Identity in Virtual Community
Virtual communication, social media, and other social networking sites have functioned as full time channels of communication that have access to society and hold a significant role in self presentation and liberation (Mascheroni, Vincent, Jimenez, 2015). Photo based social media such as Instagram or Snapchat are examples of complex new media, in which the feature of sharing pictures, videos, and added texts are all inclusive making them ‘complete’ platforms to connect online. For teens and preteens, social media has become an essential part in “managing one’s identity and social relations” (boyd, 2007, 2014; Livingstone, 2008, 2009; Peter, Valkenburg, & Fluckiger, 2009; Valkenburg, et al, 2005, as cited in Mascheroni, et al, 2015). Research on the use of social networking sites focused attention on the power of peer norms on practices and criterions of online identity-creating (boyd, 2007, 2014; Livingstone, 2008; as cited in 2015). The use of virtual environment has also supported adolescents “to construct and perform young feminist identities” (Keller 2015; as cited in Retallack, Ringrose, Lawrence, 2016). Unavoidably, despite the emancipation within the social media, tensions between genders emerge contradictory pressures concerning what is deemed proper and what is inappropriate to post (2015) making it complicated for adolescents, especially young women, to share about postfeminist ideas and let themselves free bodily and emotionally in the virtual world. Young women are using social media as a means of self-expression with subtle messages defining their identity as a postfeminist. Those young feminists who share photos and contents on social media with an intention of delivering feminist messages also builds connection within the postfeminist virtual community.
In general discussion, the term postfeminism is applied to indicate that gender equality has been reached (Henderson & Taylor, 2020), therefore a new and more complex goal is set to be accomplished, including the rights of LGBTQ+ community. It started after and as a criticism of the 2nd wave feminism of the 1970s. In cultural studies and feminist media, postfeminism has proven to be useful in understanding popular culture (2010). As women have achieved their goals to obtain equality, postfeminism not only focuses on women but also takes gender-related progression to the next stage. Postfeminism works side by side with neoliberalism, as self improvement and success around impressions and “desirability to men continues to represent one of the most important aspects of femininity in contemporary popular make-over culture” (Ringrose & Walkerdine 2008, as cited in Retallack, Ringrose, Lawrence, 2016).
Sporadically, when the term postfeminism is discussed, it is described as a bifurcated term with numerous different branches (Genz, 2006). Being divided into two distinctive strands, it can be defined as a mainstream adverse reaction against feminism or a completely new way for women to engage in feminist theory and activism (“Postfeminism”, 2013). Even though postfeminism is a thoroughly debatable signifier, within feminist media, it has become known as a key idea to apprehend the digressive production of present-day women’s subjectivity through popular culture (Modleski, Lotz, Whelehan, Gill, Tasker & Negra, Genz, McRobbie as cited in Handerson & Taylor, 2010). In popular culture of the 21st century, the question of gender: “who are we, and to what extent do biological divisions of male and female continue to inform our sense of identity?” continues to be a primary question (Radner & Stringer, 2011, p. 1), explaining the postfeminism is not only focusing on one gender which is female, but also considering other genders when it comes to identity.
According to Marwick, online identity is a term that indicates a differentiation between how people perform themselves in the virtual world and how they do it in the real space or offline (2012). As a result, people’s personality in the online world can be contrary to what they really are in reality, supported by the internet and its function as a platform for people to be free to project their desired persona. Vaast proposed that people in the online environments can create ‘new selves’ and that online identity could make adopting personas possible and easy to embrace (2007). More extreme theoreticians hypothesized that the online world would set people free from their biological bodies, blur the distinction between human and technology, and potentially transform people into a higher sort of awareness, turning into “post-human” (Stone, 1996). Notwithstanding the fact that it is doable for people creating or even completely faking their online identity, Bullingham and Vancocelos argued that people are not creating a whole new persona online, because in most cases they are only performing the chosen aspects of their ‘real world’ personality as the highlight (2013). This concept is also explained by Baym, that a multiple self elucidates why people perform various identities based on context: “multiplicity is an inherent property of identity rather than somehow dishonest or false” (as cited in Marwick, 2012).
