Identity and Audience in Social Media
Stringfield, Jonathan Dale
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Technology and society share a reciprocal relationship. In recent years, there is perhaps no better example of technology laden with societal implications than the consumer internet, and therein, social network sites (SNS). People—whose identity can be verified—are freely sharing large amounts of information on a globally accessible stage, altering the basic nature of how individuals communicate. Increasingly people have ‘friends’ on Facebook and ‘followers’ on Twitter with which they communicate and develop their identities. Despite the growth of this medium of communication, our understanding of how individuals express identity—and grapple with the unique features of these platforms—remains limited. Classic theories of how people perform their identities rely on the fact that people interact in person and in present time (Goffman 1959). These assumptions no longer hold when identity performance occurs on SNS: they need not happen in real time and the potential audience can number in the millions. The possibility that messages exchanged can cause harm is increased because people tend to connect online with those they also know “offline”, and therefore are likely to post intimate information about themselves (e.g., Walton and Rice 2013). Therefore, this study will focus on how people conceive of privacy and messaging context or audience. Previous studies suggest that the content of messages will be similar to those that users enact in an “offline” context. But if users are savvier about the context of messaging on SNS than previously assumed, we would expect differences in comfort level with messaging “online” vs. “offline.” How one thinks about interacting and creating identity when the potential audience numbers in the millions is complex. Assuming that it is only the intended audience who receives the message or identity performance, it is not even clear who this audience is. Thus, we also focus on how users of SNS imagine their audiences. The likely potential number of recipients for a given message will be higher than that estimated by the respondents, with the greatest differentiation from Twitter users as most “tweets” can be viewed by anyone. Regardless, it is expected that users will conceptualize their audience similarly between the platforms, despite the fact that severe harm (lost job, embarrassment, etc.) can occur when the wrong message is sent to the wrong audience. Investigating conceptions of audience, context, and privacy in combination provides novel opportunities to test how these concepts interact, which we see as a limitation of previous studies concentrating on the factors individually (e.g. Litt 2012). The growing importance of SNS makes ongoing analyses critical in light of their impact on broader communication patterns. The ubiquity of SNS, partnered with the increasingly blurred distinction between "online" and "offline" identities, makes identity performance via SNS arguably one of the most important ways humans will interact. As a society increasingly interacting online, the larger benefit of this study is providing a better understanding of how individuals are navigating relationships between offline and online contexts. Because so much of the potential harm that can come from SNS is due to misunderstandings (of privacy settings, audiences, etc.) the potential for this research to increase overall public literacy as it pertains to the implications for using SNS are similarly immense. Further, research of this type can help bridge connections between academia and industry (companies such as Facebook and Twitter) to demonstrate the impact these technologies have on the lives of users, and perhaps use this research to inform product design in a way that will be beneficial to the users, such as better estimations of potential audiences receiving a message In this study I test a series of hypotheses related to conceptions of identity performance, privacy, and intended audience, using survey data collected directly from two of the largest SNS, Facebook and Twitter. The data will is collected from an online survey administered on Facebook and Twitter. Paid advertisements were used to disseminate links to the survey, giving all active users an opportunity to respond to the survey. This method avoids the shortcomings of existing studies of this topic, which tend to use convenience-sampling methods. Given that individuals are increasingly participating in relationships that exist both online and offline, the proposed study evaluates a now pervasive aspect of human interaction.
SubjectSocial media, Identity, Audience, Privacy, Internet