What we do on social media platforms is often analyzed as a performance or construction of the self. On this view, what we are doing is giving shape to our identity. What we “Like” is the projected identity, or better yet, the perception and affirmation of that identity by others. This, of course, does not exhaust what is done with social media, but it is an important and pervasive element.
When we think about social media as a field for the construction and enactment of identities, we tend to think of it as the projection, authentic or inauthentic, of a fixed reality. But perhaps we would do well to consider the possibility that identity on social networks is not so much being performed as it is being sought, that behind the identity-work on social media platforms there is an inchoate and fluid reality seeking to take shape by expending itself.
Social networks exist to sell you crap. The icky feeling you get when your friend starts to talk to you about Amway, or when you spot someone passing out business cards at a birthday party, is the entire driving force behind a site like Facebook.
Because their collection methods are kind of primitive, these sites have to coax you into doing as much of your social interaction as possible while logged in, so they can see it. It’s as if an ad agency built a nationwide chain of pubs and night clubs in the hopes that people would spend all their time there, rigging the place with microphones and cameras to keep abreast of the latest trends (and staffing it, of course, with that Mormon bartender).
We’re used to talking about how disturbing this in the context of privacy, but it’s worth pointing out how weirdly unsocial it is, too. How are you supposed to feel at home when you know a place is full of one-way mirrors?
We have a name for the kind of person who collects a detailed, permanent dossier on everyone they interact with, with the intent of using it to manipulate others for personal advantage - we call that person a sociopath. And both Google and Facebook have gone deep into stalker territory with their attempts to track our every action. Even if you have faith in their good intentions, you feel misgivings about stepping into the elaborate shrine they’ve built to document your entire online life.
Right now the social networking sites occupy a similar position to CompuServe, Prodigy, or AOL in the mid 90’s. At that time each company was trying to figure out how to become a mass-market gateway to the Internet. Looking back now, their early attempts look ridiculous and doomed to failure, for we have seen the Web, and we have tasted of the blogroll and the lolcat and found that they were good.
But at the time no one knew what it would feel like to have a big global network. We were all waiting for the Information Superhighway to arrive in our TV set, and meanwhile these big sites were trying to design an online experience from the ground up. Thank God we left ourselves the freedom to blunder into the series of fortuitous decisions that gave us the Web.
My hope is that whatever replaces Facebook and Google+ will look equally inevitable, and that our kids will think we were complete rubes for ever having thrown a sheep or clicked a +1 button. It’s just a matter of waiting things out, and leaving ourselves enough freedom to find some interesting, organic, and human ways to bring our social lives online.
- Maciej Ceglowski, The Social Graph is Neither
In a weirdly obsessive rant, Ceglowski glorously mixes up all sorts of things about social networks, social tools, terminology. FOAF, RDF, privacy, and the aspirations of the people behind Facebook and Google+.
It’s too long, and off base, but also amazingly prescient. Although he doesn’t say it explicitly, he suggests that the current implementations of social networking tools — Facebook, etc. — are analogous to AOL in the mid 90’s, and will soon be eclipsed by a truly social web, where socialiaty is built in, not grafted on as an afterthought.
Facebook is on a mission to tie people to one (Facebook) identity across the Internet. The latest addition to the off-network spread of their social graph is the new Facebook commenting system, which was adopted by Techcrunch and many others last week.
By forming a reciprocal feedback loop with websites, Facebook can collect more data and drive more targeted ads (comments as sponsored stories). While websites can tap into Facebook’s 600 million user base and potentially boost traffic and page views.
So the reasons why Facebook is championing one “real” identity and the off-network spread of their social graph are obvious, but there is still something very worryingly with statements like this one from Zuckerberg:
“You have one identity. The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly … Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”
Obviously, this is a very privileged position to take. Just think of dissidents and protestors around the world, speaking up against injustice and oppressive regimes without revealing their real names, they don’t lack integrity do they? And while it for us, as part of the privileged class, is less to fear in terms of exposure of our “real identity”, a one-dimensional and uniform identity is just not something we would want.Online, just as in “real life”, we want to play out different identities in different social groups and contexts, and connect emotional on different levels with different people.
In my opinion, the question “who am I?” is not answered by looking within, but rather by taking into account the social context of relationships, routines and actions. We no longer have one stable identity. Identity is fluid because it changes according to the social context of the individual.
A stable and uniform online identity, and log-on, will threaten this fluidity and can impose conscious and unconscious limits on how we express ourselves. Which in turn can make the Internet a less creative and interesting place to be.
The good news might be that this opens up a lot of space for new social networks and services, with a better grasp of modern identity and the fluidity of it as we navigate between different social groups and contexts both online and offline. Maybe we won’t have to live inside Zuckerberg’s walled garten for eternity after all.