This paper seeks to explore, what is ambient awareness and how does ambient awareness build a persona of ourselves for our online and offline social communities? How is an online community formed and is the user’s true identity demonstrated online?
The introduction of Web 2.0 saw a new era on the World Wide Web, one of user generated content, collaboration and the ability to interact, communicate and have a social presence online. Social networking sites were launched, giving people across the world the freedom to share aspects of their everyday lives, building an online identity of themselves that they want their online social community to see, however also unknowingly allowing their ‘friends’ to build a persona of them through this engagement. An identity built unknowingly online: How ambient awareness builds a user’s identity from online social communities.
Online communities are broad in type and range from your offline friends in a social online community, such as Facebook, or they could be people you follow but don’t physically know, such as influencers on Instagram. Another type of online community is a local community group brought together in an online environment, based on where they reside, or a group bought together by a popular interest, such as the now popular ‘Mum’s Who Cook, Clean and Organise’ Facebook groups and Instagram pages. These online networks are all a “community” in a sense of the word and bring people together in the online world.
The definition for community in the Cambridge Dictionary is, “the people living in one particular area or people who are considered as a unit because of their common interests, social group, or nationality”. When looking at communities from a social or technological view, these online communities are usually easily identifiable for what they support or do (Preece & Maloney-Krichmar, 2005) and can be searched for on most social networking platforms. This doesn’t mean to say that an online community only connects and associates online, through whichever platform they exist, as these communities may also have an offline component to their forming (Preece & Maloney-Krichmar, 2005). It is important to recognise that the term ‘community’ is hard to define, as the definition depends on the way it is being used or interpreted.
An online social community such as Instagram and Facebook ‘friends’ can be formed in various ways. These ‘friends’ in this online context, and in these online social communities, may be known in person by the user (physically), or just in the online environment. They could be work colleagues, university peers, physical friends from childhood. No matter where these ‘friends’ originated from, they now form a user’s ‘friends’ list and are part of an online social community, that the user has established.
This online social community can build the persona of the user from their interactions with them online (directly and indirectly). These direct and indirect interactions assist in establishing the persona of the user, even when the ‘friends’ may not be intentionally focusing on this person or what engagements they are having in the online environment. This subtle building of a persona may just happen, unknowingly for the user and for their ‘friends’, however this could also be perceived as the identity they wish to be viewed as, which brings me to my next point, online identities.
Creating an online identity or online persona is open to how the user wants to be perceived by the online social community they are a part of. This online identity could simply reflect them and provide an insight into their everyday life. It could be a different version of them as a person, that they do not feel as comfortable revealing in everyday life or an Avatar version of them, created to portray a more private version of them. Wood and Solomon (2009) suggest there are four stages of virtual social identity: self-development, identity development, identity projection, and self-representation. These stages are reflected in the evolution from child to adult and the choices they make as they progressively get older and more aware and confident in their offline identity (Wood & Solomon, 2009).
When a person chooses to represent their online selves as an Avatar, they choose to show a side of their personality, perhaps trying to showcase their creativity. This identity creation allows the user to have some fun and subtly present to their online social community a version of them. Wood and Solomon (2009) also discuss that adults tend to have the ability to show different representations of them, based on the platform and online social community they are engaging (Wood and Solomon, 2009). This could then suggest that each online community may be building an entirely different version of the user, than another community they are a part of. This then brings us back to the question, is an online identity comparable to the users’ offline identity and is this identity unknowingly built online?
An online identity isn’t just built based on photos, videos or avatar versions of the user. It is also built indirectly perhaps by how the user writes, what pages’ they like and follow and what other online social communities they engage with – an online identity built through ambient awareness.
In 2006, social networking platform, Facebook, introduced the ‘News Feed’; a feature which broadcasted instantly changes on a user’s page to their ‘friends’ (Thompson, 2008, para. 3). Users now had the ability to build their own online identity through the social networking platform and have ‘friends’ updates delivered to them, thus allowing them to also build a persona or online identity of their ‘friends’. Today, similar versions of this exist on most social networking platforms. Instagram for example has a rolling feed of the latest photos or videos posted by ‘friends’.
