Weinreich (1998), defines the meaning of an individual’s identity as “the totality of one’s self-construal”, where present self-construal is shaped by the continuity between one’s past and how one aspires to be in the future. Here, identity is referred to as a timeline of self-representation.
As social networking sites (SNSs) facilitate self-representation and document user-created identities, an individual is able to establish any online identity they choose. Self-construal through an individual’s choices and motivation whilst using SNSs help construct an identity when considering what information is revealed about oneself, what content is displayed in association with oneself, and how one interacts with others (Livingstone 2008). An online identity is defined by how an individual aims to be perceived by others online.
Image credit: James Rick
Anonymity is an affordance of an online culture, hence individuals may take on any identity they wish.
When representing oneself, according to Livingstone (2008), SNSs create great opportunities for self-expression, creativity and sociability. By constructing a ‘profile’ on a SNS, an individual has varying opportunities to identify their online space through blogging, commenting, updating their ‘status’, ‘liking’, sharing photographs, following, ‘tweeting’ and much more. This collective combination of actions completed in an online sphere presents a certain tone and persona and creates a certain reflection of an individual. For example, Elena, a teenager sampled in market research (Livingstone 2008), communicated that SNS layouts where the user can customise their display helps show who the individual is, and that, for example, something as basic as having a rainbow featured on your page can suggest you are a happy person.
Australian beauty vlogger, Lauren Curtis‘ Instagram photos convey colours, smiles, makeup and fashion, which portray her as a bright, happy, well-presented individual.
Many SNSs also map identity through social history in the form of timelines, activity history and dated posts. These features display an individual’s past and present, where the user dictates their future activity and identity.
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The Facebook timeline feature lets users ‘tell their life story’.
Identity is also shaped by an individual’s sense of belonging, which is impacted by relationships in the form of social connections and community (see ‘Top Three Reasons We Join Social Networking Sites‘ by Jeff Hurt of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting).
Online social connections can display an individual’s position in a peer network, where the online social practices of peers can shape what content an individual displays and what information is revealed. For example, a peer posting multiple photos of themselves and their friends at a social event, might encourage an individual within the same social circle to do the same, where a concept of identity is established through connection.
Another social practice in the form of stylistic shifts in profiles and SNS preferences amongst peers can also breed a transition in identity development. For example, as Livingstone (2008) explains, the market research study of teenage social network practices found that most participants perceived Facebook as the “clean profile favoured by older teenagers”, therefore, when peers began using Facebook, other peers followed suit. In this case, media platform choices can be a reflection of relative maturity.
How exchanges between peers are established also plays a nominal role in the formation of social identity, as when referencing online relationships, Livingstone (2008) suggests that the prioritisation of values such as authenticity, reciprocity and intimacy are displayed in an open fashion. For example, others may judge the authenticity of an individual’s character if it is apparent they are adding ‘friends’ to their profile for a number count, rather than being actual friends. Much the same as how leaving ten comments per day on someone’s profile can suggest to others that the individual is needy, construed through their need for sustaining constant connection with peers or lust for self-advertising.
A snapshot of the repeat comments left on Kendall Jenner‘s Instagram photo by people looking to gain more ‘followers’.
Finally, social connection in the form of an individual’s chosen community exhibits a form of identity as consumer preferences can bring their own judgements. For example, a strong display of Star Wars references in a profile might communicate ‘nerd’, such as a strong display of expensive handbags might communicate ‘materialistic’, hence people make immediate judgements on an individual’s identity based on their consumer culture.
Overall, the anonymity provided by an online environment and choices made by an individual when showcasing themselves and interacting with others, creates great opportunity for identity creation and manipulation.
- Livingstone, S 2008, ‘Taking risky opportunities in youthful content creation: teenagers’ use of social networking sites for intimacy, privacy and self-expression’, New Media & Society, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 393-411.
- Weinreich, P 1998, ‘Social Exclusion and Multiple Identities’, Soundings: A Journal of Politics and Culture, vol. 9, pp. 139-144.