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Identity in Communities and Networks

How and Why Identity Is Presented on Social Networking Sites

Abstract

Identity has been viewed as essential to the expression of individuality within societies and communities. Social networking sites like Instagram and Tinder have also created its own communities, where self-identity and self-representation have become integral to how individuals are perceived. This paper explores the idea that online identities have become less significant due to identity deception. It argues that social networking sites are platforms where identity can be represented in many different ways, and where what appears true or false is not always clear. The sociological and psychological implications of using these sites are focused on to emphasisethe relationship between the importance of online self-representation and how a person is viewed by society. Evidence has been collected through research of journal articles by authors who are well versed in the area of identity in online spaces. The findings that are drawn from the research is that online identity deception not only ranges from impression management to fictional facades, but it also greatly affects the meaning of individuality and self-identity in virtual and offline communities. 

Introduction

Donath (1999) states that ‘identity plays a key role in virtual communities’ and is ‘essential for understanding and evaluating an interaction’ (p. 27). Identity has always been an important aspect for individuals, societies and communities. Social networking has become a necessary part of people’s everyday lives. They have the purpose of connecting people with friends, family and even people they’ve never met before. They are seen as representations of one’s identity, where others can learn about who they are. However, with this ability to customiseone’s identity, it becomes a breeding ground for identity deception of varying degrees. Arguably, even the most common desire to impress others by tweaking one’s own identity is somewhat identity deception. Self-representation is important for social networking users, so someone’s identity online might not fully represent the real-life version. Young people, in particular have discovered the difficulty of presenting a more ‘cooler’ identity online, especially with disapproving parents snooping online. Creating mirror networks are becoming more popular, especially on Instagram to deceive parents with a decoy account, while maintaining another for peers. There are unfortunately also more sinister manipulations to identity that social media has made possible. The anonymity of social media has given people the power to take on an entirely new identity or someone else’s to deceive others for selfish reasons. Catfishing and identity theft happen a lot on sites like Instagram and dating apps, where connections and trust are given quite easily. This paper fits in with the stream, identity in communities and networks because it explores how important the presentation of one’s identity is in society, how it makes people stand out or fit in, but also have it can be manipulated for sinister purposes as well. Therefore, the self-expressive nature of online social networking sites has opened the doors to identity deception where individuals can choose what to share, tweak, hide or manipulate their identity for various different reasons. 

Expression of Self-Identity 

The most profound significance of social networking platforms is that they give individuals and groups the option to choose to what want people to know about them. As Boyd (2007) explains, ‘social network sites are based around profiles, a form of individual (or, less frequently, group) home page, which offers a description of each member’ (p. 123). Social networking sites such as Instagram have a space for users to display their name on their profile, a profile picture and information about their job, relationship status, age and gender, too. These are some of the most basic information that one would use to introduce to people face-to-face in order to get to know them. This can be information that helps people form their identity and enables them to be distinguished in society. People’s identities extend further to much more than these basic information on someone’s profile. The social network is described as a ‘tool’ that enables individuals and communities to come together, and ‘foster intimate relationships’ through common interests (Pan et al., 2017, p. 72). On Instagram, Taylor Swift fan accounts may post short edits of her music videos, post photos of her red-carpet outfits or give updates to news about her, for example. Fans of popular TV shows like Game of Thrones can live stream their reactions to an episode and communicate with each other at the same time. This demonstrates more than just the flexible interactive nature of social networking, but how these interactions can help highlight one’s identity. Hobbies, favouritemusic and TV shows are among some of the things that forms part of an identity. Therefore, social networking sites are spaces with the purpose of displaying self-identity, however, what is becoming evident is that they are also spaces for impression and performance. 

