Last week at the Youth Cultures, Belongings and Transitions conference in Brisbane I presented a paper framing the profiles that constitute social network sites as spaces of reflexive identity-work where both critical and mundane moments in transition narratives are articulated, made visible and archived. Here are my very bare-bones slides (the only way I can keep to time) and some stripped back notes, which I’m in the process of writing up into a more substantial (academic) publication. The paper I presented at the conference also included a video and some extracts from my own research that I’ll build back into the full paper.
[Working notes, paper in progress]
Giddens argues that identity formation is a reflexive process. Individuals frequently (if not constantly) undergo what he describes as a ‘psychic reorganisation’ (1993: 304) of their identity, negotiating the influence of large impersonal organisations that characterise late modernity. Giddens defines the ‘stable individual’ as someone with a ‘feeling of biographical continuity which she is able to grasp reflexively and, to a greater or lesser degree, communicate to others’ (1991: 54). The social aspect of identity – the act of communicating a reflexive story about self – is central to stability for Giddens. Importantly, he argues against assumptions that we reinvent ourselves only at crisis moments in our lives, instead contending that individuals are actively and endlessly negotiating and constructing self-identity, even amidst the mundane experiences of the everyday (and it’s the attendance to the mundan that I’ll explore more fully in the fuller version of this paper). Taken together, Giddens describes this approach as the reflexive project of self, ‘the process whereby self identity is constituted by the reflexive ordering of self narratives’ (1991: 244).
The profiles that constitute social network sites can, in relation to Giddens’ reflexive project of self, be understood through two different, overlapping frames: first, as a tool that can be used in the process of reflexive self-making; and second, as an object (or a product) of that project.
Through the first frame, the initial construction of a profile and the subsequent social interactions mediated on the site can be understood as labour involved in the ordering of self-narratives. For instance, the user is prompted (but isn’t required) to enter employment and education details, to list favourite books, films, music and television shows, to identify favourite quotes, religious and political views, and state their sex and a subsequent ‘interested in’ field, signalling gender and sexual identity. Interestingly, what I have found in my own research, at least on Facebook, was that these autobiographical narratives were not at the core of the site’s functionality. Instead, it is the social exchanges – commenting on and posting pictures, status updates, wall posts, and events; exchanging private inbox messages and participating in IM (Instant Messenger) conversations; and the subsequent ‘curation’ of this content (untagging, deleting, editing) – that constitute the everyday engagement with the site and indeed these activities also represent reflexive ordering and reordering of narratives of self.
The second frame, then, is the product of this labour, of these interactions, that the individual can reflect upon. ‘Produsers’ (Bruns 2008) of social network sites can look back on their lives in a convenient (and at times horrifying) format: past relationships, distant parties, previous employment, past education, even news items posted to a network, memorialising a tragedy like the Queensland floods or celebrating a political achievement like the passing of (and subsequent roll-back of) same-sex civil unions legislation. All of these experiences figure into that narrative, whether mundane or critical. So through this second frame, the variously public and personal conversations of self with others (and self with self, for Thomson 2007) can be articulated and archived in a single place. In this sense, social network sites ‘are both the object and process of self-formation’ (Kim 2010: 109), and this is what I’m really fascinated by. This will be at the core of the full paper.
Sharing, discussing, and remembering critical moments becomes an important activity on social network sites, punctuating – as with offline experiences of growing up – the more mundane, everyday experiences of life that often attract criticism and derision when mediated online. Conceptualising the profiles that constitute social network sites as transition texts, as manifestations of Giddens’ (1993) ‘reflexive project of self’, gives researchers a rich terrain of content to explore. However, there are clear methodological and ethical limitations, especially around consent and access to these spaces and reliance on self-reports of transition experiences. From a broader sociological perspective, these profiles are truly rich records of transition experiences that could potentially help youth researchers better understand reflexive identity work, provided of course that they are coupled with more traditional modes of sociological inquiry, like interviews, to give the narratives mediated online a greater sense of context.
Bruns, Axel (2008) Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage, New York: Peter Lang.
Giddens, Anthony (1991) Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Giddens, Anthony (1993) The Giddens Reader, London: Macmillan Press.
Kim, Yeran (2010) ‘Service or control?: A critical thought of the “social” in social network services’, Communications & Convergence Review, 2(2): 104-112.