Sunday, August 28, 2011

How Identity and Relationships Function In a Social Network

The advent of social networking platforms such as Myspace, its usurper Facebook, Twitter, and up-and-comer Google+, has undeniably changed how a large section of the world communicates with each other. Facebook, the clear frontrunner amongst similar networking services, has, according to statistics provided on the site, ballooned to over 750 million active users since its launch in early 2004, with no end in the foreseeable future. Its closest rival, Twitter, has 56 million active users, as reported by Business Insider, which is paltry in comparison. This nonetheless emphasizes how important this new form of social interaction has become in modern-day society.

Mark Zuckerburg, Facebook President/CEO

Facebook’s statistics page also states that around 70 percent of its active user base is located outside of the US, which equals out to 225 million active American users, a large majority of the population. It’s understandable then that many perceive those without a Facebook account as socially inept or loners. “If I'm not online and all my friends are online, then where am I?” posited recent college graduate Andrew Tremblay during an interview.

Its necessity is often hard to argue against given how easy Facebook and similar sites have made keeping in contact with dozens, and often, hundreds of friends and acquaintances. The News Feed, a now ubiquitous feature replicated on numerous sites, shows every recently shared photo, status update and wall post from any and everyone on one’s “friends list.” Users can send short or long messages to others, either by posting on their wall or sending them a message with the inbox feature.

Additionally, every user’s profile is a click away, with only a few extra clicks necessary to find every picture a user has uploaded, not to mention lists of their interests, favorite media, even work history.  Aside from the lingo, which might be difficult for older users to overcome at first, the ease and simplification that social networking provides is hard to ignore.

However, beyond the surface-level effect of making it easier to stay in contact with others is the way in which those relationships, in addition to identity and its accompanying issues, have been impacted. 

In the past, conversations were always confined to a small group of people within earshot. On Facebook or Twitter, the most popular way to communicate, status updates, or “tweets” for the latter service, automatically shares a user’s thoughts with everyone on their friends list and, sometimes, anyone curious enough to run a Google search on said user.

This leads networking service users to pick and choose what they say and do more carefully in an effort to not only be appropriate, but to present what they perceive as an interesting or positive representation of themselves.

In 2007, Christine Rosen penned “Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism” for The New Atlantis, which would go on to enjoy popularity among many scholarly readers. Much of the article’s assertions, which point to emphasis on minute, unimportant details in relationships and an obsession with one’s public image as effects of social media, still hold water in the post-Myspace age.

Rosen cites tech enthusiast Jaron Lanier, who wrote “’Since there are only a few archetypes, ideals, or icons to strive for in comparison to the vastness of instances of everything online, quirks and idiosyncrasies stand out better than grandeur in this new domain.’” Rosen adds that “this is one of the characteristics of MySpace most striking to anyone who spends a few hours trolling its millions of pages: it is an overwhelmingly dull sea of monotonous uniqueness, of conventional individuality, of distinctive sameness.”

With posts like status updates acting as megaphoned statements to scores of people, users are often tasked with presenting themselves as both interesting and socially acceptable. Some work hard on crafting interesting or witty “statuses”, as they’re called for short, and creating unique or flattering profile pictures. Some simply wait to post until they have something they deem worthy of sharing. The result, in many cases, is a kind of contradictory uniqueness, as Rosen puts it. Uniqueness is, usually, not dependent on whether or not others approve or relate. Can the term hold water when everyone uses it to describe themselves?

Facebook generates revenue not only by selling advertisements, but offering collecting demographic information and statistics like this.

When asked what he believed was the worst thing about social networking, Andrew stated that “Your clever stuff is up there as well as your most embarrassing stuff. You can try to undo it but you can never undo it all. Then again, that's the risk you take with any interaction, online or off.” Embarrassing events do spread quickly among most groups of people, but usually take time to spread amongst groups or extended circles offline. When an embarrassing event happens online, it’s instantly available for viewing by a large audience.

This makes the idea of compartmentalization, which Rosen also discusses briefly, difficult, as users will keep certain thoughts to themselves due to their profile’s availability to a range of people, including professional associates and potential employers. This has also given rise to intentional misrepresentation of oneself, with people creating profiles cut off from professional or, sometimes, real world acquaintances. It’s not uncommon to receive a “friend request” from someone using a pseudonym, or a person who has simply cut the more job-friendly attributes out of their online persona in favor of a profile where they believe they can be themselves.

