Our real-world identities can be multifaceted and contextually fragmented - we behave one way at work, and another when drinking with friends. Yet social-networking websites collapse “relationship types and contexts into the ubiquitous ‘Friend’” (Boyd, 2007, p.134). Thus one’s online social network friends, regardless of context (e.g. work, family, church, school) all receive, by default, the same information. This online flattening of offline relationships has progressed without adequate means to negotiate this experience. For example how to present one facet of personality, or persona, to one's friends vs. one's workplace colleagues. Some users have responded by replacing “cool” customizations with those more appropriate for business, thus sacrificing facets of identity to present an overall safe, sanitized persona (Boyd, 2007, p.143). New methods of encoding and decoding online identity/identities, whether new societal norms or technological solutions, are required to allow people to enjoy these websites and avoid clashes of real-world and online identities.
Many of these issues were documented by danah boyd in her study of the rise of Friendster, the first prominent social-networking website and inspiration for the more popular MySpace and Facebook. Friendster, boyd noted, by offering users a standard template to populate allows users the experience of “writing yourself into being” (Boyd, 2007, p.145) but within defined parameters. Yet truthfulness in these profiles has varied. Some users, boyd found, enjoyed exploring aspects of their identity through degrees of fiction; others assumed full truthfulness from those in their network (Boyd, 2007, p.150).
This unresolved tension continues to hound social-networking websites as seen by the recent Story2Oh! Facebook controversy. A Toronto writer, Jill Golick, created fictional characters and set up corresponding Facebook profiles, all labeled fictional (Golick, 2008a). These characters then sent friend requests to Toronto’s web community. While such a friend request allows one to view that person’s profile, some indiscriminately “friended,” missing the fiction label and then “didn’t realize till later that these were characters and not real people….The blurring of the lines between reality and fiction caused a lot of furor” (Golick, 2008b). Some responded by indicating feelings of betrayal and transgression of online norms; Facebook responded by deleting the accounts. Similar events were found by boyd in the “Fakester” controversy, highlighting that while profiles may allow for “performance of identity” (Boyd, 2007, p.141) all users are not yet accustomed to this.
Norms and technology are developing to address these issues. In March 2008, Facebook introduced the ability to group friends by user-defined type and designate what they can see (Gleit, 2008). While this resolves boyd’s issue of singular relationship types and collapsed context, this feature only allows users to remove details from view, it does not allow one to tailor online identity as one can in the real world. Offline, people can share certain photographs with friends and other sorts with family, but this feature either turns photographs on or off based on type. Still, technical features such as this and developing user norms, such as not friending strangers, begin to enable people to express multifaceted identity through a singular website.
Boyd, D. (2007). None of this is real: Identity and participation in Friendster. In Karaganis J. (Ed.), Structures of Participation in Digital Culture (pp. 88-110). New York: Social Science Research Council.
Gleit, N. (2008). More privacy options. The Facebook Blog. Retrieved May 11, 2008 from http://blog.facebook.com/blog.php?post=11519877130
Golick, J. (2008a). Deleted from Facebook. Story2Oh.com. Retrieved May 09, 2008 from http://story2oh.com/2008/04/30/deleted-by-facebook
Golick, J. (2008b). I hear ya. Story2Oh.com. Retrieved May 09, 2008 from http://story2oh.com/2008/05/01/i-hear-ya/