March 18, 2009

Social Networking Sites and Social Theory

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

Are you on Facebook ? Did you respond to the request to post "25 random things" about yourself?

I personally don’t have a Facebook page, a “random thing” about me that increasingly places me in the minority. I’m sure that there are great benefits to having a page on a social networking site, and who knows, maybe someday I will. For now, though, I am okay with old-fashioned socializing.

Facebook, MySpace, and other social networking uses of the internet can dissolve the boundary between our public and private selves. As many posts on thisclip_image002 blog reference, sociologist Erving Goffman's "front stage" and "back stage" concepts have been a useful way to understand social life. Goffman wrote in 1959 of how we keep certain information private, part of the process of impression management.

The internet in general and social networking sites in particular have blurred the distinction between front and back stage, something that some social theorists would argue is a feature of postmodernity. In a postmodern society, binaries (like public and private) merge and cannot be clearly separated.

Some people seem completely comfortable divulging extremely personal information on blogs and home pages. Perhaps because of our fascination with the private lives of celebrities, letting others in on personal information may seem very normal. It’s also a way of creating a sense of identity—having lots of online “friends,” announcing one’s relationship status and posting snapshots are ways of making statements about who we are. Descartes, the seventeenth century French philosopher famously said, “I think therefore I am;” we might now amend that to “I’m online therefore I am.”

Not everyone wants all of their information freely circulating. Facebook users created a petition protesting the site’s use of their other online behavior, like shopping, and there has been debate about who actually owns the information posted on the site.clip_image006

Sometimes people don’t realize that electronic information they might think is private can become public very quickly. As Janis Prince Inniss blogged about last year, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s steamy text messages revealed an affair and led to his resignation. Dean Grose, the mayor of a town in Orange County, California, sent an e-mail to friends depicting the White House surrounded by a watermelon patch. One of the recipients was outraged and made the e-mail public, leading to nationwide scorn and Grose’s resignation.

These cases are great examples of how it’s not just young people who need to think twice about privacy online. In reality there is really no such thing as privacy online. Some of the best advice I got and now give to students is to never post, text, video tape, or e-mail anything that you wouldn’t want to appear as evidence in court. We could also add to that information that you would be embarrassed for your grandmother to find out, your children, or your employer. Yes, they are online too.

Last year I was selected for a campus-wide honor, and I later found out that the selection committee undertook a basic Google search as part of review process. Fortunately for me, the internet was just coming of age as I was developing my professional self and this is the only “version” of me that exists online. As I noted earlier, if posting personal information on the internet is a way to construct our identities, we might run into trouble when we want toclip_image004 change that identity. If I had a blog when I was starting grad school, I’d probably be embarrassed by the content today, now that my ideas have had a chance to develop over time. Once ideas get out there in cyberspace they are hard to reign back in.

Some postmodern theorists might see the collapse of the boundary between our public and private selves as inevitable. But we can still decide how much of who we are will be made public. The framers of the U.S. Constitution valued our right to keep our mouths shut so much they included the right against self incrimination into the Bill of Rights. Ironically, we now tend to hear of someone who “pleads the Fifth” and presume they have done something wrong, or have something to hide. Former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, currently in prison on racketeering charges, was asked if he had anything to hide during his investigation. To paraphrase, he said of course he did, but not related to the charges against him. (He also once said the only way he wouldn’t be reelected would be to be caught with a dead girl or a live boy).

Edwards had a point—we all have something to hide, although hopefully not criminal behavior. It’s up to us whether we choose to share or not, and we all must deal with the consequences accordingly.

I know it’s soooo twentieth century, but I reserve the right to keep the 25 random things about me to myself and to those who know me offline.


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Great points Dr. S. I see something like Facebook as a great way to control the information about me that is in cyberspace but others seem to see it as very non-consequential. When those people with no boundaries and people like me with some boundaries come together as "Friends" that is when the situation gets difficult. Suddenly they are tagging me in pictures, mentioning conversations I thought to be in confidence, relaying inside jokes, etc. Also, Facebook profiles take an interesting stance between direct, person-to-person verbal communication and non-verbal communication that I also find interesting and need to ponder further.

