Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Facebook: A New Way to Construct Identity

spreston's picture

Facebook: A New Way to Construct Identity
It’s typical for me to come home and immediately sit down at my computer and refresh my Facebook. I have always thought about Facebook as being a time suck, given that sometimes I realize I just looked through 200 photos. After GIST, however, I have begun to see Facebook as a new forum in which users create an identity. With the entanglement of technology into our social lives, do we have more control over our identity or less? An example immediately came to mind. A good friend of mine Kate once changed her Facebook name to “Katie.” Within a few weeks, many of my classmates began to call her Katie rather than Kate, even though she did not change the way she introduced herself or anything else. Are the identities that Facebook users take online what become their identities in the world? Does Facebook allow users to create any identity they want or does it enforce society’s binaries and limits? Is Facebook another example of the endless entanglement in daily life? What kind of information can Facebook distribute and how widely does it distribute this information? Both the class readings and the panels have made me start to reflect on my Facebook usage much more extensively. In fact, going on Facebook and seeing the extraordinary amount of information I have access to so easily is kind of freaking me out! But also making me ask a lot of questions relevant to GIST.
This is how my profile looks to anybody (anybody at all):

 Somebody who does not know me can see a photo of me, where I currently go and have gone to school, all of my Facebook friends, my gender, and even send me a message. Does having the freedom to make this information empower me to create a flexible identity? I can choose any photograph to display. When it comes to gender, however, I am forced to say either “I am female” or “I am male.” This showed to me the first way in which Facebook restricts the construction of identity. Facebook re-enforces the binaries of society. So, even in a cyber-world, a world in which some venues (as we saw in Turkle) provide freedom to take on a new identity, this identity is restricted. And this identity is very defining. If someone mentions somebody who I do not know, I immediately hop onto my computer and Facebook them. Their picture and their information becomes their identity.
In our panel, a few speakers made the distinction between “online identity” and “real world identity.” With social forums such as Facebook, however, I think that these two identities have merged: the Facebook user profile is the user. This melding demonstrates Haraway’s idea of the line between human and machine being erased. This blurring of identities provides a freedom to be who you want in one sense. Despite the freedom to choose what other users see about you, the creation of an identity through Facebook makes me very nervous. Coming into college, for example, I looked at the Facebook profiles of my suitemates. I Facebook chatted them to “get to know them.” Thus, I came into school thinking I already knew the girls I would be living with. Their pictures, their “about me” section, their music likes…these little parts of their online selves became their identity for me. 

This is what I saw of my now best friend Grace:

I decided she was a very serious and mature person. I decided that another of my suitemates was not very social. After Facebook chatting with various hallmates, my notions of their identity were formed completely by their Facebook profile. The judgment of identity that comes from Facebook makes me very nervous. With my suitemates, living with them forced me to get to know them in person. I learned so many different things about them and their personalities that I could never have gotten from their Facebook profiles. With other people, who I don’t see on a daily basis, I fear that most of my idea of them comes from the information that they display on their Facebook profile. 
“Allie Smith and George Martin are no longer in a relationship” appears on my newsfeed. What do I do with that information? If I see Allie in class, do I ask if she’s okay…is it weird that I know this information? By breaking down the boundaries between virtual life and real life, Facebook makes appropriate social discourse in the non-virtual life tricky. There is so much information on Facebook about users’ lives…pictures from what they did on the weekend, wall posts about almost anything. It is often uncomfortable to know information that one would not be privy to if it were not for Facebook. 
If I am so uncomfortable with Facebook’s breakdown of technology and non-virtual life, then why am I still a Facebook user? Why is Facebook my most-visited website? For goodness’ sake, I even write on my roommates Facebook wall and she lives with me!! For one, the easy access to multitudes of information about both people you know and love and those who are mere acquaintances is addictive. The ability to match a name to a face or to check out somebody’s taste in music is hard to give up. And in some instances, Facebook is even necessary. Just as we saw that cosmetic surgery can feel necessary in order to succeed or to have a job, Facebook can be a requirement.   Three years ago, my 60-year-old father came home from work and announced he now has a Facebook. I looked at him blankly. It turned out that his company had required all employees to become Facebook users for “networking.” Looking back at this, it is shocking that a workplace can actually require this merge between life on the internet and life in real life. It took me three years to decide to be Facebook “friends” with my father, but now Facebook is one of my favorite ways to keep in touch with the lives of my family.
For example, my Facebook friendship with my sister provides me a super easy way to see my darling niece Ella as she grows during her first year:

My sister takes a picture on her iPhone, presses a button to export it to Facebook, and within seconds, I am able to see a picture of my niece at the aquarium or a video of her trying to roll over. This kind of access to my familys’ lives, my friends’ lives, and even my acquaintances’ lives is invaluable to me. To me, I also think it shows the entanglement that Barad discusses. Here, Facebook users’ lives become entangled with those of other Facebook users and merge with their lives not on Facebook. Facebook is a forum on which one can construct an identity and this ability provides freedoms. What makes this tricky, I think, is that our Facebook identities cannot be kept separate from our identities in real life. By having an online social forum become such a huge part of lives across the country, the line between machine and human dissolves and the entanglement between technology and social life is completed. While this really scares me, I think that this process is so complete that I would feel like a part of me was gone if I were to delete my Facebook. Perhaps I will take this experiment on and update the GIST class on how my identity would change without my Facebook!


Anne Dalke's picture

Taking charge of our on-line identities

As I said in class yesterday, I’m surprised to see all the current postings about the merging of “meat-space” and “on-line" identities, when I thought we’d “done that” months ago, w/ Haraway’s identification of all of us as cyborgs. But I am coming to understand that the specificity of Facebook, and the fact that all of you use it assiduously, is finally bringing the cyborgian lesson home.

What I see you doing here is reflecting on the complexities of this entanglement, which has both positive and negative dimensions for you (and the rest of us): on the one hand, your Facebook “identity is restricted. And this identity is very defining”; on the other, “this kind of access to my familys’ lives, my friends’ lives, and even my acquaintances’ lives is invaluable to me.” On the one hand, "the easy access to multitudes of information about both people you know and love and those who are mere acquaintances is addictive”; on the other, “Facebook makes appropriate social discourse in the non-virtual life tricky,” and “makes you very nervous.” You lament that “our Facebook identities cannot be kept separate from our identities in real life"--and yet it is precisely that entanglement (for example: the immediacy of the reports you get about your niece) in which you revel. That “the Facebook user profile is the user” scares you, and yet feels part of you.

So: I think you need to theorize further, and more deeply, about this complex phenomenon. Barad celebrates our entanglement, not as an obstacle to objectivity, but as a way to understand our agency in the world we live in and study. What might happen to the story you tell here, if you took a similar attitude toward the impossibility of separating on-line from  off-line life? Might that be more productive than experimenting with giving up Facebook altogether (which I think is what you are gesturing toward @ the very end??).

For example: you claim that "When it comes to gender, you are forced to say either 'I am female' or 'I am male'" when creating a user profile. Katie Baratz Dalke, my daughter-in-law and an intersex activist, told me about the petition for Facebook to Have Other Gender Options. One way to "take charge" of your on-line identity --as well as to create a wider range of options for others-- might be to sign that petition (?!).