryexperiences.” (Cheung, 2000: 45) Such contradictions can either be seen as aclash between different identity categories, such as a working mother whomust be diligent to both her career and family commitments, or as anopposition between the identity one wants and the identity one lives, forexample, a woman who may identify with the role of a housewife, yet feelsrepressed and isolated by her role. Cheung argues that it is “almostimpossible to have a fully unified, completed and coherent “self”; rather, we alltend to have fleeting, multiple and contradictory selves.” (Cheung, 2000: 45)Cheung explores the notion of multiple and contradictory selves withinvoluntary webpage self-presentation, where the user can “chose aspects oftheir multiple and contradictory selves they wish to present” and in turn,manipulate their “own target audience, or audiences, and decide which part(s)of our “selves” are most suitable for presentation to them.” (Cheung, 2000: 45)Cheung describes this method of self-presentation as a form of“emancipation” for the author as it “allows a much more polished andelaborate delivery of impression management, compared with face-to-faceinteraction.” (Cheung, 2000: 47) This becomes more apparent through theevolution from personal homepages of the early 2000s, where the “author” stillrequired a level of expertise in website development to contribute, into theself-contained, WYSIWYG “Web 2.0” platforms, such as social networkingwebsites (like and web-blogs, which allow the “user” to focusmore on the content than the construct of the technology. 20
  21. 21. [2.8] Research on Social Networking WebsitesThe growing body of research on social networking websites suggests that ahallmark feature of the platform is the ability to allow users to articulate andgenerate a visualised structure of their existing social networks. For example,boyd and Ellison (2007) prepare a comprehensive definition of social networksites, - providing a chronological timeline of events that have influenced theconstruction of SNSs in their current guise and describe the sharedcharacteristics which provide a framework of definitions related to SNSs. Theydefine a SNS as follows: A web-based service that allows individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system. The nature of these connections may vary from site to site. (boyd and Ellison, 2007: 2)The authors review the previous scholarship that has emerged from therecent study of SNS with emphasis on the diversity of methodologies thathave been used in the process. They believe that “the introduction of SNSfeatures has introduced a new organisational framework for onlinecommunities, and with it, a vibrant new research context.” (boyd and Ellison,2007: 9) In particular, boyd and Ellison affirm that the success of SNSs havegenerated a shift in the organisation of online communities, where they areprimarily arranged around people, not interests (boyd and Ellison, 2007: 9).Similarly to Wellman (2001) and Castells (2001), boyd and Ellison state“social network sites are structured as personal (or “egocentric”) networks,with the individual at the centre of their own community.” (boyd and Ellison,2007: 9) Furthermore, the authors state the collection of research surroundingSNS highlights the significance of SNS in the users lifes. They state: They show how networked practices mirror, support, and alter known everyday practices, especially with respect to how people present (and 21
  22. 22. hide) aspects of themselves and connect with others. (boyd and Ellison, 2007: 13)Boyd and Ellison advise that the bulk of research that surrounds SNSs havefocussed on impression management, network and network structure,online/offline connections, and privacy issues (boyd and Ellison, 2007: 9).From this, a research context can be generated when reviewing previousresearch related to social network sites.Donath and boyd (2004) provide one of the earliest academic articles onSNSs, where the authors suggest that “public displays of connection” presenton a SNS profile, serves as an important mechanism that provides an “implicitverification of identity.” (Donath and boyd, 2004: 73) The authors, usingsignalling theory, advise “a public display of connections, listed along withcontact information, arguably provides all viewers of one’s network site profilewith a virtual set of mutual acquaintances.” (Donath and boyd, 2007: 9)Furthermore, boyd and Donath explore the privacy issues that may arise fromthe public disclosure of individual’s network connections, where “in thephysical world, we use time and space to keep incompatible contexts of ourlifes separate.” (Donath and boyd, 2004: 78) In relation to SNS, the time andspace element can be removed, making all connections visible to others,“removing the barriers that people keep between different aspects of theirlives.” (Donath and boyd, 2004: 78) The authors argue “when people fromdifferent contexts in one’s life meet, it is possible that the different facets ofone’s life will be revealed to each other,” where a potential discomfort may befelt by “both the performer caught in two roles and the observer.” (Donath andboyd, 2004:78) From this, from the perspective of SNS research it would beimportant to establish the user effects that network contexts are whenconstructing an online profile within the platform.Donath (2007) expands on her work on signalling theory in relation to thestudy of social networking websites, presenting the theory as “a conceptualframework with which to assess the transformative potential of SNSs and to 22
  23. 23. guide their design to make them into more effective social tools.” (Donath,2007: 1) The author argues that by using such a structure can demonstrate: How the costs associated with adding friends and evaluating profiles affect the reliability of users’ “self presentation”; examine strategies such as information fashion and risk taking; and shows how these costs and strategies affect how the publicly displayed social network aids the establishment of trust, identity and cooperation – the essential foundations for an expanded social world. (Donath, 2007: 1)Donath lists some of the social factors that emerge through the analysis ofsocial networking websites. The author believes that SNS have made usersincreasingly aware of how they conduct themselves online, in particular theways in which they construct their SNS profile. Donath considers that theawareness has occurred through users having observed friends and family onthe SNS and applied different tactics to their own self-presentation (Donath,2007: 5) Furthermore, Donath argues that evidentially “a person one meets insocial context of friends or colleagues is tethered to the identity developedamong them.” (Donath, 2007: 5) This can relate directly to Donath’s previouswork with boyd, where they iterate similar concerns regarding the lack ofsocial context that could occur when displaying a list of mutual acquaintancesonline. The author affirms, “The network context can clarify ambiguouspresentation, moderate an extreme performance, and confirm an ambitiousone.” (Donath, 2007: 5)Significantly, Donath emphasises the dynamic nature of SNS profiles andhypothesizes the influence of signal status of frequent profile updating. Shebelieves that SNS’s greatest potential in terms of social transformation is theability to “augment personal information flow.” (Donath, 2007: 13) The authordraws of the “appeal of ceaseless novelty – of seeing blog entries, gettingnew comments, seeing what has changed,” considering that the simplepleasure that users gain from contributing to SNSs is “in the flow of newpeople and new information, and the knowledge that some one is payingattention to you – social grooming for the information age.” (Donath, 2007: 13) 23
