Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Questions for Collide Magazine

I was invited to give a response for Collide Magazine at Azusa Pacific University in California. Something of an update, I spose-
  • What does digital identity really mean and how does it play a role in our current culture?

I think this one is pretty hard to answer. We've struggled to explain what identity constitutes and means without consideration of the internet - I think it's potentially just as complicated there too. In short I'd say digital identity is constructed, but by a different set of forces than identity in a general regard. Rather than blab about it here, I've copied an old draft of my unpublished masters paper here, check pages 22-49 for a comprehensive answer.

  • How do we positively/negatively use digital identity? What are the dangers?

When identity becomes commodified and sold, codified and transferable and otherwise structured by the architecture of an interface I worry. In other words - we sell identity data to advertisers (or worse, in China it's used to oppress people), we force categorical imperatives on something innately dynamic and subjective, and the structure of systems can promote corrosive hegemonic norms (see my discussion on the missing box here - http://facebookprojectqa.blogspot.com/2011/01/filling-in-missing-box.html - there is no category for race/ethnicity/nationality on Facebook and this is a problem!).

That said I think the internet can be a place where new identities can be explored in a positive fashion. A person who identifies as gay may not be able to do so openly to their family, but could admit their sexuality openly to friends or communities on the internet, and this could be quite empowering. It used to be that the internet was a place of anonymous deindividuated people (who were actually mostly of a particular class/education/race) but now I think digital identity is regularly tied to offline identity and the internet is full of more kinds of people; Facebook was the beginning of this wave. With Facebook other people would tag pictures of you and talk to you and this data would help to construct who you were as much as your presentation of information, not unlike face-to-face life. There are exceptions to this, of course, like in fantasy videogames and comments on YouTube videos, but it is the shift.

  • How has digital identity changed over the history of Facebook/your experience? Where do you see it headed?
I think it's certainly changed a lot since I studied the network. Remember I started out with it at a time when researchers, the news media and parents didn't know what it was and didn't take it seriously (2006). At the time it was the domain of college students and college student wannabes. Now I think it's become a much more international network and has been integrated into the lives of people of many ages, educations and backgrounds. I would say that the social norms of the network have become much more diverse, and with them we've seen shifts in the performance of identity.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Questions from a High Schooler

Why did you start writing articles about social networking sites for New York Times?

To the best of my knowledge, I never have. Where did you hear this? I am a PhD student and researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and for the extent of my work towards a masters in Sociology I worked on the Facebook Project. I wrote several papers on racism, sexism, identity, privacy, and social interactions on Facebook at the time it was just coming out, around 2006-8.

What are your personal opinions about Facebook?

This is a very broad question. Facebook, in many ways, is a reflection of normal human social life, with some quirks and twists. On the whole I think it has been quite transformative, and has bettered many people's lives. I'm curious to see where the company's policies go in the future, in many ways they've been more progressive. As the site reaches ubiquity (it has in many contexts already) I do wonder if it will start to seem a little banal, if not mundane. Personally I like it well enough to use it consistenty, though lately with the intensification of my dissertation process I've been spending less time there.

Do you think Facebook is a positive or negative contribution to teens today?

Generally most social scientists would answer this question by saying 'potentially both.' I think the more interesting question would be to give examples of positive and negative impacts on the lives of teens and adults alike. I think Facebook could act as facilitator for what Henry Jenkins (2006) calls participatory culture and it does give teens another medium or public to be with friends. The general trend with ICT adoption suggests that eventually the savvy users of internet social media will grow up and become parents themselves, and places like Facebook may cease to be third spaces (outside of school and home) hidden from parents. The internet does pose a lot of risks - with nearly unlimited access to information and little filtering of content comes great power and responsibility, it's hard to teach teens, who are often quite conflicted over their sense of identity and agency in the world, how to deal with this power appropriately. I wouldn't advocate limiting their access to Facebook, but instead suggest that educators and parents learn about what it means to them, and educate them about the kinds of things they ought to be concerned about. Even still, threats like cyberbullying, deindividuation, inadvertent archival/exposure of personal information are quite real. I just don't think the answer is to respond with fear, but to respond with a desire to understand.