I don't believe that the internet or social networking sites automatically create a blur between the front stage and back stage identities. This blur is created when people use the internet without enough of an understanding of how it works and how accessible the information on it is to others. It's a new form of socialization, and those unfamiliar with the technology essentially go through a socially awkward phase where they share information they didn't know was public (or didn't understand the degree to which the information was public).

For the most part, folks who understand that just about anything shared through the internet is accessible to others tend not to have this problem. For them, it is simply a wider, more accessible form of Goffman's 'front stage', rather than a blurring between front and back. Many young people seem to be experts at this, and social networking is used to create an extremely ideal impression.

The scary part about something like Facebook becomes clear when it is approached from the perspective of any group or individual trying to create social change. Social networking sites are an ideal tool for government or corporate entities to create a map of the social environment, although right now this social map is limited to mostly college-age folks. While assumedly hypothetical at the moment, this possibility poses a problem for any group that seeks to challenge power. While popular movements and groups can use social networking sites to advertise, organize and spread, these actions can be monitored. Further, anyone can get a fairly accurate reading of the political and cultural breakdown of the college population; in theory, a subtly repressive government could alter policy or public image to co-opt dissenting trends before they become a problem. Perhaps of more concern, a savvy intelligence agency could find the time and place of meetings and demonstrations, get a fair estimate of the amount of people in attendance, and prepare accordingly, without having to do the dirty work of extensive infiltration and monitoring that was required in the repression of similar movements in the 1960's. Warrantless phone tapping is a small threat compared to the power of social networking to those in the business of intelligence gathering.

Yup I agree social networking is a part of every youngsters everyday life nowadays. I found out that according to a new study released by the good folks at Nielsen, “active reach” in member communities has overtaken email participation by 67% to 65%. Additionally, social networking and blogging are growing at double the rate of any other Internet function, such as searches, portals and even email. Yes, you read that right: email has jumped the shark!

I have to agree that facebook and myspace are the most popular forms of communication out there, but have brought a lot of controversy when it comes to people displaying their private lives. In my Sociology 101 class we just recently learned about Charles Cooley and his concept of the Looking-Glass Self. I found the article and this concept to be somewhat similar, especially in regards to how we portray ourselves and how others view us online. The Looking-Glass Self is the notion of how we view ourselves reflected back from others and the feelings that we develop as a result of what we imagine they see in us (Ferris & Stein). For example, if someone posts the “25 Most Random Things About Me” on facebook and a parent, friend, or relative reads that they automatically form a new opinion about that person- depending on what “things” they see and read. I believe posting pictures is the easiest way for friends to post comments and make judgments. Let’s just say a friend or relative posts a jokingly rude or inappropriate comment about one of your pictures-which automatically is available for everyone to see. This could allow many people to form opinions about you, therefore you start to form opinions about yourself and possibly from there consider removing the picture because being portrayed this way makes you feel uncomfortable. How many times do I have to say YOU- it is your choice so people need to understand that it is not affecting anyone but yourself! I personally have a facebook and a myspace and I do not even bother posting inappropriate pictures on it, because I know people are looking-family and friends, even previous teachers from high school and I want to keep my reputation clean. I have to agree that the internet has blurred the distinction between front stage and back stage, what we might consider something to be a backstage distinction could really present itself online in the form of a front stage distinction. Once again pictures are another great example, I think it is so ridiculous how students put pictures of them drinking and smoking on facebook, is that really how you want family members and co-workers to see you? Is that something you are proud of? Just like Dr. S states, “not everyone wants all their information freely circulating.” I think myspace and facebook are excellent forms of communication-not a chance for teens to display and post information about them in a manner that makes them look ridiculous. Certain people need to be careful and understand that some things should just be left unsaid-or in online facebook terms- UNPOSTED!

