Facebook & identity

“You have one identity… The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly… Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity”

– Mark Zuckerberg, 2009

I can confess to feeling annoyed about the comment above. Aside from the fact it is patronising, it is wholly incorrect. Identity is a complex beast.

Our core characteristics as individuals – like how open, agreeable or extrovert we are with others – remain broadly stable over time. However research in social psychology shows little evidence for stable personality traits: people behave in different ways at different times and in different contexts.  We all underestimate influence of situation and context on how other people behave a daily basis.

Situation we can all understand – normally mild-mannered men committing crimes of passion and all that. Context, less so. See a stranger slip on the street the average person is likely to put this down to that person’s internal attributes – they are “clumsy”. Yet slip up ourselves and we’re all too quick to point to external factors – the pavement being uneven for example. This is called the fundamental attribution error.

Personas are important when considering identity. We all show different sides of ourselves in work than we do with friends, or with family. This can be intentional or unintentional. In a corporate culture which demands you to be measured, assertive and calm, you’ll likely tone your natural irreverence, quick wit and sarcasm. This is natural and intuitive, and applies to other arenas of our lives: the football team will see a subtly different you to the co-members of your trade union committee for example. We all self-monitor our behaviour depending on the context. 

As well as intended personas, unintended personas are also important. Take a 28 year old going back to her home town at Christmas 10 years after leaving home: back to the old haunts, surrounded by the old school friends, staying in her teenage bedroom, being fed the same food whilst being nagged by the same Mother. All those people who last knew her as an 18 year old and treat her as such. All those external cues – the context and situation – affect how she comes across.

On top of this, we have the issue of how we then represent our identities through social networking sites. Scan any social network you like and you’ll see how people control their image using their profile in different ways. Social networking profiles offer people a relatively controllable avenue to express their online identity. For some, this may be an accurate representation of who they are. For others, it is an exaggerated version of reality which focuses on certain aspects of their identity – like wit, intelligence or attractiveness. These people are expressing their ideal selves online – a shinier, bolder version of themselves. This takes work – it’s like stopping your garden from becoming overgrown. They’re maintaining the digital garden (represented identity) with a bit of planting (commenting, uploading) and pruning (de-tagging, deleting)… Apologies for stretching that metaphor to destruction.

Online identity also comes down to choosing friendship groups to share with. Clearly, people want to share and engage with others. Our research into how people use social media shows people’s friendship groups online tend to consist of several overlapping groups, replicating their real world relationships (for example the football team, your old school pals, your work mates etc) and extending them (friends of friends, people you met once and are unlikely to meet again).  

The crux of the Facebook privacy debate comes down to confusion on the part of Facebook about what people are doing when they create profiles, add friends and share their identities. There is a big difference between making your online identity public to your chosen friends intentionally, and it being public to everyone unintentionally because you have not thought about your privacy settings. As a young woman commented last week in a focus group I was moderating, Facebook is:

“…an informal place I go to socialise with my friends… I don’t go there to be serious or professional.”

She uses social media in a bit like a café in the real world – to gossip with friends, share holiday snaps and make plans for the future. If someone she knows happens to walk past and join in, fine. But she’s not issuing invitation to all and sundry – or standing on the middle of the high street with a loudhailer, handing out flyers under a neon sign. She probably doesn’t want a record of the event being perused the next time she applies for a job. If she doesn’t realise the visibility, search-ability and indelibility of her actions – maybe someone should point this out.

So, to recap: personality is not as fixed as we’d like to assume, and our identities shift – consciously and unconsciously – depending on who we’re with.  How people choose to present themselves online reveals much about their self-perception. People tend to use social networks to share their identities with chosen groups not broadcast themselves to all and sundry. To go back to Zuckerberg, we have multiple identities, we’re different people in different company – and that’s nothing to do with integrity.

About Simon Shaw

I'm a Director at an insight consultancy. I'm interested in marketing, market research & consumer psychology. The views expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.
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2 Responses to Facebook & identity

  1. Pingback: Byron Sharp’s world of cognitive misers (Brains and behaviour part 2) | changing my mind

  2. Pingback: Book review: It’s complicated – the social lives of networked teens by Danah Boyd | changing my mind

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