Eline Bochem 596558
Sociology of Culture Essay
T.P. Franssen
December 2009

A Culture of Narcissists?
The Social Value o...
can only be obtained from other humans. Taking for granted actors will socially interact simply
because the environment ma...
Three types of identity are distinguished by Castells

       1. Legitimizing: introduced by dominant institutions of soc...
distinctive contributions to an user’s understanding of his or her identity.3 By using different media
formats, it attempt...
‘When I took office, only high energy physicists had ever heard of what is called the World Wide Web... Now even my
cat ha...

Nevertheless, actors likely to participate in SNS, are often members of several net...

    •   Bargh J.A., McKenna, K.Y.A. and Fitzsimons, G.M. (2002), ‘Can You See the Real Me?
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The Social Value Of Social Networks


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The Social Value Of Social Networks

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  2. 2. Eline Bochem 596558 Sociology of Culture Essay T.P. Franssen December 2009 A Culture of Narcissists? The Social Value of Social Networks: Social Interaction and Identity Construction in Social Networking Sites “Looking at the proliferation of personal web pages on the net, it looks like very soon everyone on earth will have 15 Megabytes of fame.” (M.G. Siriam) In the past 10 years massive changes featured The Internet. Web1.0 – the online world of passively information-pushing websites transformed to Web2.01 – an Internet of applications facilitating interaction, information-sharing and collaboration made possible by the rising of weblogs, social networking sites (SNS), wiki’s and mash-ups paving the way for the development of online communities existing by means of the exchange of social interactions among actors. This essay will try to research the social value of social networking sites, associated social interactions and identity construction on the Internet. THEORIES ON SOCIAL Before analyzing the social value of social networks, the concept of ‘social’ has to be covered: for how does a grand concept as social needs to be defined? Max Weber, one of the founders of modern sociology formulates action as social: ‘insofar as, by virtue of the subjective meaning attached to it by the acting individual (or individuals), it takes account of the behaviour of others and is thereby oriented in its course’ (Weber/Heydebrand, 2004). However naming an action meaningful or merely reactive behaviour - to which no subjective meaning is attached – is something which could be hard to recognize. For this reason almost all behaviour sociologically relevant, can be situated somewhere in between. With reference to the Weberian concept: ‘Social’ seems to exist only in the intersubjective relations among individual, is opposed to the concept of private and could therefore be understood as interactive. And interaction is a necessary process in the attainment of rewards because so much of what humans want                                                          1 Web2.0 is closely associated with Tim O’Reilly and the O’ Reilly Media Web 2.0 conference in 2004.   2 
  3. 3. can only be obtained from other humans. Taking for granted actors will socially interact simply because the environment makes it possible - neglecting the social (psychological) dimension of the desired social interaction – is therefore a statement which cannot be made.(Kreijns, Kirschnerb and Jochemsb, 2003:336) ROLE-PLAYING Two theories explain the social (psychological) dimension of interaction to a larger extent: the exchange perspective assumes humans are motivated to maximize gains and minimize losses. Identity theory holds that human actions are aimed at conscious goals and purposes, which are the cause for interaction among humans. (Brown, 2006:9) Although these two theories reason from different viewpoints, both connote a certain amount of conscious acting present in processes of obtaining whatever an actor likes to pursue. This conscious acting becomes more clear when we introduce role-playing, a concept defined by Goffman. As a species, human beings need "face-to-face" interactions and according to Goffman, those interactions are displayed in such a way they are dependent upon situational expectations that effect conduct of the individual actors participating in communication exchange, which assumes the expression of roles (Sannicola in Perry, 1995). The emergence of technology and computer-mediated communication paved the way for online role-playing with the birth of chatrooms, social networks and social media platforms such as Hyves, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. They are the stages of role-playing on the Internet attracting different audiences and performers. IDENTITY, EDENTITY AND SUBJECT CREATION Roles provide a sense of identity because actors use roles as basic conceptual tools