In the article, Thompson (2008) refers to these online interactions and observations that assist users in building a persona of their ‘friends’ as “ambient awareness”. Thompson (2008, para. 8) describes ambient awareness as “like being physically near someone and picking up on their mood,” however, in an online environment. In everyday life we use our bodies to project information about ourselves (Boyd, 2017), that those around us pick up on – physical ambient awareness. This could be the clothing we wear, the reactions we have to conversations or our current environment, and what we verbally communicate to those around us.
In an online environment, conveying these messages correctly may not be as easy as it might be in a physical sense. Identifying ambient awareness on social networking sites such as Instagram and Facebook, could be sensing the tones or underlying messages in a ‘status update’ or understanding what your friend likes to do or how they are feeling through photos and videos. All of these non-verbal social cues available on social networking sites, help build an online persona of ‘friends’, that the user can then connect with everyday life.
Connecting this online persona to an individual in everyday life requires the ‘friend’ to connect the dots. As Thompson (2008) explains, “this is the paradox of ambient awareness” (para. 13). However, depending on the social networking platforms that these online social communities have formed on, will depend on how authentic these observations may be. Influencers on Instagram for example, tend to showcase their fun and adventurous lives to the world, enjoying life and living in luxury on all expenses paid holidays. However, the question remains, how real is this ‘real life’ and is this the identity they wish to convey?
Social media users are now more aware of the content they are posting online and essentially leaving behind – their ‘digital footprint’ (“Ruptured Reality”, 2013). Though by devoting so much time and energy into creating an online identity that draws in more ‘friends’ to their profiles, are they really showcasing a true version of themselves or is this the version they want people to take note of and follow to avoid showcasing their everyday life? The interactions the online social community has with these types of ‘friends’ needs to be understood before creating a persona of them, as for these ‘influencers’ this is their job. Showcasing the amazing life they ‘live’, just gets them paid and doesn’t necessarily reflect the authentic self of the individual. The ambient awareness that could be drawn from these influencers may be an underlying message that their ‘friends’ may not pick up on.
CONCLUSION – ONLINE IDENTITY AND COMMUNITIES IN AN OFFLINE WORLD
It is important to identify and realise the differences between the online identity ‘friends’ want you to see and the everyday life they live, offline. This possibly isn’t as glamorous or exciting as the online social community may think, and therefore it may not truly be reflected in their online persona.
Online social communities can be a place of comfort, a place you go to engage with those you know physically and virtually, or just in the online environment. It is a place where you can share your true self or a version of you. Online social communities don’t necessarily fit the same definition of a physical community; however, they are still a collection of individuals who have come together in a common place.
An identity built online is there for ‘friends’ to build a persona of the user and for the user to express their personality or creativity how they see fit. This may have underlying messages or resemblances true to everyday life, however this might not be obvious at first glance. Ambient awareness overtime can contribute to building that persona. For online social communities to really understand a ‘friend’ on social networking platforms, they must piece together many aspects of that person, including the identity they have built online, and them as a physical person. It isn’t possible to really know someone and build a true persona of them until you have physically been a part of or ‘lived’ in their online and offline worlds. Even then, you may never know the true identity of someone, just a portrait you have created of what you understand and interpret from what they physically and digitally showcase.
So how do these online social communities find a place in the offline world? With technology evolving so rapidly, and users having access to these online social communities on smartphones whenever they wish, they are essentially part of the offline world already. Access to social networking platforms and daily interaction on these is part of almost everyone’s everyday lives now, which could indicate that the line between online and offline is now permanently blurred.
This means these identities, built unknowingly online, are more often showcased in an offline world. With the generations of pre-internet days ageing, and the younger generations not knowing any difference between living online and offline as they have always had access to both, these two ‘worlds’ may just become a community and identity – no ambient awareness or persona variations required.
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