Social Network Sites: identity performances and relational practices


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Paper presented at ESA-Bocconi, october 2010

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Social Network Sites: identity performances and relational practices

  1. 1. Networked Sociability. Exploring identity performances and new patterns of sociability in a networked world Francesca Comunello and Simone Mulargia ESA Sociology of culture Bocconi Session 46. Social networks and new forms of sociability
  2. 2. An Overview <ul><li>The theoretical framework: describing the new forms of sociability under the theoretical framework of “Networked Individualism” (Wellman, Castells) </li></ul><ul><li>The purpose of the presentation is to examine Social Network Sites (SNS) by focusing on some of the topics that appear to have crucial sociological implications: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Personal profiles and identity performances </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Friending, friend lists and the related new forms of sociability </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>(Online/offline sociability; some privacy concerns) </li></ul></ul><ul><li>We will explore our topics by rising some theoretical questions emerging from specific literature review, supported by the preliminary results of different reaserch projects we are currently working on, both quantitative and qualitative. </li></ul><ul><li>More specifically, web surveys (italian users, snowball - foaf): </li></ul><ul><ul><li>MySpace (170 respondents, plus 2 focus groups and 20 semi-structured interviews) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Flickr (over 500 respondents, plus 2 focus groups) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Facebook (326 respondents) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>(today, surely not statistically representative, but helping rising important sociological questions) </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Some highlights from a broad survey on PlayStationNetwork italian users (over 8800 respondents) </li></ul>
  3. 3. SNS and Networked Sociability: a warning <ul><li>When studying new forms of sociability, we should not assume they are determined by (or limited to) SNS or even digital communication technology </li></ul><ul><li>Networked Sociability is a much broader phenomenon, and refers to the wide variety of ways in which people are linked to each other, both on- and offline </li></ul><ul><li>Nevertheless, we believe that SNS are powerful playgrounds, both for the user and for the researcher. T hey represent powerful environments to observe publicly articulated self presentation and identity performances: SNS make such processes visible, trackable, and therefore, easy to study, while users become at least partially aware of such complex processes. </li></ul>
  4. 4. Networked Individualism and Networked Sociability <ul><li>Leaving the “little boxes” people were used to: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>“ Members of little-box societies only deal with fellow members of each of the few groups to which they belong: usually our homes, our neighborhoods, our workgroups, or our organizations. We are moving away from such a group-based society to a society in which boundaries are more permeable, interactions are with diverse others, linkages switch between multiple networks, and hierarchies (when they exist) are flatter and sometimes recursive (Wellman, 1999) </li></ul></ul><ul><li>… towards “networked sociability” </li></ul><ul><ul><li>“ The culture of individualism does not lead to isolation, but it changes the patterns of sociability in terms of increasingly selective and self directed contacts . (…) The critical matter is not technology, but the development of networks of sociability based on choice and affinity , breaking the organizational and spatial boundaries of relationships (…). Networked sociability leads both to an individual-centered network, specific to the individual, and to peer-group formation, when the networks becomes the context of behaviour for its participants” (Castells 2006: 143-144) </li></ul></ul>
  5. 5. SNS: a definition <ul><li>“ web-based services that allow individuals to </li></ul><ul><li>(1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, </li></ul><ul><li>(2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and </li></ul><ul><li>(3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system. ” ( boyd & Ellison, 2007) </li></ul><ul><li>As the definition suggests, we will focus on the main elements in SNS: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>profiles </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>contact (friend) lists </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Sonia Livingstone (2008) has studied the way in which teens articulate their identity performances in SNS, proposing two different models: identity as display and identity as connection (rather a continuum than a rigid dichotomy) </li></ul>
