Sunday, January 20, 2013

from a shadow to a photo: my social computing journey

What is social computing?         
           I define social computing as a tool that (1) allows people to construct identities as well as (2) define, maintain and revise that identity through connections with others. Lastly, while Beer and Burrows (2007) note that Web 1.0 had a clear division between producers and consumers, today's social computing users play both roles and  have significant influence on one another.

            What draws many people into social computing is the ability to construct an identity, or to "type oneself into being" ((Sundén, 2003, p. 3, as cited in boyd and Ellison, 2007). While some people choose to present versions that are fairly consistent with their offline selves,  social computing also offers people the ability to experience states of being that may not be possible in offline life (for example, in LambdaMOO, exu is " a Haitian trickster spirit of indeterminate gender") (Dibbell, 1998; revised). Less radically, users can also highlight aspects of themselves or pursue interests, whether it's reading, gaming, cooking, or a favorite band.
            Although some bewail the "digital narcissism"  (Keen, as cited in Tenopir, 2007) and self-absorption that may result from millions of people maintaining their own little corner of the Web, in my opinion the desire to construct an online identity is balanced by a desire to connect. While a personal profile is a way to express one's likes, dislikes, and daily activities, the purpose of sharing this information is to connect with others. Having a Facebook profile and no "friends" is like sitting in a room talking to yourself; the lure of social computing is that users can communicate and believe that someone is "listening." 
          Once these connections are established, users can "articulate and make visible their social networks" (boyd and Ellison, 2007). When looking at a social computing profile, it's easy to determine how many "friends" a user has, who they are, and mutual connections. In offline life, some compartmentalization of connections is possible, as my friends from college may never meet or know anything about my work friends. A social computing identity brings all of these relationships together. This "collapse in social contexts" that discomfited many Friendster users (boyd and Ellison, 2007) is now a matter-of-fact aspect of social computing.

           The third element is that social computing blurs the line between consumer and producer and fosters a "participatory culture" (Jenkins et al., 2006, cited in Beer and Burrows, 2007). By commenting, sharing/reblogging, "liking" items, or tagging, the once-passive consumer actively contributes to a social computing user's identity. This influence can be reciprocal for users who are "Friends."   
            While I earlier defined social media as a "tool," in truth it's a little more complicated. Social media is malleable, but we are often molded by using it, too.

Using Blogger

            The setting of my story is Blogger. It fits the elements of my social computing definition. First, it allows users to construct an identity through text, photo, video, and links. While clicking on a username will lead to a Blogger profile page, it is very basic; the only information given is the length of time the user has been on Blogger, number of profile views, blogs followed, and an "about me" section. Thus, the majority of a blogger's time and effort goes into creating blog content.
            Second, Blogger allows users to connect with others in a variety of ways. Bloggers can add a page or widget to display the blogs they like to read, and display other Blogger users who follow via Google Friend Connect.  Google Friend Connect's display includes thumbnail photos of followers as well as the number. Bloggers can also add a widget displaying the number of followers they have through bloglovin, which has been described as "visual RSS reader" (Heussner, 2012). Unlike Google Friend Connect, bloglovin does not allow a blog's owner to see the names/identities of followers, only the number of followers. Bloggers can also display connections by displaying the buttons of other bloggers or businesses. For some blogs, this is ad space that is available for a fee, while other bloggers do "button swaps" and agree to post each other's buttons on their blogs. Bloggers can also connect with others through blog hops/linkups, which allows users to add their blog to a list in the hopes of gaining new followers and more traffic (Murray, 2011).
            Lastly while follower numbers are valued and used to measure a blog's success, readers can actively contribute to a blog by commenting and sharing links. Bloggers can also invite others to do guest posts.

