Theory and Literature Review

Of all the different and perplexing social conundrums sociologists have tackled over the years, the notion of identity is perhaps among the most elusive and emergent.  Depending on which social science you consult, identity may relate to self-image and individuation or to ascribed and achieved social roles and the process of negotiating one's own place and meaning within a greater societal context.  Or, as Abelson and Lessig (1998) define identity, it may be reduced to "a unique piece of information associated with an entity... a collection of characteristics which are either inherent or assigned by another" to which he later adds "the skills that a person possesses can also become part of one's identity."  Identities are fluid, and often times difficult to fit into a simple definition.  Two people might share defining characteristics, such as being blond or female and knowing how to fly an airplane, but in practice their identities are never the same.  Identity evolves over time and therefore remains in some state of constant change.  You may always be identified as human, but go from young to old and naive to wise.  This paper does not seek to postulate an all-inclusive definition of identity, but instead situate an understanding of it within two main contexts: the digital environment and gender.

Defining Identity

By addressing the perspectives presented by Adam Smith, Mead, Freud, and Lacan1 one arrives at two primary notions of the self: an internal perception and an external social identity (boyd 2002).  We as human (sentient) beings all have a comprehension of self (self-concept), which is often understood through self-evaluations that involve consistent attributes (e.g. “I am enthusiastic”).  In other words, one’s internal identity consists of physical, psychological, philosophical and moral aspects of self (boyd 2002).  This self-concept is a prerequisite (but distinguished from) self-consciousness (or awareness), which is an acute sense of self that is dependent upon context (private or public).  No aspect of one’s persona is self-evident, however.  They are demonstrated relative to other actors who serve as the basis of reflexive measurement.  Internal identity is evaluated by history, experience, and interaction, which in turn gives rise to social identity.  Both the actor (and their various complexities) conveying a representation and the context in which it is extant form the social ipseity (identity).  The incessant and necessary interplay between the two worlds, which is retroactive, perpetual, and heterogeneous, is a fascinating dichotomy.  This can be likened to many other classic debates,2 such as situationism (external situational factors) verses traits and motivations (patterns of behavior, thought, or emotion that remain stable but differ by individual) or to structure (race, class, gender, ability, etc…) verses agency (individual capability, freedom of choice). 3 This paper just explores just two complications.  Portions of this work will relate to Goffman’s (1959) dramaturgical perspective approach to the construction of identity but in order to save space his work will not be explained here.

Identity in the Digital World

As the internet became mainstream in American during the 1990’s many researchers investigated the various possibilities and implications it would hold for the social conception of identity.  In many ways identity as we know it in an everyday sense could not immediately port to the web, much like it could not be directly replicated in written form or over the telephone.  By the end of the decade some researchers were addressing how the internet had encouraged the vision of identity as a sort of commodity to be valued, verified, and transferred (Abelson and Lessig 1998, Camp 2004). Others sought to dispel the negative associations that had begun to accrue regarding the online interactions that mediate identity and personality.  One such pair was McKenna and Bargh (2000) who were among the first to assert (in response to popular opinion and fears) that the internet could have no single, simple effect upon all people, defining who they are in ways such as inducing loneliness or causing introverts.  They instead explained that people use the web for all kinds of reasons and motivations and that it was not, like most technologies, inherently good or bad in terms of the kinds of interactive social effects it could have on individuals.  Their article, Plan 9 From Cyberspace: The Implications of the Internet for Personality and Social Psychology, calls upon the works of dozens of authors to spot four major digital architectural differences that could alter the conditions in which identity works. 

First, is anonymity, be it determined through screen nicknames or software to mask ones locations in the world.  In many ways one may achieve this effect simply by being unknown to other users – a poster might even use their real name but if they’re talking to people half way around the world they have never met (and will never meet) then they are just about as anonymous.  McKenna and Bargh go further to explore the implications this has for identity stating, “When an individual’s self-awareness is blocked or seriously reduced by environmental conditions (e.g. such as darkness, presence of large numbers of other people, [the internet]), deindividatuion can occur (Diener, 1980; Zimbardo, 1970).”  The net result of this effect may come in many forms, ranging from flame wars to helping to spread news about oppressive government regimes.   Previous to the dawn of the internet anonymous conversations were not the norm, whereas on the early (and even late) web they are common among human to human interactions.  By alleviating a sense of self and accountability people become more likely to act on the basis of situational cues instead of internal motivations (McKenna and Bargh 2000).  Furthermore, the assurance of an obscured identity facilitates the potential for the construction of personas not ones own, what might be referred to as “Identity Tourism” (Nakamura 2002). Online (anonymous) people might feel safe enough to try out alternative ways of being.  This might be good, such as coming out of the closet in the digital world, or might be bad, like the white men impersonating Asian Geishas in online games, as Nakamura describes in her book.  Much of this has changed, as of late, however.  While general forums and things like response threads to videos on YouTube leave users as (deindividuated) anonymous beings, increasingly more websites do their best to tie identities to agents.  Bloggers have profiles, people invest their offline-selves in dating websites and social networking, and countless photographers and artists (trained or casual) transport themselves visually to the digital realm daily.  Games like World of WarCraft still offer new spaces where fantastic identity tourism can easily take place whereas Second Life encourages users to reflect their first-life selves. 