I think what you are saying has alot of truth to it because if people don't want that information then they shouldn't put it somewhere everyone can see. Young people today want to tell everyone expecially there friends what they are doing and what they think. I believe that facebook is a way of telling people are they actually read it and want to see those types od things. I have facebook and I know that people do things like that.

Interesting discussion; I would, however, add that the contention that it may be necessary to 'reign back in' the undeveloped ideas of a neophyte grad student or to maintain a 'professional' identity online at the expense of other aspects of the self (presumably because our bosses or selection commitees for high honors might check us out) is extremely pragmatic and sound advice - but obscure the fact that the ways that not limiting ourselves in these ways might be productive in articulating difference and and developing our ideas outside of the confines of geographically and experientially limiting face-to-face possibilities. Perhaps the problem of a younger self blogging incompetently is a tongue-in-cheek bit, considering that the blog seems to be a good enough venue for the (virtually) immemorial recording of the words of students...I hope so!

I think that social thought should perhaps do a bit more than look at the idea of performance and socially established measures of competence/appearance uncritically: good questions might include 1) why our previously 'private' identities are assumed to provide likely reasons for our professional exclusion or censure (what does the pic of me wasted in Maui have to do with my ability to produce an excellent lecture or do maintenance on an aircraft?), and 2) why the ideas of those writing selves we may have been in the past are constructed as an object of embarrassment, and how we are assumed liable for a loss of face based on previous moments in our learning that somehow don't measure up to our present selves (why would we expect the learning process, or non-professional aspects of our lives to be held against us?). The problem might be much more with the inability to distinguish competent performances in one sphere from those in another, or the tendency to impute a unity of identity across time in the case of recorded ideas, not the disclosure of performances from non-professional facets of self or the revelation of past views online.

On another point, I think that the realization that facebook (for example) is a coded infrastructure that allows us to do things depending on our ability to adapt to it - including using powerful coordinating functions not effectively included in email or traditional communications infrastructures - and to maintain, minimal or moderate ties with a wider network than many are likely to maintain otherwise, facilitating face-to-face sociality and other 'real-life' exchange and experience. The aspects of performance and the dangers of surveillance-via-google with social networking sites are well-covered (sigh), but analyses of how it helps people coordinate their everyday lives and often appears to promote certain kinds of sociality - a point that is obvious to many users, but understandably less apparent to the uninitiated - are a lot less common.

Certainly, some things should best remain unsaid, and we all (like Edwin Edwards) have something to hide. Surveillance and public/private bleed are definitely an issue (consider Mark Andrejovic's 2007 book 'iSpy' on databanking), and there is an aspect of 'social fact' to the dangers of being a bit free with our online identities. But social thought perhaps ought to ask why it is that we would be well advised to muzzle ourselves, or at least critique specific aspects of our common self-representations in such fora. And it might also be worth thinking about why we don't say the kinds of things people say about online communications supposedly 'replacing'(or cheapening?) face-to-face ones about, for example, the telephone...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


I would have to agree with your view of social networking on this blog. I believe your points about impression management and Goffman's front stage and back stage tie into your beliefs about image very well. Facebook and other social networks are a way for people to create an image of themselves for others to see. However, the image they create is not always a positive one. The fact that "friends" can help to mold that self image is also another issue. By tagging photos, writing comments, or posting information, these so called friends are aiding to the online image you are creating for the world to see. While I have a Facebook, I am very cautious about what appears on it. I am only friends with close friends, family, and classmates. And I often find myself tagging certain pictures or deleting messages I find inappropriate of private. I really use it for the sole purpose of keeping in touch with old friends or talking about school. The comment about don't post anything you wouldn't want to show up in court is a very smart one. I have a friend who has had some recent legal trouble and has to go to court. He quickly checked his Facebook to make sure there was nothing on there that would make him appear a certain way in court. It seems people want to create this image of themselves so badly that they don't care who sees it and what it is. By having a social network I believe that some people cannot really have a true self. Self is defined as "the individual's conscious, reflexive experience of a personal identity separate and distinct from others." (Ferris and Stein) They cannot have this self because their identities are being impacted and connected to others. While social networks make staying in touch much more convenient, I believe it is at the expense of the individual and their privacy and personal image.