  24. 24. Hargittai’s (2007) work looks at the possibility of unveiling reasoning behindthe unequal participation of SNS, based on user background, suggesting,“that differential adoption of such services may be contributing to digitalinequality.” (Hargittai, 2007: 1) The study looks at gaining a clearerunderstanding of how the spread of SNS has resulted in different formats ofthese sites attracting different populations, how they may be adapted for theuse of different social activities and the social implications of their usage in anoffline context (Hargittai, 2007: 2). The author examines SNSs, noting theshared commonalities that boyd and Ellison describe, however focus ondistinct features that may arise at a level of site design or the themes of virtualcommunity that exist at the user level. The author argues that an examinationof SNS in both “the aggregate and with respect to specific sites is important inorder to gain a better understanding of how use of such sites is spreadingacross various population segments,” in order to establish the perceptions ofsocial transformation resulting from their usage. (Hargittai, 2007: 8) Hargittai’sarticle reveals that SNS can provide a potentially powerful method of socialprediction, in order to help explain adoption of both specific and generalisedlevels. The author suggests “students who have more resources are spendingmore time on these sites and have more opportunities to benefit from them.”(Hargittai, 2007: 11) Most importantly, Hargittai believes that sites such have the ability to facilitate relationship forming betweenmembers of institutional cohorts – citing a university first year undergraduateas an example (Hargittai, 2007: 13). In sum, the author reiterates theconsensus that online communities may mirror existing offline socialnetworks, arguing “online actions and interactions cannot be seen as tabularosa activities, independent of existing offline identities.” (Hargittai, 2007: 14)Thus, Hargittai believes that the reflective nature of SNS and online behaviourfavours the ability to examine “the extent to which students from differentbackgrounds may interact with students not like themselves.” (Hargittai, 2007:14)Stefanone and Jang (2007) conducted an online survey on bloggers and theinterpersonal nature of blogs to explore the relationship between the size of a 24
  25. 25. blogger’s strong tie social network and the likelihood that the blogger may usetheir blog as a method of maintaining those relationships (Stefanone andJang, 2007: 5). The authors’ hypothesise that there is a positive link betweenpersonality traits such as extraversion and self-disclosure and the blogger’snetwork size (Stefanone and Jang, 2007: 5). Stefanone and Jang argue, “Thebloggers’ strong ties are ideal candidates for highly personal content, althoughit is surprising that bloggers choose to disclose traditional private informationin a public fashion.” (Stefanone and Jang, 2007: 4) It could be said that thiscould also be applied to the construction and maintenance of SNS profiles,where the user has to consider displaying private information in order toprovide context and validity to the profile – in a considerably public manner.Furthermore, the authors propose that people with specific personalitycharacteristics have a heightened motivation to employ new communicationtechniques to maintain existing relationships, “Particularly when theseattributes result in larger social networks comprised of close friends andfamily.” (Stefanone and Jang, 2007: 4) Stefanone and Jang, whilst collectingdata, asked each informant to described whether their contacts are either aweak or strong tie or an instrumental/task related tie.The authors’ goal of their study was to examine the responsibility ofindividuals’ characteristics in relation to social network characteristics and toestablish to which this social context can be related to the ways that blogsmay be adapted for interpersonal goals, such as maintaining existingrelationships (Stefanone and Jang, 2007: 11) Stefanone and Jang use themeasures of Extraversion, Identifiability, Self-Disclosure, Strong Tie NetworkSize and Use of Blogs for Relationship Maintenance to frame their study – amethod that can be adapted for use of analysis of the relationship betweenusers and sociality within SNSs such as 25
  26. 26. 3. Methodology[3.1] Discussion of MethodsThe proposed research questions focused on influence and motivations ofSNS and establishing an understanding of the effects the SNS,, has on the self-disclosure, identifiability, network strength andties and relationship maintenance of the Facebook user. A qualitative methodof enquiry was prepared, as it is concerned with “interpreting the subjectiveexperiences, i.e. perspectives, of the individuals being studied.” (Grix, 2004:32) Grix (2004) compares the ‘deskbound’ numerical, calculations of somequantitative analysis to the methods of qualitative research, described asbeing a “method of data generation which are flexible and sensitive to thesocial context in which the data are produced.” (Grix, 2004: 120) Hence, incontrast to quantitative research, “ the researcher is not detached from, butpositively interacts with, the object of study.” (Grix, 2004: 120) Furthermore,Walliman (2005) states: By immersing him/herself in the data and then searching out patterns, surprising phenomena and inconsistencies, the researcher can generate new concepts and theory, or uncover further instances of those already in existence. (Walliman, 2005: 308)Importantly, a qualitative method “is all about developing a detailedunderstanding of individuals’ views, attitudes and behaviours.” (Moore, 2006:141) As the research concerned individuals’ views in relation to their social 26