danah boyd (2006, 2007a), on the other hand, examines another side of anonymity when she explains the forth feature on her list of influences wrought by the digital context.  Audiences are in some sense invisible as well; you may never be quite sure for whom you are performing while online.  We construct our audiences, both real and imagined, with a certain degree of uncertainty unknown in the offline world.  Though she doesn’t explore the notion extensively, the role of the anonymous audience could play a very significant role in ones role-taking and impression management.  Not everyone really consciously thinks about the invisible audience, and those that do have to anticipate just who they are. In many places in Cyberspace this seems to be more like an art then an analysis.

The second point discussed by McKenna and Bargh (2000) is the lack of a physical self online.  In person our identity is constructed, in part, by instrumental physical characteristics and interactions involving non-verbal cues. In many places online this is turned upside down, so much to the point that people who meet online are simply more likely to like one another than if they had met in person.  McKenna and Bargh (1999, cited in 2000) found that people who met first online walked away with a conception of the person they had just met that more closely resembled that person’s own identified image.  With services like Skype and social networking becoming more popular (not to mention those such as Second Life and 3D games) this disembodiment, as boyd (2002) refers to it, is less and less prevalent.  It would seem that many people wish to extend their physical-selves online as much as their intellectual personas. The third and related notion proposed by McKenna and Bargh (2000) is that of virtual space.  Offline people often meet one another as a result of their close proximity, but on the web distance and space work come in variant forms.  Locations are often conceptualized as web address (URL) or in the context of a specific program, and areas of the web (which may be considered or organized into zones) define groupings (exhaustive or not) of these in various ways (Kang 2000).  The distance between these realms becomes more about time and access then it does literal proximity.  Other variables, such as language and other skills clearly mediate this process, but on the whole it’s possible for a person to engage in frequent interaction with someone very far away from themselves.  The web also connects more people who might otherwise be physically separated.  The extent to which people actually do look up strangers is a point of contention, but surely sites like have capitalized on this facet of the architecture.  Virtual communities have the capability of spanning contents and, perhaps with sites like Wikipedia and YouTube, languages and cultures as well.

Finally, McKenna and Bargh settle on their final point of difference: the temporal context of the web.  Online many communications are capable of being asynchronous and users are able to conduct many at once.  Even in live chat sessions, such as AOL Instant Messenger, the social norms for native users4 seem to have adapted to the time management of the web; users bounce from one conversation to another and other distractions without a feeling of heavy or immediate commitment.  Online communications are harder to interrupt and easier to think out, and users enjoy other advantages, such as being able to feel more in control and therefore more confident (McKenna and Bargh 2000, Caplan 2003, McKenna and Seidman 2005).  Persons plagued with social anxieties or who are lonely might find refuge in the internet temporal context but also run the risk (as they might in other ways) of spending too much time there. Time also finds itself sped up in a funny way online.  Since programs, patches, and optimizations come out so frequently the internet almost seems to age in dog years.  Publishing books or even reports or articles becomes a furious and eternal exercise in catching up.  Users learn to see elements as consistently unstable and never finished, or Permanently Beta (Neff and Stark 2004).

McKenna and Seidman (2005) follow up on some of the initially noted differences of digital identity in their chapter on Social Identity and Self Online included in the book Cognitive Technology.  Like McKenna’s previously mentioned work, this one draws upon the findings of dozens of authors.  They note that while boosts to self-esteem that occur as a result of participation in identity-relevant groups only still only happen when participants have high levels of involvement they afford more individuals access via the net.  As such there is increased likelihood these groups have more potential when extended online.  The chapter also gathers and presents some benefits of social identification online, such as increased self-acceptance, decreased loneliness, estrangement, and isolation, as well as increased social support and the strong potential for the formation of close lasting relationships.