My story: from a shadow to a photo

                In September 2011, I started a blog focused on personal style. I had been reading fashion and style blogs for a number of months and was curious about trying it myself. I had never thought much about style before, but I was interested in having a space on the Internet to experiment and document my experiences.
                Up to that point, I had greatly restricted what personal information  and photos were accessible on the Internet. For example, my flickr account profile picture was a photo of my shadow; photos of family members and myself were only viewable by people I had designated as "friends and family." 
            My blog has been active for almost a year and a half,  and the majority of photos do not show my face.  I usually cropped photos to hide my face or used photos that showed me from the side or at an angle. It wasn't until  mid-2012 that I began consistently posting photos in which I was easily recognizable.
             Why did I decide to go from being a mere shadow to a full-fledged photo? There are two reasons. First, the majority of blogs that I read include full photos. There are bloggers who consistently crop photos to not show their face or always wear sunglasses, but they are in the minority. While at first it struck me as strange that people would choose to post photos of themselves almost daily, months of reading such blogs made the idea less foreign and more the acceptable norm . As boyd (2006a, as cited in boyd and Ellison, 2007) notes,  "Friends provide context by offering users an imagined audience to guide behavioral norms." As I noted in my definition of social computing, interaction with and exposure to others in social computing settings is key to the construction of an online identity. In my case, reading, following, and commenting on other blogs was key to a revision or expansion of my online identity, as I began to accept the "mainstreaming of private information posted to the public domain" (Beer and Burrows, 2007).
            Second, as I gained a small but supportive audience, they provided encouraging feedback when I did post photos that showed my face. A regular commenter said in January 2012, "it's so nice to see your face...I always feel a little awkward commenting on people's clothing when I haven't seen their face."  I did notice that she seemed to "warm up" to me after this; she started commenting more as well occasionally mentioning me on her blog. I realized that these photos were seen as authentication. By connecting an image of my physical self to my online identity, I had taken that step from "anonymity to pseudonymity" and attained "virtual adulthood" (Dibbell, 1998; revised). 

Web 2.0: contradictions abound
            Beer and Burrows (2007) call Web 2.0 "ambivalent," and I agree with this description. I do try to maintain some semblance of privacy on my blog. I am careful to use only my first name. I don't get specific about where I work and the specifics of what I do, where I like to hang out, where I live, or share information about my family.  The contradiction, is, of course, that while I've shed my discomfort with posting  photos on the Internet,  I still dread the thought that anyone who knows me in "real life" will see my blog. So far, I've shared my blog with only two family members and two friends. In short, I am a prime example of the "disconnect between ... desire to protect privacy and their behaviors"  (Acquisti and Gross, 2006, as cited in boyd and Ellison, 2007).

Web 2.0: challenges of compartmentalization 
         Web 2.0 is billed as fostering participation, collaboration, and sharing (Beer and Burrows, 2007). boyd and Ellison (2007) deliberately chose not to use the word "networking" for SNSs, noting that most sites were used to maintain existing relationships instead of meet strangers. However, in the case of my blog, I sought out strangers with similar interests. Right now I don't want to officially link my online self and offline selves; I'm not interested in the "convergence of virtual and physical worlds" that SNSs engender (Beer and Burrows, 2007). Compartmentalizing my life into online and offline boxes is what works best. However, as Marwick (2005) notes, many SNSs emphasize having a single profile that is "authentic." Marwick argues that this doesn't correspond with users' real-life experiences with presenting who they are: for instance, certain personality traits and behaviors that are on display when a person is at work may not apply to their home life.  Thus, to get around having everything linked to the same e-mail, profile, or Google Plus page, I've had to create several different gmail accounts under false names.


         It's sobering to realize how my view of privacy online and what I feel comfortable sharing has changed in a relatively short time. As Beer and Burrows (2007) note, technology's infiltration of our everyday lives has profoundly altered how quickly things happen as well as our perception of time. Will I look back at this story in a year and think it was much ado about nothing? What are the greater ramifications of my shifting views of privacy? These are questions that will require careful examination. 

Works cited
Marwick, Alice. "I'm a lot more interesting than a Friendster profile": identity presentation, authenticity and power in social networking services. Paper presented at Association of Internet Researchers, 6.0: Internet Generations, Oct. 5-9, 2005, Chicago, IL. Retrieved from


  1. So...I just wrote a comment, and it got deleted...

    The evolution of your profile photo seems like a "coming out" of your online persona. Do you feel that your ideas of personal privacy have changed as you've changed your profile photo? I only ask because you mention privacy several times, and only a few people you know offline have access to your blog. Also, do you feel by changing your photo, you've blurred the lines between producer and consumer of your online identity?