in thinking about self: ‘We become the roles we are playing, because roles provide purpose, meaning, direction, and guidance to our lives’. Thoits (1983) theorized that the greater the number of roles, the stronger one’s sense of meaningful and guided existence. Her research shows that people who possess numerous identities report significantly less psychological distress (Brown 2006:4). Even stronger sources of meaning than roles are identities, because of the process of self-construction and individuation that they involve. Identities organize meaning, while roles organize functions. It is therefore identity could be defined as the process of construction of meaning on basis of a cultural attribute or related set of cultural attributes that is/are given priority over other sources of meaning (Castells, 2004:5&6).   3 
  4. 4. Three types of identity are distinguished by Castells 1. Legitimizing: introduced by dominant institutions of society to extend and rationalize domination over social actors. 2. Resistance: formation of communes/communities as a way of copying with conditions of oppression (anti/pro movements, religious extremistic movements) 3. Project: Proactive movements which aim at transforming society, parts of society or acts in society not formed out of oppression, but merely motivated by ideology and opportunity (online networks) It is this third type of Identity, which could be related to online identity construction. Perceiving this construction as an aggregate whole, existing of different parts, identity construction could be said to exist of the creation of different subjects or characters as defined by Goffman, characters performing different roles. All various subjects together could then be considered the collective social actor through which individual actors reach holistic meaning in their experience of Self.2 Understanding holistic as a derival from Durkheimian collective effervescence, here merely conceived as Self- effervescence: the high energy generated when subjects of the Self congregate and forge altogether a collective identity. One collective social actor invigorated, strengthened and cemented by the continuous expression and shaping of the online subjects of the Project identity. Project as such that in this case the building of identity is a project of different life: online life. Perhaps on the basis of an oppressed identity in offline life, but expanding towards the transformation of a society, community or network as the prolongation of this project of identity, the different subjects are being created and constructed. New technologies enable new kinds of group-forming and the Internet together with its online innovations are providing opportunities for new network forming and new project-identities (Shirky, 2008:17) SOCIAL NETWORK SITES On behalf of reduced auditory and visual cues, Internet communication provides a large potential for online identity experiments (Valkenburg and Peter, 2008:208). Bodylanguage, facial expressions, gestures and other nonverbal language cues present in offline social interactions are backed out and replaced by technical body language: identity expression by transmedia usage, which allows a user to experiment with his or her identity across multiple forms of media with each element making                                                          2 The Self as the agent, the knower, the ultimate locus of personal idenity (Perry, 1995:1).   4 
  5. 5. distinctive contributions to an user’s understanding of his or her identity.3 By using different media formats, it attempts to create so-called entrypoints through which familiars, friends, fans and followers can become immersed in the project identity world of the actor. Entrypoints in offline interactions are provided by bodylanguage c.s. as named before. Users are experimenting with their identity online, while communication takes mostly place in communities separate from those existing in offline life. Repercussions are hereby reduced offering an interesting opportunity to emphasize, strengthen and change certain features of the Self. Online identity experiences may even carry over to the actor’s offline life in so that their social competence will improve (e.g., Huffaker, 2006; Suler, 2005 in Valkenburg and Peter, 2008:210). On the other side pessimistic voices say online identities are less inhibited than their offline variants because actors would mainly communicate with anonymous strangers online. (Harman et al., 2005). This goes for online communication in general, which includes the complete Web World in all its varied contact modes. Focussing on social network sites (SNS) specifically, it becomes clear Harman’s statement has to be criticized. What characterizes SNS is not their allowance to meet strangers, but rather their ability to enable users to articulate and make visible their social networks (Boyd and Ellison, 2007). Of course this can still result in connections