How has the increase of Facebook use affected cyber bullying?

This depends on your context. I assume you're talking about American teens, and in this case I just think it provides another context where teens might pick on one another. Facebook has really done a lot to help people deposit aspects of their identity online, and so the stakes for embarrassment and reputation are probably higher, but it's also about what danah boyd calls the invisible audience: you may never know who's looking at your profile, and so you instead anticipate. Conversely people can surf around largely undetected, and my interviews with college students indicated that almost everyone snoops more than they're willing to admit to the general public. As a result of this lack of identity or accountability people might sometimes act in ways they wouldn't ordinarily. This could be good or bad, like a gay person feeling able to come out of the closet online (reconstruction of identity, good) or a person making mean comments anonymously on YouTube videos (the effects of deindividuation, bad).

How can we fix problems Facebook has caused?

I think this depends on the problem. I've given something of an answer to the question of how to shape teen use of Facebook for the better above: education and perspective-sharing. This begins mostly with good digital literacy education, which is something our public school system lacks, for the most part. In fact this is part of the topic of my dissertation.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Filling in the Missing Box

Reposted from a Facebook note/discussion

A while back I wrote a paper on representation of social identity on Facebook. I made the claim that while the SNS give users the ability to assert their gender, education, age, sexuality and a number of other aspects of who they are the website explicitly lacks any kind of category box for race, ethnicity or nationality. What happens when these items are missing is what I think is an example of colorblind racism: it is assumed these identities don’t matter to people, and we are left with only their pictures and the ‘about me’ section to make judgments about their affiliation. In effect we take away some of their ability to assert who they are and give it to others. A person from Jamaica doesn’t say who they are, instead someone sees their picture (because we all know these are what most people examine first) and just implicitly labels them ‘black’ without any opportunity to engage with their real heritage or assemblage of racial, ethnic and national identity. The same kind of thing happens to people of Latin@ or mixed-ethnic decent, who just become ‘brown’ as well as anyone with an Asian heritage (who are often assumed to be fundamentally ‘foreign’ in America). My significant is a superb example, as many people see her and assume she’s Korean or Chinese, and don’t realize she’s from Kazakhstan (and not at all unusual in her appearance given her origins) and has little in common with people from these cultures (that people often assume). She takes the option of belonging to central Asian groups on Facebook to show, in part, who she is, and the importance of this aspect of her identity. That and the Cyrillic writing all over her wall.

So given this problem, I suggested Facebook add a category up top for these kinds of things, labeled, literally, “Race/ethnicity/nationality,” followed by a blank box where they could say whatever they liked, probably with a reasonable character limit for system and data management needs (shall we say Twitter’s favorite 140 characters?). What I never explored in this paper back in 2008, though, is what would happen if Facebook added this category. Three important outcomes come to mind:

1) At the onset I think there would be a lot of talk about the issue, which I like. People would revisit conversations on the ways these social identities shape us and tell us who we are and there would be a lot of rediscovery or negotiation of group membership, which I like. I think this kind of mass-discussion (several million strong) would be powerful, and on the whole, positive.

2) I’m really interested to see how people would end up using the box. Would they conform to institutionally-driven affiliations like the census categories? Would they invent new ones, or would all of the white people (in the US) just side-step it and write ‘American.’ Might people just use it as a vessel to present their family heritage? How would it look in different countries or among different generations, and would most people just avoid it? Would (or should) Facebook need to highlight that it has been added? What would this all look like?

3) This kind of thing could be measured with computational techniques. Facebook blocks crawler research robots, but still the possibility is there. Studies on Facebook, real social networks and race aren’t actually all that new (see Mayer and Puller 2007), but this would introduce a whole new level of opportunity. Beyond this I think we could find countable evidence of identity movements and cultural affiliations, and track them as they emerge and transform!