Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Online Social Networks and Our Identities

The astronomical growth and prevalence of online social networks like Facebook, privacy, ownership of one's online information, and people's virtual identity (or story) are some of the topics that are
debated in the tech sphere these days. Internet businesses, and online social networks in particular, want to discover and capture your identity (background, needs and interests in this case) so they can offer you the right products.

One discussion I have read more than a few times is whether people have time for more than one online social network, or will there be convergence and the emergence of a single dominant solution such as Facebook. I can certainly understand and sympathize with the time limitation. If you Tweet regularly, check in with FourSquare often, have active Facebook and LinkedIn accounts, and have more than one email address, chances are you do not have much time to spend on yet another online network. This makes many predict the emergence of a comprehensive integrated solution where the winning social network (say Facebook) depicts one's all-inclusive online identity used equally for fun, friendship, career planning and more. I for one, cannot see a single virtual identity being accurate, possible, or valuable. Here are my reasons:

1. Modeling from the real world
We have different identities as parents, children, professionals, or spiritual beings. We do not have the same discussions at the gym, the bar, or the work place. So why should the virtual world force us to have a single identity for all? My professional friends, personal friends, university friends, relatives, acquaintances, and neighbors all know me differently. It does not mean I lead a double life. It is just normal social behavior. Our social structure and our culture are formed that way. Our identities are complex, ever changing and contradictory at times. It is almost impossible to boil it down to one online profile.

2. Different environments call for different tools
To facilitate our various sides and the different social groups we belong to, online networks such as Facebook have created different privacy settings and the ability to create groups. But I do not think those are addressing the need sufficiently. In my opinion, the entire structure of an online social network needs to be different depending on its members and the purpose that it serves. The tools you need for each of these environments differ from one another. With your friends you want to share photos, with your co-workers you want to use a wiki to discuss your projects, with your band members you want a tool to view and edit music or stream the live video of a jamming session, with your sports team members you want a shared calender or activity tracking and recording tools. There are too many such examples to list here. Is one social network going to be able to provide all of these tools? I doubt.

3. Total transparency is not good!
Let's agree that total transparency is not a good thing, okay? In fact I would argue that it can be really bad in some circumstances. Think of it this way. If human beings were able to read each others' minds, there would be no friendships in this world! Remember the movie, “Liar, Liar”?! You do need to have control over what gets shared and with whom. Parents do not want their young children to see or know certain things about them, for example. We all do it. We use our discretion to decide what to say, when to say it, and to whom to say it. Unfortunately I do not find the privacy settings of networks like Facebook very useful. It is really cumbersome -for every single action- to think about the various groups of audiences one has, and to decide who can see what. As an example most apps automatically post on your profile and most people don't even know how to 'selectively' change their privacy settings. Even your profile name and picture can be a source of contention. If you are a woman in Iran for example, you may have to censor your main profile picture and use one wearing an Islamic outfit, to prevent prosecution from the Islamic police!

Now on to groups, which we all use to share, discuss, and get peer support. Imagine a gay person who is really struggling to come out and needs the support of an online social network of peers. Or an alcoholic who is struggling to quit and needs support. Can they use a Facebook group for that? What if they do not want to have any of their “friends” to know about their predicament? There is a reason for the world anonymous in “Alcoholics Anonymous”, after all. Think of those who have gone bankrupt, are having an affair, are severely depressed, have STDs, suffer from eating disorders, etc. There are many instances where people want to share and be a part of an online network, but they want to be anonymous and can not use their general “friends” network.

4. Freedom to be different people at different times
I believe that we human beings enjoy the ability to have different identities. I think that is why masquerades have always been popular, costume parties are liked, virtual worlds such as Second Life have attracted many, and we enjoy living vicariously through heroines in novels and movies. We love to pretend to be different people at times; to see the world through their eyes, and be seen by the world as them. Will we always like to have the cloud of our story hover around our heads wherever we go?

I spend a lot of time thinking about this and am really curious to see how things will evolve. Maybe "we" and our culture and social norms are going to change due to this new phenomenon, as opposed to the online world following and depicting our norms. Would love to hear your opinions and reasons. What type of network(s) do you want to be a part of? And are you leaning more and more towards one single online social network? 

1 comment:

  1. Maryam,

    Another interesting topic. Recently I was talking with a co-worker about adaptive personalities. I felt that people have two distinct and often conflicting personalities at work and at home. A leader at work was more of an obedient at home and vice verse. I wondered why. My co-worker felt it was a disorder but I tend to think it is human nature. We adapt to our environment. Let's say we try aggressiveness at work and it works, we will stick with it. Same at home. If being agreeing works we will just stick with it. Just like how kids test the water and choose their style.

    Given the fact that we adapt, I tend to think we don't have a single personality type. We just tend to use the same traits that work for us most of the time more often. If that is true, then to better utilize the online support system, we need to have many profiles for many circles. One profile for work, one profile for friends, one for family and so forth. And if some people belong to more than one circle of ours they get to see other traits of our personality. And then we need to manage change as well. It can get pretty complicated and I think online world has just scratched the surfaced on that.

    Nice post...