among individuals that would otherwise not be made, but that is often not the case: rather connections among familiars or people who share some history or have previously met offline are being created. Or to put it short: in SNS it is all about ‘latent ties’ (Haythornwaite, 2005). While all SNS inhibit structural parts as profiles, friend lists, comments and private messaging, they show great differences in features, private/public balance and user base. Some support mobile interactions and offer special applications – e.g. Twitter offers Twitterberry and Ubertwitter for Blackberry, Echofon, Tweetie and Twitterific for iPhone and Twibble for Nokia and other cell phones. Secondly many SNS target their audiences from specific geographical locations, interests, educational background or age groups. For example: Hyves is most popular among Dutch youth, where Netlog is valued higher among Belgium youth. Facebook started as the online network for university students and has transformed to an international platform for high educated people, LinkedIn is merely a corporate network to get connected to (ex)-colleagues, business aqcuintances and stay up-to-date with career opportunities, MySpace is mostly used by artists, musicians and DJs to show, share and spread their portfolio, Ning will provide results for those, who are wishing to be part of an independent SNS, a SNS founded by their own and there are even SNS founded for dogs (Dogster) and cats (Catster) ( Valkenburg and Peter, 2008:226).                                                          3Transmedia is here linked to Identity Experimenting in the same way as Henri Jenkins III relates Transmedia to practices of Storytelling in his book Convergence Culture (2006).   5 
  6. 6. ‘When I took office, only high energy physicists had ever heard of what is called the World Wide Web... Now even my cat has its own page’. (Bill Clinton) However some SNS do target a specific audience, in the end this does not determine the real main audience. Example of this phenomenon is Orkut, launched in the United States with an English-only interface that attracted Portuguese-speaking Brazilians as the dominant user group: it shows the often unpredictable development of online communication platforms (Boyd and Ellison: 2007) Although most SNS are free to use – exceptions are gold memberships (Hyves) or other distinctive ‘high’ profile accounts – and accessible for everybody with online access, many ‘outsiders’ value some SNS as beyond their reach, too complicated to adapt or simply as something they don’t/want (to) understand. Some of them mostly unaware of the chances and opportunities SNS could offer, judge SNS as narcisstic ego-tripping platforms overcrowded by people pretending to be somebody in this age characterized by the everybody-can-become-famous philosophy. Explanation for these statements could be found referring to Metcalfe's Law, which says that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of its users. In other words: the more people have phones, the more useful they become. This ‘network effect’ leads to rapid adoption and puts up barriers for new entrants, people, who are not (yet) participating (Saffo, 2007). On the other hand ‘the value of a social network is defined not only by who's on it, but by who's excluded’, says Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley forecaster. Despite their name, therefore, they do not benefit from the network effect. Thus unlike other networks, social networks lose value once they go beyond a certain size. Because of this argumentation SNS of more exclusive character like ‘ASmallWorld’ are being set-up: an exclusive site for the rich and famous. Such networks recognise that people want to hobnob with a chosen few, not to be spammed by random friend-requests (Baym, Bing and Lin, 2004:309). Thoughts of inclusion and exclusion could be recognized here. In genereal SNS participants are labeled as ‘they’ by non-SNS participants – a group other than actors not (yet) participating count themselves to. We-They relations could play a part in deciding not to join a SNS. Whether decisions are based on frustration (unfamiliarity with the digital world and/or the incapacity to use devices needed for online connections), envy (awareness of friends’ (high) levels of SNS connections causing a certain degree of jealousy ), passive behaviour (unwanting to put effort in one’s digital identity) or ignorance (SNS integration fear – feeling oneself an outsider), all could be reasons not to sign-up. 'The Internet is a giant network of intelligent, informed computer geeks, by which I mean: people without lives. We don't care. We have each other'. (Dave Berry)   6 