Most scholars that discuss online identity are focusing on self-presentation, which is used to describe how individuals present themselves to others and also indicated through the interaction in social situations, whether in cyberspace or in real life (Wynn and Katz 1997; Papacharissi 2002; Baym 2010; boyd 2010, as cited in Marwick, 2012). Erving Goffman (1959), a sociologist in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, concludes that people present themselves based on who they are with or the audience, and where they are or context. During the interaction, those who participate are considered as actors (1959). Consequently, identity is a social construct constructed alongside and through the people surrounding us (2012), which means what other people see in us and ‘what kind of people’ around us matter. When it comes to the virtual world, especially in social media, people around us are mainly our followers or close friends, although they could be as widely distributed as strangers from beyond the horizon. Therefore, there is a possibility that what we perform and post online can be disseminated world wide, which could make the messages delivered within the post can reach out to more of an audience than in real life situation.
Derived from the Latin word com which means together and unus which means a singularity or the number one, community is a generally used term in scholarly discussion, yet it is also complex (Delanty, 2018). Regardless of its contestation, the thought of community is linked to the pursuit of belonging (2018). While virtual and non virtual communities may be thick on the ground, there has not been a single explanation defining the term “virtual community” that is embraced by all (Porter, 2015). A virtual community is conceived as a collection or gathering of individuals who communicate about the same shared interest, where the interaction is partly maintained by the help of technology and directed by some conventions (Porter 2004, as cited in Porter, 2015). This explanation is also in line with Cantoni & Tardini’s interpretation that “virtual communities require members to share common interests (the defining characteristic of so-called paradigmatic communities) as well as interact amongst each other as they actively refine the domain of their shared interests (the defining characteristic of so-called syntagmatic communities)” (2006, as cited in Porter, 2015, p. 162). To sum up, community is a space in both virtual and non-virtual environment that requires members who have the same common interests, a sense of belonging, and interact within the community.
Since nowadays the internet consists of many different social media platforms, a more exact statement of virtual community continues to be unachievable (2015). As a matter of fact, differing virtual community types are elucidated by a variation of contextual aspects that includes the strength and/or type of member connections, subject matter of communication within the interactions in the midst of members, conditions under which one person becomes a member of the community or the circumstances under which a community was originated (Greenacre et al. 2013; Lee et al. 2003; Preece 2000, as cited in Porter, 2015). Porter’s definition of virtual community encompasses the characteristics, making it sustainable and comprehensive, including; 1) members of community could be organizations or individuals who can communicate and connect in both virtual and non virtual space, 2) interaction between members could be brought about by any kind of technology, and the key of the definition remains applicable in which it includes the latest types of gadgets and recently developed social media platforms (e.g. Instagram, Twitter) become all over the place (2015).
The sense of belonging in the virtual community can be completely different than in the real space community. The members do not have to know the others in person, making the interaction not too intimate. In fact, the members do not have to be ‘registered’ to join the community and the community itself is not always solid. The virtual postfeminist community is more of a collective of feminists in this era who continuously share about postfeminist messages in their personal social networks. It is more of a gathering of people who perform the identity of being postfeminists online. Within the content that is created online and distributed through social media, societal politics and social movements are being progressively recognizable as essential component of communication (Dahlgren 2009; Papacharissi 2014; as cited in Retallack, Ringrose, Lawrence, 2016), helping the movement of women’s rights get easily acknowledged online. However, postfeminists do not always state or identify themselves as postfeminists online, it is their posts with postfeminist messages that shows their identity. The blurred recognition of being postfeminist from the perspective of the audience makes the messages that are supposed to deliver postfeminist subjects can become ambiguous.
