Who are we online?
Posted by Dan Lea
Who are we when we are online? Are we really ourselves, or do we take advantage of the technological filter of the Internet to create a slightly (or greatly) more idealized version of ourselves for public consumption? In the article, “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship,” danah boyd and Nicole Ellison outline many of the aspects of social networks that have attracted the interest of researchers. Two of those aspects, which are related to each other, are impression management and friendship performance. So what kind of impression are we trying to make?
There are three main ways to make an impression on a social media site that I can think of. Ellison and boyd point out research that explores how people’s profiles and friend lists make an impression. I would say that what you choose to post adds to the impression people get when they connect with you online.
Let’s start with the profile. When you are building a social network profile, you are deliberately deciding what you want people to know about you. Let’s set aside privacy concerns for now—my brother, for instance, won’t post his true birthdate, not because he doesn’t want people to know he’s the oldest, but so it’s harder for an identity thief to impersonate him—and focus on what we do and don’t want people to know about us.
On my Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, I allow people to see my age. I’m not ashamed. Maybe next year when I’m 50, I’ll feel differently, but I doubt it. I include all of the jobs I have held as an adult. My Facebook profile includes all of my education, including high school, to help me connect with past classmates. My LinkedIn profile only includes my post-high-school education. It also includes my resume, professional awards, and links to some articles I have had published.
This information is factual, but mainly designed to make me look good, I guess. However, if you pay attention to the education section, you’ll see that at one point I began a college career and then abandoned it. It took me many years to finally accomplish that task.
Secondly, let’s look at the Facebook friend list and LinkedIn connections. According to boyd and Ellison, research indicates that who your friends are make up part of your online identity. I would add that the number of friends might also affect the impression people have of you. I have 476 Facebook friends and 326 LinkedIn connections. That seems respectable to me. I do not work very hard to increase those numbers. But I just noticed I have a friend who has over 1,100 Facebook friends and somewhere over 500 connections on LinkedIn. My impression of this is that she is more popular than I am! My self–worth is slightly diminished.
As far as who my friends are, I’m not sure what that says about me. There are some wonderful people on the list and some I would not choose to hang out with in person. I have not made a point of courting influential social media friends, though I do seek out influential professional connections on LinkedIn.
I think that what we choose to post on social media also makes an impression. Some people brag about themselves or their kids, others complain about their jobs or spouses, some make political statements, and some post amazingly uninteresting minutia. I like to post pictures of myself kayaking and playing guitar, because I think that’s the closest I come to looking cool. I have bragged about my daughters; that shows what a great parent I have been. I have posted pictures of awards I have won, brag brag. Other than that, though, I like to make people laugh, so I am much more likely to post about something stupid I have done than something that makes me look good. I would not likely post about a successful day on the job, but I did post a story about getting lost in the back hallways of the hospital where I work. The impression I probably made there? Funny, but stupid. Maybe I gain a few points for humility.
I have a feeling that after reading some of this research, I will have the urge to polish up my online self!
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