  7. 7. SOCIAL VALUE OF SOCIAL NETWORK SITES Nevertheless, actors likely to participate in SNS, are often members of several networking sites and proclaim to develop their social skills to a larger extent and experience an increase of self-disclosure caused by the development of online friendship connections. (Bargh, McKenna and Fitzsimons, 2002:33&35). Of course it could be argued this level of self-disclosure will increase as well by forming offline friendship connections, it are the online connections Bargh c.s. and this essay are dealing with. Self-disclosure and the development of social skills are being perceived as a must-have, while identity is becoming the main and sometimes the only source of meaning in a historical time characterized by widespread destructuring processes as deinstitutionalization, the delegitimation of grand causes – ‘the era of great explanations is over’ as Zizek states in his ‘In defense of last causes’ (2008) – and the related fading away of major social movements (Warschauer, 2001:152). Definitions of identity markers as race, nationality and ethnicity are altered as well by on the one hand globalization and its intersecting effect on identity markers, while on the other hand identity markers are mattering most as a source of oppression and distinction in reaction to these globalization tendencies. And it is by social interactions, role-playing and connecting one’s identity can be formulated. Due to the outlined situational factors in the beginning of this paragraph, it is not strange: At this time people are looking for ways to connect more with one another no matter what geographical location they’re at’. (The Next Web 2009) And advancing technologies are providing new spaces and playgrounds to give meaning to one’s Self by offering e.g. opportunities to identity experimenting in the online world cross bordering location of which SNS are one example. It is herefore SNS (creating Castells ‘Project’ identity) could be considered a replacement of traditional platforms of identity construction, such as institutional (creating Castells ‘Legitimizing’ identity), religious and social movement domains (creating Castells ‘Resistance’ identity). Connection is part of human’s life the Internet is merely a tool to enhance one’s connecting capacities. And perhaps actors participating on SNS could be defined as: ’Over-caffeinated narcissistic Tourette's patients with ADHD who are all trying to be the most entertaining (Katherine Berry about people active on Twitter) and is the ‘social’ value of SNS often to be forthcoming: ‘Networking is always important when it’s real and always a useless distraction when it’s fake. Internet allows huge amounts of fake networking with scoreboard & lists of popularity. Is this the way ‘social’ had to be interepreted?, in the end SNS participants are just trying to find out who they are, trying to grab some social meaning in their experience of Self.   7 
  8. 8. LITERATURE • Bargh J.A., McKenna, K.Y.A. and Fitzsimons, G.M. (2002), ‘Can You See the Real Me? Activation and Expression of the True Self on the Internet’, The Society for Psychological Study of Social Issues, Pages 33-49 • Baym, N.K., Zhang, Y.B. and Lin, M.C. (2004), ‘Social Interactions Across Media: Interpersonal Communicationon the Internet, Telephone and Face-to-Face’, New Media Society, Vol. 6, Pages 299-319 • Boyd, D.M. and Ellison N.B. (2007), ‘Social Network Sites: Definition, History and Scholarschip’, Michigan State University • Brown, L. (2006) ‘Introducing Social InteractionTheory’, Paper presented at the annual meeting of The American Sociological Association, Montreal Convention Center, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Aug 10, 2006 • Castells, M. (2004), ‘The Power of Identity: The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture’, Vol. 2, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford • Kreijns, K., Kirschnerb P.A, and Jochemsb B. (May 2003), ‘Identifying the pitfalls for social interaction in computer-supported collaborative learning environments: a review of the research’, Computers in Human Behavior, Vol. 19, Issue 3, Pages 335-353 • Perry, J. (1995), ‘Self and The Self, (In Supplement to the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998) • Saffo, P. ( 2007), ‘Social Graph-iti: There's less to Facebook and other Social Networks than Meets the Eye’, The Economist Print Edition, Octobre 18th • Sannicolas, N. (1997), ‘Erving Goffman, Dramaturgy, and On-Line Relationships’, California Essay for Social and Behavioral Sciences Major, State University, Monterey Bay, 23 Sept. • Shirky, C. (2008), ‘Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens when People Come Together’, The Penguin Press, New York • Valkenburg, P.M. and Peter, J (2008), ‘Adolescents’ Identity Experiments on the Internet: Consequences for Social Competence and Self-Concept Unity’, Communication Research, Vol. 35, Issue 2, Pages 208-231 • Warschauer, M. (2001), ‘Language, Identity and the Internet’, In B. Kolko, L. Nakamura & G. Rodman (Eds.) Race in Cyberspace., New York: Routledge, Pages 151-170 • Weber, M. ‘Sociological Writings’ (2004) Edited by Wolf Heydebrand, published in 1994 by Continuum   8