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I think therefore I am (online): How the use of Facebook is changing notions of identity and privacy in networked communities

By Luke Webster
Presented at CommUnity: Online Conference on Networks and Communities
Curtin University, Perth | 23 April – 11 May 2012


This paper asserts that Facebook facilitates an increasing anxiety over the management of our online identity and that we need to carefully consider the implications of our digital footprint. This is demonstrated through a consideration of how identity informs social standing and how the social expectations of identity construction have changed as a result of mass acceptance of Facebook as a means to communicate. Facebook offers users a perceived means to negate a status anxiety that permeates society, but the process of communicating within a mediated and monitored space raises questions as to how our personal information will be used by third parties. As Facebook is modified to incorporate additional aspects of digital identity performance it becomes apparent that our desire for comprehensive performative feedback may lead to a dystopic destination where we no longer hold the rights to our own personal data and experience an overwhelming loss of agency.



My Identity is My Passport

Beyond its internal influence on our self-conception, our reputation affects our ability to engage in basic activities in society. We depend upon others to engage in transactions with us, to employ us, to befriend us, and to listen to us. Without the cooperation of others in society, we often are unable to do what we want to do. Without the respect of others, our actions and accomplishments can lose their purpose and meaning. Without the appropriate reputation, our speech, though free, may fall on deaf ears. Our freedom, in short, depends in part upon how others in society judge us (Solove, 2007, p. 31).

How we present our self to others (performance) and how we are in turn perceived by others (reputation) is key to our ability to successfully navigate and find acceptance within society (Solove, 2007; Pearson, 2009). The combination of performance and reputation results in identity and is what allows us to locate ourselves in relation to others (De Botton, 2004). Our culture continues to embrace techno-mediated communication, and whether intentional or not the digital footprint we create within the online environment establishes another platform, or platforms of performance by which we can be judged. Helmond (2010) refers to the sum total of our online activity as Identity 2.0. Identity 2.0, like the Web 2.0 environment it is constructed in, is in perpetual beta phase, never complete, networked, user-generated, distributed and persistent (Helmond, 2010, p. 3). Identity 2.0 is an aggregate of our identity performance across five platforms: homepage, blog, social network, micro-blog and lifestream, where the term lifestream refers to a culmination of a user’s activities across a range of platforms organized by time in one location (Helmond, 2010, p. 6). This paper will investigate the role of Facebook in the construction of a digital identity, the shifting of social expectations in identity formation. Furthermore this paper will consider the value Facebook users place on identity and privacy as the Facebook system displays a trend towards developing the means to manage Identity 2.0 in its entirety.


Your digital identity awaits…

As of 2012 Facebook reports to have 845 million active users worldwide (Alexander, 2012; Fuch, 2012). Raynes-Goldie (2010) suggests that the global adoption of Facebook has made it the default mode for interaction, surpassing phone and email. Youth who choose not to participate risk the social cost of being literally and figuratively disconnected (para. 23). Bigge (2006) refers to this situation as “a false choice, a sociotechnical scenario devoid of agency” (para. 28). Being present online, and arguably on Facebook, has become a social expectation and is assisted by the fact that there are no barriers to joining. In order to participate within the social space of Facebook, users must first construct a profile which allows the location of self relative to networked peers. The profile encourages users to focus on best presentation techniques and the accumulation of status resulting from networked connections with others (Donath & boyd, 2004). The creation of a profile is mediated by the structure and laws of Facebook, which work to prevent users from using a fraudulent identity (Raynes-Goldie, 2010, para. 2). Users are prompted to enter basic details such as their address, phone number and email, which grounds the profile in points of fact known to others in the offline environment (boyd & Hargittai, 2010). The members of your social network already know you in some capacity and will call you out if you behave out of line with their combined expectations (Thompson, 2008). This process of identity affirmation serves to award the users’ content with a level of authenticity and establishes trust within their online community (Donath, 1999). Thus use of Facebook requires the disclosure of personal information and is expected by other users in order for you to comply with the rules of the social forum and be considered a valid participant.