I am surprised that as a social scientist you have not tried out a social networking site, if not to satisfy your own social needs, at least to better understand the medium and satisfy your curiosity. Why not try it out for yourself?

I find it kind of funny because you satate that you will keep your thoughts to yourself and not post information about yourself over the internet, and yet you have posted this large blog that clearly states a lot of information about yourself. Yes websites like facebook and myspace do expose a lot of information about oneself but most people know what they are getting into and know not to post things that are too dangerous. I suppose the smart way to go about things is to never post information you would be ashamed of or regret. It's not such a bad thing to share your ideas and lives with other in less you lead a disgraceful life that should be closed away.

The world of facebook that has been integrated into most of our lives has truly changed our lives in a social matter. To be able to know almost anything about an individual without really knowing them is truly amazing, but is this really good? As a college student growing up with facebook i have learned both the advantages, but i have found that the disadvantages greatly outweigh the positives. With just the click of a button, you can find just about anything you want to know about the individual, even if you want to know it or not. This may seem like a good thing but i believe if one truly thinks about it can realize how damaging this can be to both the individual reading the profile and the person whos profile it is. Scenario one: We have someone who is unhappy with his life or extremely bored, so he or she decides to spend an hour on facebook looking at his other "friends (which more often than not never actually talks to most of these people regularly)". He or she looks at how much fun these other individuals are having fun by their pictures and looks as those everyone lives are much better than him or herself and therefore becomes depressed, which results as this person becoming emotionally damaged and would at the very least lower this individuals self esteem. Scenario 2: With posting all this private information anyone, to an extent, read what you have posted. This is starting to lead to a new sort of stalking i like to call virtual stalking. This can be very dangerous to an individual because unlike original stalking, this individual is never aware of it.
These are only two of many scenarios that happen every day but are not really talked about very much and should be looked at more closely. Yes, facebook can be a very beneficial technology but unless it is reconstructed in a manner that it was originally designed it could lead to catastrophe in the real social world.

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THat was a wonderful article you wrote and I found it very interesting. In my sociology classs we are reading infact about social status and social structure. I was wondering if you thought that maybe the way we communicate on social mediums such as facebook, myspace, orkut, and many others. Will it change the social structure of society. Could people become more powerful through the web. Could leaders run for president online and not even spend a dime. D you think more people will stop talkin and instead just send txts and tweets. Once again it was a very good article and I woul love to hear your or anyone elses thoughts on this topic.

The use of internet sites such as facebook and myspace, have made it possible for people to control the way people view them. This relates to Erving Goffman’s idea of impression management. When you develop your profile for these online communitites, you can control every aspect of it. You control what you look like, through your pictures, how many friends you have, and who your friends are, your background information, your interests, hobbies, etc. You have the ability to create the image that you want people to see when they think of you. In other words, you can completely control your expressions given off because your viewers aren’t there in person to analyze your facial expressions and your body language. What they see, is what you want them to see. On the other hand, without that face to face contact, things can easily get misconstrued, giving people the ability to see you in a different way than you intended. In a way, pictures and postings are polysemous. For example, a message that a friend writes on your wall can hold a totally different meaning to you, than the meaning someone else would derive when they read it. Which is why it is so important to only display things on your profile that, as the blog put it, wouldn’t give you any troubles in court, so that you can display the most positive image of yourself as possible. I think that online sites like facebook and myspace are great for staying in touch with friends and family. However, when you create a profile, it is at the expense of your privacy and your true personal image.