  6. 6. Personal profiles and identity performances <ul><li>“ Identity is something that we do , rather than something we are” (Buckingham 2008: 8); </li></ul><ul><li>Giddens: modern individuals have to be constantly “self-reflexive”, turning into a “symbolic project” that individuals have to work on, creating their biographical narratives. </li></ul><ul><li>Shaping personal profiles and interacting on the platform, users are involved in continuous activities of impression management and identity performances </li></ul>
  7. 7. Some highlights from our findings <ul><li>Our data show that, both on MySpace and on Facebook, people mostly add “realistic” information, starting from their picture and following also with “critical information” such as “relationship status”, “religious view” and so on. </li></ul><ul><li>As an example, the Facebook users that have answered our survey almost never show their home address or phone number in personal profiles (namely, only 6,9% and 8,1%; 4,7% and 4,1% of female respondents), but are quite likely to add critical information such as “relationship status” (68,2%), education (80,4%), work (53,6%), personal pictures (95,6%); political view has been filled out by 35,8%, while religious view by 41,4% (even including ironical descriptions). </li></ul><ul><li>Competition between self disclosure and privacy concerns: a poorely articulated profile is less attractive; hypothesis: users seem to communicate even critical information, if they believe it contributes to a better self presentation, while hiding those kind of higly critical information (phone number and address) that doesn’t add any value to the actractiveness of their profile </li></ul>
  8. 8. Continuous revision of the self <ul><li>Consistently with the idea of an evolving and “processual identity”, most users seam to be engaged in continuous activities of profile redefinition and re-shaping. They often modify, for example, their profile pictures, their status updates and even their friend list, engaging in what has been defined by Sonia Livingstone (referring to MySpace users) as a “continuous revision of the self” (2008: 403). </li></ul><ul><li>Status updates: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>8,1% never </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>24,9% less than once a month </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>17,8% 2-3 times a month </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>49,3% once a week or more </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>15,3% almost every day (18,2% female respondents) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>4,7% more than once a day (5,9% female respondents) </li></ul></ul>
  9. 9. “ Friendship” under question <ul><li>The terms “friend” and “friendships”, when used referring both to offline relations and to SNS, rise a number of questions. </li></ul><ul><li>First of all we underline little systematic attention from sociologists on the topic; the definition of the term itself is problematic, as the concept appears to be fuzzy and less formalized than other forms of relationship (see Spencer and Pahl, 2006, Allan and Adams, 2006) </li></ul><ul><li>In SNS, the public display of a friend’s list contextualizes each user’s identity (as argued by boyd and Donath, 2004), while the friending activity represents an explicit identity performance. </li></ul><ul><li>We should also evaluate the real meaning of those terms, considering the strength of the ties we establish online. </li></ul><ul><li>Friending is one of the core activities people perform on SNS, but its meaning has been repeatedly under question. Some argue that a wide network, even if based on weak ties, can serve as the foundation of social capital. Others, on the contrary, underline that most of Facebook users show a kind of neutral attitude towards their Facebook friends. </li></ul>
  10. 10. Friending strategies <ul><li>FB Friends: Average number of friends: 240 (according to Facebook official data, average FB user has 130 friends) </li></ul><ul><li>Consistently with the findings reported in existing literature, our MySpace respondents appear to be quite open towards the friend requests they receive: 69% of them declare to accept more that the half of the requests they receive. </li></ul><ul><li>The results from the Facebook survey, on the other hand, show different approaches to friending: 55% accept more than the half of the received friend requests, while 30% accept “only a small part” of received requests. </li></ul><ul><li>Young adults we have interviewed (both FB and MySpace users), confirmed to be aware of different friending strategies: on Facebook, they act more selectively, preferring to add (or representing themselves as adding) mainly people they know offline, while accepting a broader variety of people on MySpace (from “celebrities” to “people they don’t know offline”). </li></ul>