Non-participation does not guarantee an absence of your digital identity within Facebook. The sociotechnical “narrative of inevitability” (Bigge, 2006, para. 28) means if you are not an active participant within Facebook a notion of who you are will arise out of “ambient awareness” (Thompson, 2008, p.3) created by discussion between your peers. Jenny Sunden’s adage (in boyd, 2007) now requires an addendum: write yourself into being… before someone else does.

Misrepresentation has the potential for irreversible social damage and the loss of social capital (De Button, 2004). As a consequence there is a social pressure to claim your digital space if only to engage in impression management (boyd, 2007, p. 12; boyd & Ellison, 2007). Users are drawn into a constant practice of damage control, maintaining a vigil for the appearance of unwanted personal information such as unflattering photos or being tagged as a participant in an event you may not wish to make public (Thompson, 2008). In this way your identity performance can be unwillingly outsourced, which perpetuates a sense of anxiety over identity management.

Facebook users attempt to overcome the anxiety of misrepresentation through continual information contribution. In an environment where “communication is instant, ubiquitous and mobile” (Donath & boyd, 2004, p. 71), information appears to be fleeting. The ephemeral nature of the Facebook News Feed encourages participants to provide constant information updates in order to remind networked peers of their presence. In this way participants have a greater investment in maintaining the information flow of the Web and feel compelled to contribute information more often (Fuchs, 2010; Barnes, 2006). In a sense Facebook users are called to ‘over perform’ their identity to negate the fear of being lost in the social information flow. However the practice of continual disclosure stimulates the revelation of increasingly intimate information.

Facebook users are encouraged to, and perpetuate a cycle of, sharing increasingly intimate details as a perceived means of maintaining identity control and expressing agency. Kitzmann (2003) explored the trend of Web diarists making their diaries available to the public. While the diary is traditionally a personal and private space for “self-construction, self-expression and self-exploration” (52) in the online environment it became a tool for “communication and interaction” (52). For these diarists, “allowing public access to personal thoughts and personal space [was seen] as a form of agency – a way to make one’s life significant through the feedback and support of readers” (56). Similarly boyd (2007) considers Facebook to be a site for performative experimentation where the feedback systems of the SNS allow teenagers to play, refine and reconstruct their identity performance. In a culture infatuated with celebrity, Facebook users revel in the ability to publish their own story and enjoy mass feedback when previously only the rich and famous were ‘worthy’ of having their story told on a public scale (boyd, 2007; De Button, 2007; Thompson, 2008). Therefore the process of constituting an identity that is wholly seen and approved of by peers, in its minutiae, becomes a site of pleasure for Facebook users. While this cycle of performance and reputation is no different to the process that has always occurred offline, what is new is increasing amount of personal information that is disclosed in order for this to happen. Facebook offers a seductive environment for seeking mass community approval and easing concerns of status anxiety, however it simultaneously perpetuates a culture of expectation when it comes to access to personal information. The result is threefold: notions of privacy change, your personal data is stored and catalogued, and you risk judgement out of context.


In (cyber)space everyone can hear you scream

The expectation of personal information disclosure indicates a cultural shift among youth as to what constitutes privacy. Privacy is essentially an “issue of access”, in regards to how much information we allow members of the “outside world” (Kitzmann, 2003, p. 55) to know about us. Furthermore we live in the age of the Internet and “access to information is a key element of status and power” (Donath & boyd, 2004, p. 71). Raynes-Goldie (2010) suggests that youth are more concerned with “social privacy” than traditional “institutional privacy” (para. 1) and are willing to let Governments and data-miners access their information in order to receive the benefits of social networking. Barnes (2006) refers to this trend as a “privacy paradox” (para. 10). Previously unmonitored personal communications, like those which occur within Facebook, now fall directly under the gaze of marketers and it is naïve to assume they have out best interests at heart (Bigge, 2007; Barnes, 2006; Fennell, 2012a). boyd (2007) suggests many users plan on seeking “security through obscurity” (p. 16), but this is admitting there is something to hide from in the first place. It reveals a growing failure of youth to understand the value of information and foreshadows a future loss of agency. This phenomenon can in part be attributed to the seductive interface and hidden machinations of Facebook.