  27. 27. networks, the method of focus groups was selected for the project. Moore(2006) states “focus groups force people to consider how they feel aboutissues in the light of other people’s feelings,” where the “essence is interactionbetween the members of the group, seeing how they feel about issues in thelight of other people’s feelings.” (Moore, 2006: 144) The aim of focus groupresearch was to ensure that the participants covered the topics of discussionthat were identified within the aims of the project. To do this effectively, Mooreadvises that the researcher must “ensure that everybody contributes and thatall points of view receive a full airing,” whilst avoiding conflicts and potentiallyinfluencing the direction of the discussion. (Moore, 2006: 145)The project was predominantly an exploratory task and much of theinformation generated is unique, as it “comes either from the focus groupparticipants’ creative efforts and unique experiences or from the creativity ofthe researcher.” (Fern, 2001: 5) Fern describes the knowledge that iscollected from exploratory research as not having scientific status as it iseveryday knowledge. Therefore, “the status of this knowledge depends onthe creativity of the researcher.” (Fern, 2001: 7)Fern advises that focus groups may not be considered a representativesample of the population and argues against making generalisations to alarger or different population (Fern, 2001: 123). Fern argues that to “eliminateconcerns about representativeness, a researcher can simply stratify thepopulation and draw random samples from within each stratum.” (Fern, 2001:123) Specifically, Krueger and Casey iterate that conducting focus groupresearch should not be used “to make statements about the population but toprovide insights about how people in groups perceive a situation.” (Kruegerand Casey, 2000: 83)Moore suggests that the discussions should be held “somewhere that will befamiliar and non-threatening to people.” (Moore, 2006: 145) As the study wasconducted using informants from, it was assumed that theusers would feel comfortable using online communication tools to participatewithin the focus groups. There is a growing body of research directed at the 27
  28. 28. discussion of online focus groups as a method for qualitative research(Rezabek, 2000; Sweet, 2001; Fern, 2001; Schneider et al, 2002; Stewart andWilliams, 2005). For the purpose of this research project, the focus groupswere treated comparatively to offline focus groups, using the same principlesthat are applied to the traditional method of enquiry. As Krueger and Caseyput it: Internet groups become focus groups when the questions are focused, when participants can freely and openly communicate without inhibitions or fears and when the moderator maintains control and moves the discussion in such a way that provides answers to the research question. (Krueger and Casey, 2000: 190)The authors advise that focus groups are to provide a more “natural”environment than that of individual interviews as “participants are influencingand influenced by each other – just as they are in life.” (Krueger and Casey,2000: 11) Therefore, as the participants were required to discuss their onlinebehaviour and characteristics of, a software program, Adobe’sConnect Pro3 was selected as a ‘space’ for participants to meet.The software allowed the researcher to “screenshare” – where the researchercan give the authority to grant access to what was on the researcher’scomputer desktop at the time, specifically, allowing for visual aids to provokediscussion. Connect Pro also offered a chat relay program, sharedmicrophone facilities and the ability for the researcher to use a webcam.Importantly, Connect Pro generated a static URL to which the researchercould invite the participants directly (by URL) or by emails. Furthermore, thesoftware allowed the recording of the activity (visuals and sound) betweeninformants, which was saved and replayed for analysis.3 Product information and 30 day free trial for Adobe Connect Pro: Appendix I 28
  29. 29. [3.2] SamplingWhen considering the size of a focus group, Krueger and Casey (2000)suggest that, ‘the group must be small enough for everyone to have anopportunity to share insights and yet large enough to provide diversity ofperceptions.” (Krueger and Casey, 2000: 10) The authors advise that groupscan range from 4 participants to 12 participants, however they warn theresearcher to consider the limitations that may arise from too many, or too fewinformants per session. Another consideration was the number of groups thatwould be required for the research project. Krueger and Casey propose that3-4 focus groups were necessary for the analysis process, as “the analystlooks for patterns and themes across groups.” (Krueger and Casey, 2000: 26)Importantly, the authors affirm that when planning focus group research, it is abalance between “what would be nice to do and what is doable with theresources at hand. Resources include the time available for the project, thefinancial resources available, and the talent and creativity of the people on thestudy team.” (Krueger and Casey, 2000: 28) For the purpose of the researchproject – with consideration to time, money and resources (Connect Pro, inthe free trial version, can only host 5 people – including moderator), thedecision was made to invite 4 participants to each of the four focus groupsessions, making total of 16 informants being selected for discussion.The main criteria for the selection of participants was for them to be registeredusers of the social networking website – Potential informantswere recruited by firstly posting an announcement on the researcher’sFacebook profile, in the format of a status update – a short bulletin post thatcan be seen by everyone who has marked the researcher as a contact (179people), advertising for help with a university project, asking potentialinformants to make contact through Facebook’s private messaging system.Through this process, 12 users contacted the researcher, shared their emailaddress and were asked to suggest up to three of their contacts that mayhave been interested in contributing to the focus group discussion. Kruegerand Casey describe this process as “snowball sampling,” where those whohave passed through the selection process nomination people that may be 29
