Dan GardnerThe Act of Identity Expression Through Facebook.Anth 318Intro: Social Networks, or Social Media, like Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and like arebecoming a major part of how we communicate with each other on a daily basis. These sites andsimilar though are not merely tools for communication. Media is commonly defined as “meansof communication,” but Michael Wesch defines media as “mediating human relationships.” Thisis a much more useful way to look at it, because it recognizes the influence the tools have ontheir users. To the left is a picture of the Internet. At least, it is about as close to a physical representation of it as you are likely to find. Much like the Galaxy or Nebula it resembles (or perhaps complete Universe), within it are countless nodes, or individual locations. Any connections between them are constructions that we have created. In the physical world, these lines may actually represent wires that connect a home computer to an InternetService Provider (ISP), or a series of wires connecting two computers, one in California, theother in Ghana. Even below the surface of the virtual universe that is the internet, the
connections may exist as routed activity of computers. But, when it comes to our experiencenavigating this universe, this space, the direction we travel is almost never in accordance to thelines in that picture. It would be more accurate to draw lines connecting all points to all otherpoints, then to represent it as it is. As we move from one node to another on the other side of theuniverse by clicking a link, as far as we are concerned, we merely went from observing one nodein one corner, to another corner instantaneously without traveling the nebulous paths between.So, we create our own paths all the time through our actions. If we created an image thatrepresented the path we have traveled with all of our activity through the internet in a similarfashion as the one above, then no two people would have the same universe, but at the same timetheir sheer complexity would likely render them indistinguishable barring close examination. Continuing to use the above image as an aid, each small firework shaped branchingsystem within this universe represents a portion of the internet, or a “Domain.” Without gettingtoo technical, a Domain is constructed of designated addresses, or coordinates within the virtualuniverse, but we can think of it as the name of an area. Facebook, for instance is a “Domain.”Any internet address that starts with www.Facebook.com/ is part of the Facebook domain, nomatter what follows the / at the end. Facebook.com is the center of the firework shape, with allmore specific individual addresses branching from it in various directions. If we think in terms ofmore simple imagery using circles, or more accurately it might be better to think of spheres, theinternet is a very large sphere, the domain exists within it, and within a given domain may exist amyriad of individually defined spheres of influence. With Facebook, users create a sphere ofinfluence for themselves, and then begin to act upon it and upon other spheres as they are activewithin the domain of Facebook. They may also create connections between their space and otherspaces outside the domain of Facebook.
Facebook claims to have 1 billion active monthly users as of October 2012. Withconnections that can be made intra-domain between spheres of influence created by users, andother spheres outside the domain of Facebook, one could create a representation of activity usingonly Facebook users that would rival, if not surpass the complexity of the above picture of theinternet. I will discuss how this complex activity defines the Identity, or at least the perception ofthe identity of these individual users. My field site, is this network of connections and sphereswithin the domain of facebook. For the purposes of this project, all of my observations and conclusions unless otherwisespecifically noted are in relation to Facebook.Methods: I have been a member of Facebook for a few years, but in order to obtain the data I wasseeking, I conducted a number of activities beyond simply participating within the Domain.Observation played a key role early on. It was only through documenting observationsthoroughly that I was able critically analyze my own experiences within the spectrum of otherusers, and use data from that experience to enhance my findings. Observation generally consistedof documenting everything that occurred on a Facebook page over the course of a given periodof time. I closely observed 5 profiles, over a period of activity of 2 weeks, to a 2 months; Iobserved more casually many more, over a total observation period spanning Spring-Fall 2012.This observation was occurring asynchronously to the activity of producing the content. That is, Iwould potentially observe an act minutes, hours, days or even weeks after it had actuallyoccurred. I began categorizing different kinds of acts, and documenting what kind of activity
users were involved in. I also chose only to observe those profiles which were not set to“private” or, that could be seen by anyone with an internet connection. I began seeing some of my most useful information when I began giving surveys andinterviews. I gave out some physical surveys and created an online survey as well. I received 37responses between the two formats. I also conducted 8 interviews of people. Some of whom Ihad observed their activity on Facebook, and others I just interviewed based on responses to thesurvey. By combining and correlating the data I obtained from Participatory Observation, Surveyand Interview I created the foundation on which my findings are resting. Most importantly,finding in surveys and interviews the motivation behind observed activity.Populations: Recognizing various populations is an important step to categorizing and analyzingactivity. Within the context of this study, where a person comes from in the physical world isonly so relevant. A user of social media chooses many of the populations they are a part of. WhatSocial Networking Site (SNS) they choose to join is one. Many SNSs are created for the benefitof specific physical world characteristics or goals such as ethnicity, interests, or profession. Once a SNS is chosen, in this case Facebook, and a User creates their space, or sphere,they begin to shape it, and fit it with indications of their membership in various populations orsub-populations including gender, relationship status, or place or type of employment. They may