As Bigge (2006) points out, the technology that allows SNSs to function are disguised by an attractive and easily accessible interface. However “there are no “take backs” in electronic communication” (Carter, Foulger & Ewbank, 2008, p. 681) and the information users publish is archived in unseen databases. Users contribute to the indexation of personal information via tagging functions, working to make the Facebook identity persistent and immediately retrievable (Helmond, 2010), which becomes problematic when this information is made available to people beyond your social network.

Although Facebook established itself as a walled garden, it is suggested that with the proliferation of applications attached to Facebook and the resulting mobility and exchange of personal data, Facebook’s walls are beginning to erode (Fennell, 2012b). The Internet is inherently a public space and boyd asserts that “in mediated spaces, there are no structures to limit the audience; search collapses all virtual walls” (2007, p. 16). Thus Facebook users continue to suffer what boyd describes as social convergence (2007, 2010) not only within the networked Facebook community but from people outside of your network looking in. This is seen in the emergence of reports that SNSs are increasingly being used as vetting tools for potential employers (Brandenburg, 2008, p. 598; Helmond, 2010, p. 13).

According to boyd “context is constructed and maintained through participation, not simply observation” (2007, p. 17). Potential damage to reputation comes as a result of sharing too much information which can then be judged out of context (Solove, 2007). The persistent Facebook identity leaves users vulnerable to a kind of ‘feedback lag’ which forces participants to evaluate new systems of ongoing identity management.


Agency Panic and Narrative Security

Users are invited by Facebook to collate their “distributed identities” (Helmond, 2010, p. 11) into a lifestream within the new Timeline structure, indicating a path for Facebook (or emerging competitor) to offer a comprehensive Identity 2.0 management system and overcome feedback lag negligence. In speaking on online communication Donath (1999) predicted “making social patterns more visible would increase the strength of social pressures, making the community both more orderly and less spontaneous” (p.23). Over a decade later Facebook demonstrates the fruition of this prediction by facilitating a space for non-fraudulent identities and furthermore directing the process for identity construction. Ordered communication taken to its furtherest extent could conceivably mean singular identities laid out in comprehensive narrative format, or in other words, Identity 2.0. The evolution of Facebook suggests a trend towards a central management system allowing users to oversee their Identity 2.0 aggregation. Facebook now exhibits features of the five platforms Helmond (2010) uses to index Identity 2.0: it has become a central “repository of personal information” (Barnes, 2006, para. 14) essentially a de-facto homepage, and blog, social network, micro-blog and lifestream performances can be carried out within the Facebook space, if not imported into Facebook from other systems. Fennell (2012a) notes the trend of Facebook incorporating features pioneered by other companies, drawing similarities between the new lifestream performing Timeline function and the independent curatorial service Storify. The mobility of personal information through Facebook applications allows users to collate performances that exceed the boundaries of the social network into their Facebook lifestream and rearrange their data into a coherent identity narrative of which they approve. In essence a system like Facebook has the ability to become a central locus from which user can express agency and reverse engineer Identity 2.0. With the proven risks of performing identity within the current space of Facebook, surely a one stop identity shop threatens a significant threat to agency and the value of our identity.



Our widespread use of Facebook indicates our eagerness to be heard and accepted as a valid community member overrides our desire to retain information power. In the quest to seek agency within the digital realm and overcome an increasing agency anxiety, we are instead harming our chances of exercising agency in the future. In the absence of the physical body, the identity is re-composed by information. By choosing to allow the public access to that information contributors submit their most valuable social asset to the whims of data collectors who gain the power to reshape, manipulate and sell that information. The widespread adoption of Facebook is contributing to a social pressure to adhere to this process with the potential to lead users to a point where they no longer control the use of their personal information. The structural expansion of Facebook indicates a market trend and a user desire for more comprehensive systems of identity management. We need to consider the risks of letting one entity store such comprehensive stocks of personal information in an age where information is power.



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Recommended Citation

Webster, Luke. “I think therefore I am (online): How the use of Facebook is changing notions of identity and privacy in networked communities.” CommUnity: Online Conference on Networks and Communities, Curtin University, Perth. 23 April – 11 May 2012.

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