  30. 30. like themselves. From this sampling method, a total of 37 possible participantswere then emailed a list of times and dates –from the 11th to 15th ofSeptember 2008 - and were asked to mark their top three preferred times anddates that they would be available to participate.When compiling the members of the four focus groups, it was important toconsider group members, who could be close family, friends or members ofclosely knitted work groups. Krueger and Casey believe that “grouping peoplewho regularly interact, either socially or at work, may inhibit disclosure oncertain topics.” (Krueger and Casey, 2000: 11) As each member was asked toprovide individual details of when they were available to contribute, the groupswere made up based on availability of resources – taking extra care to avoidpotentially restraining discussion through choice of membership.When groups were confirmed, a personalised email invitation was sent to theselected participants – stressing the reasoning as to why they were selectedfor participation. Krueger and Casey state, “each participant should feel thathe or she is personally needed and wanted at the interview.” (Krueger andCasey, 2000: 85) The email detailed prior requirements for the discussion,advising the informant to check that they had compatible technology, that theirInternet connection was adequate and directed them to some moreinformation describing how the software worked. Furthermore, they were senta brief overview of what the discussion would entail, some examples of whatthey may be asked and some advice on how online focus groups worked.This was done to introduce a form of etiquette for those who may feelconfused by the software layout and/or what may be required of them in anonline focus group. Finally, a link to the conference room was shared,alongside confirmation of the date and time that the group was to meet.[3.3] ProcedureEach of the participants were contacted by email, Facebook or instantmessage at least two hours before the discussion to remind them of thesession and confirm their attendance (Krueger and Casey, 2000: 89) The 30
  31. 31. participants were asked to log in to the conferencing software at least 10minutes before the session was to begin, to allow them to have their own timeto feel comfortable in the situation. The researcher, as a moderator, prepareda document that details a brief overview4 of the event and summarised thetopics of discussion in order to keep the conversations relevant to the project.Krueger and Casey advise, ‘the moderator must give enough information sopeople feel comfortable with the topic, create a permissive atmosphere,provide the ground rules and set the tone of discussion.” (Krueger and Casey,2000: 107) When the time arrived to begin the discussion, the participantswere advised that the session was being recorded and that reassured thattheir remarks would be treated in confidence and that all data collected wouldbe anonymous. (Moore, 2006: 146)The discussion began by asking the group to observe the moderator’sscreenshare, showing each of the groups a mock-up of a Facebook profile –with a profile picture, short “about me” description and some examples ofFacebook applications in use5. The first element of discussion was regardingself-disclosure, so the groups were asked to describe their experiences onfilling out their Facebook profiles – what they felt was appropriate to revealabout themselves, how they chose to reveal elements of themselves and whythey felt they may have had to provide particular details about themselvesonline. This discussion was timed for around 10 minutes to allow thediscussion to gain momentum on its own and move away from the initialintervention of the moderator (Moore, 2006: 147).The second stage of the discussion centres on the identifiably of Facebookusers, and used the example of a mock-up friends request on thescreenshare facility. The participants were then asked to discuss theirmethods of confirming the identity of users that were requesting to connect tothem and how they may go about verifying the identity of any person’s profilethat they have observed on the Facebook platform. The third topic ofdiscussion concerned the strength of user networks The participants were4 See Appendix III5 See Appendix II 31
  32. 32. advised of the concept of strong and weak ties and were given examples ofthese by the moderator to put the idea into context. The informants were thenasked to give examples of what they might do to differentiate from strong andweak ties connected to their Facebook and asked to discuss how thesenetwork connections may affect the way in which they maintain their profileson Facebook. The final topic of discussion related directly to this, so theparticipants were prompted to move the conversation forward in order todiscuss ways in which they used Facebook to build, organise and maintainexisting relationships and were asked if Facebook had had an effect on theways they would have built, organised or maintained relationships before theybecame members of the platform.The discussions were designed to last between 30-45 minutes each,dedicating roughly 7-12 minutes to each of the four proposed elements ofdebate. Each of the groups ended by asking the informants if they had anyadditional questions regarding the topics that were being discussed. Kruegerand Casey advise: There is no pressure by the moderator to have the group reach consensus. Instead, attention is placed understanding about a topic so decision makers can make more informed choices.” (Krueger and Casey, 2000: 12)When the groups had been completed, the participants were thanked andoffered the opportunity to volunteer their email address if they wanted toreceive a summary of the research when the project was completed.[3.4] Focus Group Questions:The questions discussed by the online focus groups included the following: - I have made a profile on Facebook today [Share Appendix [ ] with participants]. If you look at your screens you can see it. Please can you 32
  33. 33. describe it? If this profile were to request to add you to Facebook, can you describe what would you think? - Can you describe your experiences when constructing your Facebook profile? Can you describe what you would find appropriate to be on a profile? Can you describe what you would not find appropriate to be on a profile? - If a profile were to add you, how would you determine that it was the correct identity of the person? Can you describe elements of their profiles you would look at to make sure that they were “real”? - How many people (roughly) do you have on your friends list? How many close friends do you have on your friends list? (A close friend is defined as “someone you have known for a long time, have frequent interaction with, and have positive feelings towards. This can include family members.) Do you feel that you have to be aware of how you interact online when you have a lot of weaker connections on your profile? What measures do you take? - Have you ever used Facebook to organise social events offline? Has this affected the way you would have done this in the past – pre- Facebook? Has Facebook changed the way you form relationships with new people?Krueger and Casey state, “focus group analysis is done concurrently with datacollection. Each subsequent group is analysed and compared to earliergroups.” (Krueger and Casey, 2000; 129) Therefore, arising statements fromearlier groups were fed back into later groups in order to verify and allow for acontinuous discussion of relevant topics across the four groups.[3.5] Ethical ConsiderationsAll digital recordings, transcripts and further analysis were conducted under 33
