Friday, December 22, 2006

Friends and Identity on Social Networking Sites

I just finished reading a fascinating paper in First Monday called Friends, Friendsters, and Top 8: Writing Community Into Being on Social Network Sites. It's an academic piece, so not necessarily light reading. It analyzes the dynamics of friend spaces on social networking sites like MySpace and Friendster. I've wrestled with some of the issues the author raises as I've built my MySpace presence, so I was intrigued with some of her conclusions.

One of her major points is that social networking sites make your friends public, so we choose our friends in part for what those friends say about us: "When people articulate their relations on social network sites, they are not simply projecting their internal model of tie strength. The public nature of these sites requires participants to perform their relationship to others, not unlike the examples given above. Based on an internal understanding of the audience, participants override the term 'Friend' to make room for a variety of different relationships so that they may properly show face." The author later adds, "The actual collection of Friends and the display of Top Friends provides space for people to engage in identity performance." In other words, our friends lists are a part of how we define ourselves on social networking sites. Friends can be friends or acquaintances in the traditional sense of those words, or they can serve a similar purpose as posters or bumper stickers in physical space--a way to help define who we are, what we believe, what our interests are, and what our status is within a particular group.

The author continues by pointing out that our friends lists define the audience for our participation in the site. Our profile designs, bulletins, blog posts, etc., are usually targeted toward those on our friends list--or at least a subset of them. And it's this point that I find most frustrating about using sites like MySpace. I operate in different circles, and in each of those I behave a bit differently and have a slightly different identity. But MySpace doesn't allow me to do that. I can't group my friends into categories like work, church, old classmates, close friends, and family, the way most of us group our friends in real life. Instead, I have three choices:

  1. Choose the audience I wish to have, and exclude from my friends list those who don't fit in with that audience
  2. Include everyone, regardless of where they fit, and make my profile, bulletins, etc., sufficiently generic that they won't shock or offend any of my friends.
  3. Include everyone and post whatever I want, regardless of the consequences.

In reality I do a little of all three. I avoid posting information that's too personal or specific to a single context, because I have MySpace friends from lots of different parts of my life. But I include a wide variety of stuff in my profile (religion, gardening, and Def Leppard, for example), and I sometimes post bulletins that may surprise a few of my friends. Finally, I don't actively encourage my co-workers to join MySpace and send me friend requests. I wouldn't turn down their requests, but I don't actively solicit them, because I want the freedom to post things on MySpace that aren't necessarily appropriate in the workplace.

In a way, operating within a social network like MySpace is more complicated than dealing with friendships in other arenas, because you have to display the same self to everyone with whom you interact. That can make the experience more interesting, for ourselves and our friends, because we can be who we are and let all our friends see all sides of us. But sometimes there are negative consequences for doing that, to which any teenager punished by parents for his MySpace behavior can attest. What do you do when co-workers want to be your friends? Or family members? Teens in your church's youth group? How do you retain your ability to express yourself freely--one of the most fun aspects of social networking--when you have friends with very different world views and different views of you? In the physical world, we present different faces to different groups of people. Some, especially teenagers, call that hypocrisy, but it's really a social necessity. We behave differently at work than we do with our college buddies and differently at church than we do at someone's bachelor party. Even those rare few who can maintain complete personal integrity, never violating the values of one space while in another, will still behave differently in different contexts. But with MySpace and similar social networks, there's only one context--your entire friend space.

This piece presents a good example of this problem. It's mostly written in my academic voice, which I usually reserve for my long-suffering co-workers. But I'd like to include it in my MySpace blog, because it relates to my behavior there, and I'd really like to hear what other MySpace users think about this issue. But if I post it there, my friends will find out just how nerdy I really am (yeah, like they don't already know). What to do? I'm going with option 3, above: post it wherever I want!

I suppose it would be easier if social networks could let us categorize our friends and direct certain information to specific groups rather than to everyone. That would more closely model the physical world, but it would also make using these networks more complicated. And it would rob us of the chance to see different sides of our online buddies. So after all this long-winded prose, I don't have any good answers. But I do enjoy contemplating the questions, and I wonder if the dynamics of friendships in social networks will spill over into the physical world--or if they already have, and to what extent. But that's a topic for a different long-winded essay.

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