(OK, so I’m presenting a paper for College Week on February 26, 2008. Damn thesis: I should have written about the political economy of sweet potatoes. So for the better part of a few weeks, I will be yapping a lot in the “virtuality” category.)
One of the more interesting aspects of online social networking is page maintenance: “tricking out,” so to speak. In my own research, I found that much of the time and effort spent on a social networking site (SNS) – in particular Friendster – is dedicated to making the profile page as unique as possible. As such, you wouldn’t be hard-pressed to look at a Friendster profile in the Philippines that is replete with embedded videos, glittery graphics, and text written in aLteR3d caS3s.
As it seems, users configure SNSs – and Internet use in general – to suit not only their personal needs, but their wants as well. Where an SNS reinforces actual social networks and makes them available online, it also serves the purpose of reinforcing the ego and to manifest the idea of it online. Embedding four YouTube videos, an Imeem playlist with 12 tracks, and adding those glittery-looking graphics serve to reinforce – perhaps even create – certain conceptions about identity and self-concept.
Now these are largely means of self-expression: these are ways by which the abstract idea of the self is committed through language. Chandler and Roberts-Young (1999, accessible here) call this bricolage: the use of materials-at-hand. But in effect, you can only go so far: the connection between a particular element and an identity is more of an arbitrary association than an outright description.
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I got in a little scholarly argument with Andrew Feenberg of Simon Fraser University a few months ago over the matter of online social networking being a bit “shallow,” based on my research. To me, trust and care have to always be present in initiating close relationships like friendships. To him, the term “friend” or “contact” used in an online community exists as a linguistic limitation.
Of course, there’s a certain case to be made in the term “friend” being capitalized on as a marketing tool by Friendster, and the same goes for “contact” with Multiply, “space” in MySpace, or to give it a bit of a stretch, “face” in Facebook. That, to me, frames the whole idea of “social networking:” danah boyd is right in saying that an SNS reinforces actual relationships. Coincidentally, this is also the same perspective held by Prof. Feenberg. But I suppose I am also right in saying that an SNS – at least in the context of my study – also creates online relationships that exist only at that level.