Making Impressions 

Self-representation is an integral part of social media that it has created the desire to curate one’s identity to impress others. In societies and communities, it can be normal for people to tweak their offline identity in their online identity to belong and impress. More specifically, the community of Instagram is notable for being a site where users can feel pressured to present a particular image and appeal. Boyd (2006, as cited in Pearson, 2009, para. 4) states that ‘SNS platforms provide areas which are disembodied, mediated and controllable, and through which alternate performances can be displayed to others’. This explains that social networking sites give people the opportunity to present a performance of a produced identity of self, that can differ in varying degrees to their offline one. The differentiation is evident in the fact that social networking sites include ‘tools and technologies’ that ‘create the staging and setting in which these selves exist’ (Pearson, 2009, para. 8). When people continue to project an aspect of their ‘identity’ online, it becomes true online for one’s followers but not necessarily for how one sees themselves. Despite being connected to some close friends and family online, people might not know them as well as they think they do. According to Donath & Boyd (2004), they might not question the sincerity of one’s self-representation because they might think it’s something they have not yet discovered, but because of the intimate nature of social media, it has allowed them to see a new side to that person. This is, in a way, a form of identity deception. It can be something as small as posting a lot of pictures of the beach because others do. The ideas of self-identity have changed and become insignificant on social media, even though these sites were supposedly created to celebrate this idea. They have enabled people to showcase a modified version of their offline identity, which is often mistaken for greater intimacy and transparency of people’s true identity. Identity is something that is very important, especially for young people who long to belong with their peers. Goffman (1959, as cited in Mascheroni et al., 2015, para. 7) explains how social pressures of ‘impression management’ have motivated young people into maintaining a particular ideal image or identity of themselves on social networking sites, to control the reactions of their peers. The photo album layout of Instagram has motivated many people into creating an aesthetic feed, that will hopefully depict how they want to look online. Social networking sites have encouraged users to modify their identity to impress or deceive others, also giving them the power to pick and choose who can see it as well. 

Different Identities on Mirror Networks 

Social networking sites have impacted the way young adolescent and teenage users’ express their identity online, under the watchful eye of protective parents and guardians. It is normal for parents to feel concerned about their children being on social networking sites, where it can be difficult to monitor who they interact with and the kind of things they are sharing or commenting. However, according to O’Keefe et al. (2011), social media can be useful for young people to: get involved with their community, express their individual creativity, create content such as videos and blogs, and connect with others with similar interests (p. 801). These all assist in the creation of an individual’s identity on social networking sites, platforms that they are able to claim as their own space. Regardless of these opportunities for young people to grow and gain freedom, some parents do find ways to monitor their children’s social media. In turn, young people resort to faking basic identity information such as their ‘name, age, and location’, to hide from their parents’ snooping (Boyd, 2007, p. 131). This demonstrates how social networking sites affect the creation and expression of young people’s identities online. Due to worrying parents, children have resorted to identity deception to hide. This goes to show that the ways in which identities are presented on social networking sites are many times performances. These sites have caused of a lack of true self-presentation and expression of identity. Boyd (2007) highlights how teenagers have found ways to create identities that are ‘simultaneously cool to their peers and acceptable to their parents’, by creating what is known as “mirror networks”, where they have a parent-approved public social media account, but secretly have a second account with a fake name (pp. 132-133). On Instagram, it has become common for people to create ‘finstas’ or fake Instagram accounts to deceive their parents. Identity deception is being performed here as parents might likely not be aware of this other side of their children. Therefore, social networking sites have a major role in enabling individuals to deceive their family’s idea of their identity, while also projecting their identity differently to other people. 

Identity Deception and Scam

Social networking sites enable people to not only fake their identities online, but also use these fake personas for deception and scam. Due to the customisableaspect of social networking, it has made it easier for people to anonymously carry out identity deception for personal gain. Zahavi (1993, as cited in Tsikerdekis & Zeadally, 2014, para. 8) explains how assessment signals allow people to confirm that details of  identity of another person is the truth, such as looking at a drivers’ license, whereas on the other hand, conventional signals are not as obvious, just because the identity presented says this is their name or this is where they live, there is no way to confirm the truth. This explains the vast flexibility social networking sites have allowed individuals to present their identity in any way they choose, which can prove very dangerous. Mobile dating apps such as Tinder, like any other social networking site is centredheavily on profiles, photos and connection. While identity deception happens on any social networking site including Instagram, cases have been known to occur on dating apps. ‘Catfishing’ is the term used to describe ‘the current internet trend of creating and portraying complex fictional identities through online profiles’ (Nolan, 2015, as cited in Lauckner et al., 2019, p. 291). Catfishing on social dating networks has seen many people fall victim to financial exploitation because the sole purpose of these sites is to make romantic, trusting connections with strangers (Lauckner et al., 2019, p. 291). As a result, the victims, believing they have made a deep connection with someone from the result of identity deception, decides to help this person. Social networking sites give tremendous opportunities for people to present identity in different ways, identity deception unfortunately being a very common one. Saedi (2012, as cited in Amedie, 2015, p. 10) explains that ‘the near anonymity of online interactions made many impossible things in the real world, possible in the virtual one’. This highlights the easiness for social networking users to fake, lie, cheat and deceit others by creating an entirely new identity while their true identity remains anonymous. The umbrella of catfishing also includes identity theft and the impersonation of an actual person’s identity. According to Flynn (2015, as cited in Hartney, 2018, pp. 277–278) whose own identity was stolen and impersonated, the perpetuators were very cunning and dedicated to their scam, by not only taking their victim’s name, but also reposting the posts belonging to their victims to really convince people. Therefore, the levels of identity deception can escalate to something as serious as impersonation and identity theft. Social networking sites have given people the power to not only deceive through identity but also to scam emotionally, psychologically and financially. 