On photo based social media platform such as Instagram, even though it is also supported by text and hashtag feature, at most times people only use the photo feature as platform to communicate feminist message. Within the picture itself, audience can find and interpret aspects of postfeminism, such as viewing and posting about body positivism. In many cases, these posts about body positivism lead to antifeminist or even misogynist comments such as slut shaming, due to the absence of identifying self as feminist. On the other hand, people who show most of their skin on their posts with the help of some hashtags such as #bodypositivism, #feminist, or #womenempowerment could also be judged as feminazi. Even though there has not been a definite explanation of what feminazi is, it is a combination of the word feminist and nazi which is an offensive name used to address radical or extreme feminism. It is also used when people see or interpret some feminist ideas as false feminism. This debatable feminazi perceptions are common in the social media, especially when the audience recognize the unsure newly arrived feminists who happen to be girls in their young adulthood, “questioning which forms of feminism these teens are claiming as part of their lives and how they make use of them” (Retallack, Ringrose, Lawrence, 2016). At present, young women tend to adopt the postfeminist representation of feminine allure—“one which wants them sexually attractive and active—and are at the same time more subject to peers’ moral judgment than boys, who are pushed to conform to an idealized masculinity centred on toughness and emotional disconnection” (Lemish 2015; as cited in Mascheroni, Vincent, Jimenez, 2015, p.3). Scholars also argue that adult central beliefs of how the feminist campaigns and activism should look and how it should be, frequently refuse young girls’ feminist activism and think of it as generational revolt instead of solemn political engagement (Harris 2008; Taft 2011; as cited in Retallack, Ringrose, Lawrence, 2016).
On the one hand, postfeminism introduces a recently developed “form of self-policing and sexism to women’s lives; one that becomes hard to critique and dismantle as sexual self objectification is continually presented as a matter of individual choice and desire” (McRobbie 2004; Gill 2007, as cited in 2016, p. 86). As postfeminism is closely associated with neoliberalism, research on young girls indicating the postfeminist effects on body hatred are not obsolete with girls confronting continuous day-to-day pain at being exposed to neoliberal marketing of their “learning bodies” (2016). Feminist academics highlighted the irrevocable natural world of neoliberal aesthetic representations of femininity which young girls decide to obey since their self-assurance is based on their beauty and looks (Gill 2003; Stuart & Donaghue 2012; as cited in Mascheroni, Vincent, Jimenez, 2015). The mission of neoliberalism to become someone gives out what is expressed as the delusional aspect of self controlling, individuality and self-governing notions of subjectivity (2016). Yet, with social media, it helps connecting and giving the means for a number of teenage girls to begin reforming the relationships with each other and most importantly, their bodies (2016). For instance, Snapchat is a remedying platform to empower and emancipate young women from the autocracy of aesthetics and beauty and allows them play a role in playful interaction by sharing photos in which their look is neither flawless nor sexually appealing (2015).
In concluding, young women with their young feminist identities and their postfeminist online contents are often misrecognized. Even though the identities or self images that are constructed by young women who claim themselves as feminists are relevant to how they represent selves through media and virtual community related, the determination of their claim as feminists is still quite early and banal due to its thin line difference between feminist and feminazi, which can be a misleading interpretation of the true spirit of feminism. Their developing self presentation and non stop self expression as postfeminists sometimes are not always approved by adults, making their slactivism or online activism seen as something that would not change or do anything in real space. This way of thinking arises due to the discrepancy of generations and the technologies used. The “non solid” postfeminist virtual community and the freedom to claim oneself as a postfeminist also contribute to the negative side of thinking, since it would make audience questioning one’s identity as real feminist or not. Although it is rather difficult to acknowledge one’s intention on posting contents that are related to body positivity, self love, and other feminist messages, we can conclude that the online identity that someone has desirably performed is powerful enough a medium to connect with fellow like-minded people, in this case; young feminists in the postfeminist virtual community. In addition, despite the blurred virtual community of postfeminism and the unregistered members online, young postfeminists still can observe the sense of online postfeminist community by exploring the hashtags, give comments on other feminists’ posts, and empowering each others. And if those young feminists continue to do what they do in the virtual postfeminist community, it could have impacts on changing society’s perception towards the issue itself.
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