represent or express within the features of their sphere interests or hobbies that place them withinstill more discernible populations.Buttons and Boxes: Many Objects exist within the realm of Facebook. While we will look primarily atobjects within the domain of Facebook, there are some that exist outside of it but that interactwith it directly that we will also address. All objects within the scope of this project are tools through which interaction occurs.Menus, entry boxes, “like” hands and similar buttons are all necessary for users/actors tointerface with and create their sphere, as well as connect to others. Some objects interact morepassively, like a profile picture. Users choose their profile picture, and upload it using Facebookdefined formatting and objects, and from then on, it is on display, in the same location (upper leftof a user profile) as everyone else within the same domain. This particular Object willimmediately identify an actor to others that visit their sphere; it is a first impression and thechoice of what the picture contains is an important act we will discuss later. The personal computer, or phone, or similar interaction device is an essential object thatmay not exist within the domain of Facebook, but which is essential for its success. What kind ofdevice someone uses to interact with their Facebook account determines to some extent theirchoice of acts within the domain. Actors must use objects to exist within a domain because objects are the means for themto act within their sphere, and between other spheres. It is only through acts and activity, madepossible through objects, that the presence of an actor can be formed, or extended beyond thescope of their own unconnected sphere.
Acts: Above I said that Actors must use objects to exist within a domain. When an actor usesan object, they are participating in an act. Acts include things like a “post,” a “like,” a “tag,” oreven making someone a “friend.” All acts have a time stamp indicating the date and time of daythe act occurred. An Actor is born into a domain by creating a profile. This is the first significant act and itis comprised of several smaller acts. A user or actor will sign up, and begin to populate fields ofinformation requested by the format of the Domain, Name (at least to be displayed), gender,employment, whether the actor is in a relationship and if so, the option to link your profile, orsphere, with an indicated companion immediately; they can also list interests such as specificmusic, television and books they like. During this process is when they will be prompted tochoose a profile picture. The Profile picture is to a large extent the first thing that otherinhabitants of the domain will see. It may in fact be the reason someone decides to click on anactor’s profile in the first place, if they find it displayed in another sphere somewhere, as theprofile pic in Facebook is attached to every act made by an actor. One of the first observations Imade was looking at categories of profile pictures. I looked at 153 profiles. Of them, 82% choseto make their profile a picture of themselves. Interestingly though, of those, only 51% chose tobe in their profile picture alone. The other 49% either had a significant other, child(ren),sibling(s), a friend, a group of friends, or the like in their picture. I was not able to fully explorethe nature of profile picture choice within the scope of data collection, but looking at the profilepictures as a significant first act especially one that decides a focal of visual representation of selfwithin, and as a gateway to, people’s spheres is something that will need to be addressed incontinued work.
Once an actor feels their profile is complete, their born is born within the domain. Theirnext act is generally to immediately start establishing connections to other spheres. The first andmost obvious act is to begin “friending.” They may search by email address or name (or even bysome of the populations that are available to be chosen during profile construction), and startfinding people that they know, or want to know. They can send the people they find a “friendrequest,” and if accepted, a link is created. The two spheres become connected in a number ofreciprocal ways. Most simply, both people now exist within a sub-space of each other’s profilesphere known as the friend list. It is effectively a directory of friend connections. But, muchmore importantly is the connection these two spheres now share on the “feed.” The feed is bothan object and a space within the sphere that is a profile. It is what an actor is immediatelyviewing upon logging into their own profile space; it displays the recent acts of those people whoare on their friend list, as well as acts created within spheres that have been “liked” which I willreturn to in a minute. The feed is an important link between personal and friend spheres, becauseit is the primary start point of communication between spheres/actors. Liking comes in two categories. The first is what I enjoy calling “unrequited friendship.”“Liking” in this manner involves an actor going to the profile of a famous band, performer,company or some other creative or created entity, and merely pressing a like button where afriend request button would be on a personal profile. Like friending, Liking a profile in thismanner adds all of the activity of the profile owner to the initial actor’s feed, creating a verysimilar connection (as well as adding the liked sphere to a sub-space of the personal profilesimilar to friend list that is in fact a directory of likes). Unlike friending though, Liking does notrequire or demand any reciprocation on the part of the liked. A liked sphere may have Thousandsor even millions of Likers, but are never asked for their opinion or position on these near friend