  11. 11. Friending strategies: some more questions <ul><li>Even if we only have preliminary data referring to Facebook users, there seem to emerge an interesting mismatch between what users say, when asked about their propension to accept friend requests from specific categories of persons, and what they say about the global composition of their friend list. </li></ul><ul><li>On the one hand users declare a weak propension to accept friend requests from people they don’t have a significant tie with: on a scale going from 1 (minimum propension) to 5 (maximum propension), 47% answered 1 or 2 referring to “friends you know from other websites”, 64% answered 1 or 2 referring to “friends of a friend”, 70% answered 1 or 2 referring to “people they don’t know very much” and 90% answered 1 or 2 referring to “strangers”. </li></ul><ul><li>On the other hand, when asked “how many of your FB friends do you consider friends in the real world ”, 57% answered “less than the half”. </li></ul><ul><li>This mismatch needs further investigation but, even if we cannot exclude that social desirability plays an important role, our hypothesis is that it deals with the difference between a synchronic dimension (the idea I have of my network considered as a whole), and a diachronic dimension (the attitude I have today towards someone asking to be added as a friend). This hypothesis has to be related with the acceleration of personal relation’s lifecycles people experience today. </li></ul><ul><li>Moreover, users seem to have clear friending patterns, showing different level of propension towards adult family members and young family members, schoolmates and collegues, etc. </li></ul>
  12. 12. “ Friendship” definitions on- and offline <ul><li>Referring to the strength of the ties we have online, and especially in SNS, we can underline a mismatch between the friending practices supported by SNS and what people experience offline. </li></ul><ul><li>SNS require friendship formalization , through the public (and forced) articulation of social connections; generally, people receive (or send) a friend request they have to respond to and their friend list is shown on their personal profile. On the contrary, in everyday life friendships are quite never formalized or explicitly established and verified. </li></ul><ul><li>As argued in the Digital Youth Report, “because Friends are displayed on social network sites, there are social tensions concerning whom to include and exclude” (p. 11). Especially among teenagers, there are constant negotiations regarding the friending practice (social norms are still “under construction”). </li></ul><ul><li>Moreover, SNS generally support a binary , dichotomous definition of “friendship” (friend vs not friend), which is far from the subtle definition people use in their offline lives. </li></ul><ul><li>Top Friends: strong negotiations (“social drama”) </li></ul><ul><li>Facebook Friend Lists: a tool to better manage the different “typologies” of friends each user has on the platform, mainly related to the rising privacy concerns. (74,8 % of our users never used them) </li></ul>
  13. 13. Profiles/taste performances + friendships/friend lists <ul><li>Many Scholars describe identity as a complex concept, both referring to “something unique” to each of us, and also implying “a relationship with a broader collective or social group” (Buckingham 2008) </li></ul><ul><li>Till now we have addressed the two topics, profiles/taste performances and friendships/friend lists, as they were separated, but of course they are not. </li></ul><ul><li>More specifically, friend lists serve as an important part of a person’s self-representation on a SNS. As argued by Sonia Livingstone when proposing the idea of identity as connection, Teens (ad SNS users more generally) use Friends to enact their identity (Livingstone 2008). On the other hand, in environments where they are more likely to accept as a “friend” even people they don’t know offline, personal profiles and more specifically the tastes expressed by others, are one of the main element users consider to decide whether or not to accept a friend request (or even to request a friendship). </li></ul>
  14. 14. Tastes and friending <ul><li>When the focus of a Social Network Site is not only “helping to connect with the people of your life” (Facebook), but also connecting with people you didn’t know offline, tastes seem to become crucial. This is especially true within Social Networks that are focused on cultural consumption (MySpace and, if we refer to music) or that are more “task oriented”, such as, for example, the PlayStation Network. </li></ul><ul><li>We are currently working, together with Sony Computer Entertainment Italy, on a survey that has involved more than 8800 Italian PlayStation Network users. Among other topics, we are investigating the way in which those users create and manage their friend lists. </li></ul><ul><li>Not surprisingly, when using the PlayStation Network, users mainly focus on gaming. Therefore, even their friend lists are built in a way that could be defined as “game-driven”: when asked about the main elements they consider for accepting/requesting a friendship, 65% of our respondents mention as an important element “sharing the same tastes concerning videogames”, 62% “having played together”, while only 15% mention as important elements their avatar or nickname; even “knowing a person offline” (the main element in most of SNS) has a weaker role: 46% </li></ul><ul><li>On the PSN, people appear generally much less interested in friending: 93% of our 8800 respondents have from 0 (29%) to 40 friends, while the average number of friends in other platforms, more social-oriented, is much higher (on FB:120 – official FB data). </li></ul>
