danah boyd and the Social (Network) Construction of the Self

By December 04, 2009

Who is the online you? According to Microsoft researcher and Harvard fellow dana boyd, you are who you follow on Twitter. “The you that you create on social networks is a you that you create for your community,” boyd said, speaking earlier this week at Wharton’s Supernova 2009 conference in San Francisco. “The community determines you,” boyd said. “You imitate the people you follow.” Maybe because we approach things with similar sets of assumptions (academic), I tend to agree with boyd, even if academic discourse is as culturally determined as anything else, if not more so (while it is the language that interrogates privilege, it is also the language of privilege).

While the blogosphere has exploded potentials of personal expression, so many personal blogs are written in the same voice, point the same tired snark at the same tired memes. Status updates become personal PR blasts, and instead of voicing the contents of our own minds, we just retweet the contents of more beautiful ones.

While the community determines you (not that this is in any real way different than in the physical world, just easier to see in an online context), online communities differ from those in the physical world in that they are a tiny bit less segregated, and it’s tiny bit easier to confront and be confronted by groups you normally wouldn’t encounter, groups you might flat-out avoid.

We construct our social lives as echo chambers, keeping the dissonance of different world-views far away, choosing to stick to consonant networks, networks that reinforce our self and our beliefs. Social networks can change that, especially Twitter’s open stream.

“Twitter can force you to hear things you don’t want to hear, confront people you don’t want to confront,” boyd said.

Our physical worlds are constructed so that we can stay within the groups of our choice, and the internet is built that way, too, to a very large degree. But with the universe of voices that “emerge” with Web 2.0 tools, the social barriers we construct begin to break down.

As someone who has lived a between two cultures the good part of the last ten years, this experience can be revelatory, but also frightening (and frustrating). As far as I distrust arguments about the linguistic construction of reality, I do think that this is becoming more the case in our online interactions, where written language and (largely) static images are the primary ways we construct our selves.

We construct our discourse with the tacit assumption that our network will approve. (In this sense, ‘liking’ a Facebook update streamlines, and parodies, human interactions. Approve the message and move on to the next one. Maybe Fable 2 is an accurate prediction of what future interactions will look like.)

We expect that others’ messages will reinforce us and, at the same time, we do not realize how dissonant and fragile the discourses we’ve built our selves upon are when we become the Other. Fundamentally, it’s all just part of this post-existential world where we’re not defined by being who we are, but by who and what sees us being who we are.

And that goes not only for communities, but institutions. Like a lot of contemporary scholarship, Boyd’s assumptions are undergirded by Foucauldian notions of surveillance, notions which are becoming more relevant by the day.

It’s second nature to think about your job (and future employment prospects) when you post to Facebook or Twitter, and to choose your message with both the present moment and your online legacy in mind. Our public life trumps the private; personal expression becomes increasingly contingent.

It’s ironic that we’ve spent so much time obsessing over Tiger Woods this week, when, in reality, we are all assuming the responsibilities that celebrities face, the parts of their lives that they sacrifice to become public figures.

Maybe someday this will lead to greater sensitivity for the private lives of celebrities, but I sort of doubt it; more likely it will cause us sacrifice the same things public figures do -- privacy -- while very few of receive the rewards that counterbalance that loss. Besides Farmville.

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