    1. Urgh, sorry to hear your comment got deleted - a commenter on my other blog mentioned that it's easier to comment on blogger when using certain browsers, I'll need to find out which one she recommends. :\
      Regarding the issue of privacy, I believe that I'm kind of stuck in between my old view of privacy (no photos, no real personal info) and a view of privacy more in line with the views of other bloggers. However, I realize that this may be a moot point, as I am already behaving like other bloggers by posting photos. Prior to this I would have said values determine behavior, but now I'm seeing that it may be a two-way street. It also highlights for me some of the illogical thinking and behavior people (or maybe it's just me?) display on the Internet.
      I'm intrigued by the idea of being both a producer and consumer of my online identity. It makes sense when I think about it. My online identity is a commodity of sorts - for instance, if I visit another blog and comment there, having a photo on my blog and some personal info may "authenticate" me in the other blogger's eyes. They may feel more comfortable responding to my comment or visiting my blog.

  2. Your feelings of wanting to disconnect your online persona from your regular life persona is something I think is quite natural. Just as you've mentioned even in real life people have those little quirks that they keep away from some parts of their lives. It's especially obvious when it comes to college students, they never want their parents to know just how much they are partying over studying. I think people like to be able to compartmentalize their worlds as a way of managing how other people perceive them, but compartmentalizing is virtually impossible when it comes to the internet. Anyone with a reasonable mind for search terms could find things about you if you were to simply use your real identity for everything.

    Now do you feel the fact that you were building an audience of people who supported you as a way of realizing that you could reveal more to them as a kind of compensation for not sharing this identity with other people who know more about you, or just as a way to further authentic yourself and your blog.

    In some ways it's already beyond an online or offline self, it's whether you want everyone to know everything you do. If you linked all your accounts together, not only would be people know your blog, they'd see forums you look at or comment on, games you've played, and things you've watched, and not everyone is ready or confident enough to have to deal with people questioning why they may like or not like some part of their lives to other people. I certainly know I'm not.

    1. Good point - compartmentalizing on the Internet is really wishful thinking. However, maybe that means we need systems that are more responsive to that natural desire. I know I'm contradicting my response to shinbc below - it's interesting to me that while on one hand we long for some real-life "authenticity" from people we interact with online, we feel constrained in some way by it as well.

      You ask a good question in the second paragraph. I think I started sharing certain things about myself to foster relationships with my online audience. However, I don't feel that I'm privileging them above my family, friends, etc who don't know about the blog. Given that my blog is focused on a frivolous interest, I guess I'm using the online folks as kind of a "test audience" before I eventually integrate that interest into who I am with my family and friends. I feel OK telling relative strangers on the Internet that I'm interested in style ... but it feels like I'm going out on a limb by sharing the same info with family and such. I suppose it's because I care about their opinion more and this may contradict their long-held views of who I am and what I'm interested in.

      Ditto on your last point. I'm not ready to combine everything I do online into one spot! But it's true that a savvy searcher could put all the pieces together.

  3. I found a simple but important fact that cannot be changed even in the future that people do not meet in person and just use robot or other device to interact with each other. That fact is that people want to see "face" of the other in order for them to believe that they are connected with that person. Considering this fact, social computing can be more trustful and "ethical" by keeping people from hiding as an anonymous to others. People might be annoyed if they need to show their face upon every conversation with others. However, by doing so, we can look back and modify the error happened in the development of social computing. If the reason why people prefer social computing to other method is just "to find more comfortable place to work and talk", we need to think twice and what is really needed to establish "ethic" for social computing. Thank you for sharing your impressive stories.

    1. You raise an interesting point about how showing our real face during all of our social computing activities would change how users relate to each other. At the same time, I have seen some bad behavior via e-mail in a closed system (such as an office where everyone knows each other and person A says something mean to person B via e-mail - and CCs the whole office). I think putting our "face" behind our social computing actions could help promote honesty, but it wouldn't solve the fundamental issue that communicating through a computer creates a barrier. Sometimes that barrier can be useful - by letting people explore different aspects of their identity - but it can be harmful as well because a malicious user is separated from the hurt he or she causes.

  4. Outstanding post. Very good job of integrating the readings with your won experience.

    You're definitely not alone, I think the general trend toward feeling more comfortable posting private information has a social component: you see lots of other people doing it, apparently with no harm, and the benefits outweigh the risks. A similar tipping point happened with onlione commerce--initially people had serious reservations about entering their credit card number into a Web form, but now...

  5. Highly energetic article, I enjoyed that bit.
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