I know exactly how I want to be seen on Facebook, and that requires me removing a certain personal element from my profile,” admits Gillian Shaughnessy, a UMass Boston undergraduate. Gillian, however, explained that she does this in order to prevent everyone on her large list of Facebook friends from knowing her every move. The personal elements missing from the profile of others oftentimes include the portions of their personality they deem inappropriate or uninteresting.

Prior to social networking, bumping into an old colleague or high school friend was a matter of coincidence; now it’s a matter of seeing one another on the friends list of a third party, or proper spelling. Enjoyment from running into an old friend can be great, but constant occurrence diminishes its value.

It also has the potential to negatively affect how a user sees him or herself. Simply stated, some friendships are meant to end. Most users are familiar with the uncomfortable feeling of getting a friend request from someone in their past that they dislike. On one hand, it’s rude to decline and roughly equates to telling someone they are disliked. On the other hand, is it worth not only being contacted for unwanted chit-chat, but potentially being reminded of an embarrassing or unpleasant event? This has possible negative effects on one’s self-esteem, as adolescents or young adults who desire to reinvent themselves can have their efforts impeded by high school friends who still think of them as shy loners, or old college pals who only think of a particular Facebook friend as the guy they used to crash parties with.

Another element of this has made for great headlines in recent months. Fox News, along with other media outlets, published stories about “Facebook depression” in March, citing possible self-esteem issues the social networking site can have in teens.

With in-your-face friends' tallies, status updates and photos of happy-looking people having great times, Facebook pages can make some kids feel even worse if they think they don't measure up.” Real world events follow most online. These pictures and statuses, when viewed as a whole, can make one person look incredibly more interesting or social than another. While Facebook’s ability to cause depression is dubious, it can cause a user, especially younger ones, to view their personality in a static way.

Another key issue in social networking’s effect on an individual is the hot button topic of privacy. “Quickly peruse a profile and you know more about a potential acquaintance in a moment than you might have learned about a flesh-and-blood friend in a month,” stated Rosen, before these concerns had become controversial.

When asked what she thinks is the worst thing about Facebook, her networking service of choice, Gillian replied with “I can see everything. I can see anything I want about anyone, because most of the time, people aren't as privacy-oriented as I am. They forget to check the box that says ‘only allow friends to view my photos’ and then I come along, not their friend, and click and creep and find everything I ever wanted to see. Connections between people can be traced back to when they first became friends on the internet.”

While most users will insist that they are very concerned about their privacy online, users commonly list their birth date, with another subset that provide their cell number and home address. Additionally, some Facebook users are unable to decipher the privacy controls, creating a situation similar to what Gillian described.

 ‘Leaving ‘Friendprints’: How Online Social Networks Are Redefining Privacy and Personal Security,” a 2009 article published in the University of Pennsylvania’s Knowledge@Wharton, illustrates a few of the dangers of revealing this information. The article cites some concerns from Lance Hoffman, a computer science professor, stating that “Third-party applications, he argued, can take that data outside of the friendly confines of a social networking site and combine it with data from other sources to piece together enough information to steal a person's identity.”

Outside of possible identity theft, the willingness of users on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms to share information with large amounts of people, often strangers, denotes both a contradiction and a change in standard norms. Most would find it disconcerting if a stranger knew their work or class schedule, but many post this information in status updates. Users frequently provide information about their favorite hang-out spots and daily routines through text posts and photos, which not only creates demographic information for Facebook and the like to offer to marketing firms, but also provides complete strangers who they might have added on a whim with personal information.

Interaction in the physical world still takes precedence over its digital counterpart, even if it is sometimes marginalized. The effects of the latter on how we perceive our relationships, however, are undeniable. There is often a distinct disconnect between how someone represents themselves online and how any one person might think of the first after a face-to-face meeting. While reports of users receding into a fictional personality are often overly sensationalized, it nonetheless happens, as some would rather enjoy another persona, as the stigmas attached to theirs are sometimes perpetrated by use of social networks. Relationships can also be erased by one click of an “Unfriend” button.

Regardless of these developments, in addition to potential breaches of privacy, users continue to flock to social networking sites. Many are hopeful that social networking, which is still a relatively recent development, will progress into better territory. Dmitriy Kryukov, another UMass Boston undergraduate, hopes that platforms like Facebook “will evolve more positively and become just a communication device, and not a human catalog.”

Ultimately, how these sites evolve is up to their users. Although much of the research into the extent of social networking’s effects is still tentative, it has visibly changed relationships and the notion of self.

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