Conclusion

Social networking sites have given so much freedom to users to carry out identity deception for a number of different reasons. They may seem beneficial in enabling individuals to share and connect their identity with others through basic information like name, age and location, other things like hobbies. However, varying levels of identity deception happens across all social networking sites. People use Instagram as a way to impress their peers and manage the kind of image they hope will form their ideal identity. Social media makes it easier for others to believe this version of the individual. Young people especially are more likely to adopt this tactic of tweaking their identity online to appeal to their peers, but since their parents might not approve of what they are posting, they have found loopholes. Mirror networks are becoming popular, especially on Instagram and are effective ways for people to project different identities different groups of people; one being their parents, and the other being their peers. However, there are many downfalls to flexibility of creating multiple identities on social media, as it allows deception and catfishing to go unnoticed. Instagram and dating networks like Tinder have witnessed users gaining connections, but ultimately becoming victims to money scammers. Impersonation also happens often as well, which proves to be very dangerous especially if the victim believes it is someone they trust. This paper fits with the stream, identity in communities and networks because it highlights the importance for self-identity online, which is then reflected in offline identity. It also explores the complexity to online identity as well, as not everything that appears to be true means that it is true. The ideas of the significance of identities in communities, including online ones are questioned. The freedom that social networking sites have provided for users to create and choose who to share their own identity—whether it is true or enhanced—with online has diminished the beauty of self-representation in society. 

References

Amedie, J. (2015). The impact of social media on society. Advanced Writing: Pop Culture Intersections. Article 2. http://scholarcommons.scu.edu/engl_176/2

Boyd, D. (2007). Why youth heart social networking sites: The role of networked publics in teenage social life. In D. Buckingham (Ed.), Youth, identity, and digital media (1sted., pp. 119-142). The MIT Press. https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&ved=2ahUKEwifncv1xsToAhVMfH0KHdcRDjAQFjACegQIARAC&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.oapen.org%2Fdownload%3Ftype%3Ddocument%26docid%3D1004001&usg=AOvVaw32ls4wDiazVjAfPBcvAbRa

Donath, J. (1999). Identity and deception in the virtual community. In P. Kollock & M. A. Smith (Eds.), Communities in cyberspace(1st ed., pp. 27-57). Routledge. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/curtin/reader.action?docID=168601&query=communities+in+cyberspace

Donath, J., & Boyd, D. (2004). Public displays of connection. BT Technology Journal, 22(4), 71-82. https://doi.org/10.1023/B:BTTJ.0000047585.06264.cc

Hartney, T. W. (2018). Likeness used as bait in catfishing: How can hidden victims of catfishing reel in relief. Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, 19(1), Article 5. https://scholarship.law.umn.edu/mjlst/vol19/iss1/5

Lauckner, C., Truszczynski, N., Lambert, D., Kottamasu, V., Meherally, S., Schipani-McLaughlin, A. M., Taylor, E., & Hansen, N. (2019). “Catfishing,” cyberbullying and coercion: An exploration of the risks associated with dating app use among rural sexual minority males. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health, 23(3), 289-306. https://doi.org/10.1080/19359705.2019.1587729

Mascheroni, G., Vincent, J., & Jimenez, E. (2015). “Girls are addicted to likes so they post semi-naked selfies”: Peer meditation, normativity and the construction of identity online. Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 9(1), Article 5. https://doi.org/10.5817/CP2015-1-5

O’Keeffe, G. S., Clarke-Pearson, K., & Council on Communications and Media. (2011). Clinical report the impact of social media on children, adolescents, and families.Pediatrics, 127(4), 800-804. https://doi.org/ 10.1542/peds.2011-0054 