I believe that the internet and the social networking sites create our identities. With the social network of Facebook many people are able to really let other people get more of a understanding of them. For me I often see people who in high school most people thought of them as “ the shy ones,” often very outgoing. You see them as the true person they are. Pictures, inside information, and confidential information is often reveled for everyone to see just because your “friends on Facebook.” Would I want my future boss to see most of my pictures or comments that I say to my friends, no I definitely would not want that. I often see requests for my third grade cousin and friends mom and dad to be my friend on Facebook, why would I want them to see how I act when they are not around? As Dr. S states, “ not everyone wants all their information freely circulating.” The internet has become a way for people to express there feelings and make judgments. Each person has there own opinion about how they take different comments. I agree that the internet has strongly blurred the distinction of both front and back stage, what we see as one way is often now seen another way by many people. I feel as if people lose there true self from these social networks. Their identities are being so impacted and connected from others that they lose their own individual conscious and personal identity. It seems as though we have grown so far away from communicating face to face. Its funny how some people now can only communicate with their girl friends and express their true feelings through these different social networks rather than sitting down and talking. I feel that everyone has their own true self lost in our social networks. We have grown so far from developing ourself from face to face communication and actions and have grown to expressing are self in ways many people do not want to be viewed.

I think facebook and myspace are great ways of staying in contact with friends, family, teachers, old school mates, and etc. I don't really agree to what Karen says. I'm the type of person that you see what you get. I'm not one type of person in person and a different type of person on facebook or myspace so i don't have anything to hide. I know what to say and what pictures to put up on the internet and what not to say and what pictures not to put up online. Some people just don't respect themselves or don't give a crap. I don't care what people think but i do to a certain extent. I think Karen should try it and see what it's all about. You shouldn't care about the rest of the people but they obviously don't. As long as your worrying about what your facebook or myspace page looks like is all that matters.

You made exceptionally good points about the internet. Nothing is kept private. There are ways to block a person from seeing your web page, but if they are really interested they can always find a way around. With the social websites such as facebook and myspace, everyone needs to be extra cautious. You never know who is on the other computer. Everyone lies and everyone needs to remember that.

I understand what you mean about how social networking. It has taken over and all young people are doing it. I am guilty of having a facebook and myspace account. I have realized that there are dangers that's why I keep private information to myself.

I agree with this article, there are some things that you should keep private and facebook reveals anything and everything within minutes of posting it;such as breakups, hookups, and new friends.

This article really grabbed my attention a couple of times. I was looking through this website for a couple hours reading through everything and i just couldn't figure it out. I have been stressing on a Critical thinking and writing midterm so i worried about that for these past few days. fast forward to today and i was bored and on myspace. While i was on the site i was thinking that this insnt even good anymore so i deleted it. I was looking for something to work on and i read this one a few days ago, and after seeing it again today, i was like this is just what i was thinking about earlier.
Personally for me Myspace is more of a thing that i use to keep in touch with some friends back in Chicago, and while i was on today i just saw pictures of people doing the same thing they have been forever and it just bummed me out so i deleted it. I dont even talk to most of those people anymore so the ones i really keep in touch with ill just do so on facebook. the blogs that people post and the stuff people post about is so weird in my mind. i guess facebook isn't that much different, but it is just more simple so you don't have to see all the stuff don't want to. i got sent messages for new apps and things all the time on myspace and it just got annoying. beside a couple of the more recent article this one hit the relevancy perfect for me. I like to keep certain part of my life private like Sternheimer and some of the things i see on myspace are really weird to me as well so this article was perfect.

Like an earlier post mentioned, I am also reading about social structure and social status in my sociology class. The internet in general and specifically social networking sites are changing society. Relationships among people are changing and some statuses are being determined by sites like Facebook and MySpace. I think these can be a good way to keep in touch, but it's a little scary when societies and lives are changed by them.