  34. 34. digital confidential agreement6 with the informants. The names, emailaddresses and Facebook profile details were taken from all respondents whoparticipated in the project. All exemplary data used from within the analysiswas cited anonymously and the group participants were made aware that theyhad the freedom to retract their statements at a later date. All digitalrecordings and data transcripts are available upon request.6 See Appendix III 34
  35. 35. 4. Discussion of ResultsThe focus groups were digitally recorded, allowing for the transcripts to belifted directly from the software and copied into a word document for codingand analysis. The groups were labelled by letter with the first group,conducted at 10am on the 14th of September, 2008 named “a”; the secondgroup, conducted at 7pm on the 14th of September, 2008 named “b”’; the thirdgroup, conducted at 10am on the 15th of September, 2008, named “c”; andthe last group conducted at 7pm on the 15th of September, 2008, named “d”.The participants were coded using their initials, allowing for their participationto remain anonymous whilst allowing for their contribution to be distinguished.Each of the focus groups’ discussions was coded by the adapted measuresthat were proposed by Stefanone and Jang (2007: 8): self-disclosure,identifiably, network strength and ties, and use of Facebook for relationshipmaintenance. The questions that were asked during the session directly cutthrough these key themes, allowing for a contrast and comparison betweenthe four groups.[4.1] Self-DisclosureTo understand the users’ awareness of self-disclosure, the informants wereasked to share their thoughts on how, why and what they choose to revealabout themselves on their Facebook profile. When they were asked todescribe their experiences when they created their Facebook profile for thefirst time, several of the participants across all of the groups included the pointthat they originally copied personal information from other social networking 35
  36. 36. platforms that they were members of. When one of the participants, L,became accustomed to the website itself, she became aware of the need tochange her personal details to suit the context of who could view her profile: Ive changed the information on there a couple of times. When I first joined, I suspect that I copied over the stuff that I had on Myspace, but the audience for Facebook is different and when people I knew in the work context started adding me I changed it so I sounded less of a lamer. (L: group a)One participant from group b, B, who also had copied information fromanother social networking profile site, saw Facebook as a website that hadpotential to share his information with other software applications andtherefore believed that the information he put on his profile had to be suitablefor the general public: I copied a lot of basic information from my profile on another social network… …Facebook has an open API which can used for anyone, so the information I put up I’m happy to release to the public…(B: group b)J from group c, described himself as being “shameless with online self-promotion,” made sure that any information that he did present about himself,not only on Facebook, but anywhere else online would not be detrimentalagainst his future career plans:I’ve written mine like anyone, including employers, could read it and didn’t put“clubbing and drinking” as my only interests (not least because they aren’tinterests of mine!) (J: group c)L, B and J’s awareness of their profile’s potential “audience” was shared, intheory, across the groups - when they were discussing what they wouldconsider appropriate and inappropriate on a Facebook profile. Many of theparticipants were concerned about putting personal details on Facebook, 36
  37. 37. mainly due to privacy and concerns regarding fraudulent behaviour or theirdetails being seen by the wrong people: It’s a bit of a faf at times. I’ve tried to make sure there’s not enough detail for someone to pretend to be me. (H: group c) I wouldn’t put in a full address, as much as your profile is restricted viewing, wouldn’t want full address so I’m not vulnerable to pranks or whatever. (C: group c) Anything I felt could compromise security (i.e. could be used for fraudulent reasons)… address, phone number, email, place of work. (L: group b) I wouldn’t put my address or phone number. I read somewhere someone put where they lived and when they were going on holiday and somebody off Facebook robbed them. But Facebook has the “address” to enter and other website don’t…. I think you do it without thinking… because you see “address..’ ‘phone number…’ (A: group d)Several important concepts are discussed here: (a) The personal data that theparticipants may consider as being an obvious risk (date of birth, phonenumbers, locations and occupation), (b) The participant’s awareness offraudulent/criminal activities that may occur from misuse of this data, and (c)Facebook’s design framework potentially seen to “encourage” the input ofpersonal data. Interestingly, despite most of the participants acknowledgingthat they were aware and concerned about issues such as identity theft orhaving their profile viewed by an employer, several admitted that they wouldfill in most of their profile anyway: I like information to be filled out, as fully as possible as I’m pretty nosy, but at the same time I like people have to be conscious that anybody can see it. (L: group a) 37
  38. 38. Basics at least: Name, location, sex, maybe some “About Me” stuff.. Personally, I filled everything in! (C: group c) I would put in a fair amount of information but not mobile numbers/real address. (L: group b)Most of the focus groups’ members brought Facebook’s “Limited profile”feature to attention, with several of them claiming to use it as a method oforganising their own Facebook profile. Limited profile allows for the users toarrange their friends into groups and allocating restrictions on what eachfriendship group is allowed to see: I put all kinds of stuff on my profile, but I restrict certain information to certain people-phone number, etc, are there, but only people who I’d give it to otherwise can see it. (I hope) (M: group d) I think I’ve got my mobile number on there, but I think its filtered to only people I know – if its people adding me I don’t know, I tend to put them on limited profile so they don’t get to see my contact details. (J: group c) I do the limited profile thing too. (H: group c)The discussion returned to profile viewing context, with a few of theparticipants describing scenarios where they have decided against allowingclose friends access to their profile, as they did not want them to seeparticular aspects of their personality and identity: My ex didn’t want me to accept an add from her cousin as I had photos of me drunk/ taking drugs on my profile and she didn’t want it getting back to her family. (B: group b) 38