equivalents. The Likers activity is also not visible on the Liked’s feed. I will address the otherform of liking just below. From the point of view of an actor, at the top of their feed is a simple box, inside whichare the words: “What’s on your mind?” This simple invitation from the domain itself to everymember of its population is asked every time they log in, and look at their feed (above the boxare links that allow the adding of images or video, and also an option to create a “question”which is effectively a mini poll). Through this simple box shaped object containing this question,actors make the act of sharing their life. Once the box is filled with the details of this morning’sbreakfast, a picture of a cat with a silly caption, or a link to the latest campaign news, the userposts it as their “status,” which also broadcasts it out to all of their friend’s feeds. Unaltered, thisis the way that most connect interconnect. As an actor browses other people’s statuses on theirfeed, the extensions of other people’s spheres into their own, they have the option of“commenting” on them, or liking them. Comments end up being amended to the status of theother, as a reciprocal extension back to the original sphere. Status posts, while displayed onfriendly feeds, actually exist on the originator’s “wall.” The wall is effectively a feed dedicatedto the individual whose sphere it resides within. It contains all of their statuses, notes about theiractivity in other sphere, and notes, links or other messages that people post to it. Though, the“wall” as an element of Facebook and spheres is actually undergoing evolution into what is nowbeing called the “timeline.” The Timeline has effectively the same function as the wall, but whilethe wall was, as the name implies, a fairly flat design feature, that merely listed activity from topto bottom, the timeline organizes all activity and events along a chronological line descending toFacebook birth, and actually even farther provided the user has supplied any information that
contains dates that extends beyond Facebook birth, up to and including actual birth at the verybottom/end of the timeline. Most acts resemble status posting in technological terms: boxes for text that are thenposted to an area of the personal sphere, or another sphere. But, the intent and content of the actmay vary significantly. Actors can make a wall post on other people’s spheres, or simply “write something…” asit actually says in the small box at the top of a wall or timeline. This, like a status, could benearly anything, from an exclamation of love, to invitations to a weekend event, birthday wishesor a link to an article describing the most recent film ransacking of a beloved literary property.While the Status and Wall Post/Timeline post may parallel quite a bit, even often in the contentdepartment, where they vary is how their value may be perceived. A Status could be describedthen as, “look what I care enough about to write about,” while the post to someone else’s spherewould instead be “look what I think you would care enough about for me to write about.”Although this doesn’t fit all cases, and there are additional considerations, particularly with poststo other people’s sphere, it is a broadly accurate assessment. The only other broadly accurateassessment that will become relevant later, particularly as I discuss “negativity” is that a post toanother sphere may also be described by, “Look what I thought should be seen by everyone thatvisits your profile.” Commenting, as an act is a reactionary or reciprocal action. It can occur within your ownsphere, on another’s or in third party neutral spheres, labeled “events.” Which usually are createdfor, and revolve around, certain physical world events, or causes. Commenting is merely puttingin your two cents, so to speak, in response to someone’s post. Generally speaking, comments
will only consist of text, or perhaps a link, regardless of what they are reacting to, the defaultfunctionality does not support inserting images or video at the push of a button like a status or awall post. Like commenting, the other form of Liking plays a reactionary/reciprocal role. Anactor may “like” a status post, or a comment for instance. This form of liking is merely a buttonin the shape of a “thumbs up” hand at the bottom of posts. Pressing it relays a notion of approvalto the user, without committing opinions to words. There is no dislike button. The act of “checking in” or, simply allowing the addition of “location tags” to other acts,is an act itself that directly links areas of the physical world, to an actor’s personal sphere withinFacebook. Checking in functions and applications are ways of announcing activity in thephysical world, based on geographical location and/or cultural activity. Location tags add ageneral location to the time stamp that is already attached to all acts. It is often a city and statelevel distinction, and it rests at the end of the act. A “check in” on the other hand, either throughFacebook, or through applications (software enhancements that create additional functionality orthemed act choices to a Facebook account/sphere above and beyond what I have time to discusswithin the scope of this project) is an act that is at its core a specific location. This is often arestaurant, a bar, or an event of some kind. It will also include a miniature map, with the locationhighlighted, and with a click, another actor can follow an included link that generally providesphone number, and address to the establishment. There are other acts, but these are the primary acts around which most or all connectionsI observed form. All acts have two elements, between the physical world and Facebook, andfrom the actor to an object within the personal sphere, or between spheres within Facebook.What device an actor uses to interact with their virtual sphere can often determine to a degreehow they interact. A mobile device like a smart phone allows for a broader range of possible