I agree with you some about not putting your personal information on facebook that you wouldnt want to appear in court. But i do think its ok that people use facebook for social reasonings. Why I say that is because most people are away at school and thats a way for people to still communicate with others and to see how their doing.

Social networking and digital devices have truly revolutionized the manner in which concepts and ideas shape our reality. The idea of "private information" has transformed across all subcultures of American society, to include the American military culture, which I inhabit.
The sheer volume of emails, text messages and social networking posts reveal a pattern that may be disturbing. Worlwide, roughly 600 million emails are sent every ten minutes. This accounts for email transmission alone. In June 2009, the eBquity research group released the findings of a study conducted in April 2009 regarding the usage of Twitter. eBquity discovered that globally 70,000 Twitter transmissions are released every hour, or 1.7 million messages each day. Twitter has only increased its membership (and thereby its transmission volume) since 2009. A new eBquity study will be released in October of 2010. A year-long comScore study revealed that in June 2008, over 132 million people used Facebook each day, while over 117 million used MySpace each day. All tallied, this accounts for over 86.6 billion messages being transmitted globally every day (keep in mind, these numbers are on the low end, as You Tube, Yahoo messenger and newer instant messaging services are not tallied). To put this in context, there are 6 billion people in the world and 14 times that amount of messages being sent and received every day.
The question that must be asked is: are we better off for transmitting every thought, emotion, experience, constantly checking inboxes, sending pictures? Far from it.
The evolution of the human species did not stop with mammalian bipedalism as a means of ground transportation. Quite the contrary. Neurocircuits in the brain’s middle gyrus (the function of our brain that allow us to quickly process and develop information) are continuing to expand, as is the human prefrontal cortex (the anterior portion of our brain’s frontal lobes), which allow us the capacity for abstract thought. Without these assets, we are monkeys [monkeys have the same ability to plan, execute cognitive decision making and correct social behavior that humans do].
Dr. Stanislas Dehaene, a Professor at the Collège de France and director of the French equivalent of the U.S. National Institutes of Health has conducted three peer-reviewed studies examining the continuing evolution of the human mind.
Were we constantly distracted, constantly able to be reached on the phone, email, text message and Twitter, we may be able to use our evolved brains to establish new social behavioral patterns that truly embrace and encourage a diversity of thought.
Some might argue that these new media outlets have enhanced our freedom and enabled our individuality. This, of course, is what the corporation would like you to believe. With massive amounts of information being transmitted constantly, there is no time for independent thought, for discovery of new ideas [there are endless opportunities to research and exhaust old ideas] or for real, meaningful contact and dialogue.
Used properly, communication technology is holds the key to our continued growth. In the hands of those who wish to keep us mentally enslaved, it is a virtual prison.
The views expressed in this blog posting are those of solely the author. This posting reflectd the official policy or position of neither the Department of Defense nor the U.S. Government.

There is no doubt that with all of the new technological tools, and advancement in social networking field makes harder than ever before to guard ones privacy. The rapid growths of social networking sites, blogs, Dating Sites, and so forth, have people both for and against. There are those that see all this as a positive phenomena, which has improved they way people communicate, get to know one another, get their news, and learn about unfamiliar places, among other things. On the other side, there are those that see that this promotes the loss of privacy, an opportunity to deceived, steal, and defraud people, and even worst things. As I read Karen Sternheimer’s analysis, and the follow up comments it provoked, proves one thing, that people from both sides of the spectrum have cogent points. What it seems clear to me is that this argument has not winners or losers; no one could claim to have the supreme truth. Just before writing this I had to erase tens of “spam” email, every time that happens I feel like discontinuing my email account. Then, later on, get a message from my daughter, sending also one of my granddaughter’s new picture; when that happens I am so glad for email, regardless of all the “spam” messages I have to delete. As I said, there is good and bad on both sides. I would like to live you with one question, rhetoric as it may be, Without Internet’s advances, what would happen to Cuban blogger Yoanni Sanchez and others like her?

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