One of the most immediate quandaries of the transition from face to face to digital existence is the essential but connotation-plagued and contrived issue of metaphor.  Sociotechnical systems are fundamentally tied to the use of metaphor to make themselves accessible.  Interfaces are distributed throughout and indivisible from their systems, monitor and control a reductive oriented, indexical map of separate elements of multiple (potentially infinite) states, and act as an associational structure that permit agents to manipulate, alter, create, destroy, and replicate processes and objects to which they are independent (Fuller 2003).  The digital representation of identity, at root, must be tied to metaphor in its manifestation and interpretation.  People cannot intrinsically understand the 1’s and 0’s that make up the operations within a computer; interfaces are designed to make meaning and symbols out of the data to convey information. This introduces all manner of limitations and potential avenues for reinterpretation (or misinterpretation) of identity.  Systems are erected to verify or authenticate ‘users’ (who are also emulations of code) that pay special attention to attributes and authorizations to confirm or shape identity (Camp 2004, Nakamura 2002, Lessig 2006).  Naturally this adaption is ridden with deficiencies—the spatial properties of the physical world do not often translate properly in cyberspace, save for virtual worlds like Second Life or World of WarCraft, and even those have substantial discrepancies when compared to reality.

danah boyd (2002) identifies two key variances in the configuration of cyberspace that distinguish social behavior online: The power of architecture (the context created by the digital environment) and the disembodiment (physical presence and space as discussed earlier).  Architectural differences are mostly notably elucidated by what she terms “a collapsing of context.”  Often less information is available about a person (or place) and less is conveyed in interactions in cyberspace than might happen in the face to face world.  boyd further expands her explanation of collapsed context to include Zahavi’s (1997)5 dual regard for signals.  The first is an assessment signal, which is implicit and adjourned through observation and typically holds more weight in terms of reliability.  The second is identified as a conventional signal, which is explicit and communicated through a medium that may heavily influence reliability.  Since it is considerably more challenging to establish an assessment signal in most digital environments, users rely on conventional signals, and thus this restriction may diminish the reliability or authenticity of exchanges.  Generally as ICT’s have advanced, however, they have brought with them more ways to address disembodiment and more frequent and higher quality opportunities for conveying assessment signals.  In some ways they may have even spawned new cues and signifiers in emergent contexts. 

boyd also expresses an evolved explanation of the digital context, centered around the properties of mediated publics (boyd 2006, 2007a).  Identity performance is couched in a different field of operations in the digital realm because it contains four conditions that determine its demeanor.  The first is the attribute of persistence.  Communications made on the internet have the potential to remain forever inscribed in logs, web pages, and other forms of storage.  Assertions between actors can therefore be asynchronous in nature.  This also enables the second attribute, searchability.  Permanently (or long-term) stored information means begs for indexing and organization and records of interaction can often be found with relative ease online.  Google has created a miraculous front to an immensely powerful and comprehensive database—an increasingly inclusive and collective human mind.  Third she highlights replicability, that is the fact that most data is easy to copy with perfection.  This poses issues for a multitude of issues, from forgery to copyright and ownership. Finally, as mentioned earlier in relation to anonymity, boyd discusses the role of invisible audiences online.

Identity on Facebook

The foundational understanding of identity does not change in the Facebook realm.  The aforementioned dialectic of internal perception and external social identity remains strongly in place, but may be mediated in new ways. Facebook as a mediated digital public is referred to in this paper as an ecology (more than a system) in order to place emphasis on the heterogeneity of its actors and elements. 

The Facebook ecology is a complex mesh of performance because everyone shapes the system and environment simultaneously and it in turn acts on them.  As mentioned in the introduction, participation rates are very high and users check in to it daily to dive into the elaborate arena of interactions.  The invisible audience is anticipated and in reality is comprised of many different audiences, just like the face to face world.  A person might have a stage in a group that corresponds to a real-world group (say a sorority) or their profile itself might be comparable to a stage.  Further, with the increased customizability, users have several stages within one big theater of performance, depending on the sections of their profile.  The Thomas theorem raises an interesting point of conjecture: even if some students do not take seriously the happenings on Facebook, those that do will help to make the consequences of such happenings real.  Talking to undergraduate participants reveals many stories of misunderstandings—everyone seems to have an example of a time relationship status was misinterpreted.6

Students take their coherent senses of self with them online, and in some cases may create new ones.  The Facebook profile becomes a zone of dramatic realization, mystification, and the epitome of idealized self-presentation for some, and an exorbitant inside joke for others.  The terrain of Facebook is mediated by its interface, which encourages, among other values, connection and community (as will be discussed).  There are various ‘places’ available on the system bounded by functions and audience like Facebook pages, groups, events, applications, the Newsfeed, sections of one’s profile—all of which may extend into one another.  Individual portions of these places might be considered social artifacts or props, to a degree, as they can be manipulated to influence context.

