The me i’d want to be- identity performance on Facebook

Social networking sites (SNSs) have become the go-to issue for contemporary academia. Every social scientist and their mother (who is probably still on Myspace) are trying to decipher the road that a modern dependence on SNS-related social capital are leading us on.

To get the introductions out of the way, social network sites (SNSs):

“allow 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.”

This post will focus on the impact of SNSs on identity-formation and management in terms of personal (Who am i?) and social (where do I belong?) categories of self.

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

The sociologist Erving Goffman theorizes that social interaction is a performance, through which the self is constructed. The individual’s ‘impression management’ manipulates scenes, props and other actors in order to mould the social validation of the performed character.


‘On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog’

De Wolf and Pierson see most SNSs as a ‘nonymous’ online environment, where people have to display their offline identity, but have control over how it is displayed. The performance of identity is usually not a complete fabrication, but comes down to the inclusion and exclusion of information, photos, statuses, affiliations that are desirable in conforming to a certain idealised image.

In a study by Leionardi, participants saw online identities as a partial truth, reporting:

P5: It shows a little glimpse [into] my life but does not include everything
P11: There is a lot more to me than the fun picture I have up and the crazy backgrounds.
P13: not a total representation-the most surface ideas.

So on Facebook everyone knows you’re a dog, but with the help of the increased agency of online impression management, your online persona becomes the most idealized, popular and interesting dog possible.

facebook picExamples of the countless websites directed at ‘performing’ an interesting identity on facebook can be found on uberhumor, facebookcraze, facebookstatus123 and funnystatus.

MySpace pioneered the user-agency of SNPs (Social Network Profiles) to accept HTML and CSS code. As a result, SNP authors learned to modify their SNPs to better reflect, and create, themselves. Facebook has built on the creation of self with the timeline feature, which Mark Zuckerburg has explained “is the story of your life.” Narrative theories postulate that individuals form an identity by selectively integrating their life experiences into an internalized, evolving story of the self, which provides a unified identity. The important events, pictures, posts, music you like(d), map updates and all your likes- are selectively engineered to constitute your life history, and thus navigate your identity throughout time.

Thus, SNPs have become representative of a specific identity, which mirrors an individual performance in cyberspace rather than an offline reality. Most of the time this performance is only a slight distortion, but anyone who has seen/heard of the catfish phenomena knows the powerful blurred reality that can be created by the SNS. Here is a film-maker’s personal account of being ‘catfished’-

And here is an in-depth feature on the online phenomenon

Social identity

Goffman understood that performances of the self are not interpreted value-free but according to social frames and norms. Although individuals actively perform identity, the self ultimately depends upon social validation.

facebook addict

SNSs are primarily organized around people, not interests. As opposed to early “passion-centric” niche discussion forums and sites, SNSs are now ego-centric with the individual at the center of their own community. SNSs of this nature maintain a sense of belonging by allowing an individual’s created series of social networks to be articulated and made visible. The public display of connections is done through a visible list of friends, likes (movies, bands, books etc) and the posts of friends. These markers create a composite image of identity, i.e. [friends + interests + posts] = Zeb.

Ellis sees Facebook’s identifiers as an example of communicative identity, as a performance of the self based on already established social roles. So the identity is autonomously constructed, but selected from a choice of social identities. Ellis asserts from personal experience that her friend’s appear online as caricatures of media stereotypes:

“I have my married-with-kids friends, single males on the prowl, single females asserting their sexual freedom, and academic colleagues pimping their latest publication.”

facebook identityGQ gives a great list of annoying Facebook tropes, my favourite of which is ‘misery girl’, ‘inspirational quote guy’ and ‘every pedestrian detail girl’.

These stereotypes would all be accompanied by a certain collage of likes, groups and status communiqués. While most peole understand that there are multiple facets to one’s identity (i.e. the difference in behaviour displayed at work vs. at the pub), Facebook attempts to monopolise the individual’s multitude of loosely integrated social roles, as demonstrated by Mark Zuckerman’s vision:

“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.”

So facebook is clearly trying, and succeeding, in directing people’s sense of self. SNS profiles validate Goffman’s theory of impression management in a contemporary setting. How this will affect our social development is yet to be seen. I just hope I won’t have to make this post 140 characters in future.


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