Pan, Z., Lu, Y., Wang, B., & Chau, P. Y. K. (2017). Who do you think you are? Common and differential effects of social self-identity on social media usage. Journal of Management Informations System, 34(1), 71-101. https://doi.org/10.1080/07421222.2017.1296747

Pearson, E. (2009). All the world wide web’s a stage: The performance of identity in online social networks. First Monday, 14(3).https://firstmonday.org/article/view/2162/2127

Tsikerdekis, M., & Zeadally, S. (2014). Online deception in social media. Communications of the ACM, 57(9), 72-80. http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2629612

12 replies on “How and Why Identity Is Presented on Social Networking Sites”

Thank you Julie Nguyen for an interesting piece of work. Your title drew my attention. I do agree with you that SNS amplifies things so much more and causes more identity deception and it is something we as individuals have to deal with day by day.

I do have a few questions for you though.
Do people present the full self (honest self/true self) in an offline context?
Why do you think individuals have multiple identities and/or accounts in online spaces?
Have you considered and offline context versus and online context?

I ask these questions because, for example, social cues in an online context is very sparse. Offline one is able to ready body language, see emotions etc and react accordingly but how does deal with this in an online space. And this brings me to Goffman (1959) dramatical theory where an individual puts on these different faces. I do think we both can agree that in an offline context we do put our best face to make us more likeable especially when dealing with new people and how the person reacts to it we can navigate from there. But, in an online context how does one navigate? One gets blocked and does not understand, or someone does not comment or like why?

I have written a paper on why teens motive is in online spaces perhaps this will give you a new dimension and why I make these points. https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/11/teens-in-social-networking-spaces-and-what-community-means/

This is not to say I disagree that there is identity deception is just a reason of why, and I do not think it has to do with technology (SNS) itself, perhaps there are other factors influencing it.

Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my paper, Tyrone. This is what I love about these discussions, we are able to get another person’s perspective on things we might not have realised or have emphasised enough about.

I do agree, there can be many others things influencing identity deception besides social networking sites.

In regards to your first question, I think in an offline sense, people still want to be likeable as they do online. I don’t necessary think people are fully their true selves offline. Of course for things like job interviews, you want to impress your potential employer, so you would already have thought about the things you want to say, and put down your best achievements and skills on your resume. When engaging face-to-face with people, it’s not as easy to pretend as it is online. Identity deception is such a more talked about issue in an online context than an offline one. I think young people especially can create a ‘mirror network’ version offline as well, where they can hide certain aspects of themselves from their parents and friends.

I think many individuals have multiple identities and/or accounts online for a variety of reasons. It could be that they want to share different kinds of content with different groups of people. They might want to seem ‘cool’ in front of their peers, but another way in front of family. They want to keep their social life separate from their family or work life. On Instagram, there are people creating ‘finstas’, which have the reputation of being accounts where people tend to be more open with what they post with their closest friends, and less ‘picture-perfect’ images like their main account. These could be posts they would be embarrassed to show to anyone else.

Obviously, it is more difficult to navigate in an online space than an offline one. Online identity deception is something that we as social networking users must always be aware of when using SNS. We must approach new people online with caution. I think for me, I have always used my instincts. I have been catfished in the past by someone who created an account stealing the identity of someone I went to school with. Fortunately, I knew I was being catfished. I asked them a bunch of questions that only they would know. Just the way they were talking was off. Many people do unfortunately don’t realise. Don’t trust too easily online is what I know works.

Not everyone would comment on the pictures you post, most would look at it and move on. There will of course be a few who do. Not everyone may like your posts, so they will just move on without liking it. With impression management online, you may not be fully aware of what people really think about what you’ve posted, you either just rely on what you think would make an impact or follow what others are doing.

I hope this kind of answers of your questions. I will definitely check out your paper. If you have any more questions, please ask me.

Julie, thank you for taking the time to respond to my comment, lengthy but I do like that you go into detail to bring your point of view across.

I do agree there are many factors that influence identity deception and it is worth exploring. In order to minimize deception doing this digging would help.

Sorry to hear that you had been catfished, I can only imagine the experience. At least for you, you used some wise tactics to uncover the truth but for others, it may not be the same.

I am just thinking that as much as finding out this information would be interesting I do think that educating the public is also vital. More like what can we do to save humanity.