Facebook clearly fits boyd’s proposition for a self-awareness enabling tool (2002).  It does so by acting as a rather successful bridge between offline and online relationships and as such carries many natural social contexts with it.  The automation and organization behind the interface is an impressive feat in information retrieval and sorts data in regards to temporal aspects (most recent news), relevancy to a given user (the information they care about, like their friends, groups, events, and applications), all in a compressed but expandable fashion (just enough to not be overwhelming but with opportunities for delve into any single area).  Above all, users can develop an accurate vision of their identity online, visualizing it and custom tailoring their profile to their heart’s content.  Native users know who they are in the context of Facebook and can regulate their privacy settings and manage their profiles to ensure they create exactly the audience they would like to have.  The complexity of the available privacy tools even allows for participants to establish profiles for multiple audiences.  To top it off, the graphical interface that makes all of this possible is friendly, efficient, and malleable.

Cues can be given (or given-off) in multiple places on Facebook.  The profile serves as a representation of both appearance, such as pictures, defined characteristics, and group identities expressed through membership, as well as mannerisms, like posts on walls, status announcements, and chosen applications.  Participant actions in applications, on pages, groups, and through the use of events can also overtly or covertly express identity.  The Newsfeed might grab information that was overtly expressed (intended) for one audience, and pass it to another entirely.  To sufficiently explain the nearly limitless opportunities for communication in the pocket-knife of functionality that is Facebook is beyond the scope of this paper.
Facebook does not fit precisely with McKenna and Bargh’s points of a distinguished digital architecture.  Anonymity is to some extent possible (makings ones profile contain fake information or avoid divulging much of anything entirely), but strongly discouraged.  In fact, Facebook’s terms of service require people authentically represent themselves (no one can pretend to be superman) and, as mentioned in the introduction, Facebook’s success is largely based on connection to real-world identities and communities.  Global groups and pages allow people to enter into a state of deindividuation, however, in the same way that a person can blend into a crowd in New York.  In some ways the interface encourages both identification and freedom of speech—many actions on the site result in picture posting of an agent who is free to say what he or she likes.  At the same time when participants are members of the audience they remain invisible, like walking around cloaked in the dark.  In fact the terms “Facebook creeping” and “Facebook stalking” are perhaps as popular as “friending.”7 Identities are of course revealed when interaction is to be had but Facebook is the kingdom of the passive aggressive and introvert, and still in many ways ruled by the extrovert active assertive (who are able to have the most amount of influence with the viral propagation system).  The environment (events, groups, applications, and often connections and initiations) is knit by the assertive people, but yet at the same time is one where passive people can easily operate.  Students may easily shift in and out of anonymity in an almost hybrid fashion.
Much of Facebook’s success has been induced by its visual interface.  Besides being user friendly and aesthetically eloquent, the interconnectivity and interaction between profiles and users is considerably tied to pictorial displays.  Users are more likely to check out profiles of others with pictures they find attractive or interesting,8 often engage with picture galleries on a profile when possible, and easily jump from one profile to another through profile picture thumbnails or by clicking on tags of users in pictures or videos.  Indeed, the first thing viewed about a given profile in the return in a search queue is the picture.  With its heavy reliance on pictorial representation the creation of a Facebook profile also helps to fight the feeling of disembodiment that afflicts digital travelers as they embark on their journeys through the web.  Fragments of real world spaces can be indirectly mapped into the digital space through the use of pictures, audio, and video.

Facebook participants are still able to transcend distance, however.  The Facebook system is built to emulate real-world barriers which are incarnated in the form of networks.  Some of these might intersect, such as a person who goes to school and is part of both that school’s network and the network corresponding to the town the school is located within.  Distance in terms of time, however, is virtually non-existent, as Facebook performs quickly wherever access happens quickly—the limiting factor is ones internet connection, not slow servers.  The website is simultaneously gives limited access to a massive pool of unrelated individuals and encourages people to ‘bump into’ ones they might know through functions like ‘friends of friends.’  Certainly language and culture become ways of creating distance or barriers between ‘locations’ on Facebook as well, but with the advent of global groups the fact that the system is becoming increasingly enacting as a convergence of all of the functions of the web, more users are brought together on Facebook.