  39. 39. Yeah. Similarly I’ve had a few of my gfs friends add me – I don’t always want them to start thinking I’m just a pisshead really because that’s all they’ve seen of me (L: group b) Facebook photos tend to have a lot of drunks on them. (W: group b)In contrast to the previous discussions relating to the participants’ individualprofile construction, the informants from group b share varied opinions onFacebook’s functions to allow different people to add their own information toyour profile, in the form of “tagging” photographs of the user (which are linkedback to the profile) and through information that may be posted on the “publicfeed” – a combination of information, fed from all profiles that are linked to theuser in question. If I did something I wasn’t proud of, I wouldn’t take pictures of it. (D: group b) [In response to D]…and certainly not put it on Facebook! (W: group b) [In response to D and W] Not always your choice though, if it’s a big group out on a night out, someone usually has a camera! (L: group b) [In response to L] You can remove the tag! (D: group b) [In response to D] You can, and then they can add it again! (L: group b) I think it is rude to untag photos of yourself…(B: group b) If you don’t realise straight away it could still appear in other people’s news feeds… (L: group b) [In response to D and L] Then they shouldn’t be your friend on your profile! (W: group b) 39
  40. 40. I’ve made sure to retag particularly embarrassing photos of some of my best mates… (L: group b) I went on a stag do and the stag didn’t want anyone putting pics of him on Facebook because of his work colleagues, so no one did. It’s not unreasonable to ask this of your friends. (D: group b)It was clear that group b did not share the same opinions about Facebook’s“tagging” feature; a facility which allows for any user who was listed as afriend, to place a “tag” on any photograph they upload, placing the individual’sname on the photograph and links it back to their profile - granting access foranyone else connected to your profile to view it. There are significant featuresof Facebook’s infrastructure that can potentially remove control from the userover what elements of their identity they wish to display and places thatcontrol into the hands of the people they have allowed to view their originalprofile. On the other hand, all of the participants across all of the groups hadnot left Facebook because of this, all claiming to be active members despitethis. One member believed it was down to the nature of the site, “once you getthe hang of Facebook being more like “real life” orientated than mostnetworks, you get a handle on what sort of stuff to include there.” (T: group a)In terms of self-disclosure, the ‘real-life’ aspect of Facebook could beconsidered a factor that can influence and dictate what a user chooses toreveal about themselves on their Facebook profile. Donath (2007) states:“SNSs make people aware that their friends and colleagues are looking attheir self-presentation.” (Donath, 2007: 5) The focus groups identified that theparticipants saw profile maintenance as a dynamic process, something thatneeded to be monitored with every new connection request, demonstratingthat the users made sure that the right people got to see the right information,and if they didn’t want anyone to see particular things, they did not include it inthe first place. Alternatively, Donath describes users that display a lack ofconcern for their profiles – posting images or text that may includeincriminating or damaging information – as potentially “indicating that theirfuture is so secure that no social network site indiscretion would jeopardise it, 40
  41. 41. or they may be showing their alienation from the sort of future wherediscretion is needed. For such users, the risk itself is the benefit.” (Donath,2007: 12) Either way, the informants demonstrated that the construction of aFacebook profile requires a certain degree of fluidity, allowing for a balancebetween identity verification and identity theft.[4.2] IdentifiablyThe participants were shown a mocked up Facebook profile7 at the beginningof each focus group session. The profile was designed to not show anypersonal information, had a false name “Book Face-Profile” and did notdisplay a photograph. Each group were asked to describe the profile, if theywould add the profile and what the profile would need in order to verify that itwas a real person. Mostly all of the informant agreed that they would not addthe profile, citing that it was because it (1) did not have a “real name,” (2) didnot have a photograph, and (3) did not have any mutual connections to theuser. Not having a real name sorta makes you think they’re not real or its some scam thing. (C: group c) It may not be a real person unless I knew their name. I would need to recognise the person or name or have a shared connection/group. (L: group b ) First off their name. If I don’t know the name, I ignore right away. A picture and their location are the first two things I look at to verify it is the person I’m expecting. Mutual friends come third. (T: group a)Like before, there was an emphasis across the groups on the need for “reallife” signifiers: names, locations and photographs. They were almost anessential requirement for all of the participants, in order for them to place the7 See Appendix II 41
  42. 42. connection request into context. To such extent, several participants were notwilling to add any profile, despite possessing the above characteristics, unlessthey knew them or met them offline: It would have to be somebody I knew – the amount of information on there wouldn’t make a difference. (L: group a) I only tend to add friends I know. (C: group c) I would add the profile if it was somebody I knew in real life. (B: group b) I think meeting them beforehand is more important than anything. (A: group d) That’s part of what Facebook is all about, I think. If it’s not a person I already know or used to know in the outside world, I won’t add them to Facebook. (T: group a)It is important to note that the participants were asked here what would berequired before they would add a profile that requested to them. Name,pictures, locations and mutual connection were all used to verify that theperson that was attempting to add them was in fact a real person and hence,considered “safe” to accept an add to their profile. However, when theparticipants were asked what they looked at when they were determiningwhether they should request an add to another user’s profile, mutualconnections was what several of the participants, across groups, believed tobe a reliable source of verification. I would look to see if I knew them in a social situation. (B: group b) Pictures would be a big thing to see if I recognised anyone I knew. (W: group b) 42
