I am starting exploring a very possible topic of my thesis: building an online identity management tool. Though my focus will be put more on the design and development of the tool, it is essential to understand theories and current practice of online identity management.
Last weekend, I came across a very interesting and informative paper researching online identity construction on Facebook: Zhao, S., Grasmuck, S., & Martin, J. (2008). Identity construction on Facebook: Digital empowerment in anchored relationships. Computers in Human Behavior, 24(5), 1816–1836. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2008.02.012. As published in 2008, this paper is an early effort to research on online identity management in the context of nonymous Social Networking Sites (SNS).
Important things to notice before reading: the Facebook in 2012 is quite different from the version back in 2008. The most important difference is that now Facebook is not entirely nonymous: you can create fake account and you don’t have to be a college students. However, my interests will still be on those who use SNS to extend offline life and communication, and thus will need so called “identity management”; but not those who creates forged identities that have nothing to do with their offline presentation.
Back to this paper. The methods they used are content analysis of Facebook accounts and follow-up structured interviews. The literature review part of this paper gives very comprehensive review of theories of identity construction. I will list some important ones here as an index that can help to go back to the paper:
- “Identity is an important part of the self-concept. … and identity is that part of the self ‘by which we are known to others’ (Altheide, 2000, p.2)”
- Construction of identity = identity announcement & identity placement. Identity announcement is made by the individual to claim who she is while identity placement is made by others to endorse the claim. When there is intersection between identity announcement and identity placement, this intersection will be the constructed identity.
- Difference between identity construction through localized interactions and online interactions: here the authors discussed the famous work from Goffman (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life). Basically the localized (offline) interactions place many constrains to hinder individuals from displaying inconsistent selves while anonymous online environment detaches the embodiment of an individual and frees one to present a totally new self. This new mode of presenting a “hidden self” online shows the ability of Internet to empower identity construction.
- A nonymous online environment is between those two extremes discussed above, since it is built upon offline relationships. The authors coined the term “anchored relationships” to describe this kind of offline-based online relationships. In this anchored online relationships, people are nonymous online and can be traced to their offline identities. Unlike anonymous online society, this nonymous online environment also places constraints on identity claims.
- The authors then introduced the concepts of “now selves” and “possible selves”. The previous one is who you are in others’ eyes right now and the latter refers to who you want to be in the possible future, which is an image unknown to others at this stage (Markus and Nurius, 1986). They then argued that the nonymous online environment differs from localized interactions and anonymous online environment, in that it empowers a new self-presentation as “hoped-for possible selves“.
- The concept of this “hoped-for possible selves” is so important that I list it alone here and quoted the definition given in this paper: “Hoped-for possible selves are socially desirable identities an individual would like to establish and believes that they can be established given the right conditions” (p.1819).
- As the authors review the dating-site (as a form of nonymous sites) research, they found that these nonymous dating sites provide opportunities to users to make public “identity statements“, which can be implicit and explicit. This is an important path for people to construct the “hoped-for possible” selves that are not known offline.
The results of the paper are discussed based upon these theoretical framework covered in the literature review. The major findings are two fold. First, the identity statements form a continuum of implicit to explicit claims. At one end, people adopt “showing without telling” strategy, using visual presentations such as photos to present themselves. This is an implicit way, which is the most common among participants. At the other end of explicit expression, people use narrative format to tell and label themselves. This is the least popular among participants. In between, there is an enumerative way to show the “cultural self” through listing one’s tastes on movies, songs, and hobbies etc. Second, the authors examined the types of self claims. Most participants chose to project themselves as “socially desirable” and hid pessimistic personas and academic identities. Though most results fit the hypothesis of showing the “hoped-for possible” selves that are positive, they did find some presented some types of “hidden selves”, through publishing “superficial or hedonistic images”, “less socially sanctioned” quotes, and “sexually provocative statements”.
Some reflections: As mentioned in the discussion part, living in this nonymous online environments, online and offline world is not separated anymore. The negative “hidden selves” being shown online is exactly the reason why we want to build this online identity management tool. People, especially students need to learn how to coordinate their identity claims in online and offline worlds, since they are highly connected. The “hoped-for possible selves” could be the ideal image we would like people to cast online. In my previous study of identity construction on another popular SNS Twitter, I also found the similar strategy continuum of implicit claims to explicit claims, which is very exciting. After reading is paper, I have several research ideas: 1. As suggested in this paper, we should compare the “objective” coding of online content with the “subjective” self-reported online identity construction methods. Basically compare “what people thought they did” with “what they actually did”. 2. Continue my previous study of identity construction on Twitter and compare it with the case on Facebook. To better compare, it will be better if the participants group are comparable. Understanding how people are presenting themselves online helps to discover areas that are commonly failing and yelling “SOS”.