I’m no stranger to virtual communities. In addition to being well read on the theory and research on the topic, I have been a member of a variety of these communities since I got ‘online’ over 10 years ago. Last May I became a member of MySpace, the largest virtual community in existence to date. It wasn’t long before I developed a full blown addiction to online communication via MySpace. I am intrinsically motivated by interaction and communication; and MySpace provided me with a social venue to explore while I was confined at home taking care of my two autistic children. It quickly became a place for me to write, interact, play and meet new people.
Due to the nature of the Myspace venue…you get to build your own neighborhood by making “friends” with people who share your interests and ideas. While I sought out a number of my “real-life” friends and acquaintances through this venue, I was far more interested in expanding my own personal network into a global context. But before I could forge my network pathways I had to transform my self into a digital self and translate my identity into html.
People represent themselves online in a variety of ways. From their avatar to the “tone of voice” they display with their choice in font. From a practical point of view the selections users make online when they go for a roam around their virtual neighborhood are akin to those that they make when they venture out into their own physical realities. Likewise they decorate their virtual “home” with animated gifs of dancing Homer and glittery graphics of faery queens. Embedding code in a profile page allows the user to expand and play with their self; creatively expressing and expanding identity through these simple elements of text, colour, design and graphics.
Personally my own virtual translation is carefully considered and very fluid. I try to represent my true self as much as possible on my own MySpace profile. Granted there are serious issues surrounding the notion of the true self when it is one which is so deliberately manipulated; identity construction on Myspace can be as a reflexive process as identity construction in the so-called ‘real world’. Users get reactions from other users; which in turn influences how they maintain their personas.
While there are a number of limitations to the translation of identity into a two dimensional context, there are also many liberating aspects in re-creating your self into code. It is well documented that online communication can help an individual overcome issues that may interfere in real-life situations. Gender, race, appearance, and personal history, elements of the self which can create barriers in face-to-face interaction, can all be minimized on a site like Myspace; especially if you only befriend people who have never met you in a real-life context.
As is the case with accelerated interactionists such as myself, I started to explore other social networking sites. While MySpace was a good venue for expanding my identity into a global context, there was a lack in interaction among people I knew in my real-life. I had tried hi5 and was unimpressed, and use of Yahoo 360 resulted in a few odd requests from Spanish strangers looking for a “good time.” A few of my anti-MySpace friends had been raving about Facebook, and why it was superior to MySpace, so I decided to give it a whirl.
Once I had my account set up, I imported my list of gmail contacts. I was surprised at the number of contacts who were already on Facebook… far more than MySpace. Not only were there more local people, but there were more local groups. As I started to add my present real-life friends, faces from my past began to emerge as well. I couldn’t believe that there was even a group dedicated to my elementary school. It was astounding (and slightly unnerving) to be instantly reconnected to those long repressed and forgotten experiences of growing up.
Facebook operates different than MySpace though. It works on a more closed system network than the free-for-all on Myspace. There are very few profiles that exist who do not belong to the real-life people that operate them. You won’t find a dozen profiles dedicated to Nietzsche or Kermit the Frog; neither will you find bands desperately seeking an global audience of fans… you will find people on Facebook, people in their closest representation to their true selves online. There is no place for personal code on Facebook either; all profiles are the standard blue and white issue. The photo tagging element adds a neat little feature, where anyone can tag anyone in anyone else’s photos.
As I got over the shock of seeing so many ghosts, I started to cruise profiles… find out what people have been up to and if any of those old relationships might be worth starting up again… I began to notice that people who I remember to be mortal enemies in high school were buddies on Facebook; in fact it seemed that everybody in my graduating class were interacting with one another. As I dug deeper I realized that a lot of these people had moved away and were just happy to be reconnected with familiar faces of home. This got me to thinking about James Cote.
James Cote proposed an taxonomic identity model which followed through the course (and type) of human societal arrangements. He suggested that the identity of today’s human was fragmented and uncertain because of the lack of societal markers in this highly advanced globalized world. Where in pre-modern and agricultural societies identity was so bound up with cultural roles and tradition, there was really no need to question who one was; identity wasn’t tainted by choice, if your father was a blacksmith… you were a blacksmith.
With a global market economy littering people around the planet, a solid sense of “home” community has been largely lost. Ask someone where they come from nowadays and they will generally ask for clarification “Do you mean where I was born? Or where I live now?” Perhaps Facebook offers a little bit of that community identity to those who have scattered their identity across a number of different geographic areas; with every move they leave a part of their narrative behind.
There is more to be said on this whole identity fragmentation train… but I fear this post is getting far too long as it is.
So which is better… Facebook or MySpace? I suppose that depends on what your looking for in an online community. If you want to test elements of your identity and become someone else for a little while… MySpace will suit this goal. If you want to reclaim those aspects of your identity that you have lost or forgotten… Facebook is the virtual community for you.