Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Social Media and Identity Theory

I'm slowly but surely getting familiar with Google+, and I see a lot of potential for networking with fellow musicians and academics, as well as connecting with old friends who never could get into Facebook.  The newest rival of Facebook hasn't quite caught on yet, and Zuckerberg loyalists love to point out that, despite the initial surge, many users have all but abandoned their Google+ accounts.  In my opinion, to see this coming required no prophetic potential at all: we are creatures of habit, and it takes a lot for us to let go of what we're comfortable with and try something different.  I only recently joined Twitter, and although I always intend to Tweet every band or blog update, I sometimes do so solely on Facebook, forgetting that I have other outlets to utilize.  New habits don't form easily, but the good ones are worth the effort.

So why do I think Google+ may be worth the effort?  My first impression of the site is still one of the main reasons I like it: the "Circles" feature is a clever and helpful way of visualizing our social relationships, and therefore more accurately reflects how identity is formed or conceptualized in real life.  Instead of an initial "acceptance" of someone into our social sphere, followed by grouping him/her under "Friends," "Acquaintances," "Work," "Family," etc., we take note of someone's first impression on us (either a public profile or a post shared by someone already in our circles), and we put them in one or more circles based on that interaction - not necessarily the categorization they would have us make for them.  Then, what we share with each circle varies depending on several factors: the function of the group, how much respect we're given within it, the appropriateness of the content we're sharing, and so on.  We also meet certain individuals in one context and think, "That person would fit in well with my other group of friends," so we introduce them, and new connections are formed.  For example, my blog posts are all shared with my "Anthro" circle by default; but if I'm blogging about reggae, I'll also choose to share the link with my "Rasta," "Music," and "Reggae" circles.  There's only so much I can share with "Friends" or "Family," so I share certain information with those to whom it seems most relevant.

This approach, viewing our social relationships in terms of common interests or goals, is consistent with social identity theory, and I have already seen how my own sense of "who I am" manifests differently from setting to setting.  Theorizing "group" in terms of self-conception, social psychologist Michael A. Hogg writes, "A group exists psychologically if three or more people construe and evaluate themselves in terms of shared attributes that distinguish themselves collectively from other people."*  The "Circles" feature of Google+ plays right into this phenomenon of identity formation in group contexts, and Facebook made a great move by following suit and improving their grouping options and offering a new "Subscribe" option for people you want to "follow" but not "friend request."  In other words, they took what worked from Google+, Twitter, and their own features, and they improved their site.  This is how competition works - just one more reason why we shouldn't be afraid to try new things.

But this doesn't mean that Facebook or other social networking sites will adapt by imitating what all the newcomers do.  In fact, conforming to popular theories in social psychology seems a bit uncharacteristic of Zuckerberg, whose outdated views on identity earned him some harsh criticism last year when he said, "Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity."  Not only did this come as a slap in the face to those who are concerned about online privacy; it also rung false in the ears of anyone who knows anything about identity politics or contemporary psychology.  We act in our own best interests when we filter our output appropriately for a given audience.  There is certainly something fun and self-indulgent about publishing information on your own wall, especially with the new Timeline on Facebook, in a format that you can call "my space" to occupy as you wish.  But the inherent individualism in this approach is perhaps the antithesis of "social," and Facebook would be wise to continue balancing its Zuckerbergian epistemology with innovations that mimic the ways in which identity forms in traditional communities.

I've noticed many people on Google+ seem to object to Facebook mainly because they feel that they are being treated more like consumers, whereas in their new circles, they are in more intuitive human relationships.  Depending on how prevalent this perception becomes, Google+ might not be a great venue for marketing and advertising.  And maybe that's just fine.  I can see myself using Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ in three different ways, all useful.  And since Google+ is still young, we can only imagine at this point what will result from integration with Google Apps.  The new integration with Blogger is just one example of how Google+ might prove to be very useful to all kinds of online entities - even businesses.

So I have some questions for you:

What is your favorite social networking site, and why?  If you're using Google+, what are some of the features you're using?  What are some of the advantages over Facebook, Twitter, and other sites you're familiar with?  What have you learned about your own identity/ies through your use of these sites?

*Hogg, Michael A. (2006). Social identity theory. In Peter J. Burke (ed.), Contemporary social psychological theories (pp. 111-136). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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