  43. 43. Ideally, I would look for mutual friends with my other contacts to demonstrate how I apparently know them! (J: group c)Facebook offers a mutual friend display facility on each profile that is viewed,in order to determine how many friends and what connections that a user mayhave in common with that profile. Donath and boyd state, “seeing someonewithin the context of their connections provides the viewer with informationabout them.” (Donath and boyd, 2004: 72) With every single participantagreeing and demonstrating that this is the case, it would be safe to say thatFacebook has a proven, almost organic method to allow users to verify theidentity of those who are member of the platform. The informants identified anumber of techniques that would allow for them to decide that the owner of aprofile is indeed who they say they are, relating back to the notion of “real life”connections, where it could be proposed that Facebook is designed to be anextension of offline identity construction, rather than a place for escapism andidentity play (Turkle, 1995). Participants in group a discuss “a lack ofsubversion”, one believes that Facebook is firmly motivated by the notion of“real life”, and suggests that a spread of “fake” profiles may be prevented dueto Facebook’s design: I don’t see Facebook being subverted much, that’s for sure. I don’t see joke profiles set up under names of celebrities etc. I don’t see people setting up a Facebook page for their cat, or anything. I think that’s an interesting thing in itself – the lack of subversion. (T: group a) @T I think it’s less true than it would be of, say, Myspace but I do have somebody’s cat and somebody’s stuffed owl on my friends as well as a profile for my cuddly monkey… (L: group a) I have David Duchovny on my Facebook list! (J: group a) @L It’s entirely possible that I just haven’t come across joke profiles – certainly doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Something about the friend 43
  44. 44. request mechanism or privacy attitudes might be stopping them from spreading as well as they do on Myspace, Twitter, etc? (T: group a)From this, these informants identify instances where they would add peoplethat they don’t know, despite knowing that the profile does not belong to theperson in question. They describe experiences when they have done it onother social networking sites, such as or However,as it remains, the participants feel that by belonging to a social networkingwebsite, such as Facebook, they are required to represent themselves –otherwise they may not be able to take part in all of the activities facilitated byFacebook - adding friends, maintaining and expanding their social networksand displaying their connectivity. As Donath suggests: SNSs locate people in the context of their acquaintances, provide a framework for maintaining an extensive array of friends and other contexts, and allow for the public display of interpersonal commentary. (Donath, 2007: 2)[4.3] Network Strengths and TiesThe size of the participants strong-tie/weak-tie networks was obtained via theparticipants’ response to two questions asking, “How many people do youhave on your friends list?” and, “How many close friends do you haveyou’reyour friends list?,” where a close friend was explicitly defined in the questionas “someone you have known for a long time, have frequent interaction with,and have positive feelings towards.” It was also noted these strong ties shouldinclude family members.The number of friends that the participants had on their lists ranged from 50 to600+, with the majority of the informants connecting to roughly 175-200people. The participants that admitted to having a smaller friends list (between50-75), had a larger majority of strong ties to weak. The participant with theleast amount of friends, C from group a, claimed to have 45 out of the 50people on his list that he would consider a strong tie, “I tend to only have 44
  45. 45. people on my list that I speak to on a regular basis.” (C: group a) T, also fromgroup a, also had 50 contacts on his Facebook list where “about 50 percentclose friends and 50 percent old acquaintances.” (T: group a) M, from group dhad 69 contacts, again, like T, admits around half of them are close friend.The majority of the participants claimed to have friends lists containing 150people or more, interestingly, they admitted to having an average between 15-30 of close ties on their friendship network – a similar amount to those whohad smaller friends list. In this case, there is a greater ratio of strong to weakties – with the majority of informants possessing lists with a majority of weakerties. I will add all the members of the uni sports team I’m in which might be 80+ people but not so many I’d call close even if I see them a lot. (L: group b) Most of my friends list are people I went to school with or work with. (A: group d) I have 250+ on my list. A lot of them are from school and sixth form that I lost contact with. (H: group c)With a social network consisting of a majority of weak ties, it was important toestablish any potential concerns that may arise from the sharing of personalinformation in a decontextualised environment of a SNS. Donath and boydstate “there is no way of showing only a portion of one’s network to somepeople.” (Donath and boyd, 2004: 72) Furthermore, “by making all of one’sconnections visible to all the others, social networking sites remove theprivacy barriers that keep between different aspects of their lives.” (Donathand boyd, 2004: 78) The participants were asked firstly what concerns theymay have had regarding ‘weaker’ ties having access to their profile, andsecondly what measures they may have taken to ensure a desired socialcontext was achieved. Several of the informants admitted to almost forgettingthat they had particular people on their friends list, remembering after they 45