  15. 15. Online/offline <ul><li>Online and Offline: two separate worlds? (Early distopians) </li></ul><ul><li>As the Internet becomes growingly integrated in our everyday life, the theoretical framework offered by the networked individualism has helped to acknowledge that there wasn’t a deep gap between online and offline sociability. Digital technology was not leading to social isolation. </li></ul><ul><li>This trend becomes even clearer studying SNS, where people are connecting to each other in a way they perceive seamless to everyday life. </li></ul><ul><li>In our research, we have observed people moving from offline relations towards online relations and vice versa, moving from an online contact to an offline relationship. </li></ul><ul><li>Maintainaning, reinforcing or repristinating connections? </li></ul>
  16. 16. Online/offline via SNS? <ul><li>Even on MySpace, where users are more likely to add someone they didn’t know offline, the maintenance function (maintaining a contact with close friends, especially if not – more – living in the same area) has a strong prevalence (91% of respondents use MySpcace to keep contact with close friends sometimes or often), followed by the reinforcement function (strengthen weaker relations: 74%, sometimes or often) and by repristination function (using the SNS to reactivate broken ties: 50%). </li></ul><ul><li>No relevant gender distinctions. The maintenance function becomes increasingly important when the respondent’s age grows, while the repristination function is more positively associated with younger people. </li></ul><ul><li>Moreover, 76% of the MySpace respondents have met (offline) people they have known on MySpace. </li></ul><ul><li>And with regards to music consumption: after having discovered a band trough MySpace, 44% of respondents declare to have participated to their live concerts (39% have looked for other songs online and only 17% have added the band’s songs to their own profile). </li></ul>
  17. 17. Some privacy concerns <ul><li>How can publicly articulated profiles can be compatible with people’s privacy? </li></ul><ul><li>On their profiles, people disclose personal information they wouldn’t easily communicate to strangers offline (age, relationship status, religious view, sexual preference, etc.) </li></ul><ul><li>Following Livingstone, it would be mistaken to argue that people are unconcerned about their privacy. When referring to SNS, privacy has been largely misunderstood: we need, instead, “a definition of privacy not tied to the disclosure of certain types of information, rather a definition centered on having control over who knows what about you ” (Livingstone 2008, p. 404). </li></ul><ul><li>Mismatch between the dichotomous notion of Friendship supported by those platforms and the subtle notion shared by users; </li></ul><ul><li>We are experiencing a shift from (place-to-place and) person-to-person connectivity to role to role connectivity (Wellman). Furthermore, people belong to multiple networks, that are only loosely joined to each other: each of us magnifies or narcotizes some of elements of his identity projection depending on the network he is momentaneously engaging with. On FB: all the networks at the same time </li></ul>
  18. 18. Privacy concerns: some preliminary findings <ul><li>Consistently to what has been underlined in existing literature, also our FB respondents declare high levels of privacy concerns: on a scale going from 1 (lowest interest) to 5 (maximum interest) ,78,24% declare a very high level of interest (4 and 5), while only 6,9 % declares low levels of interest (1 and 2). </li></ul><ul><li>Nevertheless, 21,5% has a public profile or doesn't remember wether it is public or not; 15,6% has never checked his privacy settings or doesn’t remember. </li></ul><ul><li>Even if declaring a strong interest in protecting their privacy, and at least partially agreeing whit the statement that “FB may represent a risk for my privacy”, a part of our respondents doesn’t show to act consistently, e.g sharing critical information with people other than friends. </li></ul><ul><li>In our opinion, such a mismatch can be at least partially explained by the low levels of platform-specific literacy shown by respondents. </li></ul>
  19. 19. Conclusion <ul><li>For a better understanding of the identity performances and of the emerging forms of sociability, we should not only focus on SNS, but rather consider the wider context </li></ul><ul><li>In order to have a more detailed and quality-oriented insight on user experience on the platform, we have started to explore a new research tool, mixing the “cognitive walkthrough” technique (normally used in usabillity inspection methods), ethnographic observation and in-depth interview. </li></ul><ul><li>We are therefore interviewing users, while they are using Facebook. They are invited to aswer our questions concerning specifical issues that emerge from the activities they have carried out on the platform (friends, status updates, liking, posts, etc.) </li></ul>
  20. 20. Thank You for Your attention!