interactions between the physical world and network of Facebook and its network of spheres, forinstance. The nature and quantity of acts vary with time, relevant to the condition of the actor overtime, and the way in which acts are allowed within a given domain may vary over time, asformats change (as we already see with the wall vs. timeline). This determines to an extent theability of actors to manipulate their presence since acts are used to shape and define a profilesphere, or to create interaction points between profile or event spaces through statuses, posts, andcomments. Despite time stamps implying a uniform chronological system, conversation withinor between these spheres do not always happen in a symmetrical timely fashion; reactions andreplies may take days or weeks or longer to occur. As much as objects are what allow an actor to exist within a domain, it is through actsthat an actor makes their existence known. Acts through objects are used to create and extend apresence within a domain.Rules: “So people can see how awesome my life is” Before every act, there is the decision to act. After categorizing the types of acts, I startedlooking at the contents of these acts, repetition of acts, and intent. I asked actors what theirthoughts were on their own actions, and others. People told me that they liked sharing all kinds of things. Like the explanation of statusesincluded above, for instance, people told me they posted, quotes, news about themselves or theworld, funny or “pretty” images. They also told me the things they didn’t like to see, or that theythought was inappropriate. Some people didn’t like when people discussed family matters in astatus, or attacked a family member by posting on another’s. Some people complained of others
“constant updates” about everything they do throughout the day. Politics was another big one.Some people were offended merely by the liberal use of caps lock. One felt nothing wasinappropriate. When it came down to it, while many people had overlapping themes in theircategories of both what should and should not be posted everyone was a little different, whichshouldn’t come as a surprise. Interestingly though, aside from the one individual, unanimously,all people felt that negativity was inappropriate, or uncalled for in one form or another. This is really interesting though, since a solid majority also listed big personal news assomething that is status worthy. Did they really mean only big positive news? If Facebookreflects the actor’s life, wouldn’t both be necessarily present? Does Facebook reflect an actor’slife? If my surveys and interviews are representative of the Facebook population as a whole (theyvery well may not be), then do all of the negative posts only come from less than 5% of thepopulation? Lets look at another act in the context of content and intent: the “check-in.” It turned out,that even if in the surveys, I got mostly a yes or no, when I moved on to interviews, most peoplehad a fairly developed reason to use or not use check-ins. Some people flatly refuse to use them,citing reasons like, “I don’t want creepers,” or, that “everyone does not need to know exactlywhere I am at any given time.” On the side of people who did choose to “check-in” regularly, oreven often, I also got relatively diverse responses. For instance, the title of this section is actuallyone person’s reason for using check-ins, “so that people can see how awesome my life is.”Someone else said that he had complicated rules for when he would and would not check in, butin general, he only checked into restaurants and other public places where, should anyone see it,he would welcome them to show up. I had another person who I interviewed who uses anapplication addition to Facebook that tracks and posts a breakdown of their running workout,
complete with the path they took, and time. They said this was primarily for the benefit of theirsibling whom they rely on for motivation from time to time. I discussed with this person thatanyone can see this path, and they commented that it was unfortunate that the app worked thatway. If they had a choice, they would filter who was able to see the output of the application. Filtering is an important element of defining the role that an actor plays within theDomain of Facebook. There are many levels of filtering, both implicit and explicit. Actors canobviously censor themselves before posting anything, on their sphere, or another’s. Generallyspeaking, once a status is posted, it can be easily viewed by any friend, as it should be appearingon their feed, and it can also be viewed by anyone else that comes across the actor’s sphere. Thisprovides a level of social censorship, as friends will be able to call out fallacious stories orinformation. This also raised an interesting question based on the responses I got in surveys andinterviews about Friend list populations. The responses for total friends conservatively averagedover 100, while the average “active” friends averaged below 50 (active being defined by me insurveys and interviews as someone who they communicated with on a somewhat regular basis);some having much more sizable ratios of incongruity. The question came up that, when theymake a status post for instance, who are they intending the audience to be, the <50, or the >100?Speaking of this same actor who used the running app, something we discussed in our interview,was using “groups” to define who is able to view a status. Something that I haven’t reallydiscussed is that any actor can make their sphere “private” which allows them to interact withother spheres at will, but which restricts access to their sphere by others. A person may onlyallow those people who are already their “friend” to view their page, and their pictures (althoughthe profile pic is always available). Groups are a way of making certain posts more private, orfocused in audience than others. This actor has defined a series of groups, like family, and
