Online Identities and the Growth of Social Media

Profile shown on Thefacebook in 2005

Profile shown on Thefacebook in 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Michael McDonnell

For many of us, the Internet has become an inescapable part of our everyday lives. For many it has always been an inescapable part of their lives, but what effect has this had on how we view and present ourselves? In the article “Face Value,” Mary Gray (2007) gives us a look at the early days of social media. She names three social media sites. Facebook, MySpace and Friendster, all three of which offered the same basic service, a space online to connect with people in your current real life networks, get to know them more easily and, through posting your own updates or pictures, let people get to know you.

In the intervening seven years, social media has grown. According to a study by the Pew Internet Project, 74% of online adults use social media. Facebook is still the largest single social media site with 71% of online adults using the site. The market has fragmented, however. More social media sites have sprung up to fill perceived gaps in the market. For example, Instagram is a platform for people to post photographs that usually the user has taken themselves. Tumblr allows users to share pictures, videos and articles that they find interesting or to share content that has been posted by people they are connected with. Twitter allows users to post comments or status updates with a maximum of 140 characters.

This proliferation of social media sites has led to the fragmentation of personalities. Gray points out that we have always had multiple facets to our personality that we would portray and allow people to develop an impression of us. The difference is that now, with social media sites, we can better tailor the image we want to portray and emphasize aspects of ourselves to different outlets.

The average person has two social media accounts. Statistically these are most likely to be Facebook and Twitter. Due to their formats, the same message is unlikely to be posted to each platform but must be edited. Facebook allows long form posts, multiple photographs in a post, links etc. Twitter on the other hand limits users to 140 characters per post. This forces users to edit their thoughts, to either cut excess material or reword their thoughts. This cannot be done without extra consideration as to what you want to say. On top of this, each social network has a different user base and communities within it. These different audiences can have an effect on how users portrays themselves.

This division of our personalities across multiple social networks has had the side effect of allowing businesses to integrate themselves more easily into our daily lives. The acceptance of multiple identities has facilitated the creation of multiple accounts being set up to appeal to different parts of the market. A newspaper, rather than just one account, can instead have one for each section, allowing them to deliver information to customers without flooding them with content that does not interest them. The specificity of each social network also makes it easier for businesses to study how they work and integrate their content into the network without negatively disrupting it.

One negative aspect of this change in how we present ourselves is that the increasing disconnect between our online and physical selves makes falsifying our identity or at least aspects of it. It becomes impossible to trust that a person is who they say they are. Also, if our online self becomes more malleable and adjustable, there is more likelihood that it will not mesh with our offline self.

There are definitely good and bad points to the use of social media in this way but whether it will lead to long term problems still remains to be seen. Ellison (2013) describes our online persona as being like an actor on a stage. As more people join multiple social networks, it’s as if we are trying to perform different plays to different audiences at the same time.

References

Beckland, J. 2011. Why Mainstream Social Networks Complicate Our Identities. Mashable. Available at: http://mashable.com/2011/09/01/social-media-identities/

Casserly, M. 2011. Multiple Personalities And Social Media: The Many Faces of Me. Forbes. Available at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/meghancasserly/2011/01/26/multiple-personalities-and-social-media-the-many-faces-of-me/

Changizi, M. 2014. Multiple Personality Social Media. Science 2.0. Available at: http://www.science20.com/mark_changizi/multiple_personality_social_media

Ellison, N. 2013. Future Identities: Changing identities in the UK – the next 10 years. http://www.gov.uk. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/275752/13-505-social-media-and-identity.pdf

Gray, M. 2007. Face Value. Contexts 6(2):73-75.

Lytle, R. (2013). When One Social Network Is Enough. Mashable. Available at: http://mashable.com/2013/05/26/social-network-enough/

Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, (2013). Social Networking Fact Sheet. Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/fact- sheets/social-networking-fact-sheet/

Radacati, S. and Yamasaki, T. (2014). Social Media Market, 2012-2016. http://www.radicati.com. Available at: http://www.radicati.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Social-Media-Market-2012-2016-Executive-Summary.pdf

Statisticbrain.com, (2014). Social Networking Statistics | Statistic Brain. Available at: http://www.statisticbrain.com/social-networking-statistics/

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