Hi Julie! I read through your paper and I must say it is an interesting read. The topics that you focused on was quite similar to mine so your paper caught my attention. I agree with you that people do alter their online identity to impress others based on their choice of what information to filter and share with their audiences. Your topic of ‘Making Impression’ falls under the topic of ‘Self-branding’ which is what I discussed, however I didn’t think about the consequences of self-branding such as deception so that was interesting to read. I do agree with you that people are scamming and deceiving others for personal gains since that is an ongoing issue with a user’s freedom to develop their online identity. However I believe that people’s online identities relies on not only their offline identities but people’s view on them which shapes their desired identities.

My paper discusses the development of online identities within communities such as Subtle Asian Traits and how users are able to develop more than one identity within the digital world through self-branding and identity-linkage. Here is the link to my paper: https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/09/the-development-of-online-identities-in-digital-communities/

Hey Alisha,
Thanks for taking an interest in my paper. I really like your point that people’s online identities are greatly influenced by how people perceive their offline identities. That is something that I agree with because people may be bullied offline for something, which could push them to change that aspect of themselves online.

I will definitely check out your paper too, so thank you for linking it.

Julie

Hi Julie,
This was an awesome paper. It was fascinating to read about the many types of identity deception. I liked your point about some individuals feeling pressure to present an ideal image and construction of their identity online that is often different from how others know them offline.

This is a very open question but i’m interested to hear your thoughts on why you think users present a modified version of their offline identity?

If you would like to check out my paper, it explores online anonymity, and how it influences users’ disclosure on social platforms 🙂 https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/11/the-relationship-between-online-anonymity-and-self-disclosure-of-users-on-social-platforms/

Hi Ruby,
Thanks for reading my paper and giving feedback!

I believe that users present a modified version of themselves online because they want to fit in. It’s in our nature to want to belong in our society and various communities. Social networking allows us to do this by allowing us to express ourselves in ways we can’t offline. We might exactly feel that we belong in our offline communities so we are motivated to belong in our online communities, where we can interact with even more people. While we want to feel this sense of belonging, we also want to present our own unique identities online. When we are offline we might be timid to express ourselves completely, but online we have a whole page to show what we want. These are some things I got from my own experiences. Your online profile is a creative, individualistic place for yourself. Posts on social media are usually the highlight reel—the best moments that are chosen to be shared with others, so impression is everything. Our offline identity is not as picture-perfect as it may seem online.

I hope this answered your question for me. I will definitely look at your paper.

Julie

Hi Julie,
I definitely agree with your response. Social media can almost be an escape from the offline world for some people, and a place free of judgement and criticism where users can freely express themselves. I also agree that people tend to present their ‘best’ selves online in order to convey an ideal picture of themselves and their life offline, perhaps to gain popularity or to try and fit in with others.

Julie,

Well done with your paper! I found it very interesting to read.

I particularly enjoyed your discussion on identity deception, impression management and fictional facades. It was interesting how you discussed the liquidity of identity (in both expression and outside interpretation) and how it changes and shifts frequently in different scenarios. I find this information quite similar to parts of my paper which discussed the ‘performing self’(https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/11/branding-and-identity-construction-through-online-communities ). I had never heard of mirror networks, and found it interesting when you pointed out that children may construct decoy accounts to deceive parents. I liked your words about revealing different sides to one’s identity and how this can be identity deception (or even catfishing) if these facets of expressions are done due to comply to current trends or appear appealing.

Good work 

Miell

Thank you so much Miell for reading and taking the time to comment on my paper.

Your paper definitely helped me understand my paper even better.

Julie

Hi Julie,
Thank you for commenting on my paper and suggesting yours at the same time. I have liked reading your paper, as it has helped me in better understanding things happening in the online world. I knew the word ‘finsta’, as some of my friends on Instagram use it for their page, and, I had never fully understood it’s term and meaning, but now I do.
I do agree with the fact that some people on SNSs are completely different while being online and offline, which can be quite disturbing because as you have mentioned, you think that you know people but in reality, you are only aware of the personage they are portraying online. When you talk about identity deception and scams, one thing that comes to my mind is the show ‘Catfish’ on MTV, where you get to see how some people are messed up, or how easy it is to scam someone via SNSs, which is very sad.
Thank you for choosing this great topic, it was very interesting.
Regards ☺
Tatiana

Thank you for taking the time to read my paper and giving me feedback. When I was researching for my paper, especially the catfishing, the show was what I kept thinking about as well. I’m glad someone else knows the show as well. That show just makes it catfishing so much more real and shows how scary it is.

Julie

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