Maintaining control of one’s identity within a community or network can be challenging, especially when considering the various types of relationships that an individual has. For example an individual can be a parent, a daughter, a manager, a friend and a charity volunteer. Each of these roles can require the individual to behave in a particular way. A comment that an individual makes may be suitable during a discussion with a friend, however may not be appropriate during a conversation with a work colleague. This kind of identity control occurs on a regular basis during many people’s day to day life. However with the introduction of social media areas, control of one’s identity has become more difficult. When using social media, identity control requires more consideration, due to user perceptions relating to what happens to their content, problems relating to who is viewing the content and the influence of others within the community. This paper will examine how the use of social media has made controlling the image that one portrays, more complex than it was prior to the use of social media areas.
In order to fully appreciate the impact that social media or social networking sites, have had on image control it is necessary to first understand what these areas are. Boyd and Ellison (2007, para. 5) state,
We define social network sites as web-based services that 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.
Social networking sites have granted everyday people the ability to communicate to a large audience, and share their day’s activities and the activities of those around them. Online communities and social networks have revolutionised the way many people communicate with their friends, family and other acquaintances. In order to establish the reasons why image control is challenging within social media, this paper will discuss user perceptions of their potential audience. This paper will also discuss how an individual’s behavior can be dependent on who they are communicating with and the implications of this when using social media. However, image control in social networking spaces is not only dependent on the content that is provided by the subject of the material, but is also dependent on content that is provided by others. Therefore, this essay will also discuss how an individual’s identity can be affected by the actions of other people within an online community.
One reason why image control is more difficult when participating in online communities and networks, is users of social media can be unaware of their potential audience. Although information posted to social media sites can be available to a wide audience, it may be posted from a real life space which is private (for example an individual’s home) or an area where despite not being physically alone the writer of the content is not likely to communicate with anyone. This can lead the individual into a false sense of security as their audience is invisible. Pearson (2009, para. 8) states, “what feels like an intimate space can be under the watchful electronic gaze of a large unknown audience”. If a user of social media does not consider the potential audience for their content, they may post material they would normally regard as private. Imagine an individual on a train. They are not likely to discuss personal information with a stranger sitting next to them. However, they may choose to post personal details to a social media site, which has the potential to be viewed by the same stranger. Furthermore, there are occasions where despite an individual being aware that there is an audience for their content, they may continue to experience problems with identity management because they consider their potential audience to be their friends and not the general public. Barnes (2006, para. 26) states, “some students may be aware that Facebook is not a private space, but many act as if it is private”. In many social media areas privacy requires thought. Boyd (as cited by Jin, 2013, p. 3) states,
“a conversation you might have in the hallway is private by default, public through effort,” where as “when you engage online in equally public settings such as on someones’ Facebook wall, the conversation is public by default, private through effort”.
In addition, many social media sites are constructed in a way that encourages information flow, resulting in the possibility of any information that may impact negatively on a person’s desired identity, being easily spread throughout the network. Furthermore, many social networking areas are asynchronous. This means the information can be available for a long period of time and therefore allow maximum audience attention. Blanchette and Johnson (as cited in Jin, 2013) suggest information flows in the real world are often restricted by human memory. In contrast, Coopamootoo and Ashenden (as cited in Jin, 2013) indicate that online content can be retained and shared for much longer. The problems relating to the posting of material to social networks without considering its potential exposure to a large audience, is considered particularly evident within areas where posts are shorter in length. Thompson (2008, p. 2, para 3) suggest that unlike blogs where posts are often lengthy, posts in many social networking sites are, “far shorter, far more frequent and less carefully considered”. Some individuals may consider that because Twitter posts are required to be short (140 characters in length), the risk of tweets impacting their identity in a negative way is small. However while recognizing that short posts within social media areas may appear insignificant, Thompson (2008, p.2) states, “taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives”. The problems associated with the posting of certain private or personal material in social networking areas without considering the possible consequences can be exaggerated by the existence of audience diversity. The potential audience of material posted to social networking areas is often unknown, resulting in the author of the content being unable to judge audience expectation. The differing expectations of behavior that exist between people within different social groups, was discussed by Erving Goffman well before wide spread internet usage and social networking sites.