Facebook does seem to match the temporal effects described earlier by McKenna and Bargh (2000), and is built from the ground up as a Permanently Beta ecology (Stark and Neff 2004).  Facebook also raises further implications in regards to boyd’s (2007b) notions of persistence, searchability, and replicability.  The entire system is built around search systems which are dependent on dynamic information.  A person’s profile could easily contain a track record of all of the groups they once belonged to, or it could be the latest and greatest modulation of their persona.  Aspects of profiles and groups, as well as their actions are then refurbished and pressed up in the Newsfeed, which is entirely dependent upon replicability.  Pictures become jointly owned as others are tagged to them9 and applications thrive on passing media around the network; almost the entire system is built on viral flows of information.

Keep this picture of Facebook’s digital architecture in mind for the coming sections.

Gender Identity

The social construction of gender is perhaps a more traditional point of conjecture in sociology.  Gender, in a broad scope, can be considered a group identity, but not surprisingly, it breaks down to a web of cross-hashed intersections between many group identities such as race, ethnicity, ability, class, sexual orientation, and more.  To this effect Mary Hawkesworth (1997) captures the complexity and heterogeneity quite aptly in her article Confounding Gender:

“Gender has been analyzed as an attribute of individuals, as an interpersonal relation, and as a mode of social organization.  Gender has been defined in terms of status, sex roles, and sexual stereotypes.  It has been conceived of as a structure of consciousness, as triangulated psyche, and as internalized ideology.  It has been discussed as a product of attribution, disciplinary practices, and accustomed stance.  Gender has been depicted as an effect of language, a matter of behavioral conformity, a structural feature of labor, power, and cathexis, and a mode of perception.  […] It has been characterized as difference and as relations of power manifested in domination and subordination.” (Hawkesworth 1997)

Inequalities and power disparities, as they relate to gender, then, are consequentially complicated.  For instance, Emily Kane (2000) emphasizes differences between Black, white, and Latina women in their attitudes pertaining to patterns of employment and family, and shows that different racial groups of women see the extent and origins of gender inequality differently.  She finds that in many cases Chicanas and black women were more acutely aware of the power differences between men and women in society than their white counterparts.  Recent developments in thought pair feminism inseparably with queer theory and LGBT rights, and even the tool of gender examination itself, feminism, is quite contested.  As Suzanna Walters relates, “feminism and feminist theory are themselves the subject of much critical revision and rethinking, particularly in light of both structural shifts (changes in family life, increasing numbers of women in the workforce) and ideological developments (renewed media attacks on feminism, the backlash phenomenon, the rise of right-wing Christian antifeminism and “family values”)” (1996).  For all of this opposition and complexity, however, there is value in maintaining gender as an analytic category and investigating the causal role it might play in determining social relationships (Friedman 1991).  In particular gender roles, statuses, and stereotypes that might be associated with gender are one way of measuring inequalities between men and women.  Many behaviors interlaced into the social constructions of what it means to be a male or a female help to perpetuate these inequities.

Therefore, if gender roles and relationships take place online then researchers must bring with them diverse mindsets in studying cyberspace.  New challenges, like those mentioned above and still yet others undiscovered (or unmentioned here), will likely surface as a result of the digital mediums of exchange.  Furthermore if the web provides complications to the representation of identity on the whole, then all of the aspects related to gender identity (race, class, etc…) will invariably find themselves affected.  This paper’s perspective in considering gender is limited to just sighting face-to-face world inequalities related to gender that manifest on Facebook.  Learning to identify these continuations of offline disparities in the digital environment is key to eliminating them in the long run.

[1] And surely others, this is a rather insufficient list.

[2] The two featured here were ones the author ran into on Wikipedia, surely many others exist.

[3] Structure and agency is a question that many have weighed in on, including Simmel, Elias, Parsons, Bourdieu, and more…

[4] That is those who have grown up consistently using live-chat.  This is stated purely from an insider perspective, without having knowledge of any reports of findings that indicate this behavior, but instead having observed it to be universal among people (in terms of culture, gender, class) who’ve grown up with live chat.  Interpretations of emoticons, font decoration such as italics, and the capacity for parallel conversations varies considerably, however.

[5] Zahavi, Amotz.  “The handicap principle: A missing piece of Darwin’s puzzle.” Oxford University Press, New York: New York, 1997.

[6] As is quickly becoming apparent in the interviews for the 2008 Facebook Project…

[7] Insider language noted in the Facebook Project 2008 interviews.

[8] The 2006 FBP data set suggests this; about 40% of users often or always investigated pictures of people who had attractive or interesting pictures, and 77% of people often or always viewed pictures of a profile they were visiting (if available).

[9] Anyone tagged to a picture may remove their own tag if they so wish.