PLEASE NOTE: for some reason, I can’t figure out how to upload the file itself. The paper is presented in its entirety below, and I’ll add a link to download it tomorrow. The powerpoint presentation is uploaded on E.J.’s page.
Self Expression on the Internet
The internet is an important tool for young adults to express themselves in modern society. It is sufficiently versatile as a medium that it can fill the changing needs of individual teenagers as well as the broad requirements of the generation as a whole. However, although it is a powerful tool, the internet is far from ideal for communicating information about oneself in the complicated context present in networks of human relationships.
Social networking sites on the internet have become emblematic of teenage socialization. Inhabited almost exclusively by young adults, sites like MySpace, Facebook, and LiveJournal serve as a primary means of self expression for their users. Considering the large and varied user bases, the success of these sites speaks to their broad versatility. The largest difference in usage seems to be caused by age. Younger users tend to have visually busier profiles, prominently displaying their tastes, hobbies, and personal preferences. In contrast, older users usually have simpler profiles, focused more on their friends and ongoing messages between members of their social groups. Livingstone talks about the fundamental difference between “identity as display,” where the profile focuses on the importance of expressing one’s personality, and “identity through connection,” wherein the profile emphasizes the network the user is a part of and interacts with (Livingstone, pg 402). The “display” centered profiles are representative of younger users, who use them as a means of self discovery as well as self presentation. Frequent changes to layouts and themes are commonplace, as the user seeks to showcase different parts of their personality. These profiles focus on the “me” aspect of self expression, or quite literally on the “self.” The “connection” based profiles still exhibit some expression of the “me,” but the main focus is on how the user fits into the larger social context and their mutual relationships and connections with their peers. These profiles display an acute awareness of a larger worldview, one in which their personality is less significant, and their social capital far more so. Livingstone quotes the 15 year old “Ellie” as saying “seeing as my friends know me, there’s no real need for me to advertise my personality,” which shows this transition to an identity based on “connection”, rather than “display” (Livingstone pg. 401). This idea fits well with the view that the internet is also a means to create and maintain social capital, and to display one’s social capital in the traditional model of “conspicuous consumption.” As social capital becomes more important, the internet may be used even more as a method to build social capital through self expression.
Clearly the internet can be a powerful tool for expressing one’s personality and displaying one’s social network. However, no medium is perfect. What are the limitations of using the internet, especially compared to more traditional face-to-face interactions? The most telling problem with social networking sites is their relative lack of complexity. Although they are improving, it remains to be seen if they will ever be able to accurately represent the complex stratifications of human relationships. Originally, most sites made a distinction only between “friends” and “not friends.” Several of the teenagers interviewed by Livingstone described the variety of different social networks they were a part of, and how those groups differed in intimacy and trust. Information that is appropriate for one group may not be for another. The most common example of this was the relationship between a teenager’s friends and their parents, and concerns about the visibility of information between these two groups. Thus, a binary distinction between “friend” and “not friend” is terribly insufficient. Some sites are beginning to add rough stratification through distinct “networks” of friends, in an attempt to mirror the differences in social networks, but due to the complexity of human interactions, the success of their attempts is uncertain.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the internet fails to completely replace “real” interaction with exclusively “virtual” ones. Livingstone cites Haythornthwaite’s idea that “most people’s contacts are local, with stronger ties centred [sic] on pre-existing… contexts,” (Haythornthwaite, 2001). In other words, the vast majority of online relationships also contain offline elements. The virtual is not a replacement for the real, but rather an augmentation. This is most evident when one considers that the internet forces users to express themselves largely in writing. This is not always the optimal way to express one’s emotional needs or desires, so the internet cannot be used as the be all and end all medium for social interaction: it is only one facet of a complicated system of self expression, peer interaction, and mutual support.
The internet is still in its infant stages as a medium for self expression, but young adults in America have already begun to extensively utilize social networking sites as a means to display their personalities, showcase their social groups and connections, and strengthen their offline relationships. Despite difficulties that exist in this overly simplified system, most users have largely surmounted them and created meaningful spaces in the virtual world. If the internet continues to be an important part in its users’ lives as they age, its importance will only grow, and the average interpersonal relationship will be constructed in a combination of mediums, both “real” and “virtual.”
Haythornthwaite, C. 2001. ‘Tie Strength and the Impact of New Media,’ paper presented Hawaii International Conference on Systems Sciences at the 34, Hawaii, 3-6 January.
Livingstone, S. 2008. “Taking risky opportunities in youthful content creation: teenagers’ use of social networking sites for intimacy, privacy and self- expression.” New Media Society 10(3):393-411.