Erving Goffman recognized that individuals perform differently for different people. Ladner states (2007), “using the theatre as a metaphor Goffman argued that we actually “perform” multiple selves”. For example, a person is likely to behave differently when they are talking to a parent, from when they are talking to a group of friends. However, in many situations within social media communities, it is difficult to determine who the audience is. For example, when discussing the use of Twitter, Marwick and Boyd (2011, p. 117) state, “given the various ways people can consume and spread tweets, it is virtually impossible for Twitter users to account for their potential audience, let alone actual readers”. Furthermore, even when the author of the social media content is aware that their material is being viewed by strangers, there is often no way of knowing what type of audience group the stranger belongs to. Donath (1999, para 1) suggests that online, “many of the basic cues about personality and social role we are accustomed to in the physical world are absent”. The design of many social media areas means that controlling which audience will see which content is difficult. This was problematic for a number of people who participated in a study about Facebook privacy (Raynes-Goldie, 2010). For example Raynes-Goldie (2010, para 7) states,
Ben (a marketer for an educational firm) told me, on multiple occasions, how frustrated he was with the “context collision” created by Facebook’s flattened Friend hierarchy, where by default, everyone is given access to the same personal information.
The answer to this problem for some people is to have several accounts or presences and direct certain audiences to certain areas. As Donarth (1999, para. 2) suggests, “one can have, some claim, as many electronic personas as one has time and energy to create”. However, even when care is taken by an individual to direct a particular audience to the correct area, there remains the possibility that the audience may discover content that was not intended for them to access. In some online areas where attempts have been made to limit the exposure of content, access has been gained by unintended audiences. An example of this exists within Facebook where an individual may believe that access to photographs shared, is limited to people they have accepted as “Friends” within the network. However as Raynes-Goldie (2010, para. 14) indicates,
If a Friend comments on one of their Friends’ photos, and one of their other Friends sees that comment on their news feed, they can click on the comment and get access to the whole album belonging to their Friend’s Friend, even though he or she did not intend the share them beyond their Friends.
In order to alleviate any problems associated with unintended audience groups viewing content, some authors choose to contribute material that they consider acceptable for a number of different audience groups. Marwick and Boyd (2011, p. 122) state, “the large audiences for sites like Facebook or MySpace may create a lowest-common denominator effect, as individuals only post things they believe their broadest group of acquaintances will find non-offensive”. However this can greatly affect the image that an individual is attempting to portray to certain audiences. For example, the identity a teenager is attempting to portray to their peers could be affected by a social media presence which contains content consistent with the expectations of the teenager’s parents. Green and Jenkins (2011, p. 116) state, “when material is produced according to a one-size-fits-all model, it necessarily imperfectly fits the needs of any given audience”. The problems associated with audiences accessing content that is not intended for them are not the only reasons why image control is more difficult in online areas.
Another reason why image control is more difficult in online areas is the image that an individual wishes to portray can be impacted by the actions of others within the network. Although and individual may wish to represent themselves in a particular way, others within the network may construct posts that contradict the identity the individual wishes to portray. Tufekci (as cited in Thompson, 2008, para. 4) stated, “I had a student who posted that she was downloading some Pearl Jam, and someone wrote on her wall, ‘Oh, right, ha-ha – I know you, and you’re not into that’”. In addition, within some social media communities, expressions of negative feedback can be given with an amount of anonymity, resulting in some people posting comments or opinions which they would not be prepared to share in the physical world. Zhuo (2010, para. 6) states, “psychological research has proven again and again that anonymity increases unethical behavior”. Furthermore Zhuo (2010, para. 17) suggests, “most trolls wouldn’t have the gall to say to another person’s face half the things they anonymously post on the Internet”. The problems associated with negative online feedback can be somewhat alleviated by the ability of an individual to restrict who accesses their content. Individuals may choose to provide access to only those people that they have an affinity with. Boyd (2006, Para. 48) states, “they choose people that they know and other Friends that will support their perception of what public they are addressing through their presentation of self, bulletins, comments, and blog posts”. Nevertheless, those who are considered as Friends within a network may choose to provide content which has the potential to impact negatively on an individual’s desired identity. Raynes-Goldie (2010, para. 7) states,
Even with all the complicated privacy features Facebook had put in place, Lee, James and every other Facebook user could still not pre-screen the comments that Friends wrote on their public walls or stop people from tagging them in photos.
This can cause users of social media to feel they need to constantly review their identity within online communities and social networks, in order to maintain the identity they wish to portray. When discussing the plight of a user, Thompson (2008) states, “Ahan knows that she cannot simply walk away from her online life, because the people she knows online won’t stop talking about her, or posting unflattering photos”. Therefore, the ways in which an individual’s identity can be affected by others within an online community or network, can result in individual’s increasing use of these online spaces.
As an individual navigates their way through online communities and networks, it is important that the differences between communication in social media communities and communicating in the physical world are understood to allow effective identity management. Although an individual may be physically alone and considering there is a particular audience for the content they are posting, it is important that they understand that their audience is unpredictable. It is also vital to consider that in some cases, audiences may view content differently than the intended audience. Furthermore other people within social media communities may contribute content that challenges the identity an individual wishes to portray. By considering these factors, those who contribute to social media communities and networks will be much better placed to control and maintain their identity within the social media environment.
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