  46. 46. have posted something they may not want weaker ties, such as workcolleagues, to see: I would be careful what I said in my status updates if I had workmates and/or lots of weak ties on my list. (T: group a) Well, I have contacts I know through my work on my FB, for example, which is always fun when I remember my Twitter updates get posted there…” (M: group d)The majority of participants demonstrated an awareness of different methodsof redirecting information to the right people it was intended for. Interestingly,for several of the participants, it was the strong ties (such as close friends andfamily) that caused more of a concern than the presence of weaker ties. My mum being a friend means I don’t swear as much and no smoking pictures! (C: group c) Mum and Uncle are on it, I know not to post photos of me smoking or post normal teenage angst remarks directly at the older folks. (A: group d) I know that loose family connections are on there and I don’t really want photos of me in a real state appearing in their news items! (L: group b) All my family are on limited profile! (J: group c)It becomes clear that in order to separate Facebook profile information suitedfor strong ties from profile information more suited for weaker ties, theparticipants believed that they must manually divide and restrict individuals’access to their profile. From the focus group discussions, a number oftechniques arise that allow for the user to delegate people to particulargroups. Some of these methods are based on the users decision, for 46
  47. 47. example, choosing what text or images to add to their profile, “de-tagging”photographs that they don’t want others to see, or making sure there is nodiscussion of subjects that they may find uncomfortable for them to be viewedby the “public”. The other measures discussed relate to Facebook’s ownprivacy facilities – providing the ability to segregate people into groups,blocking people from seeing particular elements of their profile (such as photoalbums or contact details) and making event invitations “secret” so not toattract a public audience. None of my family are on it so I’m not really bothered, although I’ve de- tagged myself from some pictures! (H: group c) When I’ve created events in the past, I’ve made them “secret” so not to attract the attention of my less important friends. (J: group c) Most of them are on limited profile so they see bugger all! (H: group c) I know that Facebook has introduced a way to put people into sections of friends when you add them. I think it’s a privacy thing but I have never found how you can change what each group does. That’s what I’d like to be able to do. Have a selection of “Work”, “Friends”, and “Family” etc so some can see all my photos. (L: group b)The strength of network and the relationship between strong and weak tiescan be related back to the user’s understanding of self-disclosure andidentifiability. From the focus group discussions, the participants identified anawareness of possessing a friends list that contained a selection of strong andweak ties, and described methods of separating personal information In orderto control what was seen by different people. Several of the participants didnot care who saw their profile, however, they believed that they were lesslikely to display information that they considered potentially detrimental – orintended for different social contexts. For those participants who feltuncomfortable with having a mix of strong and weak ties on their list, theydescribed how they would limit either the strong, or the weak ties from having 47
  48. 48. full access to the information on the profile. Some participants limited theirstrong, mainly family ties, from viewing their profiles – whereas some chose toonly grant access to a limited few, placing the majority of their friends listunder “limited profile.” It can be established that this is clearly a personalchoice, dependant on how public (or private) the user considers themselves tobe. In sum, restrictions are being placed on what is being viewed, in manydifferent ways – and such restrictions are dependant on the strength of theconnection.[4.4] Use of Facebook for Relationship MaintenanceStefanone and Jang (2007) state, “Social interaction is a prerequisite forcreating and maintaining any relationship” (Stefanone and Jang, 2007: 9).Facebook, as a communication channel, allows for its users to distributeinformation to their social network easily. In order to establish a link betweenonline and offline social interaction, the focus group participants were asked ifthey ever used Facebook to organise events offline. Every one of theinformants had had some experience of using Facebook as a tool to organiseevents offline – having either set up an event or have been invited to anotheruser’s event. Yes, we used it to organise our wedding reception. (T: group a) Yeah, usually organise parties, BBQs etc on Facebook. It’s cheaper and easier to get something arranged using Facebook. (C: group c) You can put all the information all in one place instead of assuming people can find their own directions etc (L: group b) It’s marginally more convenient that hitting people up on MSN, Twitter etc – it’s one feature that Facebook has done particularly well, I think. (M: group d) Facebook is now my first port of call for organising events. (L: group a) 48
  49. 49. Several important points emerged when the focus groups were asked thisparticular question: (1) That the participants believed that Facebook’s eventfacility a success, (2) The event facility was convenient as it saved the user’stime and money spent on other forms of communication (such as textmessages or phone calls), and (3) It allowed the user to invite more people,including some that they may have not have considered in the first place.Several participants also found the RSVP feature and calendar feature ofFacebook’s event application to be of a benefit of the service. From thediscussions, it can be established that participants believe that Facebook’sframework has had an influence on the ways in which they can connect topeople and the ways in which they organise “official” events offline, albeitdown to convenience. Importantly, Facebook allows this to happen due to thenature of website - providing users with a large database of existing friendswho are already members, which in turn encourages more users to join inorder to be “involved” with their existing offline contacts. As one participantsput it: I think it’s because Facebook is more widespread, at least amongst my friends. And adding old friends, the “not close ties” we talked about earlier, helps to – such people might not feel comfortable being added to other social networking sites (such as Twitter or Dopplr for example). (L: group a)Several participants drew attention to a more “ad-hoc” approach to organisingmeeting offline on Facebook, with one of them describing a scenario wherethey’ve used Facebook’s mobile phone version of the website to arrange arandom meeting with a friends. The key focuses were on locality andavailability – rather than just prearranging bigger events (such as BBQs,parties or weddings). One thing Facebook has totally brought to life for me is ad-hoc meetups in different cities. I just post a status update saying something like “in London until 6pm, who wants a pint?” More informal than the 49