particular spheres of friends, or co-workers, that they could designate a post with, so that onlythese groups can see it. Interestingly, this actor didn’t go through the trouble of creating thesegroups in order to not allow people to view posts, but because they didn’t think that people inone group would necessarily be interested in a post directed at another. They said that, “justbecause I like to read random posts, doesn’t mean everyone else does.” They chose to createfiltering out of courtesy and consideration for others, rather than protection of themselves. Most of the people I spoke to did not use these filters. When I spoke to them about whenthey posted, who they were posting to, they generally admitted that they were posting to one or afew of the “active” friends or with them in mind, rather than then the total population of theirfriend list. So, above the “rules” they use for posting information, or links, etc. they areadditionally subject to, or performing for their perceived audience (whether or not they take thetime to functionally designate their acts toward these people). In the example above of the personwho has a rule about checking in where he would like people to show up, he is actually onlyinterested in his “active” friends showing up, and would likely be surprised if someone else,admittedly on his friend list but not active, showed up. Even if the flavor of these rules, and the qualitative “value” associated with various kindsof content are different for each user, even in my limited amount of data there began to be anemergence of what might be perceived as certain societal “norms.” They are not concrete, andthey are not fully enforced by the Domain. As I mentioned above, there was nearly unanimousexpression of dislike of “negative” posts (despite the domain not supporting an aforementioned“dislike” button). There was also a fairly common theme of Too Much Information (TMI) withinmy responses regarding what should not be posted. This might be referring to intimate accountsof the evening’s romantic conquests, or bowel conquests or merely excessive posting in general,
“outlining their entire day.” The other hand though is that while this certainly may be outside therealm of the relationship the recipient may have with the actor sharing this information, thiscomes too back to the notion of the audience. So then, there is the impression of the recipient thatthe initial actor is sharing with them, and the notion of the actor that they are sharing withperhaps a small group of “active” friends, without thinking of everyone else, including therecipient they may not have spoken to in years. Not only then, do we have asynchronoustemporal activity, but potentially asynchronous perception of the degree of reciprocity within aninter-sphere connection. Rules are created by the actors, even if they do not voice them, to represent the valueassociated with certain kinds of acts, in certain contexts, and with certain content, directed at acertain audience. They define the types of content they do not want to see, and at least make anattempt to not present that kind of content themselves, regardless of whether or not the end resultin activity accurately represents events that are occurring within their life. These patterns areobservable within the space an actor creates.Conclusion: “I am not as clever as the memes I post” This quote that I received on a survey declares that the perception of the post being madeis not always an accurate representation of the person creating it. Memes are a common imagebased humor associated with internet culture, the full detail of which I will omit. But, they areoften selective in their humor potency, based on social or recreational groupings. People willpost objects that they have not created themselves in order to create and associate with aparticular feeling, or to express their interest in a particular area or event. Just as they post thingsthat are not representative of their actual life, they may specifically, as discussed, neglect to
include things within their own life. Choosing instead to create a sphere devoid of elements theyfeel do not belong within the context of Facebook. They may choose to enhance, or censorpersonal representation within this technology that mediates human relationships. The rules theycreate to govern what acts and content they express are the manual to the image they areattempting to portray.What’s Next?:It would be very productive to look very specifically and extensively at status posts, andwall/timeline posts. More specifically looking at the occurrence of “negativity,” and what itmeans to different people and its prevalence.It would also be productive to continue looking at profile pictures, as a first impression.
Works CitedInterviews, Surveys (mostly Anonymous). Conducted over Period concluding on October 10 2012.Journal of observations concluding 10 October 2012.Boyd, Danah. "Social Network Sites: Public, Private, or What?." knowledge tree. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 May 2012. <kt.flexiblelearning.net.au/tkt2007/edition-13/social-network-sites-public- private-or-what/>."Facebooks latest news, announcements and media resources - Key Facts - Facebook." Facebooks latest news, announcements and media resources - Facebook. Facebook, n.d. Web. 9 May 2012. <http://newsroom.fb.com/content/default.aspx?NewsAreaId=22>."iCeNSA." Interdisciplinary Center for Network Science and Applications. University of Notre Dame, n.d. Web. 9 May 2012. <http://icensa.nd.edu/>.